August 2002 // Volume 40 // Number 4 // Research in Brief // 4RIB4

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Meeting the Graduate Education Needs of Minnesota Extension Educators

The study reported here examined the perceptions of Minnesota Extension Educators regarding their participation in a M.Ed. cohort program provided by the University of Minnesota-Duluth via distance learning. The study examined how a cohort experience affected the students' leadership skills and abilities and their personal growth and the effectiveness of the cohort model as a collaborative vehicle for earning a graduate degree. A cross-sectional survey was electronically administered to the target population of Minnesota Extension Educators. The results showed that the M.Ed. cohort model was successful and is promising as a learning method for adult learners.

Mary J. Chairs
Adjunct Professor
St. Mary's University of Minnesota
Winona, Minnesota
Internet Address:

Barbara J. McDonald
Dean of Academic Affairs
Itasca Community College
Grand Rapids, Minnesota
Internet Address:

Peg Shroyer
Dean of Continuing Education and Workforce Development
Spoon River College
Macomb, Illinois
Internet Address:

Becky Urbanski
Corporate Director, Marketing and Communications
Benedictine Health System
Duluth, Minnesota
Internet Address:

Diane Vertin
Dean, Instructional Operations
Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College
Superior, Wisconsin
Internet Address:


Recent literature regarding the quality of professional development for advanced teachers such as Extension Educators  reveals that it has most often been offered with a focus on content, topic, or strategy du jour (Lewis, 1997; Lieberman, 1995; Little, 1987). Little, if any, attention has been paid to guiding the professional development of the practitioner in a systematic and planned manner (Fieman-Nemser, 1999). Even if a practitioner completes a master's degree, it may not have been in a thoughtful, coherent program that contributes in a structured, explicit way to the educator's ongoing professional development (Blackwell & Diez, 1999).

Reports also note that the current style of Master's degree studies is disliked by the educators who must take them. As Tom (1999, p.1) states, "They view them as detached from the daily practice of schooling, presented as if teacher participants know nothing, and taught by professors of education fascinated with esoteric knowledge."

Typically, educators are admitted to these programs on an individual basis, making little use of the proven power of peer coaching and teacher study groups (Hord & Boyd, 1995; Joyce & Showers, 1995; Krovetz & Cohick, 1993; Meyer, et al., 1998, as cited in Tom, 1999). Participants rarely develop a sense of group cohesion and mutual support that is so important to the learning experience of adults (Tom, 1999).

In an effort to be more responsive to the educational needs of adult practitioners such as Extension Educators, the University of Minnesota-Duluth (UMD) has designed several specific Master of Education programs using the cohort method. One of these cohorts consists of Minnesota Extension Educators.

Often, the accessibility of graduate programs for Minnesota Extension Educators is limited due to the rural locations where these individuals live and work. The University of Minnesota-Duluth (UMD) Master of Education program has a mission of providing user-friendly methods for practicing educators to complete a graduate degree.

In 1998, UMD developed a special cohort of the M.Ed. program addressing the needs of the Minnesota Extension Educators. The needs of these students were determined to be different from those of a typical student. Extension Educators work one-on-one with community members, they live in very disperse locations, and they have a need to understand adult education and a need to have deep understanding in broad subject areas. This cohort program is designed to meet these graduate educational needs.


When the term "cohort" is used in education its definition is "a group of students who engage in a program of studies together" (Yerkes, 1994). However, Yerkes cautions that a successful cohort is not merely a group of people who happen to share the same space, time, professors, and assignments, and enjoy each other's company for a year or two. A successful cohort is a group of people who work together, provide assistance to each other, find success in their efforts, and simultaneously develop each individual's talents.

The three characteristics generally recognized as representative of effective learning groups are:

  1. Have a common purpose,
  2. Influence each other through social interaction, and
  3. Are allowed to pursue individual and group learning opportunities (Brilhart & Galanes, 1992; Forsyth, 1990; Johnson & Johnson, 1987; Napier & Gershenfeld, 1985; Zander, 1982; as cited in Yerkes, 1995).

