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Helping The Students Who Help Us Most: Bridging the Gap for Students in the Military

Empathy is critical to creating access and support mechanisms designed to serve our learners who serve.
Empathy is critical to creating access and support mechanisms designed to serve our learners who serve.

As college students, active-duty service members face unique challenges. Paramount among them is the possibility of deployment. The need to respond to the call of duty ranges from active combat to disbursement of vaccines and can include periodic training, natural disaster relief and other forms of national defense and support. Furthermore, students actively engaged in military activities might be stationed on ships, in foreign countries or in other situations where they have limited access to the internet, faculty and educational materials. Yet, studies have shown that retention among service members and veterans is on par with traditional college students and at a higher rate than nontraditional students unaffiliated with the military (Cate, 2014; Cate et al., 2017).

While students in the military face challenges related to their individual situations, their instructors face requests that are either unfamiliar to them or bump up against institutional policies. For example, imagine you are the instructor of an online course that attracts adult students, a portion of whom are on active-duty military status. Your syllabus states that students must post and respond in the discussion board at least once per week or they will lose points. A student informs you that they have been called to required field work and will be offline for two weeks. The student requests an exception to the discussion board post policy. How do you respond?

Or imagine that a student in your course is on active duty with the Navy. The student is informed on short notice of a required military engagement that will mean they are unable to access course material for a week or two. However, the institution has a policy that online course material is locked at various times, and the student asks if they can gain access to the material ahead of the schedule. What would you do?

Students who are essential workers often experience similar challenges to active military personnel. Healthcare workers must address overcrowding in hospitals or rapid escalations in pandemic-related illnesses, just like students on active military status who are called to distribute vaccines to fight COVID-19 or assist communities struck by natural disasters. The challenge for faculty and their institutions becomes one of curricular and academic design that offers quality with flexibility, while adequately supporting the students who are also helping their communities and country in times of crisis.

 A recent study explored factors that facilitated retention in online degree programs for active-duty military and veterans (Lesht et al., 2021). Participants—current and former members of the military—underscored the importance of faculty support and understanding when their service requirements meant unexpected absences from courses. In those instances, many faculty grappled with ways to remain fair to all students, considering requirements stated in syllabi and institutional expectations.

Fairness in academic settings is an age-old issue. Student violations of academic integrity continue to cause concern across colleges and universities (Denisova-Schmidt, 2017; Bailey, 2020). If an instructor has had a brush with plagiarism, cheating or outright lying, they can become suspicious, becoming perhaps more uncomfortable making exceptions for things like deployment issues.

Across the country, instructors have been forced to reexamine their course design, syllabi and expectations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As noted by Supiano (2021), instructors have begun to consider new ways for students to demonstrate mastery of course material, so instructors and students have more flexibility in the learning environment.

For instance, required online discussion posts—already documented in the literature as useful only to the extent they encourage authentic, thoughtful and meaningful dialogue between students (Lesht & Schejbal, 2020; Martin & Bollinger, 2018; Swaggerty & Broemmel, 2017)—are being reconsidered. As a result, instructors may find it best to skip that requirement or substitute interaction between students at least once during the semester, where they discuss application of material to actual experiences, share job search strategies or problem-solve, rather than on a rote weekly basis.

Encouraged by the need to teach online, instructors have experimented with course designs that were new to them, albeit not necessarily new to distance education. For example, Pilkington & Hanif (2021) reported on their use of pre-recorded lectures made available to students in advance of the scheduled lecture time, opportunity for tutorial sessions via technology and greater flexibility for students to spend time at their own pace on course materials. The more instructors consider alternative modes to provide instruction prior to crises, the better instructors and institutions will respond during such time.

The expression, “The syllabus is your friend,” is often mentioned in reference to the ways a syllabus can help students navigate a course and its requirements. The expression also applies to faculty. Through thoughtful planning and skillful use of the syllabus, the quagmire of special needs—such as deployment, essential work and other challenges outside of students’ control—can be mitigated or removed altogether. To paraphrase the idiom: “Walk a mile in our students’ shoes” as the syllabus is being constructed. Expectations can include guidance on unique circumstances without jeopardizing course integrity.

In some cases, faculty need help from their institutions. For example, institutional policies can either help address the challenges posed by the life circumstances of active military, essential personnel and others, or they can exacerbate the problem. For example, institutional calendars could be made somewhat flexible or academic requirements can be examined for flexibility while ensuring that academic integrity is preserved. Institutions might also develop reward mechanisms for instructors who take the time to try new teaching methods that encourage nimble course design, delivery and evaluation.

The pandemic put a spotlight on the challenges faced by those directly engaged in helping the public remain healthy and those protecting our nation. The need for innovative, flexible and student-centric course design is important for all students, not only members of the military or essential workers. But the latter groups are most negatively impacted by rigid schedules and course structures that do not allow for flexibility and adjustment. Faculty and institutions will benefit from carefully reviewing their academic processes and policies, as they imagine walking in their students’ shoes.


Bailey, J. (2020). Academic integrity in 2020. Plagiarism Today. Retrieved from

Cate, C.A. (2014). Million Records Project: Research from Student Veterans of America.    Student Veterans of America, Washington, DC.

Cate, C.A., Lyon, J.S., Schmeling, J., & Bogue, B.Y. (2017). National Veteran Education

 Success Tracker: A Report on the Academic Success of Student Veterans Using the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Student Veterans of America, Washington, D.C.

Denisova-Schmidt, E. The challenges of academic integrity in higher education: Current trends and prospects. (2017). CIHE Perspectives, No. 5. The Boston College Center for International Higher Education. Retrieved from,%202017%20No%20cropsFINAL.pdf

Lesht, F. L., & Schejbal, D. (2020). Student perceptions of required student-to-student interactions in online courses. e-mentor, 2 (84), 4 – 12. Retrieved from

Lesht, F. L., Schejbal, D., Chakiris, H., Norwood, E. (2021). Why stay? Factors that encourage

active-duty military and veterans to complete their online degrees. [Manuscript submitted for 

publication]. Excelsior College.

Martin, F., & Bollinger, D. U. (2018). Engagement matters: Students perceptions of the importance of engagement strategies in online learning environments. Online Learning, 22, 205-222. Retrieved from

Pilkington, L. I. and Hanif, M. (2021). An account of strategies and innovations for teaching chemistry during the COVID-19 pandemic. Biochemistry & Molecular Biology Education. Retrieved from

Supiano, B. (2021). The student-centered syllabus: Pandemic conditions have pushed some faculty members to be more flexible—even when that’s a little scary. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

Swaggerty, E. A., & Broemmel, A. D. (2017). Authenticity, relevance, and connectedness: Graduate students’ learning preferences and experiences in an online reading education course. Internet and Higher Education, 32, 80-86. Retrieved from

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