Skip to main content Skip to main content

On the CAESS

Supporting first-gen students through the hidden curriculum of college.

By Sam Borrego and Kristy Lyons, Ph.D., on behalf of the CAESS

January 20, 2021

Attendees at First-Gen Student Dinner posing with props.As a new semester begins, faculty members are focused on setting students up for success. One of the student groups to consider in this planning is first-gen students (who make up more than half of the student population at Metropolitan State University of Denver). For many first-generation students, navigating the “hidden curriculum” is one of the most challenging aspects of the journey to graduation.

The hidden curriculum is the informal, nonexplicit, covert expectations or norms set in your class. Often, the hidden curriculum can be identified by thinking about the things you get frustrated with. For example, have you had a student address you by your first name or Mr./Miss/Mrs./Ms. (but you go by Dr. Last Name)? Or have you had a student ask you a question that you clearly wrote the answer to in the syllabus? These are examples of not understanding the hidden curriculum.

We often make the assumption that students know how to communicate in college settings. However, the truth is, many don’t. First-gen students do not have parents who can guide them through the college process or explain to them that they should look at the syllabus for the late-work policy or visit office hours to talk to your professor when you have a question. First-gen students are navigating your class and the college system on their own, and the best way you can support them is to explain each expectation to them explicitly and give gentle reminders throughout the semester.

Reviewing the syllabus is a good way to set the tone for students that you are open to questions and will be patient with them as they learn to navigate the complexities of higher education and your class. When you introduce the syllabus, don’t just tell them to look through it but teach them how to use it. Share how important this resource is for their success. Be prepared to reiterate key points from the syllabus at relevant points in the semester.

Many of our students are still learning how to be college students. By clearly explaining our expectations and how to meet them, we can support the learning of all students in our classes so that everyone has the chance to succeed.

To learn more about supporting first-gen students in your classes, check out

Topics: First-gen, First-generation, Student Success

Edit this page