The Invisible Curriculum 

I.  Definition of Training Piece

  1. Purpose for Instructor
    Instructors are competent in their subject area. One question being discussed in the media, at teaching conferences, and by society in general centers around teaching values in the classroom. Should we teach values? How should we teach them? Are we being judgmental if we teach our values? How do we assure that we present material in such a way as to remain open to new ideas? According to John Dewey in Experience and Education, "Perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a person learns only the particular things he is studying at the time. Collateral learning in the way of formation of enduring attitudes, of likes and dislikes, may be and often is much more important than the spelling lesson or lesson in geography, or history that is learned. For these attitudes are fundamentally what count in the future." Collateral learning is the invisible curriculum.

    By the end of this module you will be able to identify seven domains of influence that occur in the invisible curriculum according to Dr. Skip Downing (On Course, 2nd ed. Houghton Mifflin).

  2. Material Covered
    This module will introduce you to the seven domains of influence. It will present some of the research supporting collateral learning, otherwise known as the invisible curriculum (that which we teach while teaching content matter), and it will offer several practical applications which can be used in any course.

II.  Foundation

A.  Definition of Concept and Theory

There are different ways to help students learn to be successful. According to Dr. Skip Downing, there are 7 choices successful students make. They are:

  1. Accepting personal responsibility,
  2. Discovering a motivating purpose, characterized by meaningful goals and dreams,
  3. Consistently planning and taking effective actions in pursuing their goals,
  4. Building mutually supportive relationships that assist them in pursuing their goals,
  5. Maximizing learning by finding lessons in every experience they have,
  6. Actively creating a positive experience of life, and
  7. Believing in themselves.

By using the following seven domains of influence in our teaching, we can help students become successful and make wise choices.

  1. Classroom Rules
  2. Classroom activities
  3. Modeling
  4. Homework assignments
  5. Classroom environment
  6. Programs and Curricula
  7. Feedback and evaluation

Methods illustrating how to use the seven domains will be discussed later.

B.  Summary of Relevant Research

According to Peter Sacks in Generation X Goes to College: An Eye-Opening Account of Teaching in Postmodern America, many students are unachieving, highly demanding, and bored. For a minimum of effort, they want A's and B's. He goes on to say that Generation X students want desperately to believe in something but seem to distrust almost everything. Dr. Downing would disagree, indicating that students can be helped to make wise choices that lead to self-responsibility, self-management, self-motivation, and self-esteem.

Mandy Grantz, in an article entitled "Locus of Control and Its Impact on Education," indicates that one variable of achievement for college students is an internal locus of control (in other words, students believing that they have an impact on the event in their lives). Students who believe that their successes and failures are due to outside controls, such as luck or fate, have an external locus of control and tend not to succeed. Belief systems, then, often create a self-fulfilling prophecy about academic outcomes and may or may not correspond to actual ability.

According to Paul R. Pintrich and Dale H. Schunk, Motivation in Education, teacher feedback (one of the seven domains of influence) is another form of motivation and self-responsibility. Teachers who give students corrective feedback in such a way as to encourage them help substantiate the students' initial sense of ability to learn. Students need to be in a comfortable environment in order to accept challenges and succeed (Johnmarshall Reeve, Motivating Others). Johnmarshall also says that as instructors, we have two markedly different approaches to motivate achievement and excellence in our students. One approach calls for more discipline, longer hours, fixed curricula, and higher educational standards. This assumes that motivation comes from without, and that students must have an external locus of control. An alternative approach is to support students' motivation from within. The attempt is to encourage students to move away from the dependence on teachers toward an increased capacity for self-regulation in which the students accept personal responsibility for learning, generating motivation from within, and an internal locus of control. According to Thomas H. Huxley, it is essential to develop inner motivational resources among our students in addition to teaching the 3 R's.

