A photo of Claire smiling

When university has been part of your life, it is easy to forget what a closed shop some of the language can be. 

5 min read

Acronyms and ‘eduspeak’ make up many conversations, without realising that for those students coming to higher education for the first time (maybe the first generation from their family to do so), much of what we take for granted is confusing.

Students may also be joining us from different national or cultural contexts and find it difficult to understand the terms we are so familiar with. There may also be staff joining who are equally baffled by the terminology used around higher education, and may be just as afraid to ask.

Student guide to the hidden curriculum

The QAA has produced a booklet explaining much of the terminology that a new student may come across in their first few weeks and months of studying. It is split into six sections:

This practical, student-facing resource is aimed at new students starting university. Anticipating the sort of questions students might have as they start to navigate university life, the guide has been created to help explain some of the terminology and expressions they are likely to encounter and help them settle in at their chosen institution.

Download PDF


University life

In university life, personal tutor and office hours are explained, along with the different types of staff who may teach them. For freshers, an explanation of what that actually means is given, as well as what they will become as they move through their higher education career. They are also given pointers to other groups who can help represent their needs, such as course reps and student unions, and societies where they can go to meet people. Our BAME/PGM students can also rely on the help of the PGM Ambassadors during their time at university.

Support services

Support services range from the practical, such as IT and librarians, to other areas of individual support. In the University of Portsmouth’s case, disability services (known as ASDAC) and mental or physical health aid (Health and wellbeing). The administration of the course is often an area of confusion for students, so an explanation of what The MyPort Hub can do and how to access it is a vital piece of information. In a cost-of-living crisis, it is also important to signpost students effectively to housing and financial help.

Terms such as “wellbeing”, for example, may not be familiar to students as it is not a concept in their culture or there may not be the equivalent terminology in their language or culture.

Student Guide to the Hidden Curriculum

This resource was commissioned by QAA Membership and produced by Dr Pam Birtill, Dr Richard Harris and Madeleine Pownall at the University of Leeds. It was originally published in August 2021 and expanded in May 2022.


Teaching and learning

Teaching and learning can be one area that students are embarrassed to ask about, but may be the most baffling. What is a module and why is it core or optional? What is a credit and how many do I need? The difference between lectures, seminars, workshops and tutorials is often one not even considered. Levels can also be confusing – level 4 is first year, level 5, second, and level 6, the final undergraduate year. Level 7 is the beginning of the post-grad journey.


Assessment and feedback

This is also true for assessment and feedback, which often operates very differently to that of their school or FE college, not least the very strict deadline system. Students are often confused when told to apply for extenuating circumstances and time should be taken to explain exactly what they are and how the process works. Grade boundaries and how work is marked takes a little explanation and understanding. It is worth remembering that for the first year at least, never assume students understand Turnitin, marking schemes or plagiarism

It is also important that academic misconduct and its ramifications are fully understood. This may be more of a challenge for students on shorter courses such as a one-year Masters where there is not the time to get used to the terms and concepts commonly used around academic integrity.


Academic life

Academic life means helping students to understand what peer review, journal articles and PhDs are. Many first timers may have heard of these as a concept, but have no idea what they are or how to achieve them.


Good study behaviours

Good study behaviours are a positive to be promoted and students helped to adjust to a far more independent way of studying. Taking notes, reading suggested chapters, critical thinking and academic writing can all too often be taken for granted.

It is important for academics and other staff to be reflective and look at the language they are using. Are we putting up barriers to learning through the language we use? Now could be the time to try to take them down.

Claire Perry and Alana Holland, members of the SSG at the University of Portsmouth.


Authors: Claire Perry and Alana Holland are members of the Student Success Group at the University of Portsmouth.