Helping Students Navigate the Hidden Curriculum in College STEM Courses

By Usha Rao, PhD

The “hidden curriculum” refers to a series of unspoken social, cultural, and educational norms in academic settings. This tacit curriculum underlies institutional and faculty beliefs and expectations about what constitutes typical student behavior, experiences, and prior knowledge. Such expectations are not explicitly verbalized by the faculty but can profoundly influence and limit the academic outcomes and career aspirations of women and minority students.

Examples include knowing how to skillfully read a syllabus, use office hours for extra help, or dress for a professional event. These norms are generally known to students who enter higher educational institutions with the social capital to understand how college works and how to successfully navigate the system. Students from underrepresented groups in STEM often struggle to learn these unspoken academic norms and find mentors who can ease the transition. As a result, these students can become shut out of opportunities.

Many underrepresented minorities already face significant obstacles in obtaining higher education and entering STEM majors. The existence of a hidden curriculum exacerbates the barriers created by the primarily homogeneous environment of STEM fields. The dearth of relatable role models and mentors for women and other minorities, and the hypercompetitive, individualistic approaches encouraged in some STEM courses can create an unwelcoming environment. An instructor’s assumptions about socioeconomic status, gender, race, disability, and other factors, whether transmitted intentionally or unintentionally, can contribute to student self-doubt and a lack of sense of belonging which can then lead to lower levels of engagement or rejection of STEM fields. Conversely, as the standard bearers and gatekeepers to the professions, welcoming and intentional teachers send the message that all interested students belong in STEM classrooms and careers.

Teaching the hidden curriculum should become a routine part of our pedagogical practice in order to improve the retention of women and minorities in STEM. Some programs such as University of Michigan’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences are piloting 1-credit courses to teach the hidden curriculum, but these are not yet the norm.

Here I offer some strategies for teaching the hidden curriculum and helping students navigate the academic labyrinth so that we can create a more welcoming environment in STEM and reduce systemic barriers to success.

1. Demystify the curriculum.

The syllabus is the contract between the professor and students that sets the tone for the entire semester. It is essential to walk students through the syllabus and classroom norms on the first day of a course. Not all students will arrive on campus knowing how to extract meaningful information from the syllabus or understand the unspoken rules governing classroom behavior. If you expect students to come to class on time and to be attentive throughout the class period because that will help them lay a solid foundation for the course, this should be communicated on the syllabus, stated on the first day of class, and reiterated as needed. If you are flexible around homework deadlines and plan to offer no-penalty extensions if needed, this should be shared at the start of the course as well. This kind of clear communication around expectations helps students develop a sense of the norms to which they will be held.

It is important throughout the semester to be explicit about the connections between different courses, topics within a course, and between individual lectures. This kind of structure and reiteration helps all students develop a framework of understanding for college work and begin to see their educational path laid out in front of them.

2. Provide clarity and scaffolding.

A concrete structure and an organized course design can significantly improve learning outcomes for all students, especially in first and second year STEM classes, which are notorious for being “weed-out” classes for minorities. By ensuring that every lecture is well-planned, well-executed, and the course design promotes students’ construction, organization, and mastery of knowledge, professors can increase access in their courses.

If your course is primarily lecture-driven, it is important to teach an interactive class and vary the pace of the lecture to retain student attention for the entire class period. This may include student work, either individually or in groups, or quick, ungraded questions where students can test their comprehension of a new topic. By learning all student names and engaging students directly, a teacher can help retain student interest and personalize even a large lecture class. It is also important to check in regularly with students for comprehension and solicit feedback on the pace, asking if students need clarification or additional examples. This has the additional benefit of sending the message that you are responsive to student needs and are approachable.

3. Foster a sense of belonging.

All students need to feel like they belong, and that the faculty cares about their well-being – this is especially true of those who are unsure of their welcome on a college campus or in STEM courses. Trust is the foundation for a good learning experience. Even struggling students can often rise to the challenge of a rigorous class by having a positive relationship with a professor they believe to be invested in their success. A teacher can go to class early and linger afterwards to chat with students about classwork and their campus lives, as this can encourage students to seek help during office hours.

