Peer Review

Culminating a College Education While Fostering Civic Agency

Two decades ago, a group of Portland State University faculty began an intentional process to reform the institution’s general education curriculum. To study in depth how college students learn best, the faculty task force attended national conferences on trends in higher education and emerging pedagogies, including community-based learning. Through this process, faculty became open to abandoning the model of general education as a series of isolated courses and moving to one based on coherence for students. The result was an innovative curricular approach to general education spanning all four years of the college experience that positions civic engagement, application, and integration as central tenets. This reform brought Portland State into the era of University Studies, a nationally recognized general education program. The culminating required course of this curriculum is the senior capstone.

Capstones at Portland State University: An Exemplar in Pedagogy, Scale, and Scope

Portland State University’s capstone is a six-credit course involving interdisciplinary teams of students collaborating with a community partner to create a final product that furthers the partner’s mission. Capstone courses deepen student learning in each of the university’s general education goals—critical thinking, communication, appreciation of the diversity of human experience, and ethics and social responsibility—and faculty members proposing capstones must address the ways their proposed courses both engage the University Studies goals and incorporate best practices of community-based pedagogies. Capstone courses are required of all students from every major at Portland State (with the exception of the 1–2 percent of students who participate in a separate honors program, which has its own applied learning requirements). Each year more than 4,200 students complete one of our 240 capstone courses. (A full listing of all of the capstones may be found at

Examples of these six-credit, 400-level capstone courses include Grantwriting for Native American Youth (, in which teams of students explore funding opportunities and write actual grants for a local community partner working with indigenous youth, and stream quality monitoring, in which teams of students analyze water quality and address sustainability issues throughout the region. In these courses, faculty combine rich academic readings, engaging speakers from the community, deep in-class dialogue, and thoughtfully designed community-based on-site service work to provide students the highest quality community-based learning experiences possible.

The focus on the University Studies goals in each capstone and the requirement that they all involve collaborative community-based learning gives the program a firm sense of identity and essence at Portland State, while also providing enough freedom for faculty and students to engage in a wide range of interdisciplinary topics. Faculty with expertise from every school and college at the university participate in teaching these courses, including faculty from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and schools of education, engineering, urban and public affairs, fine and performing arts, and social work.

Employing Best Practices of Assessment

The capstone program has a deep commitment to assessment as a way to improve student learning, support individual faculty development, and inform program improvement (Kerrigan and Jhaj 2007). At the course level, experienced faculty lead small group instructional diagnostics (SGIDs), mid-term focus groups with students. These feedback sessions are facilitated in courses taught by new capstone faculty in order to provide formative feedback on their course and provide potential ideas for improvements while a course is still running; SGIDs are conducted in 20 percent of all ongoing capstones, as well, to maintain a cycle of continuous improvement throughout the program. Summative data across capstone courses come through comprehensive course evaluations, which focus on the learning goals of the program and pay particular attention to integrative learning aspects of the course. These assess the degree to which students connect course content to the work in the community, work with students from multiple academic backgrounds, and apply skills from their major to the project at hand.

Historically, capstone course evaluations have revealed that students believe their capstone courses help them make connections between academic course content and the required community experience. However, these indirect measures did not provide examples of how our capstones encourage students to make these connections. The very nature of these courses make it difficult to capture direct evidence of student learning. It is challenging to “see” students applying the content of the course in community settings and difficult to isolate individual student learning in a course that emphasizes group work and collaborative final projects. After several attempts at collecting and analyzing student work and final products, the program settled on a course e-portfolio approach to assessment. This e-portfolio includes a syllabus, an assignment related to the particular learning goal being assessed that year provided by the instructor of the course, student responses to the assignment, and a faculty reflection on how the goal is explicitly addressed in their course. Through these course e-portfolios, we are able to assess direct evidence of student learning by analyzing individual assignments within a more nuanced understanding of the contexts of these complex courses.

As this practice has emerged and evolved over the last five years, we have learned a great deal about the student learning experience and how it is facilitated in capstone courses. The juxtaposition of faculty and student voices with other course materials provides a glimpse of the inner workings of these courses and provides insight into the methods used by our most successful faculty. Our exemplary courses intentionally and incrementally weave course content and the community experiences together. As a result, students see connections and applications between the classroom and community engagement even as they sometimes struggle with the real-world issues they are encountering. The transformation of their own perspectives regarding social issues becomes a critical source of learning for students.

