Oklahoma State University

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Working with Military Veterans in the Classroom

By Heather Landers

Guidelines and Best Practices

The guidelines below are suggestions and things to think about when working with students who are military veterans. Many of the suggestions are similar to the best practices for working with adult learners.  As with any student population, veterans are a very diverse group with unique experiences, and thus the following suggestions should be seen as important things to think about in the classroom context, rather than a prescriptive way to work with all student veterans.

  1. Student veterans have had a variety of experiences, from being in combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan to being posted administrative positions in the U.S., or all over the world. If a student identifies him/herself as a veteran, do not make assumptions about what his/her experience has been.

  2. The transition from military to university life can be jarring for students, and students transitioning into civilian life and working to assimilate to being a college student can be overwhelmed. Be patient with students who are transitioning out of military life and into the university, and know that they are working to understand a system which seems very foreign to them. Some of the major differences include:

    • In the military, there is a clear, set time for almost everything. Students transitioning from the military to being college students may struggle with time management because they are accustomed to a more structured environment, where they have a set duty for every hour of the day. This contrasts with being a college student, where only about 15 hours per week are scheduled.

    • The hierarchical structure of the military means that if a service-person has a problem, there is a clear chain of command they can go through to get the problem resolved. They may see professors as authority figures, and come to you for guidance and support on navigating problems they have within the university system. If a student veteran comes to you with a problem, know the resources on campus so that you can refer the student to the appropriate department.

  3. Often student veterans are adult learners who have not been in a classroom since high school. As such, they may need academic support to “get them up to speed.” Be familiar with the academic support services available to support your class so that you can refer the student should they need additional help. In addition, student veterans are also likely to have broad life experiences that have matured them, and a global perspective that can inform their studies.

  4. Like other adult learners, student veterans generally are goal-oriented and motivated students. They may be frustrated by other students in the classroom who do not take their studies and their roles are students seriously. They tend to have high expectations of themselves and others, which can lead to frustration in the classroom if they are placed in groups with students who are not as motivated. They can be frustrated by students who do not appear to respect the professor and fellow students by talking and texting during class.

  5. Although many student veterans are leaders in the classroom and may be outspoken, never assume that the veteran wants to talk about his/her military experience. Be careful of thanking a veteran for her/his service unless you have a relationship with the student. You can’t know whether the student has positive or negative feelings about their experience in the military. Let the student bring up their military experience if they choose. Similarly, never ask the student veteran to give her/his opinions on the war or to speak about her/his experience unless you have developed a relationship with the student and are confident that they are comfortable speaking about it.

  6.  It is never appropriate to ask a military veteran, “Did you kill anyone?” Veterans say that they are frequently asked this question, and it is important that should this question come from another student in your class, you address its insensitivity and inappropriateness in the classroom.

  7. Student veterans, especially those who are transitioning to college from combat zones, may be agitated or distracted by loud noises, or become “on alert” if they hear particular sounds. Instructional technology such as laser pointers, if accidently directed at a combat veteran, can lead to a reaction.  Be aware that a student veteran may need to leave the classroom because of anxiety related to unfamiliar sounds or distractions. These students may also feel more comfortable and secure sitting with their backs against a wall, so they may be inclined to sit in the back of the classroom. Be sensitive to this need for security and refrain from asking these students to move closer to the front of the room. If you notice a student who seems to be struggling with this sort of anxiety, and you have concerns, talk with that student in a private setting rather than in class or in front of other students. 

  8. Student veterans may have long-standing appointments with the Veterans Administration for which they have been waiting for a significant amount of time. They often do not have any flexibility in scheduling these appointments, and rescheduling appointments (such as those concerning compensation and benefits) can mean a significant delay in getting veterans their benefits. Work with these students in navigating your attendance policy.