How to Succeed Online with Cohort-Based Courses

David Lindop   11

Do you plan on building an online course for students to work through together as a group?

Does the technology and commitment of teaching group classes feel overwhelming?

Then you should bookmark this post!

In this article, you’ll discover:

  • How to plan and build a successful cohort-based course
  • How cohort learning differs from self-paced learning
  • Why cohort-based courses are so effective and encourage higher completion rates
  • All the tools you need to get started building your online learning business


What is a Cohort-Based Course?

A cohort-based course is a learning environment that supports a group of students working through your modules and lessons at the same time.

In traditional offline academia, this is exactly the same as a school, a college, a university, a swimming class, an art workshop etc.

In modern online learning, some industries and subjects mimic a group class approach with web-based courses. This lends itself well to online courses and workshops that are supported by a real tutor and only run a few times a year.

Cohort-based vs. Self-paced courses

It’s easier to picture cohort-based learning when compared directly to self-paced learning.

In cohort-based courses, a class (‘group’ or ‘cohort’) of learners start the first lesson at the same time, regardless of when they registered or enrolled.

Cohort-based courses as a group

Cohort-based courses: Students enter, learn and graduate TOGETHER as a class.

In contrast, self-paced courses allow learners to start their lessons in their own time, completely independent from anyone else who might also be taking the same course.

Self-paced courses as individual students

Self-paced courses: Students enter, learn, and graduate according to their own schedule.

Typically, when you hear about creating an online course, most websites are referring to a self-paced course... that is, selling immediate access to a pre-built course, and encouraging the student to work through the lessons in their own time.

Here at Thrive Themes, we LOVE self-paced online courses, but we also recognize the amazing power of cohort-based courses. They help to boost learner completion rates and fostering a sense of community around your brand. For some industries, cohort-based courses are the only mode of learning for helping customers achieve results.

Cohort-Based Courses

  • Synchronous and asynchronous... The student must keep up with the schedule and pace of the teaching material, in addition to self-study.
  • Blend student-led and active tutor-led learning
  • Potentially higher engagement
  • Students build relationships with other members of their cohort

Self-Paced Courses

  • Asynchronous Learning... The schedule and pace at which the student learns is not linked to the schedule and pace of the teaching material.
  • Student-led learning
  • Potentially lower engagement
  • Students learn and work independently

Ultimately as the course creator, you know your topic, curriculum and audience better than anyone else, so you’ll have to decide which mode – cohort or self-paced – works best for your online courses.

What Makes Cohort-Based Learning Special?

For the Students

Some topics can be learned effectively in isolation... programming, cooking, writing. These skills don’t require learning as a group in order to achieve a goal.

But some skills and knowledge require the input, motivation and teamwork that can only come from a group class environment... acting, public speaking, language learning, anything that relies on interaction.

That’s where cohort-based learning really shines – the option to move from a purely teacher-led or material-led mode of delivery, to encouraging community-supported learning, can transform the effectiveness and success of your online course.

For the Course Creator

Cohort-based learning allows you to scale up from a 1-to-1 teaching style, and embrace 1-to-many instead. If your topic requires any kind of active participation from you as a tutor, you’ll immediately see the benefits of teaching a group of students at the same time.

Cohort-based learning is also fantastic for building marketing hype around the launch of your course if you run it only a few times each year. If customers feel they’ll miss out on the upcoming intake if they don’t take action, you can use this fear of missing out (FOMO) as a powerful conversion-boosting tool.

The promise of a professional group classroom experience can increase the perceived value of your online course, letting you charge higher prices. Instead of simply selling access to knowledge, you're now selling access to a syllabus that is strengthened by the social proof of a community of other students.

Finally, cohort-based courses allow you to transfer the traditional academic business model over to online learning. If you’re a teacher, professor, trainer or other educator with onsite experience, you can avoid having to completely rewrite your syllabus just to learn how to teach online.

Benefits of Cohort Courses

Cohort-based online courses offer a number of unique benefits that are not possible with the typical self-paced model (and vice-versa of course), so let’s explore what makes cohort learning so attractive to learners and course creators...

Stronger engagement

Engagement can be such a frustratingly vague word to throw around... and here at Thrive Themes we don’t do ‘vague’... we do actionable!

So what does engagement really mean when applied to online courses?

Luckily we have some tangible metrics for measuring learning engagement: completion rates (the more lessons a student completes) and learning retention (the number of skills and knowledge students acquire).

Both of these critical engagement metrics can be boosted by cohort-based courses.