When faculty describe the design of the learning spaces in capstone courses, they report asking students to grapple with course materials, apply that learning to a community situation in new ways, and draw their own conclusions about the meaning and value of that work. Faculty encourage students to apply theory as presented in the course into practice as they initiate actions that address the societal issues faced by their community partners. One faculty member describes her students’ grappling with the larger social structures in the issue they were examining:

[Students] examine societal roles … and begin to contemplate explanations as to why such practices arose in the first place and continue to this day. Following a thorough examination, the students develop their own ideas further to understand and challenge how such structures and processes can be altered in the future.

Another faculty member makes explicit that the goal of enhancing students’ “appreciation of human diversity” is not simply an academic construct, but rather a lived experience in the context of the capstone:

Thus for capstone students in this course, the issue of diversity is not an abstraction used to frame our academic knowledge about certain populations. Rather, diversity is an issue that must be directly confronted on every field day, through direct contact with unique individuals.

Still another describes how the application of course content to community issues encourages students to formulate their own ideas and opinions about important community issues:

Developing an understanding of the principles of sustainability also provides students a lens through which they can critically examine the consequences of a wide range of public policy issues, including the incarceration of women and the impact on individuals, families, and communities…By applying the principles of sustainability we are able to reach conclusions as a group, separate from the rhetoric of political ideologies, about how effectively our limited resources are being used in the criminal justice system.

Through work samples collected via our e-portfolio assessment, students reveal how they are challenged to stretch themselves through the application of academic skills in a new context and come to new understandings of themselves. One student reflects on her initial reaction to the idea of doing a project for a real community partner:

For a moment it was as if all my previous experience meant nothing and the weight of the project really took its toll. … Applying the skills I have learned throughout my education was trickier and less straightforward. I had to challenge myself to think outside the box and in a way that used the skills and knowledge best fitting to this type of project.

Another student reveals a new understanding about his own background after taking a capstone that focused on grant writing for an animal shelter:

I now recognize that my original sentiments toward animals was a result of my privilege. I’ve never had to depend on animals for affection or support because I’ve always had supportive humans fulfilling those necessary functions in my life.

While the explicit connection to a student’s major in these general education capstones varies, many students are glad for the chance to explore topics outside of their major in this culminating course:

Being an accounting major, my focus has been on business issues and numbers. This class gave me the opportunity to learn about a very human process and reach out to those around me and share what I have learned. I developed my communication skills as well as my thirst for topics beyond that of my major.

Other students report expanding their understandings and application of previous coursework:

Having taken the women’s studies cluster, I feel I have had an advantage in developing an understanding of the interlocking systems of oppression and the damaging effects they have on society. This class has helped me to take this understanding to the next level by allowing me to combat one of these domineering structures by helping the local Latino community.

As we have completed reviews of these course e-portfolios, we are also able to identify some areas in which we need to improve as a program. As we assessed our diversity goal, we identified a distinct difference between courses where students performed direct service to a population (such as tutoring or refugee resettlement) and those that provide indirect services (such as grant writing or creating marketing materials). We also determined that we could work with faculty to design and assign better reflective prompts so that students better connect their lived experiences, the populations they are serving, and the course content in deeper ways. The following year, we were surprised to discover that the University Studies communication goal was difficult to assess in the capstone context. We knew students were not producing traditional academic papers, but we did not adequately define the types of communication we expected to see in capstones and what exemplary performance related to those types of communication would look like. This is something we will tackle in the upcoming academic year as we get ready to reassess this goal.

In addition to the formal programmatic assessment that the capstone program implements each year, faculty and administrators at Portland State have conducted several studies to assess how our specific form of capstone courses impacts our students and graduates. Throughout these studies, students and graduates consistently report that capstones are transformational learning experiences. They refer, literally, to “epiphanies” that they experienced as a result of their capstone courses. Many of these deep learnings are reported to take place in relation to engaging with populations they had been less familiar with, confronting the harsh realities of poverty, and learning lessons related to their deepened appreciation of human diversity.

