The “hidden curriculum” or “invisible curriculum” refers to the unstated norms, policies, and expectations that students need to know to succeed in higher education but are often not taught explicitly. Your students might not know how to do things that seem quite rote and standard to someone more experienced, like how to:
- read for your class,
- prepare for your class and what to do during and after class,
- take notes in class or as part of their readings,
- read assignment sheets and know disciplinary terminology
- complete assignments or study for exams
- participate in class, including how to interact with their peers for group work,
- ask for help, when to do so, and believe that you want to help them,
- communicate with you about issues they are facing, etc.
The phrase “hidden curriculum” was coined by education scholar Philip W. Jackson in the late 1960s, to name the social, cultural, and institutional expectations, such as those listed above, that are rarely explicitly named, but play a significant role in shaping both students’ experience and their success in the classroom.
Who is affected by it?
People often associate hidden curricula with barriers facing our first-generation students, but it can cause harm to any of our students. Think of, for instance, students whose parents were trained outside of the U.S., who graduated from online programs, or very small institutions or other types of institutions such as community or technical colleges. International students or students from small, rural and/or under-resourced high schools might also be unfamiliar with the norms and expectations of higher education at a large, state school like IU.
Revealing the hidden curriculum
Here are a few strategies for what you can do to help your students:
- Talk to your students about the hidden curriculum and explain what it means.
- Talk to your students about what they know and don’t know and assure them that you are working together, as partners, to help them learn in your class. Creating these lines of communication early in the semester fosters a better learning environment for all students.
- Ask about their needs and concerns, especially as it affects their learning. You can do so through Canvas surveys or by polling students in class using a tool such as TopHat.
- Explain to students what they should be doing before, during, and after class in order to succeed in your course. Share strategies from previous students about how to succeed in your class (survey students at the end of the semester to find out what worked for them, and share, anonymized, these anecdotes with future students).
- Talk to students about how they should read, take notes, study, and complete major assignments in your class. Using a structure such as TiLT (Transparency in Teaching and Learning) can help clarify assignment expectations.
- Collaborate with students to set classroom norms around discussion, group work, assignment deadlines, what to do when they miss class, etc.
- Explain office hours to your students and why they should attend, how they can prepare for office hours, if needed, and how you can help them. We have even seen some instructors shift to calling them “student hours,” to make it clear that students are the focus of that time. Aim to normalize help-seeking behaviors in your class.
- When sharing free on-campus resources, such as CAPS (Counseling and Psychological Services), WTS (Writing Tutorial Services), etc., explain how these services can help them and keep reminding your students of these and other resources throughout the semester, not only at the beginning.
What are IU instructors doing to reveal the hidden curriculum to their students?
Laura Rosche, Lecturer, Kelley School of Business
“A fundamental component of unmasking the hidden curriculum in my classroom begins with asking my students, “What is college for?” When I ask this, I’m almost always met with a series of head-tilts. A few students will look at me with a sense of bemusement, concerned I’m asking them a trick question. Occasionally, there will be a student brave enough to ask, “What do you mean?”
“I mean,” I reply, “What is college for? What are you meant to experience and accomplish here? And why?”
Of course, that most students have not deliberately contemplated this question is unsurprising. When would they have had the time to do so? They worked tirelessly to earn their place in our classrooms. In high school, they were encouraged to pack their schedules with AP classes and extracurricular activities in order to earn college admission. Then, once they get here, their schedules can become so overwhelmed by coursework and clubs and campus jobs that reflecting on the purpose of higher education feels like a time-consuming philosophical exercise few of them can afford. However, depending on where they are in their college career, students are often disappointed to realize that they don’t have an answer to my question, that they’ve never really considered college as something they can be “doing” for reasons beyond simply being expected to.
Therefore, we take time in my classes to do so. I carve out an entire week at the beginning of the semester to address these sorts of inquiries in order to uncover students underlying assumptions about the purpose of pursuing a college degree. We also discuss administrative and faculty beliefs about what college is for and compare it to students’ mindsets. Inevitably, these conversations elicit a range of emotions from students; at certain points they seem apathetic, at others they are cynical and disappointed. Where we end up, though, often feels hopeful. As students discuss the purpose of higher education, they eventually land on something they’re surprised not to have said sooner: that college is for learning.
It makes sense to me that students lose sight of this aspect of college-life, especially in assessment-driven contexts. Raised in a testing-based educational system, many of our students have been conditioned to be concerned more with the grade they earned than the content they learned, making it easy for them to overlook the value of certain course material—and who can blame them if we’ve not done the work of showing them there’s another way to approach their educational experiences?
In my classes, then, we do the work of uncovering the hidden curriculum of higher education by starting from a place of curiosity about what they’re doing in college in the first place, setting a precedent for transparent pedagogical practices that aim to facilitate students’ meaningful and lasting learning throughout the entire semester—and hopefully beyond.”