Cohorts - or groups - tend to maintain student motivation for longer because:

  • Students can see the progress of their peers
  • Students can discuss and unpack issues with the group
  • Some learning tools are only available as a cohort (discussions, group projects etc.)
  • The pressure to maintain a class schedule can be a great motivator
  • Succeeding – and failing! – becomes public knowledge among the group

Adaptation to different learning styles

According to widely accepted research, we all learn best using a different mix of learning styles.

Without getting too much into the weeds, there are a ton of different ways to identify and name learning styles, from the Kolb model to the VARK model. Each has its merits, but as an online course creator, you will primarily be interested in variations of the VARK model...

  • Visual - Learning through what is seen (charts, diagrams, videos etc.)
  • Auditory - Learning through what is heard (spoken word, rhymes, discussions etc.)
  • Reading (and writing) - Learning through the written word (guides, worksheets etc.)
  • Kinesthetic - Learning through what can be touched and physically manipulated (props, puzzles, hands-on workshops etc.)

Why is this relevant to cohort-based courses?

Because unlike self-paced learning where the student is in total control of their environment, learning as a group can force students to switch between these learning styles, and step out of their comfort zone.

This is especially true of encouraging discussions between students and group projects that require collaboration.

Fosters accountability


It’s that scary word that many people spend their lives avoiding!

But accountability is vital for effective online learning. Without it, students can easily trick themselves into believing they’re learning simply by buying your course. While that’s good for your business income, it’s not so good for helping them achieve real results and building the long-term success of your brand.

Cohort-based learning offers some unique tools to boost accountability:

Peer error correcting

The ability for students to identify and correct their own mistakes is so much more effective than teacher-led error correction. Cohorts make this easy by enabling students to check each other’s work if you – as the course creator – can provide a platform with which they can exchange ideas.

In the offline world, tutors can simply say “now swap papers with the person on your left”.

In the online world, you’ll need a specific lesson activity that produces a shareable outcome, like a written task, shooting a quick smartphone video, or a quiz.

Class assessments

Speaking of quizzes, there’s nothing like an exam to foster accountability.

Both self-paced and cohort-based online courses can include exams, quizzes, homework, and other assessments, but unlike cohort courses, self-paced learning lacks any urgency or repercussions for not revising them.

But if the whole class knows there’s an exam on Thursday, you better believe they’ll be studying hard until Wednesday night!

Regular group discussions

Learning as a group offers the chance for students to get together away from the syllabus, and discuss their motivations, progress and apprehensions about your course.

This could be on a Facebook group, a forum, or any other closed community where they feel safe sharing their feelings.

These group discussions can encourage accountability as students feel supported by their peers, and in turn reluctant to let down the team.

How to Succeed Online with Cohort-Based Courses

Tips on how to create a successful cohort-based course

Make your decision

Your first step in building a cohort-based course should be to take a step back and be absolutely sure that it’s the right model for your topic and audience. Once you publicly announce a group learning environment and a course start date, you’ll be locked into providing that as one of the core benefits of your course.

Ask yourself:

  1. Are there real, communicable benefits to learning as a group rather than individually?
  2. Do I intend to actively participate as a tutor, or is the course entirely self-guided?
  3. If I do intend to participate, can I commit to it?
  4. Will my students benefit from the sense of comradery that comes with learning together?
  5. Does my course work best with a defined start date, or with immediate access?

Write a cohort-focused syllabus

If a course is cohort-based, it should probably reflect that in the learning materials, tasks, and assessments. Otherwise, it’s simply a group of people simultaneously working through a self-paced course.

A cohort-focused syllabus can include:

  • Group projects
  • Peer reviews of each others’ work
  • A platform where students can discuss the course
  • End of course certification that reflects a group-based achievement

Of course, just as traditional classroom learning contains individual study, not every online lesson needs to be cohort-focused. But if none of them are, perhaps a self-paced course is more suitable.

Don’t use the word cohort

Seriously, it’s a stuffy word that doesn’t translate well to promotional and marketing materials!

Just as online audiences don’t like to be lumped together into a “demographic”, learners probably don’t feel inspired with the label of “cohort” or “intake”. Leave those terms for your operations as a course creator and marketer.

Instead, let your students know they’ll study together as a group or a class... along with all the benefits that brings.

How to write and design your cohort-based course

Effective cohort-based courses require careful planning to get the most out of the group learning experience. You cannot simply push a mob of individual students through a self-paced course and call them a cohort.

When designing and writing your cohort-based course structure and material, try to think of how you can incorporate the following elements:

Start of course orientation and onboarding

Unlike self-paced courses which largely leave the student to explore the syllabus, class cohorts require more hand holding on the big open day of your course.

