What are Capstones?
A capstone course is the final course in a program in a student’s chosen field of study. Capstone courses focus on capstone projects which are also sometimes called culminating projects, theses, final exhibitions, or portfolios. More frequently, undergraduate and graduate programs are beginning to include a “culminating and cumulative” experience at the conclusion of their program (Young 2017). The capstone experience is also regularly extended to online degree programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels (Arthur 2015). Regardless of the name chosen by a program, a capstone is the final assessment that synthesizes and demonstrates the culmination of their learning (Schritter 2021). Capstones projects can take many forms depending on the objectives of the program and the field of study. Whether the capstone is a paper, a presentation, a showcase, a portfolio, or a major project, the capstone assessment should require students to apply the most important skills they have acquired over the course of an entire program. Capstone courses don’t often include much direct instruction, instead giving students time to work on their important project with guidance from their instructor and input from their peers.
Why are Capstones Valuable for Adult Learners?
- Persistence: Programs that build to capstone projects can help enrolled students easily track their progress towards their completion goal. If your program selects a capstone that utilizes assessments, projects, objectives, and skills acquired throughout a program, students can “check off” items as they complete them and have a more tangible indication of their progression through a program. Sharing past capstone work from alumni students also showcases the value of the work current students are completing. Students can identify “what’s in it for them.” Kuh (2008) found that student engagement in educationally purposeful activities is positively related to academic outcomes and persistence.
- Skill Building: As students apply skills and knowledge collected over the course of the program to a single project, they can self-identify gaps and work to improve them before entering the workforce. The instructor of the course and their cohort of peers act as valuable sounding boards to ask questions and consider new and creative ideas. It’s helpful to think of the capstone as a “safe, guided space to finish learning” (Schritter 2021).
- Workforce Relevance: Students complete many important projects and assessments throughout their time in a program, but many struggle to identify how these directly apply to their professional lives. Framing your capstone in the context of their professional life post-graduation can help students understand how the work in their program impacts their work in their profession. Capstones can also illustrate acquired skills for a prospective or current employer. According to Devine in 2020, students felt that they were “always working towards an end goal that would not only be a good educational experience, but also a valuable asset to [their] portfolio” (610).
How Can My Program Utilize Capstones?
- Because capstones should represent a student’s culmination of knowledge gained throughout a program, a successful capstone should invite thoughts, ideas, and input from all program faculty. While a single faculty member may lead the design of a capstone, it’s important to check in regularly with members of the department for feedback (Office of Educational Assessment 2020).
Before sitting down to design the capstone project, consider the following:
- What are my program objectives? What assessments or work have students already completed that align with the various program objectives?
- What kinds of artifacts have students created throughout a program that might inform or support the capstone project?
- Will students complete their capstone project individually or in small groups?
- What kinds of jobs are your graduates pursuing after completion of the program? What kinds of work do these jobs complete? Are there any tasks that could be replicated in a capstone?
- Note: It may be helpful to speak with colleagues in the workforce for additional ideas.
Types of Capstones
There is no single type of capstone project as the type of project is dependent on the field of study and the objectives of the program. The list below, adapted from the University of Washington’s recommendations for Capstone Courses, may help program faculty brainstorm the type of capstone that is right for their program.
- Project-Based Model: In this model, the capstone project focuses on an issue in the field of study. The capstone asks students to research in the same area or work on the same problem. In this model, students will most likely produce a paper, presentation, or project around an issue that they study. The faculty member that instructs this model will educate students on the issues, guide their research, and evaluate their work.
- Experiential Model: For this capstone, students participate in internships or another type of experiential learning. Students could either be required to complete the internship in order to complete the capstone, or students could be asked to create an artifact that details their learning and experience. In this type of capstone, the faculty member serves as a mentor while the experiential learning takes place. The internship or experiential learning supervisor also plays a key role in assessing the student’s success
- Independent Study Model: In this model, work on an individual topic or project of their choice. Most often, students will be required to propose a project, review drafts, host regular check-ins with the faculty member, and present or defend their paper, research, or project. In this model, the faculty members available to individual students. Capstones using this model are often graded as pass/fail.
- Portfolio Model: Students in this capstone are required to collect specific artifacts created in their program courses. The artifacts they are asked to collect exemplify achievement of the program’s outcomes as you can see illustrated in the image below. Some programs may ask students to revise some of the artifacts before adding it to their finalized portfolio. In addition to the collection of work, some programs also ask that students add a final item to the collection during the capstone course—a paper, presentation, project, or reflection. The faculty member in this course helps students identify where revisions are needed, gives feedback, and assesses completion.
There is no singular model that can be applied across all fields of study or program levels. The models listed above can serve as a great starting point for the development of a capstone project and course but all of them should be modified to the program outcomes and students’ workforce experiences.
Arthur, D. S., & Newton-Calvert, Z. (2015). Online community-based learning as the practice of freedom: the online capstone experiences at Portland State University. Metropolitan Universities, 26(3), 135–157.
Devine, J. L., Bourgault, K. S., & Schwartz, R. N. (2020). Using the online capstone experience to support authentic learning. Techtrends, 64(4), 606-615. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11528-020-00516-1
Kuh, G. D. (2008). High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Office of Educational Assessment. (2021). Capstone Courses. University of Washington. https://www.washington.edu/assessment/academic-assess/assessment-at-uw/departmental/capstones/
Schritter, T. (2020). Capstone Courses: What and Why. Colleges of Distinction. https://collegesofdistinction.com/advice/capstone-courses-what-and-why/
Young, D. G., Chung, J. K., Hoffman, D. E., & Bronkema, R. (2017). 2016 National Survey of Senior Capstone Experiences: Expanding our understanding of culminating experiences (Research Reports on College Transitions No. 8). Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.