Megan Murphy, ASURE lecturer, Biology course
“In my ASURE BIOL-X150 course, I use a variety of assignment types, many of which rely on skills that are new to the students. As first-year students, many of them are unsure about what I’m expecting or how to approach these tasks. Each of my assignments is accompanied by an assignment description, designed following the basic principles of the Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TILT) project. In short, each assignment description explains the purpose of the assignment including the learning objectives covered, the task that I am asking them to complete along with basic advice on how I’d approach the assignment, and the criteria that I will use to evaluate the assignment. I apply these somewhat differently for each assignment—the purpose and task sections vary in length quite a bit based on the complexity of the assignment. The important thing is that students have a clear understanding of what I am asking them to do and how they will be assessed. I typically review the basics of assignments in class but much of this material is only available on Canvas. While some students never use the full assignment description, others rely on it heavily. I frequently receive course feedback saying how helpful the detailed descriptions are.”
Kortney Stern, Ph.D. Candidate, English
“I am a first-generation college student. I often felt I was not intelligent or privileged enough to attend college classes, ask questions, or succeed on assignments. Thus, my own personal struggles with “hidden curriculums” undergird much of my teaching. I attempt to tackle this issue before the semester even starts. Once I publish my Canvas course, I e-mail students and explicitly state (using bullet points and quick to read formats) what textbooks they are required to have (if any), what they need to do prior to our first class (if anything), what the first week’s homework is, and I attach the syllabus. I find this helps orient students to the class rather than simply publishing the Canvas course page and expecting or hoping they will read the entire page and understand all of my thoughts, expectations, and policies.
On the first day of class, we discuss what a syllabus is. I find most students, including my freshmen self, do not really know what this document is. Once we cover that, I discuss how it is organized, what I am and am not flexible with, what our agreed upon classroom policies are, and how to read the daily homework schedule (rather than assuming they know how to decode the daily schedule).
I always scan the first two weeks of readings to ensure students have access to all materials. Often, students do not know they need to order textbooks in advance, the bookstore is sold out, or funding has not been secured, etc. I also strive to avoid textbooks if possible and upload files and/or provide open access resources on Canvas. I also strive to avoid textbooks if possible and upload files and/or provide open accesses resources onto Canvas.”
Emily Stratton, Ph.D. Candidate, Religious Studies
Emily shared many useful recommendations. Here are ones you can implement early in the semester:
- Pre-Semester Surveys: Ask about a student’s academic and personal background, experiences, goals, and concerns. Reach out to students at the beginning of the semester and recommend IU resources that seem appropriate for their responses or offer other tips and advice.
- Self-Introductions: Let students get acquainted with you early in the semester, introduce them to campus resources, let them know that there are people all around IU who are rooting for them and invested in their learning, growth, and well-being.
- Invitations to & Reminders About Office Hours: Proactively reach out to students (via email, in assignment feedback, in announcements on Canvas, in in-class announcements), invite them to office hours, give examples of what office hours can be used to accomplish and remind students that it’s time that an instructor has set aside specifically to be a resource to them.
Emily suggests that instructors ask probing questions when students come to office hours with concerns to see what’s at the root of the student’s concerns. You can help students learn how to prepare office hours questions in advance by asking them to bring specific examples from course material, exams, or homework to go over.
- In-Class and Canvas Announcements: Peppered throughout the semester, include announcements about various services around IU—anything from academic support to scholarship opportunities to sources of community-building to mental health and personal support services. Be sure also to ask students to check/show them how to confirm that Announcements get sent directly to their email.
- Assignment Design: Create assignments that help students learn how to read effectively, including recognizing that different genres/mediums require different reading techniques and analytical skills. Many students have not been taught how to read effectively and efficiently in college and treat everything as though it is a textbook where every line must be read and regarded as (the only) truth.
Other tips from these instructors:
- Explain the structure of assignments to your students so that they know how to, for example, compose an essay in your course. Allow them to submit a draft, give them marginal feedback, and allow them to resubmit their work incorporating your feedback. Providing time for peer feedback can also help to significantly improve the overall quality of assignments.
- Collect advice from previous students on how to succeed in your course and share these comments with current students.
To learn more, join us for a coffee hour on Friday, February 3, noon-1:00 pm. Register here for: Unspoken Expectations and Student Success: Revealing the Hidden Curriculum.
References and further reading
- Charlie Tyson. “Hidden Curriculum”. Inside Higher Education, August 4, 2014.
- Marcia Chatelain. “We Must Help First-Generation Students Master Academe’s ‘Hidden Curriculum'”. Chronicle of Higher Education. October 21, 2018.
- Georgetown University’s “Mastering the Hidden Curriculum” course
- TiLT Higher Ed Resources