eCoaching Tip 107 Best Practices for Teaching and Reaching Your Military Learners

April 19, 2013

eCoaching Tip 107: Best Practices for Teaching and Reaching Your Military Learners

Note:  Given the breadth and richness of this topic from five interviewees, this is a very robust tip that I hope you enjoy and discuss with your colleagues.

Do you need to adjust your teaching practices for your military students?  Should you? Duquesne welcomes active duty military personnel and veterans to all its programs. This means it is highly probable that you have 25% or more military learners in your courses. On the one hand, adjusting teaching practices for military students may not make much sense, as they are first and foremost adult learners; on the other hand, they do share some relatively unique characteristics due to their past and ongoing life experiences.

This tip describes nine best practices for supporting your military students and helping them be successful learners. These best practices were distilled from several hours of interviews with the following individuals. These folks are fonts of knowledge, stories and experiences with military students, only a smattering of what is included in this tip. They welcome calls or emails if you have follow up questions or comments.

  • Don Accamando, Director of Military Programs for SLPA and a retired lieutenant colonel of the U.S. Air Force.Don’s office supports and advises over 200 student veterans andservice members in SLPA.
  • Ann Martin, Coordinator and Academic Advisor of the Military Education Program for SLPA. Ann has been advising and coaching student veterans and service members for about ten years.
  • Janet Zellmann, SLPA faculty who teaches the Adult Transition Seminar and other writing courses, such as Business Writing and English 101 and 102.
  • K. Cunningham, Professor of Joint Landpower at the U.S. Army War College and SLPA faculty who teaches the Introduction to Graduate Study of Leadership and many courses on ethics.
  • David Vrenna, VA Work Study Representative. David is working on his degree in global leadership.

Best Practice #1 – Welcome Students and Thank Them for Their Service

Most military students signed up for service to our country and are very proud of their service and their commitment. This does set them apart from those of us who have not formally served in this way and have not been “in harm’s way” as they have. Facing danger and extreme life challenges almost daily for a period of time means that they have an expanded world view and likely also have a deeper understanding of people and the values of our democracy and freedoms.

So they come to degree programs with aspirations and anxiety. When they are learning, they want to fit in and be like everyone else and prepare themselves for the next chapter of their lives; on the other hand, they really appreciate having their service to country — and to all of us — acknowledged. How does a faculty do this? Simply and earnestly is best. The preweek introductions are a good place to acknowledge individual students and their unique experiences, whatever they may be. It is also a good place to have military students connect with others with similar experiences, some based on their service experiences and some not.

Best Practice #2 — “Everything is Negotiable”

The title of this best practice is from G.K. Cunningham. He believes that the ultimate best practice for teaching and learning with military students can be summed up in one word — flexibility. This is also the best practice that was mentioned most frequently by everyone that I talked to.

Being flexible, however, G.K. went on to explain, does not mean rolling over on standards or assignments. What it means is that military students want to be treated as adults who are juggling a set of complex roles and responsibilities.

One of their most important roles is supporting and protecting the rest of us. This means that they can be called away at a moment’s notice. For example, Janet Zellmann shared the story of her National Guard student who was called away to help with snow removal after an intense winter storm in New England just last winter. This was quite unexpected and difficult to anticipate. The National Guard student was away for ten days while the other students were in the middle of a peer review activity, it meant that he missed some of the activity and an assignment deadline, and as Janet said, we had to “punt and reschedule.”  Upon his return, he completed the assignment and Janet stepped in and took over the role of the “peer reviewer” as the other students “had moved on.”  Being on call in this way means that both faculty and student needed to be flexible in meeting goals and requirements.

The good news is that most military students are good at planning and coming up with alternatives, a characteristic mentioned by Don Accamando. So when flexibility is needed, military students tend to be proactive and take responsibility for suggesting alternatives to requirements, deadlines, etc.  A best practice then is to be flexible, to negotiate, but to also be firm and clear about what needs to be done to complete the work and to show evidence of goals being achieved. At the same time, as Don shared, students do not want “busy work or “stupid alternatives.”