These characteristics are also seen as prerequisites for the development of successful cohorts.

Barnett and Cafarella (1992) believe that the cohort design is a particularly effective way of teaching adult learners because it incorporates the main characteristics of adult learning:

  • The need for acknowledgment and use of their experiences and prior knowledge,
  • The differing ways they go about learning, and
  • Their desire to be actively involved in the learning process versus being passive recipients of knowledge.

Numerous writers have cited the richer life experiences of the adult as a key factor in differentiating adult learning from child learning. These accumulated experiences also differentiate one adult from another adult (Kidd, as cited in Barnett & Cafarella, 1992). Knowles (as cited in Barnett & Cafarella, 1992) explains that adults can call upon their past learning experiences in the formulation of learning activities, as well as serve as resources for each other during learning events.

Another characteristic of cohort learning that is well suited to the needs of Extension Educators is active involvement in the learning process. Most adults prefer to be actively involved in the learning versus being primarily passive recipients of knowledge (Brookfield, Cafarella, Knowles, as cited in Barnett & Cafarella, 1992). Students are allowed some control of the learning process; they might prepare learning contracts, give presentations in class; and/or actively participate in small and large group activities.

Adult learners also have a need for affiliation, a desire to be connected to and supportive of each other's learning. Fulfilling this need for affiliation is another important aspect of the cohort model. "Beginning with initial development activities, particular attention is given to building collegial and personal relations. This collaborative way of knowing, coined by Belenky et al. (1986) as 'connected teaching,' encourages a cooperative communication style between the instructor and the participants and between and among the participants themselves" (Barnett & Cafarella, 1992).

Previous studies have reported that students involved in cohort programs typically report:

  • A sense of belonging and social bonding,
  • New opportunities to collaborate and network,
  • An enhanced sense of professional confidence, and
  • A strengthened ability to reflect on practice.

Research suggests that a graduate education program for Extension Educators or other adult learners should use a model, such as the cohort method, that is adaptable to the needs and characteristics of adult learners.

Purpose and Objectives

The purpose of the study reported in this article was to assess the participant perception of the effectiveness of the Extension Educator cohort Master of Education program in two key areas:

  • Personal Growth (areas addressed: individual growth simultaneous with group growth, making sense of one's life experiences, development of individual talents, use of past experiences in the learning process, active learning versus being passive recipients), and

  • The Cohort Model as an Effective Collaborative Method (areas addressed: group cohesion, affiliation, mutual support, participants as resources for each other).


The sample consisted of 20 participants in the University of Minnesota Duluth Master of Education cohort of Extension Educators. The survey instrument was a descriptive, cross sectional design developed with the purpose of gathering information from program participants on their attitudes and beliefs about their experience in the Master of Education cohort model in two key areas: personal growth, and the cohort model as an effective collaborative method.

The survey was administered electronically in the spring of 2000. Questions were posed as belief statements to measure semantic differentials, using a Likert Scale rating of 1-5. Ratings throughout the survey were based on a Likert Scale rating of 1-5, 1=strongly disagree, 2=disagree, 3=neutral, 4=agree, 5=strongly agree. Data were analyzed using the Statistical Package for the Social Services for Windows Release 9.0 (SPSS. 1999).



Twelve of the 20 cohort members returned the surveys (one declined giving demographic information). Seventy-two percent (72.7%) of the respondents were female, and 27% were male. Eight of the respondents were teachers, and three were specialists. Eight of the respondents were between the ages of 30-49, one was 24-29, and two were over 50.

