The Hidden Curriculum: Helping Students Learn the ‘Secret’ Keys to Success

What is the Hidden Curriculum?

The “hidden curriculum” is the set of tacit norms, policies, and expectations in an educational context that insiders expect all students to follow but are often not taught explicitly. The term derives from educational researcher Philip W. Jackson’ Life in Classrooms (1968), in which he contrasts the hidden curriculum with the official curriculum. Although the hidden curriculum is not formally taught in the manner of the official curriculum, students are expected to master both to be successful in their academic pursuits. In practice, the hidden curriculum can include: 

  • How to utilize a syllabus, 
  • How to ask an instructor for help with an assignment, 
  • How to participate in class, 
  • How to take notes on assigned readings, 
  • Or how to study for an exam. 

Unlike traditional curricula, the hidden curriculum is often developed unintentionally. Hidden curricula are created when academic institutions prioritize the experiences of particular groups of students over others. Colleges and universities have predominantly catered to white, non-disabled, middle-class students and over generations have shaped their policies with an expectation that students will matriculate with a common level of prior knowledge to draw upon.  

Because many of the skills within the hidden curriculum are not explicitly taught, students often draw upon the experience of their families or communities for guidance on how to navigate the expectations of higher education. Students who have family or community members who attended college can ask them: What are office hours? Why should I go to them? How do I study? However, this informal advice is not available to all students. Many students do not have familial or previous schooling experiences to draw upon due to a variety of systemic issues, or their educational experience may differ from those they are seeking advice from. Therefore, it is imperative that we as educators work to clarify the implicit norms of higher education and college life for all students. 

Who is impacted by the hidden curriculum?

Maintaining a hidden curriculum negatively affects the learning experience of all students, especially those from multiply marginalized backgrounds. The expectation that students will be able to draw upon the experience of their parents marginalizes first-generation students, as well as students whose parents were trained outside of the U.S. Likewise, international students or students from small, rural and/or under-resourced high schools are less likely to enter higher education with the experiences or skills that those institutions expect them to possess. These students may have experienced an “opportunity gap”, wherein their schools did not have the resources to adequately prepare students for the demands of higher education. For example, many students in underserved high schools may not have had access to Advanced Placement (AP) courses, in contrast to their peers at wealthier high schools who can come into college with multiple semesters worth of college credits. These underserved students can certainly achieve at the same levels as their peers; however, it is the systemic issues inherent in our educational system that prevent them from having had the opportunity to do so, yet. Furthermore, many students with cognitive or intellectual disabilities may have difficulty noticing or interpreting social cues and may struggle to behave in accordance with nonexplicit expectations, such as norms of classroom participation or the etiquette of office hours. 

As an instructor, you can help students of all backgrounds succeed in your course through the implementation of equitable design principles. 

What can I do to promote equity and inclusion in my classroom?

A hidden curriculum persists when students are not explicitly informed of policies and expectations that are necessary for their success in a learning environment. As an instructor, you can reduce the impact of the hidden curriculum by ensuring that your course is inclusive and equitable. 

Craft an Equitable Syllabus

The first step to designing an equitable course is to craft a syllabus that includes inclusive policies and expectations and clearly outlines them to students. You might also consider developing your course policies and expectations with students, which can improve student compliance. This document should provide students with an overview of the course subject, what learning outcomes students should be working to achieve, what assessments will be utilized to determine if they have accomplished those outcomes, and what activities students will practice to develop the skills that will be assessed. Some additional topics to address include: 

  • How should students address you? (For example, as Professor, by your first or last name, etc.) 
  • What, when, and where are your office hours? How can students utilize them? 
  • Where can students go for help in the course? Are there institutional resources that would be helpful for them (such as the writing center)?  
  • What is your course policy on late work? Absences? Technology in the classroom? Extensions? 
  • How should students participate in class?   
  • How are course grades determined? 
  • What resources are available at AU to students in need of academic and non-academic assistance? 

 We recommend consulting CTRL’s guide on Crafting a Course Syllabus (with a downloadable syllabus template) to assist you in developing your syllabus. This template has examples of equitable course policies that you can adapt for your own classroom, or you can work with your students to adapt them!  

Communicate Expectations

Once you have composed a syllabus that provides students with the policies and expectations of your course, your next step is to verbally communicate those policies and expectations during class. For example, closing each class with a review of what assignments you expect them to complete by the next session, even if the same information is on the syllabus, can provide students with an opportunity to ask clarifying questions. Likewise, consistently reminding students of your availability during office hours can reinforce your approachability and increase the likelihood that students who desire assistance will reach out to seek it. 

Design Transparent Assessments 

When designing an assessment, consider what knowledge or skills it is assessing. Many students complain that certain assignments are “busy work,” the implication being that the assignment does not help them to accomplish their learning outcomes. Since your assignments were designed to support your course learning outcomes, be transparent with students about which outcomes the assessment is supporting and how, as doing so can increase students’ engagement. We suggest using the Transparency in Teaching and Learning (TILT) framework to formulate your assignments. In this framework, you describe the purpose of the assignment, the task students are required to complete, and finally the criteria for success.  

Once students know why they are completing an assessment they will need to know how their efforts will be measured. Constructing a rubric for each assessment ensures that students are aware of what they are expected to accomplish to receive a particular grade, which will result in better performances.  

For more information on developing transparent assessments consult the Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TILT) project, which provides a variety of useful resources, including transparent assignment templates 

References and Resources

Crafting a Course Syllabus 

Jackson, Philip Wesley. (1968). Life in Classrooms. Holt, Rinehart and Winston. 

Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TILT) Project