Teaching Student Veterans Online

As of 2013, more than a million veterans have taken advantage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill to pursue their higher education degrees, and that number is estimated to rise by 20% in the coming years (Department of Veterans Affairs, n.d.). Like most student populations, veterans bring their own unique needs to the online classroom. However, despite veterans’ rising enrollment rates, a recent survey of instructors found that almost half of higher education instructors said they would not participate in a seminar to learn more about the needs of this particular student population (Gonzalez & Elliott, 2013).

Instructors can do a great deal to help student veterans persist and thrive in the online classroom. This article examines the strengths and challenges these students bring by offering a profile of a typical student veteran, and it also offers suggestions for how instructors can help veterans succeed in online education.

Profile of a Typical Student Veteran

When discussing how to help veterans succeed in the online space, you should remember that no two soldiers, sailors, airmen, or marines are identical. Some may have experienced combat, while others served in the reserves here at home. Most are likely former enlisted personnel, meaning that they never served as officers, and tend to be younger and have limited experience in higher education (John Kamin, personal communication, October 18, 2017). In contrast, former officers are likely adult learners who have families, children, and a defined career path they are working toward.

Regardless of these differences in age and experience, the following are some common characteristics you should be aware of when a student veteran enrolls in your course.

Student veterans tend to be older and more focused than traditional college-age students.

Many veterans choose to delay or interrupt college in favor of military service, so they often begin their degrees at 25 years old or older, or they may be picking up courses again after a time away from school. Because of veterans’ age, principles of andragogy (teaching adult learners) apply. For example, student veterans (like other adult learners) are more likely to be self-directed, have a reservoir of experiences that they can leverage to enrich their learning (and the learning of others), possess intrinsic motivation, and are focused on immediately applying what they’re learning to their lives and careers. Military experience in particular has likely instilled in student veterans a high sense of discipline, purpose, and work ethic, and they bring a rich perspective to education due to their global experience, leadership skills, discipline, focus, and ability to work under pressure (Conference on College Composition and Communication [CCCC], 2015; Maryland Veterans Resilience Initiative [MVRI], 2014).

However, being more experienced can also have its drawbacks. For example, student veterans may become frustrated if they see their cohorts speaking or acting in a way that they find naïve, disrespectful, or lazy because such behaviors are not acceptable in regimented military life (Kreuter, 2012). You may need to be prepared to help veterans understand that some students have different academic standards or work ethics than they do, particularly if they do group work with nonveteran students (MVRI, 2014). For more information on how to set appropriate expectations with students, see our article “Course Expectations: Why You Need Them and How to Communicate Them.”

Student veterans may feel isolated.

Because of some of the demographic differences discussed in the previous section, veterans may have trouble adjusting to the life of a college student after serving in the military (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, n.d.). Military service typically involves a high sense of camaraderie, structure, and purpose that civilian life doesn’t always afford, and veterans can sometimes struggle to adjust (MVRI, 2014). Although some of these needs are beyond the scope of an online instructor or even an institution as a whole, you should be aware that veterans may be especially impacted by the typical struggles with isolation with which all online students must contend.

Student veterans may have mental or physical struggles.

A 2011 study by Rudd, Goulding, and Bryan found that 24 percent of student veterans surveyed suffered from severe depression, 35 percent from severe anxiety, and 36 percent from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and 46 percent from suicidal thoughts (as cited in Bart, 2012). In addition, even if your student isn’t suffering from a physical or mental trauma, he or she may have friends who have been injured or even killed (MVRI, 2014).

Student veterans may never disclose their mental, physical, or emotional struggles to you. In fact, some of their struggles may not yet be diagnosed (MVRI, 2014). However, as you normally would, make sure to include a note in the syllabus telling students to contact you and your institution’s disability services office if they think they may need to make special accommodations to successfully complete course materials.

Strategies for Helping Student Veterans in the Online Classroom

Understanding veterans’ backgrounds can help instructors understand and sympathize with what may be going on behind the scenes with their student veterans. However, you can do more than merely understanding this demographic. Following Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles can help both veteran and nonveteran students succeed in any online class (for more information, see part 1 and part 2 in our series on UDL). In addition, the following strategies give you some proactive techniques you can use to help veterans be more engaged in your class.

Encourage student veterans to identify themselves at the beginning of a course.

Veterans may naturally mention their service in the course of conversation. However, to ensure you’re prepared at the beginning of the course, consider using a brief introductory activity or survey that includes a question about veteran status (MVRI, 2014). You could also add a line in your syllabus encouraging student veterans to notify you that they are in the class.

Refer students to campus veteran services, if available.

Kamin (2017) says that the presence of a veterans’ resource center leads to greater graduation rates and greater participation levels at some schools. Veterans’ centers may offer a wide range of services, such as counseling, specialized orientation programs, assistance connecting veterans to one another for socialization and mentorship, and help navigating financial aid benefits specific to veterans (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, n.d.). These services can help students with the challenges of transitioning to civilian and college life and address some of the social and emotional struggles discussed at the beginning of this article.

In addition to traditional veterans’ centers, you will also want to make student veterans aware of your institution’s tutoring and disability services. As mentioned earlier, many veterans disrupted their formal education to serve in the military, so they may benefit from tutoring to help them acclimate to academic work and writing, and other veterans may be coping with physical or cognitive difficulties that a disabilities office can help with (MVRI, 2014).

