The Art of the Capstone
by Tony Weaver
My colleague Dr. Caroline Ketcham wrote in a recent blog post that the work of creating effective capstone experiences “does matter and will matter to students, faculty, and institutions that are developing and implementing capstone experiences aimed at transformation and transition preparation.” I could not agree more; but, how do we as faculty deliver on the promise of a transformational experience? Parris and Ferren (2013) remind us that although student preparation and willingness to be an active learner is essential, it is “equally important to consider what it takes for more faculty members to be prepared to oversee capstones.”
The question related to the faculty role in providing a high quality capstone experience is quite complex, but it is one that must be addressed. A re-examination of the essence of the capstone experience and the role the capstone should play in the transition of seniors to “life beyond college” is crucial (Levine, 1998, p. 58). The capstone experience is not just another course; rather it is an experience that should be student-centered, driven by connections to past curricular and extra-curricular experiences to produce projects that feature critical analysis, information sharing, and creative solutions (Brown & Benson, 2005; Dunlap, 2005; Redman, 2013). However, designing and presenting a high quality capstone experience creates unique faculty challenges.
The delivery of such an experience can be hindered by high demands on faculty and limited university resources, and as a consequence, often falls short of desired learning goals (Lee, 2014; Redmond, 1998). In many cases, faculty also must learn to develop a different relationship with students throughout the capstone. The professor should be a mentor and guide, helping students integrate the various goals of his/her total education, including lessons from major and non-major courses (Smith, 1998). Faculty who lead these experiences have to provide the freedom for students to take on projects that might not be associated with faculty expertise, leading to a sometimes uncomfortable dynamic. The freedom given to students can generate questions that are difficult to answer and projects that have uncertain outcomes. Faculty who have not been trained to address these questions or be comfortable with the uncertainty of the capstone project can impede the quality of the experience. Thus, guiding capstone-worthy projects for students within the framework of a traditional class environment can become difficult (Mosher, 2014). Brackin, Knudson, Nassersharif, and O’Bannon (2011) suggests that the “process of selecting, managing, and evaluating a successful capstone project remains an art rather than a science.” However, faculty might find their unfamiliar role in the capstone unappealing, so much so that, in some cases, faculty will resist losing control of their classroom (Griffin & Burns-Ardolino, 2013).
Dr. Jillian Kinzie, Associate Director of the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research and the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) Institute and a Center for Engaged Learning Seminar Leader, states, “Higher education is enamored with the concept of high impact practices, including the capstone experience, but the quality of these experiences is not guaranteed.” One way to provide assurances to a high quality experience is to encourage ongoing dialogue with faculty about the “art” of leading a capstone experience. As we embark on the Center’s three-year multi-institutional research seminar on Capstone Experiences, we hope faculty will share their experiences on working in the unusual, yet promising, environment of the capstone experience.
- Brackin, P., Knudson, D., Nassersharif, B., & O’Bannon, D. (2011). Pedagogical implications of project selection in capstone design courses. International Journal of Engineering Education, 27(6), 1164-1173.
- Brown, A. H., & Benson, B. (2005). Making sense of the capstone process: Reflections from the front line. Education, 125 (4), 674-691.
- Dunlap, J.C. (2005). Problem-based learning and self-efficacy: How a capstone course prepares students for a profession. Educational Technology Research and Development, 53 (1), 65-85.
- Griffin, C. & Burns-Ardolino, W. (2013). Designing and implementing an integrative, collaborative, problem-solving-based general education capstone. Peer Review, 15(4). Retrieved from https://www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/designing-and-implementing-integrative-collaborative-problem
- Lee, N. (2014). Challenges and opportunities in assessing the capstone experience in Australia. National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment. Retrieved from https://blogs.illinois.edu/view/915/115701
- Levine, A. (1998). A president’s personal and historical perspective. In J. N. Gardner and G. Van der Veer (Eds.), The senior year experience: Facilitating integration, reflection, closure, and transition (pp. 51-59). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Mosher, G. (2014). Enhancing team based senior capstone projects: Opportunities and challenges. The 2014 ASEE North Midwest Section Conference. Retrieved from https://works.bepress.com/gretchen_mosher/28/
- Parris, D. & Ferren, A. (2013). How students, faculty, and institutions can fulfill the promise of capstones. Peer Review, 15(4). Retrieved from https://www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/how-students-faculty-and-institutions-can-fulfill-promise
- Redmond, M. (1998). Outcomes assessment and the capstone subject in communication. The Southern Communication Journal, 64 (1), 68-75.
- Redman, P. (2013). Going beyond the requirement: The capstone experience. Peer Review 15(4) https://www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/going-beyond-requirement-capstone-experience
- Smith, B. L. (1998). Curricular structures for cumulative learning. In J. N. Gardner and G. Van der Veer (Eds.), The senior year experience: Facilitating integration, reflection, closure, and transition (pp. 81-94). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Tony Weaver is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Sport Management at Elon University. He has been instrumental in the development of several capstone experiences at Elon, including the integration of these experiences into the sport management curriculum, and he serves as a seminar leader for the Center’s 2018-2020 research seminar on Capstone Experiences.