Students in UT Arlington’s cohort programs say the group-learning method develops skills that benefit their careers through its team-based approach, networking opportunities, and quick pace.
Two men and a woman huddle, talking in the affable way friends do. “He probably went home and cried into his $30 million glove,” one of the men says.
The other man, wearing a blue Texas Rangers baseball cap, concurs. “Yeah, and after that he probably curled up into his giant pile of money and got a good night’s sleep.”
The woman snickers. “No kidding,” she says. “Unbelievable!”
The three are discussing high-priced New York Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez and his game-ending strikeout the night before that sent the Rangers to their first World Series.
But this conversation isn’t at a local sports bar or a restaurant over lunch. Actually, it’s in a classroom at 8:15 a.m. on a Saturday, just before a four-hour marketing course begins.
The 40 or so people convened this October morning are all divided into similar groups, chatting about weekend plans, upcoming class projects, and, yes, that baseball game.
“OK, let’s get it out of the way,” says the instructor, Larry Chonko. “Go Rangers!”
The class erupts into claps and cheers. Dr. Chonko, the Thomas McMahon Professor in Business Ethics in UT Arlington’s College of Business, then segues into the day’s lesson on marketing communications. The students focus on the projector or their laptops, where they’ve pulled notes from online.
FRIENDS AND SCHOLARS
Such camaraderie and cohesion among classmates reflects the format of the class. The students are enrolled in the Cohort Master of Business Administration program and will earn their MBA in just two years. They target one subject every five weeks, with two four-hour classes per week on weekends or after business hours. The non-traditional hours and fast pace make cohort programs attractive to working professionals seeking to boost their credentials.
It’s an intensive process, one that naturally draws students together, Chonko says.
“Students really learn from each other as they develop relationships with others in the class. Many activities are team-focused. This provides opportunities to lead, manage, craft ideas, make decisions, reach conclusions, and defend actions—all essential skills that will benefit them greatly in their careers.”
Melanie McGee, director of MBA programs in the College of Business, calls the interpersonal connection a major advantage to cohort learning. “It’s about team-building. It’s an enriching knowledge-gain experience where students feel freer to engage because they know each other.”
Cohort MBA student Janet Cunningham couldn’t agree more.
“I started with a group of classmates, have taken almost all my classes with them, and I will graduate with that same group,” she says. “I have been especially fortunate to work with a fabulous group of intelligent, motivated women on numerous group projects. We call ourselves Girl Power, and each of us brings a different perspective and skill set to the group.”
Girl Power worked with the Tarrant Area Food Bank on its signature Empty Bowls fundraiser. The group helped improve room layout and process workflow and presented recommendations to Susan Frye, the food bank’s community events director. Frye was so impressed that she invited Cunningham and her pals to participate in the Empty Bowls planning for 2011.
“It continues to be an enriching experience,” Cunningham says. “It’s allowing me to learn more about nonprofit organizations, and it may provide me with contacts for career possibilities.”
Darren Nelson, a manager with Dr Pepper Snapple Group in Plano who recently graduated from the MBA cohort, says the program has had a huge impact on his career.
“My company benefits from my newfound vision every day, as I am able to apply it cross-functionally in projects and decision making. I now have a well-rounded view of the business and can take the viewpoints of other functional areas into consideration.”
While the cohort structure can be demanding, most of the participants agree that it provides many advantages. It offers students the freedom to continue their careers, raise families, and generally address anything else that needs their attention.
“Being able to work while pursuing my education with night and weekend classes was so convenient,” Nelson says, “and the lockstep program allowed me to focus intently on one subject at a time.”
Cohort learning has been on the rise at UT Arlington and other institutions for more than a decade. In addition to the MBA cohort, the University offers cohort or modified cohort graduate degree programs in nine other areas, including health care administration, sustainability, criminology and criminal justice, principal certification, and public administration. The programs are housed at the UT Arlington Fort Worth Center in downtown Fort Worth.
The health care administration offering is the largest program of its kind in the United States. The sustainability cohort, which began in fall 2010, already has expanded to include a Dallas group.
“We have become kind of like a family, and we’re there for one another, to help each other study and make sure we all succeed.”
Enrollment in the first cohort in 2000 was 86. That number has risen steadily as the University adds an average of one cohort program per year. Since 2006 when the programs moved to the Fort Worth Center, enrollment has more than doubled, from 774 to nearly 1,700.
“They’re thriving for a lot of reasons,” Dr. McGee says. “These classes have higher success and retention rates. There is a better sense of personal accountability, and students are privy to a great support system and professional networking. We call it networking on steroids.”
Cohort learning is also on the rise because the programs are adaptable to most degree plans and can be integrated with online learning to create even more convenience. In 2009 UT Arlington launched its Academic Partnership Bachelor of Science in Nursing, which combines a media-enriched online format with extensive clinical experience.
The first cohort has 40 students, and participants will earn their degrees in 15 months. AP-BSN student Nicole Gould says having the same classmates throughout the program has been a big advantage.
“We get to know each other. We always have the same courses at the same time, and we also have nursing clinical together as a group. We have become kind of like a family, and we’re there for one another, to help each other study and make sure we all succeed.”
David Tapia, principal at Hutcheson Junior High in Arlington, earned his principal certification from the Educational Leadership UT Arlington (ELUTA) cohort. The program was the prototype for the College of Education and Health Professions’ current principal certification program. Tapia says the different perspectives his fellow classmates brought to each class were invaluable.
“The diverse nature of the students in my cohort provided exposure to many different types of school leaders and districts,” says Tapia, now in his 13th year as an administrator and 10th as a principal. “I feel my success is due in part to the amazing foundation and practical experience I earned in ELUTA.”
Chonko believes that dynamism is what ultimately defines a cohort.
“No one wants to listen to an instructor for four hours, so there is a greater demand to engage in dialogue with the students,” he says. “How that occurs varies. In my classes, much of the learning occurs by engaging in active-learning exercises. My role is to provide some knowledge and thought foundation, but the students do all the work.”
Ultimately, success in a cohort program largely depends on the students’ ability to do just that: all the work. They must adjust to the fast pace, work collaboratively with classmates, and engage in every lesson. Those who succeed discover that the format has helped them with more than just earning their degrees and powering a career.
“You have to attack those classes,” says Tina Castillo, assistant director of UT Arlington MBA programs and herself a recent cohort MBA graduate. “You really have to have a plan for your approach and success.”
Now she goes at things more quickly.
“Sometimes I have to remind myself to slow down because not everyone has the same attitude that I do,” she says with a laugh. “But it’s definitely made me a more productive person.”
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