The Hidden University Curriculum

By Daniel M. Choi
Lecture Hall

Image: Seth Sawyers/Flickr

Korean pop music was the last thing I expected to greet me when I walked into lab at 6:30 in the morning. MK, my undergraduate student, was blaring 2NE1’s “Ugly” through speakers as she moved from the microscope to the incubator to store our fruit flies. I glanced into our shared office space, and noted MK’s bag half-open with a laptop corner sticking out, resting on a fleece blanket folded carefully next to a cushion. Narrowing my eyes, I stuck my head back into the adjacent fly room.

“Another all-nighter?” I shouted over the angsty chorus of Just like her, I wanna be pretty, I wanna be pretty

“Had a paper due,” she said after dialing the speaker volume down and greeting me with a high-five.

As we sat together in the lab, I couldn’t help but peek into the contents of her backpack as she rummaged through it next to me. In addition to her laptop and napping blanket, she shuffled out a tablet, dental floss and mouthwash, ginger-covered almonds, a banged up water bottle, an impressive collection of lip balms and hand lotions, deodorant, spray-on shampoo, and a tightly rolled sweater, not to mention her course readings and a ream of notes and problem sets. She pulled out the hairbrush she was looking for and explained that this paper has been eating away at her life, and that she hasn’t been back to her dorm room in the past two days. MK had always joked that she could contain her entire life in her backpack, but I was struck by the truth of her off-hand comment as she pulled the items out of her bag.

While to an outside observer, it may seem like nothing but a hodgepodge of amenities belonging to a twenty-one-year-old woman, I see MK’s bag as evidence of the variegated journeys she has to make on a daily basis through college life. At any point in time, MK has to negotiate classes, recitation sessions, club duties, a work-study shift at the library, and her senior research project with me. Her bag holds only a portion of what she needs each day, and its contents change depending on what’s on her schedule, where she has to be, and whom she has to interact with. The obligations of a college student are just as diverse as MK’s belongings, and one can only hope there’s a method to the madness.

This is a key problem I wrestle with as an educator. Despite the fact that I’m still a graduate student, having entered my program directly after graduating from college, I’ve nonetheless felt a keen disconnect with how college students manage their lives on campus. I meet with students on a daily basis, be it as a preceptor leading a discussion or workshopping a senior thesis in the writing center. These students spend at most a couple hours with me; most of them I may never see again as they disappear into the cacophony of social events and academic deadlines.

While the classroom and its coursework may be the formal curriculum that a student is tasked to master, there is far more hidden learning occurring beyond its borders.

In an age of rising tuition and diminished public funding, there is a vociferous debate on the aims of higher education, along with how to structure the American university to efficiently deliver these goals. Yet missing in all the brawling is the perspective of the student, and how the student actually encounters these aims. The national discussion on educational policy and pedagogy has been frustratingly reductive in its characterization of the college student, as the focus on typifying a college student within the borders of an idealized classroom provides only a limited view on improving college education. If we are to have a productive discussion about educational reform grounded in what empirically occurs on college campuses, we need to see college students not just as receivers of knowledge or consumers of services, but as autonomous agents navigating a complex environment. This begins by looking beyond the classroom, the most atavistic image of learning and the traditional focus of educational research. While the classroom, and by extension, coursework, may be the formal curriculum that a student is tasked to master, there is far more hidden learning occurring beyond its borders.

Education theorists have recognized the body of knowledge separate from what is listed in syllabi and course readings as a “hidden curriculum” embedded in every aspect of the student’s life. According to Gerard Bergenhenegouwen, a sociologist of education at the University of Amsterdam, “[t]he hidden curriculum in university can be described as the whole of informal and implicit demands of study and study achievements that are to be met for someone to complete units of study. The teachers’ informal demands are made partly consciously and partly unconsciously. The students are not explicitly taught how to meet these demands; at first they have no idea at all, but gradually find out about them by feeling, by trial and error and failing exams.”

