Training Faculty How to Best Serve Their Military Students Leads to Improved Outcomes
by Brandon Swenson
As universities experienced in helping military learners have discovered, the unique attributes of servicemembers and veterans make them prime candidates for success in the classroom. Their hectic lifestyles often require quick shifts in priorities—demands that can prove challenging in sticking with a degree program.
According to Dr. Cheryl Hayek, Grantham University’s interim president and chief academic officer, “Military students wear their medals— their badges of honor—and their stripes of responsibility. They took an oath to serve, honor and protect. In return, educators should view it an honor to wear our ‘badges of responsibility’ in making quality higher education as accessible and achievable as we can for them.”
The good news is that a number of top schools and universities are embracing the need to work well with military students. These military- focused schools have spent years, even decades, fine tuning their own processes, methods and support models that best cater to the military student. It’s these universities that military servicemembers and veterans are wise to seek out, when selecting their school of choice.
“While military students make up less than five percent of the national student population,” said Hayek, “online accredited schools like Grantham University who have such flexible institutional policies for service members have military populations near 50 percent. For these institutions, it’s not enough to be military-friendly; we have to be military-focused. Not just student-centric, but military-centric.”
It can, however, be a daunting task to distinguish the universities who really get it, who understand what it takes to make education possible and do-able for military learners. Let’s take a look at what makes one more adept than another.
In line with Hayek’s military-centric emphasis, a growing number of universities have implemented faculty training programs that center on effectiveness in teaching the military student. At Grantham University, this training is not a new addition, but rather has been a critical requirement in faculty selection for over eight years. Since January 2009, faculty candidates go through a training course which includes “military culture 101.” The university does not allow faculty to begin teaching until they not only pass the training, but can also demonstrate their knowledge of both the military student and culture.
“Teaching and training faculty to remind them of the military culture is vital, as it can be used appropriately in the classroom,” said Niccole Kopit, Grantham University associate provost.
Implementing a structured learning environment that more closely mirrors their lifestyle helps military students flourish. Using a regular weekly cadence that lets students know exactly what to expect each week, and adhering to a strict 48-hour minimum turnaround time for grading and correspondence are two practices drawn from the military culture to keep students on track and moving forward in their coursework.
Faculty (and other support staff) must also fully understand daily obstacles military students face while pursuing their education. Things like temporary duty (TDY), contract obligations, change of duty station or assignment, and more must all be understood in order to provide the best student support during these times. Policies must reflect that we understand and can accommodate those when they come in conflict with coursework.
Faculty training also dives into capitalizing on the parallels between completing the mission and completing necessary coursework. According to Kopit, “Military students must be held accountable, just as they would be in their jobs, to their promise of taking coursework seriously and successfully completing the class. This taps into the students’ ingrained military nature to adhere to the mission and their core values.”
Discussions about critical thinking and ethical decision making, the student code of conduct, and even the syllabus allow faculty an opportunity to address completing the mission or course, as well as lay out the plan to achieve success.
Shifting the Paradigm
One aspect of the training is shifting the paradigm of looking at the deficits of a certain population group, in this case military students, to an asset-focused approach.
The military student has a very demanding full- time job, especially those who are active duty. They have training and duty schedules that can be very erratic. They can be uprooted and expected to move or deploy with very little notice. When they get that call, all other priorities, including their families, are put on hold to fulfill their pledge to their country.
But they also have a wealth of real-world knowledge and experience they bring to the classroom, and have learned the value of and appreciation for higher education learning. They don’t feel like they have to be there; they’re there because they want to be, for their careers, their families and themselves.
Asset Thinking versus Deficit Thinking, one of the core principles of the Swaddled Support Services (SSS®) developed by Dr. Hayek and implemented at Grantham University, changes the way the student feels upon entering it. Innovation will abound when one looks at the students’ strengths and builds accordingly for them and from them. “We’ve seen great success when faculty recognize the significant strengths that the military student brings to the classroom, as well as their differences in learning style,” Kopit said. “Honoring the gifts, vulnerabilities, and differences of the military is essential, both within the academic world and in society at large.”
For universities to be aware and skillful at meeting the military learner where they thrive not only aids in their learning, but also strengthens the programs and the classes.
Consideration for shortening the length of time to degree completion. Other military-centric components are found in groups and networking opportunities like SVA chapters, online writing forums, events and speaking engagements and mentoring, etc.
Also important are low tuition rates and scholarship opportunities for when military education benefits are depleted. Grantham University, for instance, recently introduced a new scholarship that bridges the gap between when tuition assistance (TA) is exhausted and then replenished.
“It (the scholarship) is one way we’re helping military students persist with their education, without having to sit out while waiting for military TA funds to be available again,” said Hayek. “It’s named after our Board of Governors member Commander Everett Alvarez, who as a POW survivor, is the ultimate example of resiliency and determination.”
Other ingredients that demonstrate military focus include:
- University policies that accommodate deployment
- Limited or no restrictions on login times (for online degree programs)
- Actual military outreach staff who take time to visit face-to-face with students
- And even a large percentage of university staff who are former military
And the best of the best offer comprehensive career services that focus on easing the military-to-civilian transition, combined with physical and virtual events and networking activities that bring corporate recruiters and military learners together.
“In our dedication to our Military Service Members, our Career Services coordinators are experts in military-to-civilian transition, and build upon the services provided by military transition offices by tailoring services to the students’ specials goals, needs, and interests,” said Jeromey Bell, Grantham University Career Services manager. “They also help students assemble a career development toolkit which will not only help them secure
Along with faculty training, a select few universities are continuing to find new, inventive ways to make sure the military learner is fully supported from day one through graduation. Maximizing military training and experience for college credit should be part of the discussion, before enrollment is finalized—a key their first position, but provide them with skills that will last a lifetime.” All considered, military servicemembers and veterans today clearly have credible options for earning their college degrees. It will be time well spent to carefully evaluate a university’s history in serving military learners, as well as its current practice in delivering the convenience and support necessary for success reminded everyone that nearly any challenges we might have as individuals can be overcome in a positive way.