Cohort vs. Self-Paced Learning

woman listening to online lecture and taking notes while she sits on a couch

If you’re considering taking an online course to boost your resume or help you switch careers, two program formats you’re bound to come across are cohort learning and self-paced learning. Each learning format has its advantages and disadvantages, but one might be more ideal for you. Keep reading to learn about each format and its benefits. 

What Is Cohort-Based Learning?

Cohort-based learning is a collaborative learning style in which a group of individuals advance through an educational program together. 

It’s typical for traditional, on-campus programs to use a cohort learning model. In high school or college, for example, many—if not all—of your classes likely used cohort learning. You and your classmates completed the same assignments, adhered to the same due dates, and studied material together. The cohort learning model is also used in online learning environments. In this setting, you complete an educational program with your peers in the same way but watch lecturers and complete assignments online, instead of in-person. 

Benefits of cohort learning

There are many benefits of cohort learning in an online program. Some online students may prefer a cohort learning model versus a self-paced learning model because they desire the solidarity that comes with learning in a group setting. 

Here are some of the benefits of cohort learning:

  • Collaboration: Especially in an online environment, a cohort learning model facilitates social interaction and collaboration with your peers. This can enhance your learning experience and sense of community as you progress through an online program.
  • Support: Cohort learning connects you to the support of peers and faculty. If you need help with an assignment or want to discuss your evolving career goals, you can easily connect with your cohort. You can also turn to your cohort for encouragement when you need it. 
  • Structure: Because you advance through a program with others, cohort learning provides structure in the form of set due dates (weekly, monthly, etc.) and discussion forums. Cohort members also keep each other accountable (and motivated) to watch lectures, complete assignments, and contribute to discussions. 
  • Perspective: A cohort learning model expands your perspectives. As you engage with your cohort members, you’ll be exposed to new careers, opinions, experiences, and ideas. This is a unique benefit of cohort vs. on-demand learning; in the latter, your perspectives are the only ones available. 
  • Networking: By enrolling in a cohort, you’ll meet new people from across the world. You may have similar interests, goals, and/or experiences as some of your peers. Being part of a cohort makes it easier to further network and build relationships.

What Is Self-Paced Learning?

Self-paced, or on-demand, learning is a learning style in which individuals advance through an educational program on their own. You may take the same classes as others, but you’ll progress through the course and complete assignments at your own pace. 

Self-paced learning is commonly offered by online programs that make the course curriculum available at any time. For example, if you enroll in this type of online program, you can watch lectures, take quizzes, and complete assignments when it works best for you—whether that’s on weekdays before you go to work or weekends when you have some spare time.

Benefits of self-paced learning

There are many benefits of learning at your own pace. A self-paced online learning program is often ideal for busy professionals whose changing schedules make it difficult for them to complete the same amount of work each week. Self-paced learning enables you to study when you have time. 

Here are some of the benefits of learning at your own pace:

  • Convenience: Convenience is the chief benefit of self-paced online learning programs; you can study when it suits your schedule. Whether you’re an early riser or a night owl, a self-paced online learning environment lets you make the best use of your time when you’re not busy at the office.
  • Flexibility: On-demand courses offer flexibility for your learning style. If you need extra time to process course information, you can take it. For example, if you’re having trouble understanding a specific lesson, on-demand learning allows you to spend as much time as you need with the material.
  • Efficiency: On the flip side, sometimes you’ll want to advance through course material quickly. If you pick up a course concept quickly or are a generally fast learner, you don’t have to wait on others in a self-paced program. You can efficiently advance through material as you’d like.
  • Low Pressure: Self-paced programs usually don’t have firm deadlines. This means there’s less pressure to complete assignments. If you already have a lot of deadlines at work or tend to have last-minute events that impact your availability, you may benefit from the low pressure nature of on-demand learning. 
  • Autonomy: A major benefit of self-paced online learning is the autonomy it offers. Since these programs are flexible and don’t depend on others, you’re free to choose how you complete them. In on-demand programs, for example, you can choose to study lessons out of order based on which ones interest you most.

How to Decide Which Online Program Format Is Best for You

Below are some factors to consider and questions to ask yourself as you determine which online learning program format is best for you.


  • Why are you interested in taking an online course?
  • Do you want to meet new people and form business connections through your program?
  • Do you think learning from the career experiences of others will enhance your program experience?
  • Do you want to complete a course within a certain time frame?

Think about what you’re hoping to get out of your online course. If you’d like to make like-minded connections, the cohort learning model may suit you. However, if you’re trying to complete your program in a short amount of time, a self-paced online learning program could be worth exploring.


  • What is your availability to take an online course? 
  • Can you commit to weekly assignments?
  • What other commitments (work, family, hobbies, etc.) are you balancing in addition to your online courses?
  • When do you plan to study, and will this significantly vary week to week?

Cohort learning programs require you to complete weekly assignments. If you can commit to weekly assignments, this is an option worth considering. However, if your work schedule is unpredictable, a self-paced online learning program might be better for you. 

Learning style

  • Do you work well in a group environment or prefer to work alone?
  • Do deadlines motivate you or stress you out?
  • Do you enjoy taking your time when learning about a new topic?
  • Do you thrive in structured or more flexible environments?

When choosing between a cohort versus self-paced online learning program, it comes down to your learning style and preference. Only you know what helps and hinders your learning. For example, firm deadlines may stress you out more than they motivate you. Or perhaps you’re a verbal processor who could benefit from discussing course topics in a cohort environment. Consider your learning style when choosing between program formats.

Explore Our Online Courses and Certificate Programs

Wharton Online offers high-quality online business education to professionals around the world. We understand certain online learning formats fit people’s needs and goals better than others. Whether you’re interested in leadership, artificial intelligence, digital marketing, entrepreneurship, or another topic, we have a program for you. Find out more about our 100% online courses and certificates today.