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Focus On Basics

Volume 5, Issue B ::: October 2001

The Power of a Cohort and of Collaborative Groups

by Eleanor Drago-Severson, Deborah Helsing, Robert Kegan, Nancy Popp, Maria Broderick, & Kathryn Portnow
Being part of a cohort - which we define as a tight-knit, reliable, common-purpose group - was very important, in different ways, to many of the 41 adult learners at three different program sites who participated in the NCSALL Adult Development Research over the course of 14 months. This finding challenges the view that adults, who often come to their class-taking with well-established social networks, are less in need of entrČe to a new community than, for example, older adolescents who are psychologically separating from their families of origin and who have not yet formed new communities of which they are a part (Knowles 1970, 1975; Cross, 1971, 1981; Aslanian & Brickell, 1980). Despite differences in the cohort design across the three sites, the interpersonal relationships that peers developed in the cohort made a critical difference to their academic learning, emotional and psychological well-being, and ability to broaden their perspectives. 

The NCSALL Adult Development Research group sees development as a continuing and lifelong process. We understand growth as occurring along a continuum of successive and qualitatively different levels of development. We refer to these levels as ways of knowing or meaning systems that shape how people interpret - or make sense of - their experience. The three most common levels of development in adulthood are Instrumental, Socializing, and Self Authoring (please click here for a discussion of our constructive developmental framework).

The Cohort as a Holding Environment

Robert Kegan's theory of adult development (1982, 1994) considers a person as a maker of meaning throughout his or her lifespan. We employ this framework to suggest why and how the use of cohorts in adult basic education (ABE) and English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) settings is important in different ways to a variety of students who have different ways of knowing and learning. Because every ABE or ESOL class will likely be populated by adults who make meaning with different ways of knowing, programs that recognize students' developmental diversity - and support students' growth accordingly - will be especially effective.

Growth processes, such as learning and teaching processes, depend on connections, and these processes, according to Kegan's theory, invariably occur in some context (Kegan, 1982). Students with different ways of knowing need different forms of support and challenge from their surrounding contexts to grow. We refer to such contexts as "holding environments" (Kegan, 1982, 1994), which, when successful, can help students grow to manage better the complexities of their learning and their other social roles.

A good holding environment serves three functions (Kegan, 1982, 1994). First, it must "hold well," meaning that it meets a person's needs by recognizing and confirming who that person is, without frustration or urgent anticipation of change. It provides appropriate supports to accommodate the way the person is currently making meaning. Second, when a person is ready, a good holding environment needs to "let go," challenging learners and permitting them to grow beyond their existing perceptions to new and greater ways of knowing. Third, a good holding environment "sticks around," providing continuity, stability, and availability to the person in the process of growth. It stays, or remains in place, so that relationships can be reknown and reconstructed in a new way that supports who the person has grown to become.

While this third characteristic of good holding may be difficult to provide in as short a period of time as a few weeks, any classroom can include the other two features: high support and high challenge. Both are essential for good holding. It was apparent in our study, despite differences in the designs of the three programs, that for most participants their learning group became more than "just a class" or "just a group." In all three settings participants spoke of the group as "like a family." We might also call them a "band of warriors," or "fellow strugglers": in short, a cohort. These cohorts served as dynamic transitional growth spaces that helped learners make good use of each other by providing both the challenge that encouraged learners to grow and the support they needed to meet those challenges. 

Three Sites, Three Cohort Designs

The three sites in our study provided contrasts in their specific cohort designs. At the Bunker Hill Community College (BHCC) site, in Charlestown, MA, students started their program together and were enrolled in the same two classes during their first semester. The cohort disbanded by the start of the second term and students independently selected their own courses for that semester. At Even Start, a family literacy program in Cambridge, MA, parents determined their own entry and exit dates from the program. Many parents had enrolled in this program before our study began and continued after its completion. At Polaroid, in Norwood, MA, all workers began the adult diploma program at the same time, worked toward a common purpose, and left the program at the same time. 

Despite these differences in the cohort shape and configuration (and differences in  age and social role among participants), the importance of participating in a learner cohort held true at all three sites. Even though these adults, like adults more generally, utilized different ways of knowing, they all described how their cohorts served several key purposes. First, the cohort served as a holding environment spacious enough to support and challenge adult students in their academic learning (see Table 1). Participants at all sites reported that their academic learning was enhanced by their participation in collaborative learning activities within their cohorts.  Second, the cohort served as a context in which students provided each other with a variety of forms of emotional and psychological support (see Table 2). Lastly, the cohort challenged learners to broaden their perspectives (see Table 3). Both within and across sites, learners who shared the same level of development demonstrated similar concepts of how the cohort and collaborative learning experiences supported and challenged them in multiple ways. Furthermore, students with different ways of knowing described important differences in these concepts.  Overall, these findings suggest not only the importance of a cohort but also that elements other than a specific structure regarding entry and exit might be crucial in transforming a class into a true cohort. 

