Students who are active-duty service members, reservists, members of the National Guard, and veterans (referred to throughout the rest of this post as “student veterans” or “military students”) constitute about 4.2% of the total undergraduate population. Drawdowns in the U.S. military, increased benefits, and a still-troubled economy have meant that most institutions have experienced substantial gains in student veteran enrollment. This population enters higher education with both strengths and challenges. The military provides a unique and highly effective educational experience. It prepares personnel to operate in complex and often dangerous environments and trains them to accomplish their mission regardless of personal cost. This training also creates expectations for the learning process that can be at odds with traditional modes of teaching in higher education. Colleges and universities would do well to devise a comprehensive strategy to leverage veterans’ strengths and mitigate their challenges, but this post will focus on adapting practices within the classroom to negotiate the differences between the two educational systems.
1. Incorporate real-world examples or lifelike simulations into class material to provide an environment that is closer to that experienced through military training.
Military training places an emphasis on the application of learned material, and in the later stages of training service members are almost always fully engaged in exercises that are as lifelike as possible. Courses in higher education, outside of a few experiences such as internships, lab sciences, and fine arts performances, often have few direct applications of their material in real-world settings. By creating lifelike simulations, faculties develop learning activities that build on the strengths of military students and help them understand and value postsecondary modes of communication and thinking.
2. Build in reflection time through the creative use of journals, short writing assignments, discussion boards, wikis, blogs or even tweets.
Reflection is an important component of both military training and higher education, but plays a different role in each. Generally speaking (and exceptions abound), the military trains its personnel to act, with reflection as part of that process, whereas higher education trains its students to reflect, with action as part of that process. Instructors therefore need to emphasize the reflective nature of academic work. Student veterans have been trained to make rapid decisions based on the best evidence available. They will benefit from understanding that split-second decisions are not generally necessary in academic work, and that they should spend the time they deem necessary to fully consider all aspects of a new idea or assignment.
3. Define the objectives of each writing assignment.
The military trains its personnel to communicate in specific ways that can seem extremely terse and jargon-laden to civilians; their goal is to prevent any confusion or misunderstanding. For example, the Army’s writing guide states that “The standard for Army writing is clear, concise, organized, and right to the point.” (U.S. Department of the Army, 1986, p.1) Precisely defining the goals of each writing assignment in essence provides “mission objectives” that students can attempt to achieve. (Dalton, 2010, p. 49) These objectives should be accompanied by the criterion that will define success for that particular assignment. Rubrics can provide these standards, regardless of whether or not the assignment is a term paper or a lab report.
4. Faculty need to continually emphasize that college writing is a process; a working out of ideas through time.
Student veterans, especially those who have just recently transitioned into higher education, may struggle with the format and rationale of academic writing. The difference in communication styles is particularly pronounced when considering the writing process and product. By dividing large writing assignments into a series of smaller projects it will allow students to revise their work (Dalton, 2010, p. 49).
To conclude, military students have been trained to think critically—to find solutions even in situations that are chaotic and in which information is incomplete. Faculty can develop learning activities that build on the strengths of these students and help them navigate the challenges they face as they transition into higher education. Faculty who take the time to design learning activities that create opportunities for their student veterans will find that they have improved the educational experiences for all of their students.
Dalton, K.S. (2010). From combat to composition: Meeting the needs of military veterans through postsecondary writing pedagogy (Master’s thesis). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No. 1475346)
McBride,S. (2004). The tongue and quill. U.S.Air Force Handbook 33-337. Washington DC: Headquarters, Department of the AirForce.
U.S. Department of the Army. (1986). Effective writing for Army leaders. Pamphlet 600-67. Washington DC: Headquarters, Department of the Army.