The hidden curriculum is the implicit (unwritten, unofficial and often unintended) ideas, values, and perspectives that are embedded in the spaces, objects, practices and social structures of formal education settings.
The hidden curriculum can potentially affect both students and staff in higher education in the following ways:
- Assumptions that teaching staff make about previous educational experiences and/or cultural capital (i.e. knowledge and formational experiences outside of formal education) can negatively impact students who don’t fit the lecturer’s assumptions (while also further affirming to students who do that their experiences make them ‘right’ or better).
- The prevalence of certain demographic groups in certain subject areas can ‘teach’ students where they belong and where they don’t.
- Academic practices such as the favouring of some assessment methods over others indicate to students that some skills, which are often peripheral to understanding content (e.g. structuring writing to fit a certain essay style; writing non-stop under exam conditions) are more highly valued than their own skills, or indeed skills that are needed in many workplaces.
- Universities’ cultural norms (e.g. clothing, food, college rituals, deference to academic staff, religious overtones, etc.) also demonstrate to students certain values that are held by the institution—the university which ultimately will be granting or denying them their academic credentials.
Best Practice Tips
The first step in addressing the hidden curriculum is to be aware of its existence and to begin to recognise it in specific contexts. This could include:
- Practices that can be addressed on a local level: e.g. expectations about academic discourse, about the staff-student relationship and about how students will approach university study can be communicated to students directly. Crucially, students who do not arrive with past experiences that have sufficiently prepared them for these expectations need to know how they can get help in meeting them. Equally important, however, is the regular, critical evaluation of these practices once recognised—it may be that the institution and staff need to learn to change rather than the students. Some examples would be: diversifying assessment to include different methods as well as different forms of discourse; presenting academic staff to students as guides in learning rather than as ‘gatekeeper’ markers; helping students to reflect on their learning journey throughout their course.
- Hidden curricula that require action on an institutional, national or international scale: deeply embedded societal norms that could have negative impacts on students (e.g. gender and ethnic underrepresentation) cannot be overturned overnight, but neither should they be ignored. Individual staff members and institutions can engage their students in ongoing discussions (and research) into the causes and consequences of contemporary issues that affect students’ perception of their place in university and beyond. Some examples would be: discussing which texts are considered to be canonical and which are not; starting a conversation about departmental culture and whom it might include or exclude; interviewing individual students about their university experiences; ensuring that images/examples/case studies are inclusive.