Cohort students have been waiting and preparing for your course to start since they first enrolled, so you owe it to them to welcome them onboard, introduce them to each other, and share your plan for their upcoming learning.

Instead of dropping them straight into the first ‘real’ lesson, consider a softer start to your course where they can meet each other and set their expectations. This could take the form of an introductory module and a simple pre-course task when students are asked to share their background and motivation.

Planning group interactions

Try to find natural ways to encourage cohort students to interact with each other.

This can be as simple as a private Facebook or WhatsApp group, or a little more complex like a forum or Slack channel.

Self-study still has its place in a cohort-based course, but it’s good to regularly remind your students that they’re part of a like-minded community all working towards the same goal.

Unlock your lessons with Drip

It’s no use moving a class of students through your online course as a cohort if they can skip ahead whenever they choose. After all, the whole point of a cohort-based course is that everyone studies the same lesson at the same time.

That’s why you need a way to protect future modules and lessons until the class meets the right conditions – usually a defined interval between lessons or a specific calendar date.

You also need a way to unlock your first lesson on the official start date.

For both of these, you need Drip.

When you plan your course outline, you should carefully consider how each module and lesson fits into the bigger picture, both when locked and unlocked. In practical terms, this means making sure students feel that each lesson is individually worthwhile AND contributes to the overall learning outcomes.

Finally, if multiple cohorts are working through your course at different stages (let’s say your Spring and Fall classes), you need to make sure that your Drip solution doesn’t unlock lessons for both cohorts at the same time! In other words, you need the ability to run multiple drip schedules for each course... aka Decoupled Drip.

Cohort Based Courses is EASY 

with Decoupled Drip from Thrive Apprentice

Ready to Build and Sell Awesome Cohort-Based Courses?

With Thrive Apprentice and Decoupled Drip, you can unlock lessons and modules for different cohorts of students who are taking the same course. Each group experiences your course independent of other groups.

Decoupled Drip from Thrive Apprentice

Lock in the current low price today!

Our prices increase on 16th February 2022...


You missed out!

Assessing student performance

One advantage that cohort-based courses have over self-paced courses, is the opportunity to assess the performance of BOTH individual students and the group as a whole.

As they’re moving through your online course together, assessments are vital for identifying problems and unclear teaching material.

In the offline world, this is achieved with a combination of real-time monitoring, and regular tests and exams.

In the world of online cohort-based courses, you’ll need to plan how you’ll assess your students as part of your course design. Your tools are:

  • Online quizzes
  • Tasks and assignments
  • Face-to-face time with your students, if your personal schedule allows

You can then analyze this individual student data to understand how the class is performing as a whole.

Regular check-ins

If you’ve sold your cohort-based course with the promise of an active tutor, you’ll need to deliver that promise to your customers.

Part of that means finding time to check in with your students to answer their questions.

Again, this can be done individually and as a group. The great thing about cohort-based courses is that you can be seen to provide tutor-led face-time with a group meeting on a video meeting app like Slack, Teams, or Zoom.

As part of your course design, you should try to find where these sessions will naturally fit with your syllabus and your students’ availability.

Best Tools for Cohort-Based Learning

The wonderful thing about being an online course creator in 2023 is that you have access to a huge range of tools to help you build a successful cohort-based course.

Gone are the days where only highly-funded education organizations could put together a fully featured online learning experience... now anyone with an internet connection and a dream can sell and teach what they know.

Here’s some of the tools you’ll need to create your cohort-based course:

A calendar app with synchronization or sharing

Cohort-based courses - calendar app for scheduling

Are there important dates and milestones in your cohort-based course?

Maybe a class schedule, exam dates, or even a live workshop?

You’ll find it much easier to manage and share these dates with your class using a good calendar tool that supports iCal (or ICS) synchronization and sharing.

Of course, Google Calendar and Apple Calendar are the most widely used — available on most Android and iPhone devices.

A community interaction platform

Cohort-based courses - Communicate platform

Your cohort students need a place to get together and share their ideas. If you don’t provide a platform, they’ll find their own, and you probably won’t be invited!

Luckily, there are a huge range of options to choose from.

  • Slack or Microsoft Teams

  • WhatsApp, Signal or Telegraph group chats

  • A WordPress forum tool like bbPress, BuddyPress

  • Social media platforms like Facebook groups

Facebook is probably the easiest to get started with, so if you’re not too tech savvy we recommend just creating a private group for your cohort to meet and discuss your course.


Cohort-based courses - WordPress LMS solutions

That would be a Learning Management System.

An LMS is simply a way to offer your course in a structured way – a course of modules, each containing multiple lessons – and provide your students with the means to work through it from start to finish.