III.  Benefits

  1. Instructor
    If you believe as Peter Sacks in Generation X Goes to College, that our students lack motivation and want something for very little work, and you want to help them to change so that they exhibit the seven characteristics of successful students (Definition of Concept and Theory), then using some of the exercises to develop materials in the seven domains of influence as classroom teachers will help. If you already believe that successful students do exhibit the characteristics described by Dr. Downing, then these suggestions will be helpful to you.
  2. Student
    The activities in this module will help students to take more responsibility for their actions, develop an internal locus of control, and have a greater self-awareness of their own abilities.

IV.  Implementation

A.  Exploration Exercises for Instructor

Below is a chart, which requires you to find an activity, which you may use in your classes that fit one of the seven domains of influence (the seven domains refer to areas which we as teachers can make a difference in helping students become more responsible for their lives. We use academic material to teach the invisible curriculum). (This chart was developed by Dr. Skip Downing)


TO CREATE ONE OR MORE OF THESE MOTIVATING OUTCOMES AND EXPERIENCES... ... CHANGE ONE OR MORE OF THE SEVEN DOMAINS OF INFUENCE: Activities, Assignments, Feedback, Modeling, Environment, Policies, Programs and Curricula
Accept personal responsibility 
Discover a motivating purpose 
Consistently plan and take effective actions 
Build mutually supportive relationships 
Maximize learning by finding lessons in experiences you have 
Actively create a positive experience of life 
Believe in themselves 

For example, in a science class in order to create an environment (one of the seven domains of influence) which was comfortable for student success, what activity could you use to help students build mutually supportive relationships for working in the course?

Calling Cards: (good in a lecture setting) Have students put their names on 3X5 cards and collect the calling cards. Further, assign each student to a discussion partner. At strategic points in the class/lecture, ask a question. Discussion partners are to think of the answer for 60 seconds (doesn't take too much time from class), then discuss their answer and write one collaborative answer, assigning to their answer how sure they are about the accuracy of the answer (e.g. 20% sure, 85% sure). Select a calling card at random, and have the person's group read their team's answer (with the % of assurance). Then continue asking other teams to further clarify. The idea is to create competency without the pressure of one person being put on the spot. The exercise, when used often, builds supportive relationships in the class while creating a comfortable environment for the students.

Now do the same for the other characteristics and domains.

B.  Student Exercises

1.  One wonderful way to help students to take responsibility for themselves is through the use of case studies. Below is a case study that can be used in a writing class. At the same time you give a writing assignment, the invisible curriculum is at work.

(This case study was created by Dr. Skip Downing and can be found in On Course, the second edition, published by Houghton Mifflin.)


PROFESSOR FREUD announced in her syllabus for Psychology 101 that final term papers had to be in her hands by noon on December 18. No student, she emphasized, would pass the course without a completed term paper turned in on time. As the semester drew to a close, KIM had an "A" average in Professor Freud's psychology class, and she began researching her term paper with excitement.

ARNOLD, Kim's husband, felt threatened that he had only a high school diploma while his wife was getting close to her college degree. Arnold worked at a bakery, and his co-worker PHILIP began teasing that Kim would soon dump Arnold for a college guy. That's when Arnold started accusing Kim of having an affair and demanding she drop out of college. She told Arnold he was being ridiculous. In fact, she said, a young man in her history class had asked her out, but she had refused. Instead of feeling better, Arnold became even angrier. With Philip continuing to provoke him, Arnold became sure Kim was having an affair, and he began telling her every day that she was stupid and would never get a degree.

Despite the tension at home, Kim finished her psychology term paper the day before it was due. Since Arnold had hidden the car keys, she decided to take the bus to the college and turn in her psychology paper a day early. While she was waiting for the bus, CINDY, one of Kim's psychology classmates, drove up and invited Kim to join her and some other students for an end-of-semester celebration. Kim told Cindy she was on her way to turn in her term paper, and Cindy promised she'd make sure Kim got it in on time. "I deserve some fun," Kim decided, and hopped into the car. The celebration went long into the night. Kim kept asking Cindy to take her home, but Cindy kept saying, "Don't be such a bore. Have another drink." When Cindy finally took Kim home it was 4:30 in the morning. She sighed with relief when she found that Arnold had already fallen asleep.