How do students meet their teachers’ unspoken expectations, which can be as simple as how to take useful lecture notes or as complicated as how to receive Institutional Review Board approval for research projects? The very implicit nature of the hidden curriculum requires students to struggle with the unspoken academic standards independently of their instructors. Students are expected to master these lessons by learning how to manage the resources provided to them, or even how to procure the necessary resources, which requires them to navigate through a matrix of time, space, and institutional relationships. In fact, learning how to manage resources beyond the instructor is itself indeed part of the hidden curriculum. These complexities are not incidental to education, but are part of it, and the numerous structures beyond academic departments simultaneously form and explicate to students the processes, morés, and ideologies entrenched in university education.


Image: UBC Library/Flickr

One of the first hidden lessons college students learn is that time is a precious commodity. Often, their methods of time management can seem counterintuitive, even shocking. When asked if she went to class the previous day, MK simply rolled her eyes. “My prof’s idea of lecture is simply reading off PowerPoint slides. They cram everything into the slides and pretty much recite them verbatim. I’m much better off studying the slides on my own,” she said. She recounted pulling off an A- in a microeconomics course by simply reading the lecture notes; she used the allotted lecture time for that class to debug code for her research project.

Truancy is a feature of college life, notes Cathy Small, an anthropologist at Northern Arizona University. Writing under the pseudonym Rebekah Nathan, Small undertook an ethnographic study of college students by enrolling in her institution as a freshman. Examining a large lecture class, she saw that on an average given day, a class would be attended by 56 percent of its registered students. In My Freshman Year, she recalls that she received positive reactions from other students when she ditched her own classes. Small writes, “Moderate cutting was part of college culture, and it marked me as one of them, as someone who understood the value of self-determination combined with a touch of rebellion.” She is careful to emphasize the word moderate, as she understands class-cutting to be a tool for time management, especially when course grades are not tied to attendance.

“The great majority of students see elective social activities and interpersonal relationships as the main context for learning.”

This cavalier attitude towards the classroom highlights one of the key problems of college education: how do students expect to learn course material if they see instruction, particularly lectures, as a secondary consideration? Educational researchers have developed an entire field of study devoted to increasing “student engagement” in classrooms. From student-centered learning paradigms to real-time analytics platforms, classroom disruption, so to speak, is the rally call in the fight against student apathy. Yet this direction in educational research overlooks a significant fact in its zeal to win student attention: time works differently for a college student. Unlike in high school, where students are in class for six solid hours a day, college students are in class half that amount in fragments scattered from morning to evening. An ambitious student may take five, perhaps six classes each academic term, lecture classes meeting maybe three times a week for around an hour, seminar classes at most twice a week for an hour-and-a-half to a max of three. High school students are a captive audience in a tightly held-space. College students are free-moving bodies, shuffling from appointment to appointment asynchronously.

Small’s fieldwork also reveals that while college students view their experience as primarily educational, “classes, and work related to classes, were a minor part of what they were learning.” When asked about how much learning students receive from class-related materials in interviews and surveys, Small reports that students claim 65 percent of learning occurs outside of classes and class-related activities. She concludes that the “great majority of students saw elective social activities and interpersonal relationships as the main context for learning.”

This dismissive attitude towards the formal curriculum has been a sore point for many in the world of higher education. Richard Arum, a sociologist and education specialist at New York University, and Josipa Roksa, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, investigated student study practices and learning outcomes, and published their findings in a fiery jeremiad, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. Using the College Learning Assessment (CLA) to measure academic skill gains—such as critical thinking or analytic reasoning—they bemoan that less than half of the students studied “demonstrated any significant improvement in learning” over their four years in college. They also found that students spend, on average, twelve to fourteen hours studying a week, and half of them don’t take courses that require more than twenty pages of writing.