Without an LMS, your online course would just be a collection of pages on your website.

Popular WordPress LMS plugins include Thrive Apprentice (our recommended solution) and LearnDash.

A decoupled Drip Solution

Cohort-based courses - decoupled drip

A good Drip solution will let you schedule your modules and lessons to unlock at the right time, which is essential for any cohort-based course.

You can go the DIY route using a mishmash of Zapier, IFTTT, and your choice of LMS plugin.

Or you can use Thrive Apprentice’s easy-to-customize Drip feature, which also supports independent drip schedules for different cohorts taking the same course... also known as Decoupled Drip.

Here's the step-by-step instructions for creating multiple drip schedules for the same online course, using Decoupled Drip in Thrive Apprentice.

A quiz builder

Cohort-based courses - assessing students

Assessments in the form of tests and quizzes help both students and course creators to understand how effective the course materials are for achieving the learning outcomes.

If you’re running cohort-based courses, you’ll need a fun and easy tool to test your students’ knowledge.

The best options include Thrive Quiz Builder and Quizlet, both of which offer fun ways to quiz your students. Starting in Q1 2022, quizzes will also become a standard feature inside Thrive Apprentice!

A way to collect assignments

Cohort-based courses - collecting homework

Finally you’ll need a way to collect homework and other project assignments from your students.

You could simply ask the class to send their work via email, or upload it to a Google Drive or Dropbox folder. Both methods work great if you’re organized enough to check regularly.

If you’d prefer to standardize the process for everyone, and look a little more professional, you can use Thrive Apprentice’s excellent file upload feature. This links directly to your Google Drive or Dropbox account, and can be easily configured to collect additional information such as your students’ name and submission date.

No more excuses about the dog eating their homework!

What is the Best Platform for Cohort-Based Courses?

Here at Thrive Themes, we’ve made what we consider to be the best solution for course creators like yourself to build, launch and sell cohort-based courses without any coding or design skills required.

Thrive Apprentice is a plugin that transforms any WordPress website into an online school, complete with courses, modules, lessons, and the tools you need to lead a group of students through the same syllabus at the same time.

Cohort Based Courses is EASY 

with Decoupled Drip from Thrive Apprentice

Ready to Build and Sell Awesome Cohort-Based Courses?

With Thrive Apprentice and Decoupled Drip, you can unlock lessons and modules for different cohorts of students who are taking the same course. Each group experiences your course independent of other groups.

Decoupled Drip from Thrive Apprentice

Lock in the current low price today!

Our prices increase on 16th February 2022...


You missed out!

by David Lindop  February 1, 2022


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Leave a Comment

  • This is awesome!

    I’m setting up a live monthly class and will have new students joining each month.

    Is there a way to hide past classes that were posted before a student joins?

    I saw you can hide content using conditions based on registration date but that uses the date of when they registered on my site, which could have been from a past order placed years ago. Is there a way to hide previous class content based on the date they join the class?

  • Does Apprentice email students when a new lesson in a drip sequence unlocks?
    Or is there integration with transactional email services to enable this?

    • Hi Mark. Our team are currently looking at ways to notify students when dripped lessons unlock, but for now you can inform them via an email sequence that starts at the same time as your course.

      This can be easily triggered with Thrive Automator… you just have to make sure the emails are sent with the same interval as the drip schedule.

      We’ll definitely look at ways to make this simpler in the future.

  • Thanks David,
    Are you working behind the scenes on a community interaction platform inside of Apprentice?
    That would be awesome.

    • Not currently Michaela. We’re working on a number of big projects and updates to our existing tools. But I’ll definitely pass this along to our team for consideration, thanks!

  • Really happy to see the Apprentice updates but I’d love the Quiz Builder to get some better design and feature updates. It’s not progressed much since the release.

    Is it still actively being worked on, or is it just bug updates going forward?

    • Love it when we’re on the same wavelength 🙂 Expect to see some pretty big feature updates coming to TQB soon!

  • The number one thing the Thrive Themes suite is missing is an integrated discussion forum. If you advertise a cohort based course, the ability for students and teachers to communicate should be a priority. And it has to be attachable to each lesson. Outsourcing the forum to facebook and whatsapp looks just bad. A great forum that integrates directly with thrive apprentice would be a real game changer.

  • David, you’ve mentioned “End of course certification”, but Apprentice still misses that feature, right?

    • Right now, auto-generated certification isn’t available in Thrive Apprentice. But we’re definitely working towards that kind of thing with future updates.

      Until then, you can use Thrive Automator to tell your email marketing platform to send the user a certificate when they complete a course. Or you can do it manually, if you need to verify any of their learning progress.

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