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12 September 2022

‘What even is a seminar?!’ Reflections on the hidden curriculum of higher education


Dr Madeleine Pownall

Lecturer in Psychology, University of Leeds

Across the sector, we are gearing up for another academic year. Tis the season of finalising lecture slides, calibrating timetables, and preparing for the incoming new and returning cohorts of students.

I always love this time of year. There’s a real sense of anxious excitement in the (campus) air, which makes it the perfect opportunity for a bit of reflecting on practice. This is my first academic year as a full-time lecturer and so I can relate to the anticipation of incoming first-year students in a very real way. This has prompted me to reflect on transitions, more generally.


Student transitions to university can be a tricky period of adjustment, expectation management and exploration. Some students arrive at university with bags of cultural and academic capital, ready to get stuck into degree-level learning. However, for others (perhaps the majority) this process of acclimatisation takes more time and can be slow and often frustrating. Academic and support staff play an essential role during these early weeks - to guide, reassure and settle students into this new and sometimes confusing world of academia.


In the literature, there is a lot of useful pedagogical research, policy and guidance that centres around facilitating supportive transitions to university (including my own: Pownall et al., 2021). Very often, this research focuses on factors that influence university transitions, interventions to aid belonging at university, and guidance on establishing welcoming norms and practices. Across the sector in Fresher’s Week, for example, we run induction talks, set up buddying systems and host social mixers. There is a real focus during these early weeks on ‘welcome’ and belonging. However, irrespective of these efforts, we also know that some students continue to feel a sense of ‘misfit’ towards university culture. Why is this?


I’d like to tell a brief story that opened my eyes to approaching student transitions a little differently. A few years ago, a first-year undergraduate student visited my office to chat about her progress. She wasn’t feeling a great sense of belonging and was struggling to get to grips with her academic studies. We chatted through her grades, her approach to studying and her friendships on the course. During our discussion, I asked how she was finding the small-group seminar classes, put on to support academic skill development. ‘Right…’ she said, abruptly, ‘I’m not being funny, but what even is a seminar?!’. This question stopped me in my tracks. Following our conversation, I combed through our induction materials, welcome packs and academic expectations documents, trying to locate where we tell students, explicitly, what a ‘seminar’ actually is. I couldn’t find it.


This got me thinking: if we don’t equip students with access to the language of higher education, how can we expect them to participate fully and meaningfully within it?


In response to this, with colleagues in the University of Leeds School of Psychology, Dr Pam Birtill and Dr Richard Harris, we set about working with QAA to unpack the ‘unspoken rules’ or ‘hidden curriculum’ of university. We each had similar stories of ‘How do I…?’ or ‘What even is…?’ questions from students and wanted to create something that would offer students quick and meaningful answers.


We produced the Student Guide to the Hidden Curriculum with QAA, a shareable resource for students that aims to unpack the terminology of higher education in an accessible, helpful way. More recently, we followed this up with a version for staff too, Unpacking your Hidden Curriculum: A Guide for Educators, encouraging other educators to think about where these moments of ‘What even is…?’ might exist, and how best to overcome them.


These guides both aim to improve students’ access to the hidden rules of higher education, in an attempt to reduce barriers to student belonging. That is, if all students have a guide that tells them, in broad terms, how to make sense of the terminology of university, they should all have a better chance of navigating the transition to university successfully.


The positive response to these resources has made it clear that sometimes the solutions (or, at least, a solution) for improving the student experience and facilitating transitions can be simpler to implement than we might think. And, often, the solutions are clear - if we are prepared to really listen to what students are telling us.


You can find out more about the development and evaluation of the student guide, how to make use of the new guide for staff, and what comes next in the latest QAA Membership Podcast.