The hidden curriculum: Engaging students on another level

This post is republished from Into Practice, a biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

NickelBernhard Nickel, Professor of Philosophy, engages students in his introductory College courses about the “hidden curriculum”—defined here as the social and disciplinary norms often invisible to both students and the teaching staff, including expectations about class preparation, in-session focus, respectful discussion behavior, and the role of feedback.

The benefits: Addressing the hidden curriculum explicitly in class surfaces and dispels student assumptions about conduct (for example, concerns that discussing a paper with the instructor during office hours is cheating) that often cause poor academic performance but cannot be solved with narrowly academic feedback. 

The challenges: “There is a very healthy amount of skepticism about whether the instructor really means what they say about course expectations” on a syllabus, Nickel says. Credibly addressing students’ ingrained habits and attitudes requires consistent messaging and careful curriculum planning: “All assignments, feedback, and course communication need to be aligned with the hidden curriculum.”

Takeaways and best practices:

  • Role reversal reinforces understanding. Demonstrating the objectivity in grading humanities assignments is harder than in courses with problem sets and solutions. Nickel asks his students to grade anonymous papers from previous courses using his rubric to help them understand how they are evaluated.
  • Verbal, visual cues matter. Nickel provides an in-class sign-up sheet to convey that office hours are part of the course, and “not this ancillary thing that happens.” He no longer dons suits to lecture, in order to appear more accessible to students. His grading and feedback rubric is organized in “Dimensions of Excellence” rather than “criteria.”
  • The curriculum can be collaborative. In smaller courses, he develops a contract with students by asking them to provide their collective goals anonymously in a shared document. This open approach can reveal learning preferences of which he would otherwise be unaware. 

Bottom line: Nickel says he did not study a theory of pedagogy in graduate school, and subscribed to the popular notion that good teaching was only about being a content expert and having charisma. “I learned week one that is just wrong—there is so much skill that can be taught in teaching, especially in teaching novices and communicating expectations.”