These numbers can be corroborated in the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). According to the 2013-2014 dataset, 57 percent of college freshmen and 56 percent of seniors study 15 hours or less a week, putting the median somewhere around 6 to 10 hours a week. What else could students possibly be doing? The median number of weekly hours for extra-curricular activities is at 1 to 6 for both freshmen and seniors, and 6 to 10 for socializing. So while students on average spend less than 15 hours a week studying, this is equal to, not smaller than, the number of hours spent socializing and far greater than how many are spent on extra-curricular activities, which Arum and Roksa argue have become the dominant features of college life. It is also important to remember that these figures do not include time spent in the classroom itself, along with independent research projects or other co-curricular activities.

What do college students do all day, then? The University of Rochester River Campus Libraries investigated this problem in a multidimensional study of undergraduate student behavior, Studying Students: The Undergraduate Research Project. One of their sub-projects involved asking students to record a map diary, indicating where they were on a campus map at regular intervals during the day and what they were doing at each location. Their biggest finding was that there was no discernible pattern that describes an average day. Students do much more than classes: they work in laboratories, attend discussion sections, work on- and off-campus for pay, and engage in physical exercise, sometimes for several hours. They are highly scheduled, always on the run, and rarely eat regular meals, choosing to snack instead at odd hours. Even if they tend to stay on campus all day, students crisscross all over it, covering the entire university grounds.

Image: At Harvard University, Andrey Gatash/Flickr (edited)

Image: At Harvard University, Andrey Gatash/Flickr (edited)

On top of managing time and navigating the campus as a physical space, students find themselves daily negotiating an intricate network of relationships, both formal and informal. Academic advisors help students plan out their formal program of study. Trained tutors at learning and writing centers introduce students to learning strategies and metacognitive tools. Student life administrators counsel students who are finding difficulties adjusting to college life or are victims of sexual assault. Diversity and inclusion officers reach out to students from non-traditional backgrounds, offering them guidance on racial or sexual issues. Faculty are not the only “adults” college students interact with, as an entire apparatus of trained professionals, all too frequently demonized in the popular press as “administrative bloat,” work to support students through their years in college.

Small herself relied on these non-academic officers at the beginning of her first semester as a freshman. Overscheduled, she found herself attending official workshops on scheduling strategies and stress reduction techniques. There, in clinics reminiscent of corporate negotiations training, she learned how to “manage” her professors with tactics such as sitting within the “reverse T” (front row and the center aisle of the room) and asking pointed questions.

With heaps of academic and extracurricular programming broadcasted on a daily basis, students are burned out by the barrage of choices, and eventually tune out.

Many of these examples from Small’s fieldwork echo what I see on my own campus. Orientation programs at the beginning of the year are a blur of panels and breakout groups covering everything from Title IX to a capella performances. As a writing center fellow, I’ve organized informal workshop series throughout the year on academic writing for English Language Learners and the peculiarities of American Academic English. I’ve designed programming focusing on topics like how to read a textbook within a specific discipline and techniques to break writer’s block. I myself have participated in a lot of informal learning events, including a candid discussion group for graduate students on how to deal with difficult advising professors. The breadth of coverage and the intensity of these workshops rival those of my academic courses taken as both an undergrad and grad student, and I’ve experienced first-hand the immense benefits of such programs.

However, there is a cost to the complexity of the hidden curriculum. With heaps of academic and extracurricular programming broadcasted on a daily basis, students are burned out by the barrage of choices, and eventually “tune out,” as Small notes. This apathy amongst students to the formal and informal structures of the university paints a troubling picture of alienation on college campuses. Small locates this crisis of social disintegration in the tension between student individualism and a broader university community. Drawing on Robert Putnam’s seminal work on American community, Bowling Alone, Small argues that the conflict between local and global identities is magnified in college. “The proliferation of event choices, together with the consistent message to ‘get involved,’ and the ever available option of dropping out, creates a self-contradictory system,” she writes. “Students are confronted with an endless slate of activities vying for their time. […] Each decision to join something new pulls at another commitment, fragmenting the whole even further. Not only people but also community are spread thin.”

