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Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice? Take a SIP of this: Teaching student veterans

Grassroots thoughts on effective teaching for faculty, by faculty.

January 25, 2018

Veterans stand at attention during ceremonyThirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?

They look like their peers. They sound like their peers. They act like their peers. However, students who are military veterans often have different needs than their peers. Our student veterans have given of themselves in many of the most important ways possible. One way we can pay respect to their service is to create excellent learning opportunities for them.

Take a SIP of this: Teaching student veterans.

Student veterans have spent years immersed in military culture. Trading the military base for the university campus involves significant shifts in many of the most fundamental parts of daily life such as communication styles, expectations for accountability and the degree of structure in life and work.

Understanding and respecting differences between military and civilian life can help faculty support student veterans. Here are a few of the ways that life on campus differs from life on base and how life on base has prepared veterans to be successful on campus.

Expectations in the military are typically communicated in very explicit, straightforward and concise language. Expectations in higher education can sometimes be communicated with less clarity, leaving student veterans frustrated when they don’t understand what is being asked of them. Support student-veteran success by stating instructions and information as clearly as possible. Stop to check for understanding and be prepared to provide clarification when necessary.

The sensory sensitivity and alertness that is part of living and working on a military base can make focusing in classroom environments a challenge. Visual or auditory stimuli that might be imperceptible to most students can be distracting to student veterans. In addition, traumatic experiences, even mild ones, can result in reduced concentration skills. Students who come to class late or talk during lecture can be highly problematic to a student veteran. Be aware of the sensory stimuli in your classroom and consider how they could be reduced.

In the military, learning particular knowledge occurs in order to complete a work-related task or to meet a goal. Adult learners’ motivation will increase when they understand the “real life” application of what they are learning, and this is particularly true for student veterans. In order to maintain student motivation, reinforce the relevance of course content and intentionally tie course content into larger contexts.

Student veterans are serious about school. They are used to working toward specific goals and outcomes. As a result, they may become frustrated with their peers who are disrespectful or who appear to take opportunities for granted. Make time to talk, acknowledge frustrations and discuss ways for managing negative feelings.

Having lived all over the United States and the world, student veterans have unique perspectives on various cultures that can contribute to rich classroom discussion. Their experiences in political situations may reflect underrepresented perspectives that can expand their peers’ thinking. Intentionally incorporate all students’ ideas to create a safe environment for minority perspectives. Before class, ask student veterans how they would like to participate in discussions that could result in strong feelings and opinions.

Student veterans have practiced accountability to others, accountability to work and accountability to time. In leaving the service, student veterans transition from highly structured expectations for accountability to expectations that can be fluid and unclear. Holding all students accountable to course expectations can go a long way toward creating an environment where student veterans will thrive.

Student veterans bring career and leadership experience to civilian life. Student service members can model responsibility in ways that can benefit their peers. They can be good candidates for group leaders and may become frustrated by projects that drag on if classmates don’t do their part.

Like many MSU Denver students, student veterans are entering school later than typical freshmen. Their experiences in high school may have been very different than that of their peers. Gaps between high school and college can result in having to relearn study, writing and test-taking skills. Encourage student veterans to take advantage of campus resources such as the Writing Center and the Tutoring Center. Allow time for explicit instruction in the best ways to study content for your class, effective note-taking and test-taking strategies.


In order to support student veterans, faculty need to know who they are. Invite student veterans to identify themselves through a classwide announcement or a short statement in the syllabus. Some students will be comfortable sharing their veteran status and experiences with the class and others will not. Take time to ask your student veterans about their desired privacy.

Also, don’t forget the family! The children and spouses of active-duty service members and student veterans also have perspectives based on their own set of experiences that can enrich discussion and benefit others.

Still thirsty? Take another SIP of Teaching Military Veterans:

Journal article: "Coming Home to School: Challenges and Strategies for Effective Teaching with Military Veterans"

Institute for Veterans and Military Families: "The Uneasy Civilian: On Campus with Faculty and Student Vets"

San Jose State University: "Teaching Student Veterans"

Go to the MSU Denver Veteran and Military Student Services webpage to find information on admissions and transfer specific to service members, campus and community resources, veteran education benefits, the student-veterans organization and more.

Visit The Well at for more great ideas and resources for Strong Instructional Practices in your higher education classroom!


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