Academic Learning

Sharon Hamilton (1994) provides helpful suggestions for teachers who wish to construct collaborative learning activities to enhance academic learning. She describes three distinct models (postindustrialist, social constructionist, and popular democratic) identified by John Trimbur (1993) and relates them to the characteristics, practices, and beliefs about collaborative learning  she has observed in  higher education over the past decade. She illustrates how these three models can be applied to classrooms and suggests that teachers adopt one particular model that aligns with their teaching philosophy or personal style. 

Each model has its own goals and suggested processes. The "postindustrialist model" of collaborative learning "appears in classrooms in the form of group efforts to solve common problems formulated by an instructor whose curricular agenda determines group structure, time on task, goals, and anticipated answers" (Hamilton, 1994, p. 94). The "social constructionist model" consists of "engaging students more actively in their learning while concurrently developing social skills of negotiation and consensus building" (p. 95). In the "popular democratic model" of collaborative development the challenge for learners is "not to obliterate essential differences in the search for commonalties but rather to envision these essential differences as catalysts for the making of meaning within specific concepts of the particular course" (pp. 95-96). Not only do these models have different goals, but each also assigns different responsibilities to teachers and learners and recommends different principles for designing classroom environments. In our study, we noticed a remarkable correspondence between these three models of collaborative learning and the three different ways of knowing that learners demonstrated at each site. This raises questions about whether teachers really have the luxury of adopting a teaching model that most closely aligns with their personal style or philosophy. 

Instrumental learners primarily valued opportunities to work collaboratively because doing so helped them achieve specific concrete, behavioral goals (see Table 1). Their reasoning aligns with the goals of the "postindustrial model." They said that cohort collaboration helped them to:

While valuing the supports that were named by Instrumental knowers, Socializing knowers also spoke about appreciating the encouragement they received from peers and fellow parents. Socializing learners especially valued the cohort and collaborative work for the important emotional and psychological support it offered as they balanced the multiple demands of work, family, and school. Their experience mirrors the goals of the "social constructionist model" of collaborative learning. It helped them to:

Although Self-Authoring knowers mentioned the instrumental, psychological, and emotional reasons why working with cohort members was helpful, they focused particularly on their appreciation of the different perspectives that members in the group brought to any particular activity. Their experience aligns closely with the goals of the "popular democratic model" of collaborative learning. Working with other cohort members helped them to: 

These three groups of learners' descriptions closely match those described in the literature. This suggests that, in designing collaborative activities, educators, in contrast to Hamilton's suggestions, should perhaps give less priority to which individual approach they personally favor and more consideration to providing all three models in any one classroom: the "new pluralism" to which our research directs us more generally. We elaborate on this recommendation below.

Emotional Support

The literature on group learning points to ways these groups can serve as social and emotional support (see, for example Bosworth & Hamilton, 1994; Pedersen & Digby 1995). Our study demonstrates how learners experienced this emotional support differently according to their ways of knowing (see Table 2). While for many of the participants the cohort became "like a family," what "family" actually means differs according to different adult ways of knowing.

Instrumental knowers found the cohort to be a place where their ideas could be compared to those of other people and where peers created an active learning environment. For several of these learners, the cohort sometimes embodied a community of concern. For example, when a student was absent from a particular class, others inquired about the student's wellbeing. Support was discussed in concrete ways, such as help with homework, friendly encouragement, and help pronouncing words correctly. 

Socializing knowers were less oriented to discussing the external facts of a situation and more oriented to their internal experience of the thoughts and ideas of cohort peers. For these learners, the cohort was about a way of being in relationship with one another, a way of giving an abstract level of support, and of accepting each other. Lack of conflict among cohort members was essential to their comfort. While individuals with any way of knowing might dislike or feel uncomfortable with conflict, those making meaning with a Socializing way of knowing often find conflict with people or ideas with whom they identify particularly difficult. These students will avoid conflict for its own sake, and feel the conflict as a breach in important relationships that tears them apart.

Self-Authoring learners, however, had a perspective on their feelings about conflict and saw the relationships among group members not as an end in itself but as a means toward some greater end. They did not experience conflict as a threat to their sense of cohesion with others. They were able to reflect upon their feelings and examine the roots and importance of those feelings. Like Socializing knowers, they noticed connections between themselves and others, cared about those connections, and offered them as important factors in their learning life. However, unlike Socializing learners, they reflected on what these relationships meant to them in a more abstract way. Many Self-Authoring students valued the process of working together because they felt it was effective, challenging, and supportive, not only for their own learning but also for other people's learning. 

Perspective Broadening

Interpersonal interactions with cohort members also helped students to become more aware of and to share their own perspectives. Sharing ideas through dialogue and writing challenged and supported learners to broaden their perspectives by listening to and considering others' outlooks. Engaging with others in groups over time challenged cohort learners to experiment with and enact new ways of thinking and behaving. Collaboration with other cohort learners often became a catalyst for growth. 

