Helping Student Veterans Succeed in the Classroom

Student veterans bring to the college classroom a distinct set of strengths, including a level of maturity, experience with leadership and teamwork, familiarity with diversity, and a mission-focused orientation. While these strengths have the potential to help them succeed academically, many student veterans are also at risk due to unique physical, mental, and social needs.

A 2011 national study published in Professional Psychology: Research and Practice explored the psychological symptoms, symptom severity, and suicide risk of 628 student veterans. The study found that 24 percent of the sample experienced severe depression, 35 percent had severe anxiety, and 36 percent experienced significant symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In addition, 7.7 percent have made an attempt to take their own life and 46 percent said they’ve thought about suicide.

The recent online video seminar From Rucksack to Backpack: Ensuring Student Veteran Success, featured three presenters; all with deep experience working with student veterans and students with disabilities. During the seminar Bruce Kelley, director of the Center for Teaching & Learning at the University of South Dakota, Justin M. Smith, the Fides Program coordinator at the University of South Dakota’s Center for Teaching & Learning, and Ernetta Fox, the director of Disability Services at the University of South Dakota, shared some proven ways you can better serve the veterans in your classroom and at your institution as a whole.

Fox explained how faculty needs to be aware that student veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan often have “signature disabilities” that affect their cognitive abilities. Traumatic brain injury, concussive brain disorder, depression, and pain are common and may manifest as a variety of acquired learning disabilities, including dyslexia, dysnomia, audio or visual processing disorders, reading comprehension difficulties, and short- and long-term memory issues. It’s important to work with the institution’s disability services office to provide the appropriate accommodations that allow students with disabilities an equal opportunity to learn and show what they learned, Fox said.

When designing your courses, Kelley said there are a number of significant factors to consider related to student veterans. In many cases, these things you do to support student veterans will benefit all your students. For example, chain of command is very important in the military. If you teach large classes with TAs, then it’s helpful to explain in the syllabus who students should see if they have a question about a specific assignment, an exam grade, an excused absence, and so on.

In terms of learning activities, Kelley encourages faculty to precisely define criterion by which assignments will be evaluated and to assess frequently—formatively and directly.

“It’s very interesting that best practices in higher education coincide to a very close extent with best practices in the military when it comes to assessment,” said Kelley. “The military puts a lot of thought and a lot of value in assessment. It’s a part of every type of training exercise; and the goal of training and the goal of assessment in the military is to help units and personnel improve. They provide clear goals in terms of what the purpose of the mission or activity is, and we in higher education should do the same. Assessment is frequent and it’s immediate, and that should also happen in higher education.”

Rudd, D., Goulding, J., & Bryan, C. (2011). Student Veterans: A National Survey Exploring Psychological Symptoms and Suicide Risk. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 42(5), 354–360.