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How Should Professors Treat Military Students in Online Classes?

How Should Professors Treat Military Students in Online Classes?

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Start a transportation and logistics management degree at American Military University.

By Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management, American Military University

Note: This article was originally published on In Military.

I recently received an email from a military student at the start of Week 2 of a class. This student explained that there were several good reasons for missing the first week of class, such as a foot injury, a platoon’s field exercise and a grandmother who recently had a stroke. The student promised to communicate better and work harder in the following weeks of the class.

As an instructor, what would you do with a student who was not in class the first week of the course? You are faced with answering some important questions:

  • Would you let this student catch up on the missed work?
  • Do you give this military student an extension to make up the work during Week 2, which means double work for that student and extra work for the instructor?
  • Do you give the student a zero for Week 1?

Similarities and Differences between Military and Civilian Students

Online colleges can be a bonus for both military and civilian students. Each year, I teach around 500 military and civilian students.

The ratio of military to civilian students in my classes seems to be about 50-50. They are usually in the same age bracket and their reasons for attending college are about the same as well. Some seek a promotion in rank, while other students want a career change.

I have noticed that military students seem to engage in the Week 1 exchange of introductory information more readily than civilian students. These military students might be working onboard a Navy ship off the coast of Japan, in a base camp in Afghanistan, on a base in Germany, or in a cold and snowy outpost in Alaska.

In some cases, these military students are deployed for some special training or assignment while they are taking courses. Most of these military students want to earn their college degree as quickly as possible and improve their opportunities for a second career as a civilian after they leave the service.

All Online Students Need to Work on Time Management Skills

Civilian and military online students both need to work on their time management skills for their studies and scheduled tasks, such as a weekly discussion among classmates and the professor on a relevant topic. Students might also have to write a one- to three-page paper, which requires reading and research.

Online students often have personal or job-related issues that interfere with their time management. Both civilian and military students might have family issues that require their attention. Some students have to go on a business trip or on maneuvers during the course.

All of these scenarios can affect students’ classwork. But military students can be involved in combat training and deployment to hostile areas where school assignments are difficult to complete under the best of circumstances.

An eight-week online class is demanding in terms of time management, research, reading assignments and engagement among students and with the teacher. No student should be given a free pass on the tasks or assignments that are due each week.

However, a combat situation or a long-term military training exercise can result in physical and emotional problems that rarely affect civilian students. While weekly assignments are still due by certain deadlines, their due dates can be extended if need be because of a student’s extenuating circumstances.

For example, should you penalize a student for not being involved in the weekly forum discussion? The answer is yes, but with the circumstances moderating the penalty. The grading rubric is clear on what is expected from students, but the rubric’s requirements should be taken into consideration along with a flexible date for completion.

Working with Military Students Suffering from PTSD

Former APUS vice president for Strategic Initiatives Phil McNair in 2013 published an article on students with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He stated what might be obvious to some, but many others might not be aware of the effects of PTSD on students.

“PTSD is certainly not limited to military and veteran students; this knowledge is useful on many levels,” McNair wrote. “A student may exhibit disruptive behavior in class or with a staff member on the telephone, for example, and a general understanding of how such behavior may be linked to PTSD can be useful for the instructor or staff member.”

McNair called for “a level of empathy and understanding. If the student is a Marine deployed to a combat zone, for example, the teacher should know what that means in regard to the student’s ability to complete coursework and how it may affect his interactions with other students in the class.”

Teaching Online Classes with Compassion

Online teaching today requires some compassion for all students. But military students, who are already sacrificing much for this country, deserve some time management flexibility in their weekly classroom assignments.

That puts additional time management pressure or changes on the teacher as well as on the student. Each instructor of military students and their unique stressful situation must become a coach and mentor to help them succeed and meet their educational goals.

In a subsequent article, McNair spoke directly to students: “If you have been diagnosed with PTSD or suffer from what you believe are PTSD symptoms, you might be concerned about going to college. Will your symptoms interfere with your ability to go to class, or complete your schoolwork? How will other students react if they know you have PTSD? What will happen if your symptoms cause you to act inappropriately, such as in a situation where something happens that reminds you of your traumatic experience? Will your instructor treat you differently if she finds out you have PTSD?”

During my lengthy teaching career, I have sensed a shift from rigid adherence to late assignment policies and harsh grading to a helping hand to our students who are late with their work or have personal or psychological difficulties attending class. The shift is toward a more student-centric and friendlier culture. The teacher has become a coach, counselor and mentor, not just a professor ensuring that all students adhere to a rigid schedule.

A successful college experience that culminates in a graduation ceremony is a wonderful feeling for all students. The ceremony is one of accomplishment of a major goal and is a life-altering event for that student.

In the end, we teachers should not treat military and civilian students differently. But we must have compassion and understand the challenges that our students face, especially if they involve the need to make up missed work.

About the Author

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor at American Military University (AMU). He was the program director of three academic programs: Reverse Logistics Management, Transportation and Logistics Management and Government Contracting. He was Chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Dr. Hedgepeth was the founding Director of the Army’s Artificial Intelligence Center for Logistics.

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