Communicating the practice of flexibility is important so that students know upfront that faculty are committed to the goal of students being successful, within a framework of course expectations.  When is this best done?  A very good strategy is to communicate these practices in a faculty statement of expectations at the beginning of a course.  Upfront policy statements can communicate high expectations for the learning to be done and the work to show evidence of that learning. Is this different for our civilian students? Not really, since, as adults, civilian students are also balancing multiple roles and responsibilities. Being flexible is important for all adult students, just more so with military students.

Occasionally military students might need to have extra time to complete an assignment. For example, they might have a two-week training scheduled in the middle of a course. This is certainly a situation that may be anticipated and students can plan for it to a degree. However, some flexibility for extra time can make a huge difference in success and lower stress for military students.

Will this flexibility be abused by students? Ann Martin observed that in her experience, few students really tried to take advantage of a faculty member’s flexible policy. These students really want someone to understand the constraints that they have; at the same time, they really do want to do well.

The bottom line, though, in having a flexible policy is that planning is important. If military personnel are on active duty and are thus subject to being called away at a moment’s notice, then they have a responsibility to anticipate these types of situations, work ahead where possible and to have a plan for dealing with their mix of responsibilities. This is actually good practice for all learners.  In summary, this best practice is a two-way street. Faculty need to be flexible; students need to be responsible.

Best Practice #3 — Design and Communicate an Extremely Clear Course Structure and Set of Expectations

A clean, clear course structure and learning map is a companion practice to flexibility. The best way to support flexibility is to have a course that is well designed, with a clear structure and with clear expectations. By knowing what is ahead of them and what the requirements are, students can plan for the eventualities that can happen and other life responsibilities. Having a course fully developed is essential for online courses and it is also a best practice for on ground courses. When the full set of course expectations are laid out, students can plan. As observed by one student, “If I knew what I had to do for the whole semester, I could get stuff done ahead of time.”

Ann Martin has this advice for instructors: “Be as clear, direct and uniform as possible.  If you are teaching online, be sure your Blackboard site is set up in a concrete, sequential way. Put assignments under Assignments, for example.”  State clearly what assignments are due when and what rubrics are to guide the work.

Ann went on to share that military students are troubled when directions are not clear or if there are not clear and direct standards. If instructors are too loose or too ambiguous, military students find it difficult. Military students take everything faculty say at face value as they are “used to performing to very explicit directives.” They want to know answers to, “How long? How many pages?” The directive of “Whatever works” is vague and can be confusing and frustrating. This suggests that clear and well-structured rubrics would be strongly recommended.  As commented by G.K., “No student should need to wonder, ‘What do I need to do next?’”

Being able to manage and deal with ambiguity, however, is an important life skill, so while a best practice is to acknowledge and be supportive of the desire for very clear, concise directions, moving learners towards embracing some ambiguity is a good thing to do.

Best Practice #4 — Give Military Students an Opportunity to Share Their Life Experiences

Military learners share an expanded worldview due to their rich set of life experiences.  Thus, they bring a unique set of life and leadership experiences that others may learn from, and likewise they crave to hear the experiences of others. According to Don and others, military students really enjoy and engage in course assignments and activities that enable them to build on and share their life experiences, while learning and hearing about the life experiences of their peers. Why might this be so? It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by C.S. Lewis, British scholar and academic, “I read so that I don’t feel alone.”

What does this mean for course design? It suggests three things: (1) Leverage the preweek introductions so that students can share experiences and goals and initiate longer-term networking and collegial relationships; (2) Design into the course customizing opportunities that make it possible for military learners to reflect on and grow in content knowledge while integrating previous experiences and anticipating future ones; (3) Design small teams of two or three, so that military students can learn from, share with and be a “buddy” for each other.

