defining, characterizing, and assessing as a high impact practice in a multi-institutional research context

Capstone experiences are used by institutions and departments across higher education. They are often identified as a high impact culminating experience for student outcomes. But what exactly is a capstone experience? There seems to be little consensus or consistency in defining, characterizing, evaluating, or assessing capstone experiences. Furthermore, how much do these experiences depend on the context of the institution and the student characteristics and goals?

Colleagues at Elon, at both the institutional and departmental levels, have grappled with defining a capstone experience and identifying what constitutes a capstone experience. The conversation has led to discussions of what these actually are in their literal sense. Because sometimes pictures say a thousand words, we look at the architectural definition, quickly realizing that maybe this can help us give some common language to an experience or set of experiences we value in higher education. Does the goal of capstone experiences align with what a ‘capstone’ actually is (namely a stone or stones at the top of a structure)?  Would a better term for some experiences be keystone (the stone that is the peak of an arch) or cornerstone (foundational to the structure about to be built)? Obviously this analogy and terminology could get out of control, but there is some valuable food for thought.

Image by Caroline J. Ketcham

We (faculty) do have a need to both identify what the characteristics and goals of a successful capstone experience are, and then effectively translate these to our students who are the primary stakeholders of this experience. Is it a singular or multi-stoned cap to their college experience? Does this keystone experience help distribute the weight of their educational experiences to multiple stones in their lives or serve as the essential piece to their disciplinary experience? Or does it serve as a foundational cornerstone to their emerging professional life and require significant reflection, integration, and goal setting?

We are excited to explore this topic in depth with colleagues near and far over the next few years as part of a CEL seminar on High Impact Capstone Experiences. Did we peak your interest? Make your blood boil? Perhaps you are interested in joining the conversation and engaging in a multi-institutional research opportunity.  Stay-tuned for more information regarding this opportunity.

This summer we will begin an evidence-based conversation of high impact capstone experiences and set the stage for a multi-year, multi-institutional research journey to address some of the ‘gaps’ in knowledge if you will around capstone experiences. While we want our students’ college experience to culminate in a deliverable package that showcases lessons learned and attracts them to careers and/or graduate programs, we also want to provide a structure that will withstand decades of changes they will face in their professional lives.

Caroline Ketcham is professor of exercise science and chair of the Exercise Science Department at Elon University. She has taught disciplinary and interdisciplinary capstone courses, supervised internships, and mentored undergraduate research experiences.

Tony Weaver is chair and associate professor of the Department of Sport Management at Elon University. He has taught disciplinary and interdisciplinary capstone courses, supervised internships, and mentored capstone projects by undergraduate leadership fellows.

How to cite this post:

Ketcham, Caroline and Tony Weaver. 2017, August 7. ‘Capstone’ Experience in Higher Education. [Blog Post]. Retrieved from