Dr. Tandeka Boko, Assistant Professor of Life Sciences at Forsyth Technical Community College, regularly begins class with self-care check-ins. She reports that this practice “helps to calm and center [students’] minds, by either acknowledging personal distractions that can hinder full attention to content learning or by improving their mood when they think about something with gratitude.” Practices such as this send a message to students that the professor is invested in their holistic selves and experiences.

4. Model and encourage a growth mindset.

Underrepresented students may need to be shown how to recover after a setback, as a failure can trigger imposter syndrome and other unwanted emotions. Faculty members must teach students how to set realistic goals, monitor their progress, and take pride in their achievements. Professors can normalize the use of resources such as tutoring, teaching assistants, and study groups by reiterating their availability and by emphasizing that seeking help is a success strategy and not a sign of weakness.

A teacher can encourage students to embrace a growth mindset by talking to them about the struggles faced in their own academic journeys, so that students can recognize the common, time-delimited, and fixable nature of such struggles. Teachers should make a practice of studying something that does not come naturally, to sustain a lifelong learner mindset and remind themselves of the struggles that are inherent in the learning process. This helps a teacher experience and model the growth mindset they wish to see in their students.

5. Teach the soft skills.

Many students, especially in the COVID-19 era, are entering college not knowing how to manage their time, energy, or stress levels; communicate professionally with teachers; or study for different types of classes. Currently, fewer students are college-ready in the ways that professors expect. Providing study or time management tips on your course website or in class is an example of how you can help students build missing soft skills. A student who sends an awkward email may need gentle guidance in framing a better letter, for instance, when asking for a recommendation. Helping students develop metacognition skills so that they analyze their class performance, such as through exam wrappers, can also make a difference.

Many students, especially in the COVID-19 era, are entering college not knowing how to manage their time, energy, or stress levels; communicate professionally with teachers; or study for different types of classes.

6. Be the connector.

Faculty members know how their disciplines and institutions work. Sharing your advice on finding research opportunities and internships, interviewing, and building meaningful relationships with the faculty can level the playing field for all students, including those who are still finding their way in an educational setting. Minority students in particular struggle to find guidance on postcollege career planning, so an invested faculty member can make a difference here. If your campus has a learning resources office or specific program for first-generation or low-income students, you could connect your students with these staff for additional one-on-one support.

7. Recognize that you cannot help every student.

It is easy to become discouraged or even cynical when students do not respond to your teaching. Students may be facing financial stresses, family situations, or medical conditions including depression and anxiety that create a lack of motivation that goes beyond your classroom. Since academia is a profession at risk of burnout on par with the healthcare fields, especially for women and minority faculty members in untenured positions, teachers must find the balance between caring for students and practicing self-care. It is important to recognize that not every student is currently able to accept your help. Sometimes all you can do for a particular student is to crack open a door for the next teacher to walk through. Inclusive classrooms are built not in isolation but in community with other teachers. This realization helps you work diligently to make STEM classes and careers more accessible to underrepresented students without experiencing burnout yourself.

Dr. Usha RaoDr. Usha Rao is a professor of environmental chemistry at Saint Joseph’s University where she co-developed the John P. McNulty Program for Leadership in Science and Mathematics. Since 2009, this initiative has supported 130 gifted undergraduate women with scholarships, peer and faculty mentoring, research funding, and leadership development. She also created the University’s first Office of Teaching and Learning to provide training and resources to hundreds of faculty members each year. She has received the AWIS Zenith award for lifetime achievement, the AWISPhiladelphia Bingham mentoring award, and the Christian R. and Mary F. Lindback medal for distinguished university teaching. 

This article was originally published in AWIS Magazine. Join AWIS to access the full issue of AWIS Magazine and more member benefits.