Fragmentation by the demands of the hidden curriculum occurs not only at the community level, but also at the academic level. Instructors, many of whom are also research professors, have little opportunity to coordinate with one another, and they construct the deadlines of their courses independently, depending on the demands of their scholarship. Courses are also supported with teaching assistants and additional instructional staff who run the laboratory portion of the class or discussion sections. Therefore, for a single class, a student may be dealing the expectations of more than three different individuals, and multiplied by four courses, a student reports to anywhere between four to twelve figures every academic term. Students have broken down in tears during my writing conferences, overwhelmed by their efforts to appease the standards and idiosyncrasies of their different instructors. Coupled with their numerous extracurricular, vocational, and social demands, it is not at all hard to see how the unfathomable complexity of the hidden curriculum sends college students into a well of crushing anomie.

Wonderlane/Flickr (edited)

Wonderlane/Flickr (edited)

The broader discourse on college education has picked up on the varieties of college experience, and the discussions have centered on the need to limit what are seen as “distractions” from education. Scholars like Arum and Roksa champion the curtailing of what they believe to be ancillary programs that do not contribute to classroom learning. Such ideas have also caught the attention of entrepreneurs and education reform advocates who have brewed up new solutions to the sclerotic institution that is the university.

One notable venture is the Minerva Project, an accredited university that has stripped away the “middlemen” bureaucrats, providing a completely (closed) online platform of intensive seminars modeled after those found in the most prestigious liberal arts colleges. Unlike a traditional residential college, or even a brick-and-mortar commuter college, the administrative staff is minimal, and there are no facilities except for dormitories, leaving students dependent on the local community for their extracurricular activities and social support. By reducing the university to a virtual classroom, armed with the latest findings in cognitive psychology and cutting away the exorbitant complexities of the hidden curriculum, Minerva offers a compelling vision of college education, at once both classical in its intimacy and utilitarian in its delivery. Can projects like Minerva push the 65 percent of learning outside of classrooms through its streamlined digital pipeline?

Perhaps that’s exactly the wrong question to ask. There is something inherently valuable in an organic hidden curriculum that students only receive by wrestling with it in their imperfect ways. The implicit nature of the hidden curriculum demands student engagement, regardless of whether students ultimately get it or not. Minerva certainly has laudable goals in its unflinching embrace of best pedagogical practices, but its focus on transforming only the classroom ignores the rich lessons provided by the complex infrastructure of the modern university. While it is worth asking whether it is necessary for a university to provide that education, as opposed to the “real world,” an undeniable advantage of a university setting is the in-built support structure that allows students to truly experiment with their skills, ideas, and visions. Call it coddling if you must, but the hidden curriculum shapes the university into a safe space in the sense that students can openly explore innovative and at times dangerous ideas in a laboratory environment that will guide them through the process of developing such discoveries into a usable tool—themselves.

MK noted that she learned a lot so far in college despite her education. The demands of the hidden curriculum, not to mention the official curriculum, are harsh. College students are stretched thin, and constantly exhausted. But perhaps that is precisely why MK learns, or at least why she must learn, as her education models the world outside the campus gates. Building on Small’s invocation of Putnam in her analysis of college communities, I see the modern university reflecting the schizophrenic demands of modern life. A college is as labyrinthine as a multinational corporation or even a nation-state, and every office is a faction engaged in constant bidding wars for attention, capital, and resources, for better or for worse.

The paradoxical nature of the hidden curriculum is that students must simultaneously embrace it and reject it.

Of course, such a reflection of modernity is not without its critics. In the September issue of Harpers Magazine, William Deresiewicz, former Yale professor and author of last year’s widely publicized Excellent Sheep, argues that universities, particularly elite colleges, have become factories of neoliberalism, gutting the moral aims of inculcating an informed citizenry and instead churning out “leaders” who cherish “service” and “creativity” as defined by the market. This is indeed a convincing argument, as the hidden curriculum expresses and also generates the implicit ideology of a university. If universities are merely corporate firms replicating future CEOs and white-collar professionals to the drumbeat of career outcomes, the hidden curriculum may be to blame for swallowing the last outposts of scholarly inquiry.

