The Hidden Curriculum

The hidden curriculum is a phrase used to cover a wide variety of circumstances at school that can influence learning and affect your experience. Sometimes called the invisible curriculum, it varies by institution and can be thought of as a set of unwritten rules or expectations.

Situation: According to your course outline, your instructor will be lecturing on the chapter that covers the stock market crash of 1929 on Tuesday of next week. This sounds pretty straightforward: your instructor lectures on a topic and you will be there to hear it. However, there are some unwritten rules, or a hidden curriculum, that are not likely to be communicated. Can you guess what they may be?

  • What is an unwritten rule about what you should be doing before attending class?
  • What is an unwritten rule about what you should be doing in class?
  • What is an unwritten rule about what you should be doing after class?
  • What is an unwritten rule if you are absent from that class?

Some of your answers could have included the following:

Before class:

  • read the assigned chapter;
  • take notes;
  • record any questions about the reading.

During class:

  • take detailed notes;
  • ask critical thinking or clarifying questions;
  • avoid distractions;
  • bring the textbook and reading notes.

After class:

  • reorganize notes in relation to class notes;
  • start studying by testing yourself on the material;
  • make an appointment with your instructor if you are not clear on a concept.

Absent from class:

  • communicate with the instructor;
  • get notes from a classmate;
  • make sure you did not miss anything important in your notes.

The expectations before, during, and after class, as well as what you should do if you miss class, are often unspoken because many instructors assume you’re already aware of these expectations or should figure them out on your own. Some students struggle at first because they don’t know about these habits, behaviours, and strategies. But once they learn them, they are able to meet them with ease.

Working Within the Hidden Curriculum

The first step in dealing with the hidden curriculum is to recognize it and understand how it can influence your learning. After any specific situation has been identified, the next step is to figure out how to work around the circumstances to either take advantage of any benefits or to remove any roadblocks. To illustrate this, below are two strategies to work within the hidden curriculum.

Prevailing opinions: Simply put, you are going to encounter instructors and learning activities that you sometimes agree with and sometimes disagree with. The key is to learn from them regardless. In either case, take ownership of your learning and even make an effort to learn about other perspectives, even if it is only for your own education on the matter. There is no better time to expose yourself to other opinions and philosophies than in college. In fact, many would say that this is a significant part of the college experience. With a growth mindset, it is easy to view everything as a learning opportunity.

Classroom circumstances: These kinds of circumstances often require a more structured approach to turn the situation to your advantage, but they also usually have the most obvious solutions. In the example of a large class, you might find yourself limited in the ability to participate in classroom discussions because there are so many other students. The way around that would be to speak to several classmates and create your own discussion group. You could set up a time to meet, or you could take a different route by using technology such as an online discussion board, a video call session, or even a group text. Several of the technology-based solutions might even be better than an in-class discussion since you do not all have to be present at the same time. The discussion can be something that occurs all week long, giving everyone the time to think through their ideas and responses.

Again, the main point is to first spot those things in the hidden curriculum that might put your learning at a disadvantage and devise a solution that either reduces the negative impact or even becomes a learning advantage.


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