Qualitative Research Pre-assignment 1
Running head: CRITICAL REVIEW OF MAHER
A Critical Look At Maher's "What Really Happens In Cohorts"
Seton Hall University
Executive Ed.D Program
Qualitative Research Pre-assignment 2
A Critical Look At Maher's "What Really Happens In Cohorts"
In recent years, cohorts have become widely popular in
graduate and post-graduate studies on America’s college and
university campuses. Maher’s article outlines and
highlights the positives and negatives of cohort learning
for students and teachers. Maher’s information and insight
proves relevant and has the potential to spark real debate
for those institutions that seek to implement a cohort
system or for those intuitions that are evaluating heir
current cohort system.
Most cohort programs are designed to offer what Maher
calls, “…a deep exploration of sensitive issues that they
[students] may not acknowledge when they are with groups of
student strangers.” (Maher, 2004, p. 19). However, Maher
goes on to explain that cohorts and cohort members also may
develop a sense of group think, have difficulty dealing
with a loss of independence, or struggle with strict and
often unforgiving timeliness and deadlines. While all of
this is evident in the research cited by Maher, cohort
learning has become a standard frame for school design and
Qualitative Research Pre-assignment 3
program facilitation. In other words, what Maher outlines,
we see in our elementary, secondary, undergraduate, and
daily workplace interactions. But is Maher’s article a
quality piece worthy of consideration?
Maher’s ethnographic study was conducted over a one-year
period with adult graduate students at a university.
According to Patton, an ethnographic study is one that
requires, “intensive fieldwork in with the investigator is
immersed in the culture under study.” (Patton, 2002, p.
81). Indeed Maher’s study was ethnographic; Maher states
that the aim of the study was to, “better understand how
students made meaning of their cohort membership and how
they felt this membership affected how and what they
learned…” (Maher, 2004, p. 19). But was Maher’s research
deep enough? Does it meet Patton’s standard of “intensive”
and was it “immersed”?
Maher notes that her research was conducted over the
course of approximately one year, “Through in-depth
interviews with students and instructors and observations
of both while they interacted in this [cohort] environment”
(Maher, 2004, p. 19). One could hardly qualify a study
Qualitative Research Pre-assignment 4
that utilized only the qualitative methods of interviews
and observations as highly credible or worthy of
significance. Not when compared to the methods used by of
Bullough, Clark, Wentworth, and Hansen in their study of
Bullough et al. (2001) conducted a study with a
single teacher education cohort. Their data was collected
using observations of classes, a student’s attitude survey
at the midterm and at the conclusion of the program, a
socio-gram to identify student clique membership, a group
interview conducted midterm without the instructors
present, a “cohort life-line”, and individual interviews at
the conclusion of the classes with the students in sub-
groups. Two of the studies authors, Wentworth and Hansen,
also taught in the cohort and supervised students (Bullough
et al., 2001).
Additionally, Mello conducted research in 1999 with
University of Wisconsin-Whitewater students enrolled in the
Integrated Cohort Pre-Professional Program. The method of
data collection relied on interviews, surveys (pre and post
field experience), journal posting, online discussions, and
student artwork (Mello, 2003).
Qualitative Research Pre-assignment 5
Maher’s work may have proven more credible had the
study been truly intense or immersed. As noted by Patton,
qualitative findings stem from three areas: interviews,
observations, and documents (2002). Maher’s work lacked a
critical element found in similar cohort studies, namely
document analysis. One might gather that Maher’s
conclusions are insufficient when faced with the fact that
the work never accounted for any document data. Simple
surveys, personal journal reflections, or some other
private writing might have been utilized to support the
study’s findings. In short, a true immersion into the
cohort could have been employed.
As noted by Patton, “…a qualitative report should include
some information about the researcher” so as to avoid
discrediting the study (Patton, 2002). Yet after a close
reading of Maher’s article, on is left wondering who the
researcher is. Information about Maher’s educational
background, the reasons for the research, the association
with the studied subjects, and Maher’s own professional
associations would have added credibility to this study.
Patton notes that all of these facts contribute in some way
Qualitative Research Pre-assignment 6
to the perceived credibility of the researcher.
Maher’s conclusions contribute most to the discussion and
research about cohorts. Indeed, those who also study
cohorts have echoed Maher’s conclusions. Maher’s final
conclusions are that cohorts are a positive experience for
many students but may pose a serious problem for others and
Maher notes that cohort programs help students develop
strong bonds, make greater discover through collaboration,
and assist in building leadership traits and qualities in
students. Mello’s work supports these conclusions; “the
use of cohorts has assisted in establishing rapport,
safety, identity, and collegiality” (Mello, 2003).
Additionally, Seifert (2005) writes, “[the] direct
assessments of cohorts… are more positive than negative”
However, Maher also says that teachers of cohorts
“should be on the lookout for groupthink and collusion” (p.
22). A peer relation’s problem is a conclusion also drawn
by Seifert. He says that cohort students point out
continuous interpersonal issues (Seifert, 2005). And
Qualitative Research Pre-assignment 7
Bullough et al. (2001) write, “…we think that cliquishness
of the cohort is a problem” (p. 108).
Maher’s article presented readers with a small glimpse
into the life and learning’s of a cohort. The article was
weak on credibility and lacked any explanation into the
methodology employed. Related research is flush with
author and researcher background as well as with research
methodology. Both of which leave little room for doubt of
While Maher’s article was flawed in several ways, the
conclusions presented were evident in all of the relevant
research. Namely, that cohort learning is beneficial for
many but also unearths serious personal and interpersonal
issues for students.
For most institutions of higher education, cohorts
seem to be emerging as the choice learning model. But
while the benefits of cohort learning are readily
noticeable, cohort learning can be a problem for students
and for faculty. Prior to adopting a cohort program,
colleges and universities should immerse themselves into
the research and employ a model of learning that works for
Qualitative Research Pre-assignment 8
their students of concern.
Qualitative Research Pre-assignment 9
Bullough, Jr., R. V., Clark, D. C., Wentworth, N., &
Hansen, J. M. (2001). Student Cohorts, School Rhythms,
and Teacher Education. Teacher Education Quarterly,
Maher, M. (2004). What Really Happens in Cohorts. In About
Campus, 9(3), p. 18-23.
Mello, R. A. (2003). The Integrated Cohort Program: An
Evaluation of a Pre-professional Course of Study. The
Educational Forum, 67(4), 354-363.
Patton, Q. (2002). Qualitative Research & Evaluation
Methods (3 ed.). Thousand Oaks, California: Sage
Seifert, K. (2005). Learning About Peers: A Missed
Opportunity for Educational Psychology. The Clearing
House, 78(5), 239-243.