The five highest rated statements (statements found to be the most significant areas of cohort experience) were:

  1. Q8. I think a Master of Education cohort method offers more opportunity for peer collaboration (than the traditional method).
  2. Q11. I feel my cohort experience has allowed for greater development of my critical thinking skills.
  3. Q14. The Master of Education cohort experience allowed me to apply my own experience and background to my learning.
  4. Q26. The Master of Education cohort program allowed me time for personal reflection.
  5. Q7. I believe I have experienced greater individual growth through the development of the cohort group as a whole.

Personal Growth

The overall mean for this cluster of questions was 3.9, the highest rating of the two question clusters. The survey participants did feel that they experienced significant personal growth as members of the cohort. This result supports Forsyth's (1995, as cited in Basom) contention that group development and individual development are mutually experienced in an effective cohort.

Statement #14, "The cohort experience allowed me to apply my own experience and background to my learning," was deemed one of the five most significant statements, supporting Barnett and Cafarelli's (1992) belief that adult learners have more effective learning experiences when their own background and accumulated experience can be brought into the classroom.

Statement #7, "I believe I have experienced greater individual growth through the development of the cohort group as a whole," supports Forsyth's theory that group processes must assist each member in realizing their potential and also help the group achieve its goals.

Responses to Statement #26, "The M.Ed. cohort program allowed me time for personal reflection," strongly confirmed that the cohort model was effective at meeting the adult learner's need for time to "make sense out of one's life experience," (Knowles, as cited in Barnett & Cafarella, 1992).

The Cohort Model as an Effective Collaborative Method

The mean for this cluster of questions was 3.5, ranking second after the personal growth cluster. It is important to note that Statement #8, "I think the M.Ed. cohort program offers more opportunity for peer collaboration," had the highest agreement level of all of the statements in the survey. The participants clearly believed that the cohort model was in fact an effective collaborative method. This agrees with the research of Barnett and Cafarella (1992), "Beginning with initial development activities, particular attention is given to building collegial and personal relations. This collaborative way of knowing, coined by Belenky et al. (1986) as 'connected teaching,' encourages a cooperative communication style between the instructor and the participants and between and among the participants themselves." The sense of group cohesion and mutual support that Tom (1999) states "is important to the learning experience of adults" is also verified as being present in the cohort.


Th study reported here explored the cohort method as a collaborative and an effective learning method for adult learners, specifically Minnesota Extension Educators pursuing an M.Ed. degree. The study concluded that, in general, the cohort-learning model was successful in affecting leadership skills and abilities, and personal growth and improvement. This is critical information for those who seek to design graduate programs that are thoughtfully and coherently structured to contribute to the Extension Educator's ongoing professional development and learning.


Barnett, B., & Cafarella, R. (1992). The use of cohorts: A powerful way for addressing issues of diversity in preparation programs. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the University Council for Educational Administration (Minneapolis, MN, October 30-November 1, 1992).

Basom, M. (1995). Exploring cohorts: Effects on principal preparation and leadership practice. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED387587)

Blackwell, P. J., & Diez, M. E. (1999). NCATE/NBPTS partnership for graduate programs. Achieving the new vision of Master's Education for teachers. Washington, D.C.: National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education.

Fieman-Nemser, S. (1999). From preparation to practice: Designing a continuum to strengthen and sustain teaching. Paper commissioned by the Supporting and Strengthening Teaching (SST) Project, coordinated by Bank Street College, the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, the Teacher Union Network and the National Network for Educational Renewal.

Lewis, A. (1997). A new consensus emerges on the characteristics of good professional development. Harvard Education Letter, 8(3), 1-4.

Liberman, A. (1995). Practices that support teacher development: Transforming conceptions of professional learning. Phi Delta Kappan. 76(8) 591-6.

Little, J.W. (1987). District policy choices and teacher's professional development opportunities. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. 11(2), 165-179.

Tom, Alan R. (1999). Reinventing master's degree study for experienced teachers. Journal of Teacher Education (in press).

Yerkes, D.R. (1995). Using cohort in the development of educational leaders. Paper presented at the Annual International Conference of the Association of Management (13th, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, August 1995).