At the same time, it is important for all students to leave their “rank at the door.” And also on campus, their uniforms.  All students are equal in the learning community. This can be particularly critical if many members of a unit are in the same course.

Best Practice #5  — Be Sensitive and Supportive as Military Students Develop Basic Academic Skills

As might be expected, military students enrolling in undergraduate courses have a wide range of experiences and can be ready or very unprepared for undergraduate or graduate academic work. Military students can range from 18 years old to their late 50’s. Their confidence levels can also vary greatly, from being very confident (“I am a Marine; I can do anything, sir/ma’am and can do it very well.”) to being very unsure about what exactly they are doing in college (“Can I do this? Do I really need a degree? What will I do with it when I get it?”)

G.K. and Janet teach some of the first courses for military students and have designed certain activities into their courses to help address a common problems — uncertainty and anxiety about academic writing and research skills.

G.K. uses two assignments to help address academic writing skills. One assignment is a very short concept integration paper, and while he uses a rubric to communicate expectations, the first paper from many students is usually “an abomination.”   Before returning their papers to them, G.K. warns them that their papers are “very colorful.”  He uses red for deletions, blue for additions and yellow for commenting. His goal is to really shock them to attention. The good news is that G.K. then gives students the opportunity to revise the papers according to his review. That exercise serves to communicate quite explicitly and completely what is expected. And true to form, “Once they see what is expected, it comes back looking right.”

A second assignment, one originally created by Janet, is an exercise that requires students to put ten different types of resources into the APA format. This assignment is a great learning tool as it distills what can seem an impossibly infinite set of APA rules into the ten most frequently used types. With this exercise they learn how to do APA formatting and develop confidence and a skill that they can do it.

A writing assignment by Janet in the Adult Transition Seminar addresses writing and research skills while at the same time, encouraging students to take seriously the question of what they want to do once they complete their degree.

This assignment is called their “Dream Essay” in which they are to answer the question of “What next?” According to Janet, students get very engaged when they realize that “they are researching their own future.” This assignment works well whether they are researching a specific career or a higher grade level within the military. The writing process includes students posting their rough drafts on the discussion board for review and discussion with the other students. This assignment also requires learning how to use the library databases.  (Note: This assignment was originally developed with Mary Jane Snyder, an earlier director of the military office at Duquesne.)

Janet shared that this researching, drafting, discussing and dreaming about their future is also very effective for getting military students talking and connecting in the early part of the course. Janet affirmed that the first weeks of a course are critical for military students and the “more I can get them talking, the more they are able to share their experiences, the more connected to others they feel.” It is important for them to know that we will be “missing them if they are not around.” The more they are engaged early on, the better chance we have of keeping them and of achieving success.

Best Practice #6  — Keep Lines of Communication Open; Be Responsive; Provide Feedback

This best practice reaffirms the general best practice of any teaching and learning experience and that is ‘teaching presence.’  Students, particularly online students who do not experience the physical presence of a teacher, really need to know that instructors are therefor them, that they care, and that they are interested in their success.

Another shared characteristic of military students is that when they ask a question, they usually get answers fairly quickly. Turnaround time is often quite immediate. The pace within higher education environments is slower, and it can take getting used to. This means that faculty need to be sure to monitor course sites and email on a daily basis for questions that may be a barrier to learning work being done.

Ann Martin noted that she seldom gets any complaints about faculty not being responsive, but when she does, she knows it is really serious. “Generally”, she said, “with the military you don’t get feedback; they keep their opinions to themselves.”  This suggests that it is even more important for faculty to be proactive in seeking out and checking in with military students.

Best Practice #7  — Don’t Wait for Military Students to Ask for Help; Be Responsive, Proactive and Watchful

Military learners share a set of characteristics that are worth paying special attention to.  One characteristic is that they are focused, self-motivated, and intent on getting the work done.

A related characteristic that is perhaps surprising is that, as David and Don and G.K. said, “military learners are not good at saying, ‘I could use some help.’” This reluctance to ask for help stems from their desire to avoid being seen as a ‘weak link’, or to be thought of as less than competent to do the work. They prefer to struggle on, often alone.