Many learners therefore began to understand their relationship to the cohort in new ways. We observed that some learners' notions of these group experiences expanded as they progressed through their programs. We refer to these changes as a consolidation or elaboration: learners extended their ideas within their existing way of knowing. Also, several students understood their cohort experience in more complex ways. We refer to this as transformational change:  students evidenced qualitative and pervasive shifts in their underlying meaning system. The shapes of students' growth varied, depending on their ways of making meaning (see Table 3).

Several learners who were Instrumental knowers commented on how the experience of listening to and learning from cohort members transformed their thinking about themselves, their own families of origin, and people from other countries. These students began to think differently about their classmates and about life experiences in general. By coming to know others in the group whose backgrounds were starkly different from their own, several learners grew much better able to understand and empathize with other people.

For students with a Socializing way of knowing, working with others in the cohort created an opportunity for recognition and exploration of cultural differences that permeated cohort sharing and filtered into discussions. Several learners began to recognize commonalties across their cohort group that enabled them to manage their differences, rather than feeling threatened by them. A few students grew to be able to generalize their enhanced capacity for perspective-taking beyond the classroom and into other domains of their lives (e.g., work). The holding environment of the cohort supported several learners to be better able to take on other people's perspectives, which helped them in many aspects of their lives.

Self-Authoring knowers experienced the learner cohort as a context for analyzing and critiquing information, which they then used to enhance their competence as learners and in their social roles as students, parents, and workers. The cohort was a safe place that challenged and supported them as they broadened their perspectives on their own and on other people's learning process. Some of these students adopted a broader perspective on their own learning when they came to believe that they could learn from the process of working with cohort members who were different from them. Working with learners from different countries helped several Self-Authoring knowers to develop a new and deeper understanding of what it meant to be a person who came to the United States as an adult learner in their programs.

The holding environment of the cohort served as a context where adults were often encouraged by each other, and by teachers, to challenge their own assumptions, which we believe deeply influences the ways in which individuals think and act (Kegan & Lahey, 2000).


Our findings teach us about the different ways that the learner cohort served as a space of developmental transition and transformation: a holding environment for growth. Cohort members were indeed partners engaged in a community formed around a common learning endeavor, where students supported one another in their academic and cognitive development and emotional wellbeing as they participated in these programs. Furthermore, we have illustrated the ways learners with different ways of knowing experienced collaborative group learning. We have argued that these seem to mirror the goals Hamilton (1994) articulates for Trimbur's (1993) three models of collaborative learning.


The importance of cohorts and the different ways in which learners will experience them suggest implications for both teacher practice and program design. Since learners make sense of their cohorts and collaborative learning activities in qualitatively different ways, they need different forms of both support and challenge to benefit more fully from them. Some ABE teachers occasionally use group learning as a pedagogical approach directed toward building classroom cohesion and to facilitate learning (Garner, 2001). While Hamilton (1994) suggests that a teacher would benefit from selecting and implementing one particular model that suits his or her teaching philosophy or style, we submit that choosing only one model would support learners with one way of knowing better than it would others.  

For example, a teacher who designs a highly structured activity, in which students are expected to arrive at predetermined answers, might leave Socializing and Self-Authoring knowers feeling inadequately challenged and possibly frustrated. Without appropriate supports, a collaborative learning experience that requires learners to share their own thoughts and feelings might be experienced as overly challenging to Instrumental knowers. Finally, collaboration that asks students to welcome diversity of opinion and conflict within a group might be experienced as threatening to learners who have not developed self-authoring capacities. Therefore, to create optimal holding environments for all adult learners, teachers need to adopt a plurality of approaches, flexibly incorporating aspects of all three models in any one classroom to meet a wide range of learners' ways of knowing and their diverse needs.

Some program designers refrain from using the cohort model because of funding requirements (Beder & Medina, 2001) or because the needs and life situations of their participants seem to dictate an open-entry/open-exit policy (Bingman, 2000). However, although our sites presented three very different cohort designs, most participants valued highly their sense of belonging in the group and benefited substantially from their cohort experiences. While some cohort designs might make for some bumps or challenges along the way, especially for a particular way of knowing, we do not claim that any one cohort design is preferable. Instead, we suggest that good matches to a variety of ways of being supported or challenged might be more crucial to success than a particular structure regarding entry and exit. And, above all, we recommend that educators look for ways to create some form of enduring and consistent learner cohort, employing practices by which  students are regularly invited to engage in collaborative learning. Our participants show us that cohort experiences seem to facilitate academic learning, increased feelings of belonging, broadened perspectives, and, at least by our participants' report, learner persistence.


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About the Authors

The NCSALL Adult Development Research Group is based at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), Cambridge, MA. 

Eleanor Drago-Severson is a Research Associate at NCSALL and Postdoctoral Fellow at HGSE.

Deborah Helsing is a doctoral student at HGSE and a Research Assistant at NCSALL.

Robert Kegan is Professor of Education in the field of Adult Learning and Professional Development.

Nancy Popp is a Research Associate at NCSALL.

Maria Broderick is a Research Associate at NCSALL.

Kathryn Portnow is a Research Associate at NCSALL and Postdoctoral Fellows at HGSE.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL