Guest Post: Uncovering the Hidden Curriculum? Embedding academic literacies in an undergraduate social sciences degree

Today’s guest post is by Dr Jenny Morrison from University of Glasgow

Academics increasingly recognise that we need to teach students the academic literacies we want them to have. While traditionally courses have focused on disciplinary content, students have often been left to work out how to research ideas, become discerners of information or write essays and other assignments by themselves. Such implicit expectations form the ‘hidden curriculum’ which particularly disadvantages students from ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds who often have had fewer opportunities and support to learn the norms and practices of academic writing. Nonetheless, despite increasing discussion of teaching academic literacies, the practicalities of embedding these in a context of massified higher education remains underexplored.

Academic literacies

The academic literacies approach acknowledges learning occurs in a broader social context. Rather than a generic hidden curriculum, any new member of an academic community must learn to communicate effectively within the specific expected norms of their discipline. Therefore, academic literacies must be embedded within disciplinary contexts, should target all students (not only ‘struggling’ students) and should not assume students will access outside support – i.e. not outsource academic literacies to a ‘skills module’ disconnected from discipline specific content.

Learning the language of a new discipline is iterative and requires explicit teaching throughout the degree programme. Students should be carefully scaffolded to learn the disciplinary norms we want them to have and these should be a regular feature of classroom discussion. Such scaffolding typically involves teaching literacies through practical activities, recognising the need for ongoing repetition of skills and for repeated personalised feedback to clarify expectations. Additionally, activities should highlight the purpose of the academic skills with links between disciplinary content, skills and assessment to develop their capacity as autonomous critical learners.

Embedding Academic Literacies in a First-Year Curriculum

This blog is a reflection on my experience embedding academic literacies within the first-year curriculum of a social science undergraduate degree at a Scottish Russell Group university. I was employed specifically for this role and had the support of student learning support who actively promoted embedding skills in local disciplinary contexts. Scottish undergraduate degrees are flexible with first-year students taking their degree subject but also two other subjects – with students able to switch their degree subject until the end of their second year. Consequently, first-year courses have a majority of students who do not intend to take the subject as their degree. The first-year course had almost 600 students at its peak and was taught via three weekly lectures and one weekly tutorial. The challenge, therefore, was to provide the iterative, scaffolded skills practice with regular feedback without substantively changing the teaching format or over-burdening the teaching team, most of whom are precariously employed PhD candidates.

Consequently, the curriculum was redesigned in three ways: firstly, a series of induction videos were created outlining expectations of studying the discipline at university. These are being redesigned with more interactive elements for the coming year. Students were asked to watch one video a week as part of their tutorial preparation for the first five weeks to provide a tapered introduction to academic skills.

Secondly, tutorial teachers were provided with a set lesson plan for the first four tutorials which involved practicing a core skill outlined in the videos e.g. how to find further (appropriate) information on a topic covered in class or how to break-down and understand key piece of reading. These activities drew on their disciplinary reading and also provided ongoing feedback and clarity from classroom tutors on the academic skill of the week.

Thirdly, 15% of the summative assessment of the course was a series of peer review exercises. Student were asked to submit short written pieces that would form part of their final assessment such as the introduction for their essay or a paragraph of critical analysis of a topic for which they were given written guidance on expectations. They were then required to provide feedback on two of their peers’ submissions. The 15% was awarded for participation and the submissions were not judged on quality. Regular teacher feedback on written submissions would have created impossible workloads for our tutors. Nonetheless, peer review helped students clarify assessment expectations and receive regular feedback on assessments in a very low-stakes environment helping them link their learning to the final assignment.

Looking forward?

Our project is ongoing but student feedback so far has been broadly positive with students reporting the tutorials and exercises were helpful in understanding the expectations of study and of assessments for the course. The following are key three lessons from our first year.

Bring the teaching team with you: We initially found some newer tutorial teachers ignored skills-based lesson plans because they either didn’t see it as important or saw it as outside their expertise. This echoes literature which highlights academic resistance to teaching academic literacies because it is seen as beyond our responsibility. We have subsequently brought the teaching team into curriculum review discussions with experienced tutors taking a leading role in communicating why literacies were important and supporting newer tutors to develop their skills to teach students skills.

Avoid pedagogical and other jargon: A colleague recorded an induction video which covered imposter syndrome with the intention of helping students understand they were not alone if they felt overwhelmed at university. This led to an onslaught of nervous questions about why none of their reading covered the concept and if it would be covered in the exam. Sometimes more pedagogically aware teachers are most at risk of using jargon because they are immersed in SoTL literature. However, students do not need to know SoTL to become literate in their disciplines and we risk causing anxiety to often already overwhelmed students starting out in their studies.

All learning is iterative: Recently a colleague commented ‘I feel like we failed’ after marking the first-year final assessments. The phrase ‘hidden curriculum’ can risk implying we can simply pull off a cover to reveal a hoard of information that students will then ‘know’. Yet, becoming academically literate is as iterative as any other learning process – making our expectations explicit and providing ongoing feedback on assessment norms is valuable but students will not instantly receive much improved grades. Embedding academic literacies in first-year has been worthwhile but they should be embedded through all levels of a degree programme – which would also allow us to expand and build in course specific literacies particularly in a context where institutions are beginning to encourage assessments beyond the traditional essay or exam.

3 Replies to “Guest Post: Uncovering the Hidden Curriculum? Embedding academic literacies in an undergraduate social sciences degree”

  1. Thanks so much for this great post, Jenny – I think we are going to be talking more and more about how to ‘unhide’ the hidden curriculum and I really love your thought that we don’t just whip off the ‘cloak’ and have done, but that it is iterative and needs to be embedded throughout the whole degree programme. I’d be very interested to know more about two things:

    1. It’s really interesting that some of the teaching team saw teaching academic literacies as unimportant or not within their skillset. Where do you think those messages are coming from and combat that?
    2. I was also really intrigued by the idea that when you read the initial work, you felt you might have ‘failed’. What was going on in that work and will you make any tweaks for the future on the basis of what didn’t go well?

  2. Great questions Cathy:

    1. There were a few different points raised: (a) simply being anxious at trying something new (b) some new staff had anxieties that they had never marked assignments and so were uncertain of expectations themselves (c) some colleagues feel our role is to teach disciplinary content as this is our expertise while we have student support staff who are experts in academic literacies and are better placed to teach these. In all cases supporting and training staff to feel more comfortable is key – much work on academic literacies emphasises it is a mutual learning experience for educators and students alike.

    2. This feeling was due to the fact that student assignments appeared to have the same type of ‘problems’ that we saw in student assignments before we embedded academic literacies. There was a sense that our efforts had made no difference to student research or writing. We’ve made minor changes, such as making videos more interactive – as an issue was some students just didn’t watch them. However, mostly I emphasise that we shouldn’t think of teaching academic literacies as a magic bullet. There is often an unspoken expectation that we will see great increases in grades or other ‘objective’ metrics. This is why I stress that we need to understand all learning as iterative and not seeing immediate changes in student assignments doesn’t mean it is a waste of time. Instead, we hope that we clarified some aspects of academia for some students – who with ongoing practice through their assignments will find their academic experience less overwhelming and confusing.

  3. Thanks so much for your reply, Jenny. This makes a lot of sense. I’d be very interested to hear what you do next year and whether down the line you feel that you and your team, too, have iteratively got better at teaching academic literacies. I think it is a very hard thing to teach and forces us to notice the things that we don’t ourselves know ‘how we know’, so probably we also improve at it over time?!

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