Make sure to familiarize yourself with the contact information of all such services offered at your institution and which services are available to online students, and include this information in your syllabus. Don’t be afraid to refer these services to students individually as well, as it is better to provide the information than to allow students to struggle alone (Kreuter, 2012).

Invite student veterans to share their experiences, but don’t insist on it.

As discussed above, student veterans bring a rich depth of experiences to the classroom because of their work and travel during their time in the military. That being said, you should tread lightly when it comes to inviting these students to share their experiences because they may be sensitive discussing it with you and their classmates. The following are tips on how best to approach this issue (CCCC, 2015; Kreuter, 2012; MVRI, 2014):

  • Don’t force veterans to talk about their time in the military or put them on the spot with questions about it, even if the course material closely relates to their experiences. If you do think the class would benefit academically from hearing about a veteran’s experience, ask him or her in private if he or she is comfortable with sharing.
  • If conflicts arise or if student veterans begin to dominate a conversation about military matters, set boundaries for appropriate conversation with students in private.
  • Avoid saying you understand or can relate if you haven’t served in the military or shared the same kinds of experiences.
  • One of the most inappropriate questions you can ask a veteran is if he or she has ever killed anyone. If you see other students asking such questions, intervene immediately to tell them that is inappropriate.

Provide structure and make sure student veterans know they can disagree with you.

Coming from a military background where rank and hierarchy are important and strictly adhered to, student veterans may struggle with more informal discussions or a lack of structure in the classroom or assignments (CCCC, 2015). Veterans might also be hesitant to disagree with you or to go outside the bounds of instruction unless given explicit permission to do so. In fact, Kreuter (2012) said that perhaps his one complaint about student veterans is that they are sometimes too deferential to his authority as an instructor.

To help veterans navigate online discussions and assignments, you should provide detailed, explicit instructions, even on things that may seem obvious to you. For example, best practices such as providing a rubric will help student veterans be confident they’re conforming to expectations and know what you want from them. For discussions and more creative assignments, you might need to remind students that they’re allowed to disagree with or challenge you, and to speak up if instructions are unclear so they don’t become frozen in indecision waiting for their next “order.”

Encourage group work and collaboration.

Because of their military training, veterans often have a great capacity for working as a team to accomplish an objective. Their leadership and collaboration skills make them great candidates for group work, and in fact, they may struggle if you place a high emphasis on individual effort and work (Sportsman & Thomas, 2015). Even if you don’t have formal group work in your class, encourage students to collaborate when appropriate, such as by creating discussion forums where students can share study tips or form study groups.

However, if you do have any group projects, following best practices for group work will be especially helpful for veterans. For example, veterans benefit from having clear objectives or goals for what they need to accomplish, and from having clearly defined roles within their teams to keep team members accountable for participating (MVRI, 2014). Having these parameters in place beforehand will create an environment where student veterans can excel.

Be mindful of political or philosophical discussions that involve the military.

Student veterans often bring a unique and informed perspective to political or military-related issues. While you don’t have to censor yourself or other students from talking about these issues (particularly if they’re related to the course material), you should take care to ensure these discussions are objective and respectful so as not to give unintentional offense. For example, many current student veterans may have served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they may perceive negative comments about those wars as slights to the sacrifices they or their comrades have made (MVRI, 2014). Even if you believe, for example, that these wars never should have taken place or were handled poorly, avoid expressing personal opinions and instead stick to objective facts backed up by evidence, and challenge your students to do the same. You may even state explicitly that any disagreement with a political or military action doesn’t mean you aren’t grateful for your student’s service.

Conclusion

Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “Neither a wise nor a brave man lies down on the tracks of history to wait for the train of the future to run over him.” By enrolling in online courses, your student veterans are taking hold of their future instead of waiting for it to happen to them. Similarly, a good instructor will be proactive in understanding and meeting these students where they are, and will implement pedagogical techniques to help them succeed in the online classroom. In that way, instructors will act as a “force multiplier” to help veterans’ dreams become reality.

References

Bart, M. (2012, October 25). Helping student veterans succeed in the classroom. Retrieved from https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/faculty-development/helping-student-veterans-succeed-in-the-classroom/

Conference on College Composition and Communication. (2015, March). Student veterans in the college composition classroom: Realizing their strengths and assessing their needs. Retrieved from http://cccc.ncte.org/cccc/resources/positions/student-veterans

Department of Veterans Affairs. (n.d.). Who are today’s student veterans? Retrieved from https://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/studentveteran/studentvets.asp

Gonzalez, C., & Elliott, M. (2013). What faculty say about student veterans: A survey of UNR and TMCC instructors. Retrieved from https://www.unr.edu/Documents/president/uvc/What-Faculty-Say-About-Student-Veterans-41613.pdf

Kreuter, N. (2012, November 12). Veterans in the classroom. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2012/11/12/essay-teaching-veterans

Maryland Veterans Resilience Initiative. (2014, Spring). Teaching student veterans. Retrieved from http://www.sjsu.edu/veterans/resources/teaching-veterans/

Sportsman, M. A., & Thomas, L. (2015, Winter). Coming home to school: Challenges and strategies for effective teaching with military veterans. InSight: A Journal of Scholarly Teaching, 10, 43–55. Retrieved from http://insightjournal.park.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/4-Coming-Home-to-School-Challenges-and-Strategies-for-Effective-Teaching-with-Military-Veterans.pdf

St. Louis Post-Dispatch. (n.d.). Veterans returning to college face unique challenges. Retrieved from https://www.military.com/veteran-jobs/career-advice/military-transition/veterans-in-college-face-challenges.html

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