When Kim woke up, it was 11:30, just 30 minutes until her term paper was due. She could make it to the college in time by car, so she shook Arnold and begged him to drive her. He just snapped, "Oh sure, you stay out all night with your college friends. Then, I'm supposed to get up on my day off and drive you all over town. Forget it." "At least give me the keys," she said, but Arnold merely rolled over and went back to sleep. Panicked, Kim called Professor Freud's office and told MARY the secretary that she was having car trouble. "Don't worry," Mary assured Kim, "I'm sure Professor Freud won't care if your paper's a little late. Just be sure to have it here before she leaves at 1:00." Relieved, Kim decided not to wake Arnold again; instead, she took the bus.

At 12:15, Kim walked into Professor Freud's office with her term paper. Professor Freud said, "Sorry, Kim, you're 15 minutes late." She refused to accept Kim's term paper and gave Kim an "F" for the course.

Listed below are the characters in this story. Rank them in order of their responsibility for Kim's failing grade in Psychology 101. Give a different score to each character. Be prepared to explain your choices.

Most responsible < 1   2   3   4   5   6 > Least responsible

_____ Professor Freud, the teacher_____Philip, Arnold's co-worker
_____ Kim, the psychology student_____Cindy, Kim's classmate
_____ Arnold, Kim's husband_____Mary, Prof. Freud's Secretary


Have students read the case study (it is a good idea to have them read the study in a round robin format so that you are sure everyone has read the case study and is finished reading at the same time). Then instruct the students to choose who in the case study is most responsible for Kim's failing grade. Have students raise their hands to signify their votes for each of the characters... who is the most responsible, the least, and so on. Have a short discussion about the choices, and then ask students to logically defend, in a journal entry, or an essay, why they chose who they did for the most responsible and the least responsible. While there is no "right" answer, through discussion, you begin to see who views their life from an internal focus of control and who from an external focus of control.

(You can write your own case studies to use in any course. For example, you could use a current event that deals with chemistry and write a case study for your students in which they can discuss the concerns of chemical usage in the article. Recently, there has been a great deal of publicity about Parkinson's Disease since Michael J. Fox's disclosure. At the same time there has been some research that indicates individuals who have used pesticides and herbicides are more likely to get Parkinson's. A case study about the use of pesticides will spark conversation about responsibility, will encourage supportive relations in class, and will give some real life connection to the course and life.

C.  Skill Connection

  1. Effective Conferencing Skills: Conferencing is one method that helps students understand that their ideas are important and valued. To create conferences that engage students, visit the Effective Conferencing Skills module.
  2. Integrating Technology: One way to create a classroom environment that values technology and collaborative learning is to use a computer lab. For examples of collaborative technology activities, visit the Integrating Technology module.

V.  Frequently asked questions

Q: Students aren't motivated. They don't study; they don't read. How can I make them do those things in my classroom?
A: What is actually being said is that students do not do what you think is important. Students need to be motivated intrinsically. Telling students what is important has not worked. Finding ways to shows students the importance of the curriculum can be successful.

Q: I cannot take time from my lecture to play games with my students. They should want to come to college to learn. Why should I entertain the?
A: Once again, the answer has to do with extrinsic motivation vs. intrinsic motivation, and "showing " students, instead of telling them, what is important. If your method is not achieving the results you want, it might be helpful to try something new.

VI.  Helpful Resources
Research regarding Locus of Control
Examples of rubrics for assessment and feedback.
Ice breakers to encourage comfortable classroom environment.
Material about the seven domains of influence and other information regarding student success.

Workshop Information to attend a workshop on this topic or bring one to your campus, visit this site or call Faculty Training at (800) 856-5727.