Nonetheless, I’m a bit more optimistic than he is about how students will turn out. He is right to point out the troubling prominence of careerism and the commercial framework that atomize students into consumers. Yet where he and I diverge is precisely at how students will receive this indoctrination. “Students rarely get the chance to question and reflect anymore—not about their own lives, and certainly not about the world,” he writes. “The historical mission of youth is no longer desirable or even conceivable. The world is not going to change, so we don’t need young people to imagine how it might.” The cult of Reagan and the Thatcherite catechism may very well be the lessons the hidden curriculum is teaching our college students. But based on the fieldwork conducted by ethnographers like Small and the Rochester team, we must ask how many students would simply submit to accepting the received wisdom. Would Deresiewicz think that MK would passively accept her fate as a future Iron Lady, even though MK is unabashedly Irish?

The paradoxical nature of the hidden curriculum is that students must simultaneously embrace it and reject it. They are confronted with it. They struggle with it. They challenge it. They ignore it; they abuse it; they accept it. As for educators and policymakers, by unveiling the hidden curriculum, we are afforded a clear vantage point for effective higher education reforms and an opportunity to interrogate the ideologies at the heart of university education.

This process has already begun by addressing diversity at elite colleges. Anthony Abraham Jack, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Harvard, notes in his New York Times opinion the disparity in college life adjustment between the “privileged poor”—students who have graduated from private high schools—and other lower-income students coming from the same socioeconomic background at elite colleges. Those afforded an opportunity to attend an elite high school have been exposed to the hidden curriculum, and he points to the value of pre-semester programs that help students orient themselves in their new environment.

Khristina Gonzalez heads one of these summer programs at Princeton University. An Associate Dean in the Office of the College and the Director of Programs for Access and Inclusion, she has led the Freshman Scholars Institute (FSI) this past July and August, a seven-week immersive program for incoming freshmen who have not benefited from similar enrichment programs from their high schools. Dean Gonzalez explains that she designed FSI as a means of revealing the hidden curriculum, and also as an avenue to challenge it at the most fundamental level. She is particularly annoyed at Deresiewicz’ arguments. “What he doesn’t understand,” she says, “is that these very structures like the Writing Center or McGraw [Princeton’s teaching and learning center] are the very places in which we combat neoliberalism. We’re all about fighting instrumentalism. We don’t give students answers! We simply ask, ‘What do you think?’” She argues that the goal of the hidden curriculum isn’t about content knowledge or providing a checklist of skills; it’s about empowering the students with an awareness of their own intellectual interests and building their own communities of learning, however they may be organized. It’s about knowing what students do and why they do it. That’s what all of this “academic bloat” is for, Gonzalez explains. “It has to be about the students.”

Small concludes her work in a similar vein, turning the popular discourse on its head, advocating the student as teacher: “In looking beyond the local details of the incidents just recounted, I find that they are illustrative of a point relevant for all universities: the need to tie university services and policy, more directly to student culture. Educational policy, I believe, cannot afford to rely on inaccurate or idealized versions of what students are, and student issues should be analyzed with a fuller understanding of how they are embedded in student culture.”

Student culture and indeed universities as a whole constitute a far more nuanced reality than reductive discourses on pedagogy, budgets, or ideology. The complexity of the modern university has made it all too easy to forget about the fundamentally phenomenological nature of education. By bringing our attention to these varieties of hidden college experiences, by interrogating the curriculum hidden in students’ lives, we can reorient the discussions on higher education reform towards the complete education of college students.

DMCHOI_HeadShotDaniel M. Choi is an associate editor at The Brooklyn Quarterly and a graduate student at Princeton University. His research focuses on quantitative methods of describing animal behavior. His professional interests also include science and technical communication, higher education, and interdisciplinary pedagogy. You can follow him on Twitter @dmh_choi.

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