A good practice is for faculty to be almost over-sensitive and hyper-aware as to how students are doing. It’s probably safe to say that all adult learners experience the stresses and challenges of juggling multiple roles and responsibilities. Setting priorities and making time for learning requires choosing not to do other life opportunities. And occasionally military students, in Don’s words, “can feel all jammed up with their hair on fire.”

As the earlier best practice noted, being wisely flexible can help a great deal. Also as noted above, military students generally don’t complain and don’t reach out for help.  This means that in the best of all possible worlds, the faculty are proactive and reach out to students and are super-sensitive to what is going on.

David Vrenna commented that if he could encourage faculty to make just one change in their teaching of military students, it would be for faculty to be proactive at reaching out to students and asking how they are doing, ideally on an individual basis. Obviously this is time consuming to do but definitely suggests paying very close attention to all students and how they are doing, especially in the first 2-3 weeks of a term. This is of particular importance in military students’ first and second terms. After that, they tend to be a bit more relaxed.

One early course practice from Don for being proactive and respectful is to design your course so that you can post digital content for the first week or two to give time for students to secure any critical print material.

Best Practice #8 – Be Watchful and Proactive During Transition Times — to Deployment and Returns

Transition times are another “watch” point for military students. While it can be difficult and often stressful and hazardous to be on deployment, some deployments offer a time when military students have fewer family responsibilities and thus more time for learning.

When they return from deployment, expectations of family time and other responsibilities can increase dramatically, leaving less time for learning. For example, they might get shipped off to Afghanistan and be deployed for eight months and be getting straight “A” s and then come home, stop communicating and have their grades bottom out.

Transitions both to and from deployments are difficult and transitions back home can be even more difficult times for the students. What does this mean for faculty? It is very important to be particularly aware of what is going on with their military students. Even a slight withdrawal from customary engagement levels can be a red flag. Instructors must be tuned into these types of subtle withdrawals and be ready to inquire.

Best Practice #9  — Reach Out, Reach Out and then Reach Out Some More

When asked what military students liked best about Duquesne and the School of Leadership and Professional Advancement, the most frequently mentioned feedback is that they are delighted that Duquesne recognizes them as a special population and that we look out for them, value them and their experiences, and that Duquesne really “has a heart” for them.

At the same time, David Vrenna emphasized that while most of the information needed by military students is available if they search for it, that the information needed by military students could be better organized and more visible.

Two Most Important Pieces of Advice

When asked for a final piece of advice or best practice, Janet summed it up well.  First and foremost, “Embrace the military students, as you will find so much experience and so much depth… they are well worth it and a delight.”

Secondly, “be flexible and convey to other students that they are being deployed in support of us. It’s important to be flexible with the civilian students too, but I think I am ‘extra flexible’ with my veterans.”

References

Boettcher, J. V. (2009) eCoaching Tip 71: When Students are Away from a Course for a While. http://www.designingforlearning.info/services/writing/ecoach/tips/tip71.htm

Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities APSCU (2013) Report of the Blue Ribbon Taskforce for Military and Veteran Education. Report February 2013 http://www.apscu.org/policy-and-issues/federal-issues/military-veterans-ed/upload/Report-of-Blue-Ribbon-Taskforce_Feb2013.pdf

Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities APSCU. (2013) Best Practices for Military and Veteran Students. Report February 2013. http://www.apscu.org/policy-and-issues/federal-issues/military-veterans-ed/upload/MVBP-Brochure_Feb2013.pdf.Note: This is a subset of above executive summary.

Note: These E-coaching tips were initially developed for faculty in the School of Leadership & Professional Advancement at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. This library of tips has been organized and updated through 2016  in the second edition of the  book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips coauthored with Rita Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached judith followed by designingforlearning.org.

Copyright by Judith V. Boettcher