In our largest capstone community partnership, for example, students engage in an immersion experience for two weeks at a Kiwanis camp for persons with disabilities ( The twenty graduates interviewed in a qualitative study reported their capstone as one of their top three most significant learning experiences in college. Graduates from this capstone reported profound learning about people living with disabilities, especially related to their abilities, their capacities, and their ability to communicate in unexpected ways. Students reported having deepened their sense of social responsibilities to others and gained a sense of efficacy that they could serve as an ally and an advocate to an underserved population.

Students reported enhancing their own communication skills, including profound realizations about their own capacity to listen in new ways. For many, the capstone informed their career development, as they reported powerful insights about their own strengths and weaknesses. Graduates reported a greater sense of empathy and understanding of people they formerly described as simply different from themselves. Students reported new feelings of benevolence and patience, as well. Their language resembled that of Parker Palmer (1998) when he writes of a “live encounter” (37) with another person across difference that is not mitigated by the unexamined privilege that so often distances us from others.

Throughout our formal assessments and our scholarly research, PSU researchers consistently find that students make meaning of their academic coursework by integrating course content with their practice in the community through required reflective assignments and classroom discussions. We use the information collected in our assessment processes to continuously inform our faculty development efforts and the ways we support our faculty as they hone their own pedagogical practices.

Newest Curricular Challenge in Capstones

For the better part of twenty years we have implemented interdisciplinary capstones. There are scores of important pedagogical reasons for these rich interdisciplinary courses, but one perceived challenge was that our program couldn’t take on a large number of heavily technical projects that required discipline-specific expertise (such as advanced business and computer science projects). As a result, PSU attempted to adapt a 400-level discipline-specific business course to serve as a University Studies capstone. In theory, the course would address each one of the University Studies goals and conduct the discipline’s application project. In practice, we have seen from our initial assessments that students aren’t reporting the same depth of transformational learning in the University Studies goal areas, given the course’s disproportionate emphasis on business content (which at the moment seems necessary to prepare students for their in-depth work with a small business). Our next step is to explore ways of shifting some of the academic content to courses earlier in the business curriculum, so that the capstone can be preserved for true application of knowledge and reflection on practice. As with all capstone courses, we will continue to thoughtfully experiment with a refreshed course design and to assess the outcomes of that experimentation.

Looking Toward the Future

As we approach the milestone of our program’s twenty-year anniversary, we celebrate the strides we have made in creating and assessing over 240 capstone courses annually. As we look to the future, we take great pride in using these data to inform faculty development and instructional resource provision at Portland State.

Our next grand innovation is the development of a program called Continuing Engagement for Social Change: At and Beyond the University. The goals of the program are to intentionally engage a larger number of students in the community before their senior capstone and to facilitate the continuing community involvement of our students and graduates after the completion of their capstone (details may be found at The concept is to connect thousands of our students and alumni as we collaborate to create meaningful social change in our communities.

One of the central features of this project is a two-credit Skills for Social Change seminar that any student or alumni can take to support their continued engagement in fostering social change. The course intentionally builds a learning community of participants to support each other in the challenging work of community engagement. Students can take it before their capstone as a way to explore engagement in the community or after their capstone to receive support in their continued community work. Alumni participate in the course as a means to intentionally connect with other community activists.

The program is a natural extension of the work we have been doing these past two decades at Portland State and a perfect way to further the engagement that we actively foster at the University. The program includes strategies for creating alignments between our various capstones along thematic areas, such as educational equity, sustainability, and community justice. The program leverages synergetic partnerships between students and alumni, through both face-to-face convenings and digital communities. We have great hope that this work will advance our mission to “Let Knowledge Serve the City” as it empowers our graduates to deepen their civic agency in our communities. We look forward to partnering with AAC&U and Bringing Theory to Practice to bring to fruition this vision of strengthened communities and enhanced graduates’ sense of their possibilities as change makers in our world.


Kerrigan, S., and S. Jhaj. 2007. “Assessing General Education Capstone Courses: An In-Depth Look at a Nationally Recognized Capstone Assessment Model.” Peer Review 9 (2): 13–16.

Palmer, P. 1998. The Courage to Teach. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Seanna Kerrigan is the capstone director, University Studies, and Rowanna Carpenter is director of assessment and Upper Division Clusters, University Studies, both of Portland State University.

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