Recently, Josh wrote a post about TBL (team-based learning), in which he highlighted the number 1 design principle of successful team-based learning: a strategically-formed, permanent team. The idea is that team-based learning is most effective when teams are formed strategically in size (5-7 members) and makeup (allocating the class’s strengths and weaknesses evenly among the teams). This type of model involves placing students into teams at the beginning of the semester based on their backgrounds (e.g. one quant-heavy person per group, one humanities background, etc.). The groups then work together for the entire semester on various assignments. I wanted to expand upon this topic to discuss semi-permanent groups in particular and the cohort system more generally.
I did my MBA as a part of Baruch’s full-time honors MBA program, class of 2009. While Baruch has a particularly large MBA program overall, the full-time honors program was developed for students seeking to complete an MBA on a full-time basis in about 22 months, and in a small cohort group. The cohort is generally about 60-90 students with whom an MBA candidate takes all of her core curriculum classes over the four semesters. In addition, in the first two semesters of the MBA, when most core curriculum classes are taken, each cohort is put into a semi-permanent group of 5 students each. This group works together for projects across all core classes (typically 5 classes in the first semester). Especially in the first semester, a common joke is that this group ends up being your family: you work together for 15-20 hours per week on assignments across the curriculum.
The philosophy behind team-based learning in a semi-permanent group is the same philosophy behind the cohort system. For group-based learning to be most effective, the group must foster “co-creation of knowledge through collaborative learning and experiential knowing.” Pivotal to this experience is the group’s acting as a sort of community for the participant. A group or a cohort becomes a community through sustained long-term communication, commitment, and interaction. As group members get to know one another and develop an appreciation for each member’s strengths and weaknesses through work on a variety of projects, that group becomes a community that each member can learn from and rely on. This is only possible through long-term interaction on multiple diverse projects. This is the educational philosophy behind the cohort system. Especially popular in adult education settings, the cohort system has the ability to create an educational community where team-based learning can be extremely effective.
As a professor, I ask how I can best implement this model in my classroom. The cohort model is often impossible to replicate when you teach an undergraduate class in a large university. These are students who have usually never met one another, and will never see each other again, except in passing around campus. Our students also tend to be extremely busy: they take 4-5 classes per semester, work outside of school, and live a great distance from campus and from one another. The only possibility of sustained work in a semi-permanent team would be to assign multiple small projects over the semester that comprise a substantial percentage of each student’s grade. Then, if you can form a team at the beginning of the semester, the students will at best have a few opportunities to work together and gain mutual respect and trust.
In addition, as Josh pointed out, the type of assignment matters. It may not be appropriate to team-based learning to simply take an individual assignment (e.g. a traditional essay assignment) and force students to do the assignment as a group. In my own experience as an MBA team member, team work tended to produce the best learning outcome in case studies or creative project assignments. Students collaborating on these types of projects will learn to work as a group and build on each member’s strengths to produce the best creative or strategic outcome.
As an instructor, I still struggle to see how writing skills can be improved in a group assignment. In my MBA experience with group work, 95% of the time a “group” writing assignment meant that each teammate would separately research a specific area and one teammate would be responsible for the actual writing by synthesizing each member’s input. In some cases, each team member would write a separate portion of a paper, a process that almost invariably yielded a poor outcome in terms of writing quality. Would peer review help in this setting? I open this up to other educators and students.