Unearthing the hidden curriculum in international classrooms

How educators can help international students navigate the unspoken assumptions, expectations and norms of US higher education

Andrea Feldman's avatar
27 Apr 2023
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University of Colorado Boulder

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Students in my first-year writing courses come from all over the world. They know how to navigate the internet and Blackboard accounts, register for classes, and find the course materials. What they are missing are the unspoken assumptions, expectations, implications and “rules” of US academia.

Taking writing conventions as an example, we need to clearly communicate the rules, which differ across cultures. International students do not necessarily understand what is meant by “paraphrasing”, or the mechanics of how to translate things into their own words. Is using a translating application, like Google Translate, permissible? Is it desirable? Why or why not? What about Grammarly or automatic citation generators?

When I was asked by my international students to explain my own experience with hidden cultural assumptions, I looked back to my experience as a study-abroad junior undergraduate in Seville, Spain.

I had enrolled in a Spanish linguistics course with all native Spanish speakers, except myself. On the first day of class I received an extensive book list and visited every bookstore in the city but could not find one book on the list. Nearly in tears, I went to my professor’s office and told him the problem. The professor explained that the 60-plus students in the class all shared the books and passed them on to one another from one year to the next. And the custom in Spain was for the students to have self-formed study groups, in which I was not included.

He lent me copies of the four or five relevant books I would need in the class. He then told me that I would not be able to discern which parts of the books were crucial to read and understand for the exam, because the ability to derive this implicit knowledge from his lectures required a sophistication of language that only a native Spanish speaker would have. So, he told me explicitly what to read and to study and met with me weekly in office hours to discuss the material so that I could participate on an equal footing in the class.

No doubt this professor went above and beyond many others, but we can at least attempt to emulate this process in our own classes.

Going above and beyond for students

Offer to meet and even ask to meet with students who struggle in your classroom, lending books and materials to them when needed. By going the extra mile for all students, we help them build rapport with us, the instructors, and the entire class. Modelling how to establish a relationship with one professor helps students advocate for themselves in other classes.

Help your international students to find research or internship opportunities. Foreign and first-generation students without college-educated parents or mentors may not know how to navigate the higher education system to engage in these practices. For example, career services offices at most universities can provide individualised help. You could request a career services representative to come to one of your classes.

Practices such as first-year seminars, writing intensive courses, collaborative assignments, undergraduate research and experiential learning in the community help level the playing field for historically underserved students and increase the chances that any student will achieve their educational and personal goals, according to George D. Kuh in his 2008 book on the subject, High-Impact Educational Practices.

Remember that issues not mentioned in the course textbook or syllabus nonetheless influence how well students learn. For example, students can and should connect their classroom learning to their own lives as well as the lives and experiences of people different from them. Educators might address anti-racism, white supremacy, colonisation, and how to critically assess media, while prioritising curiosity towards and empathy for the lived worlds of others.

Impostor syndrome and the notion that the students have to prove they are the “best and the brightest” weigh heavily on many students. There can be pressure to succeed from students’ parents, families or sponsors. The difficulties of navigating being away from home apply to all students but more so for those studying overseas or learning in a second language.

There are cultural differences in the expectations for teacher and student roles. In many cultures, it is common to see teacher-centred classrooms emphasising passive learning, explicit instruction and indirect communication. Students are not used to being asked for their opinion and feel uncomfortable saying anything that contradicts their teacher. Bear in mind that students may also shy away from being critical of the country they are studying in or of their home country. In some cases, criticising their own country could be dangerous or students may perceive that expressing their opinions could be dangerous. Stay sensitive to the possibility that students are sometimes unable or unwilling to discuss or write on a particular topic and allow students the leeway to negotiate their ideas.

Writing in familiar language

Nearly all students – multilingual and first generation especially – struggle to do what David Bartholomae calls “inventing the university”, by which he means understanding and inhabiting the academic community and discourse conventions of the university. When a writer’s syntax falls apart, Bartholomae says, it is likely because the writer is challenging themselves to capture a complex idea, one that goes beyond the students’ normal speech or writing.

In the case of multilingual students writing in English, attempts at academic prose may be only partially formed. They may be taken directly from Google Translate, and not English at all. To combat this, suggest that students write in language that they have heard or spoken or seen before, and that they write for a realistic and specific audience such as a graduate programme, professor or even their parents or a friend.

Asking students, of any background, to write in a new discourse as if they were a member of an academic community (an economist, engineer, psychologist, etc) takes time.

“The writer must get inside a discourse he can only partially imagine,” Bartholomae writes. The conventions of writing include knowing the audience’s assumptions, what is taken as “commonplace”, along with the use of persuasive examples and evidence for that audience.

These conventions are rarely explicit, and so we need to help students understand these tacit conventions – the hidden curriculum that underlies the more visible acquisition of content knowledge.

A bit of empathy goes a long way. By finding ways to know international students and their preferred learning styles, whether through individual appointments, office hours or reflective student writing, faculty will discover new insights into their lives and cultures.

There is a high value in having multilingual students in our classes – a richness of perspective that benefits all students.

Andrea Feldman is a teaching professor of distinction and coordinator for international student services at the University of Colorado Boulder.

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