“Cohort structure.” “Cohort-based learning.” “Cohort model.”

It seems that admissions folks in MBA and specialized graduate business programs love chatting about cohorts…especially at the Opus College of Business, which offers four cohort-based graduate-business programs: Full-time MBA, Executive MBA, Healthcare MBA, and Masters of Science in Accountancy. That aside, outside of higher-education, we admissions professionals can sometimes forget that “cohort” isn’t exactly a trending topic on Twitter… So, what exactly is a cohort, particularly as it relates to a graduate business degree program? And, why does it matter?

A quick Google search of the word “cohort” produces about 9 million results. Yes, really. I dug a bit deeper, and included in the definitions of “cohort” my online search produced were the following:

1)      A group of people banded together or treated as a group
2)      A supporter, friend, or companion
3)      A group of warriors or soldiers

And also, the more common definition of a cohort as used in graduate-business programs:

4)      A group of students working together through the same academic curriculum

Although the latter definition is the one most often used to explain cohorts in graduate-business programs, I realized that the first three definitions also apply when describing cohort-model programs in the Opus College Business, particularly when considering the positive outcomes of a cohort structure.

Cohort programs allow students to move through a curriculum at the same pace, covering the same academic material at the same time (see definition four). As a result of the structural nature of a cohort, important by-products occur:

First, shared learning on a deep level. Students in cohort programs are able to have enriching discussions in the classroom with their fellow classmates from a diverse range of industries, backgrounds, and functional professional roles. This allows critical analysis of an issue, problem, or case to draw in and consider multiple perspectives, because the entirety of a class is processing, analyzing, and considering the same material with a shared goal of getting to the best answer or solution.

Further, cohort structures allow faculty to design a curriculum in an integrated way to consider the curricular needs of their students on a holistic level. By “treating people [students] as a group” (definition one), professors can customize their teaching and course material to complement or challenge what they know students are learning in other classes. This accelerates applied learning, builds insights, forms connections across different topics and business domains, and improves takeaways students gain from their classroom experience.

Cohort graduate business programs also foster deep relationship-building on a personal and professional level, and simulate the “real-world” business environment of working closely on a team with a diverse group of people. As a result of the shared learning in the classroom along with group projects, studying, and extracurricular activities outside of the classroom, students in cohort programs form close bonds. On a personal level, cohorts help students to develop life-long friendships, and on a professional level, expand a student’s network of colleagues who are or will eventually be working for a variety of companies across industries. In fact, many students in cohort programs find themselves learning about a career opportunity earlier due to the strong professional network and relationships fostered by moving through their academic and extracurricular activities at the same time. In this way, OCB cohorts fulfill definition number two, and support students in their careers, friendships, studies and beyond.

Finally, what about cohorts as a group of warriors or soldiers (definition three)? Students are balancing personal lives, an existing career or ongoing career search, and involvement in clubs and organizations. As a result, the OCB graduate business experience can simultaneously be the most challenging and most rewarding experience their lives. Indeed, at times students may feel that they are ‘soldiering’ their way through balancing an intense academic experience, networking events, and group projects…but, they are doing it together, holding each other up, and challenging and supporting one other to keep moving forward towards a shared end goal. In this way, students in cohort programs become multi-tasking warriors as they adeptly and bravely accomplish success in earning an advanced business degree.

So, it appears that there is more than meets the eye when it comes to the many benefits of cohort-style learning. Seems like all of the cohort hype may be well-deserved.