Peer Review

How Students, Faculty, and Institutions Can Fulfill the Promise of Capstones

Recently, a senior at a selective liberal arts college mentioned that he was not looking forward to his last year because of the mandatory senior project, and he knew his friends shared this anxiety. He was not sure he could find a topic that would sustain his interest and commitment for the full year. Despite being a double major, he was unclear about the appropriate research methodology needed to produce a thesis that contributed new knowledge. Although an excellent writer, he was uncomfortable about the oral defense. And he had not yet determined which faculty member would be the best mentor for his thesis. Of course, the very elements he worried about are exactly what make capstones—whether history theses, student teaching, business internships, engineering projects, or original dance choreography—such powerful culminating experiences.

In the past, only a few campuses, such as The College of Wooster, Reed College, and Princeton University, required capstone experiences of all students. Many other campuses used the senior project to determine which students would graduate with honors and left the choice of trying for honors up to the students. Now institutions of all types, as exemplified by those featured in this issue, are recognizing the extraordinary learning experience that a capstone provides and are designing them in all majors and for all types of students. The intention is for students to be able to demonstrate in their final year their best work—the result of focused, intense, meaningful, and integrative intellectual activity. Underlying this independent but faculty-guided work is the belief that a successful capstone is essential preparation for a successful transition to work and lifelong learning. This recognition is not only based on experience but also grounded in research indicating that capstones are a high-impact practice because of the students’ deep investment in the purposeful activity and how much they learn about themselves through the experience (Kuh 2008).

Student Preparation for Capstones

What does it take for a student to be “prepared” for the capstone? It is, like the entire undergraduate experience, ideally a developmental process drawing upon and integrating all elements of a liberal education. Pursuing one’s passion requires considerable reflection on one’s interests and abilities over the course of college study, not just in the first few weeks of the senior year. Developing advanced written and oral communication skills depends upon feedback and extensive practice in a variety of disciplines and settings. Identifying a significant question for inquiry and selecting the appropriate research method requires that students experience some trial and error as they struggle with unscripted problems, both in general education courses and the major, rather than simply replicate experiments or read someone else’s analysis. Similarly, preparing for internships and project-based fieldwork, whether pre-professional or not, requires previous interactions in work settings in order to gain an appreciation of professional norms and clarity about how to apply knowledge and skills gained in the classroom to address relevant issues in the field. And most important, having the patience, fortitude, and commitment that an extensive project calls for requires an environment for learning that has been sufficiently challenging and supportive over several years to give students confidence in the face of adversity.

All of this suggests that courses and activities are designed with an eye toward how they provide increasing levels of intellectual challenge that will result in high-level capstone work. For students to accomplish what they are capable of in capstones, there needs to be systematic alignment of faculty and student effort beginning in the first year and framed by a sequenced set of learning experiences involving sound pedagogy with substantial feedback. As might be expected, many small liberal arts colleges such as Swarthmore and Bates colleges offer good examples of this type of alignment, where faculty intentionally emphasize from the very first day the key values of high expectations, intellectual achievement, and personalized learning. Faculty members communicate and collaborate to promote integrative connections across courses and years. As the institutions in this issue illustrate, this alignment can also be expressed and encouraged through curricular structures and requirements (Hampshire College’s “Division III,” Grand Valley State University’s “Themes” program, the University of La Verne’s “La Verne Experience”).

Integrative work takes many forms. Institutions such as Bard College and Duke University are utilizing new strategies to integrate written and oral communication, information literacy, and quantitative reasoning across the curriculum to raise the levels of proficiency needed for quality work in the capstones. LaGuardia Community College’s and La Verne University’s cluster courses for beginning students (described in this issue) likewise help develop the writing and research skills necessary for a successful capstone. As more and more institutions emphasize applied culminating projects, faculty members are finding innovative ways to provide sequenced, experiential learning in preparation for more nuanced inquiry of consequential issues at the senior level. In fields such as philosophy, where classroom-based discussion, critical reading, and analytical writing assignments were once the primary learning activities, students are now also participating in public debates on the ethical issues behind health care reform and sitting in with patient advocates in hospital settings. Greater attention is being paid to pedagogical approaches across the whole range of undergraduate experiences— including service learning, study abroad, community projects, and independent study—to better understand how these opportunities contribute to the preparation for a successful capstone. Portland State University’s and La Verne University’s community partnership capstones are a good illustration that this kind of applied work is so valued that partnership work is now being encouraged before the capstone.

The institutions highlighted in this issue illustrate that this kind of integrative and developmental work toward and in capstones can occur in many contexts. Professional programs are also good examples of the type of alignment that leads to top quality capstones. Guided by specialized accreditation standards, as well as a clear understanding of the requirements of professional practice in a competitive economy and complex society, disciplines such as engineering, education, and social work have carefully aligned developmental and practical curricula. Similarly, the institutions reporting in this issue illustrate the range of contexts for doing integrative work, from community college students developing a museum exhibit (LaGuardia) to community- and problem-based work on biology and health issues (Grand Valley State) to developing a women’s writing workshop (Hampshire). In each case, personalized feedback, problem-based pedagogy, integrative teaching, supervised experiential learning, and interaction in professional settings prepare students for culminating work closely comparable to post-graduate expectations. Both the values and the tools these campuses and programs use to prepare students are relevant to all fields and institutions.

Often underutilized tools to guide this work are the various indirect and direct assessment strategies that can track the progress of students and help both students and faculty plan appropriate learning experiences. Student discussions of their experiences, from reflection papers and student interviews, provide clues to what kinds of experiences students find valuable about the process, “the skills and strategies I learned,” applications to “outside life,” and intellectual “epiphanies” in which their perspective and understanding radically shifts. La Verne University’s use of a portfolio in assessing work is a good illustration, as is Portland State’s, even as the latter also demonstrates some of the limits of formal assessment, e.g. measuring individual student progress in the context of a group project. As assessment tools continue to develop—such as AAC&U’s VALUE rubrics, which address many of the capacities and skills relevant to successful capstones—institutions will understand better how students' progress and how to improve both student and faculty efforts.

Reframing the Faculty–Student Relationship

Understanding how to prepare students for the capstone is essential, yet it is equally important to consider what it takes for more faculty members to be prepared to oversee capstones. To a great extent, a successful capstone involves reframing the faculty–student relationship such that faculty become mentors, and students are both comfortable with coaching and highly motivated as they take on primary responsibility for their work. Just as for students, faculty plans for a successful capstone experience begin well in advance. Time needs to be devoted to advising, course design, curriculum mapping, identifying potential community projects, and mastering supervisory skills. Both experienced and new faculty can benefit from sharing ideas about student development and ways to provide the kind of personalized support that will bring out the best in each student. Ultimately, the most important contribution faculty can make is to model the joy of discovery in their own intellectual life and the value to be gained from honest critiques. Although such careful preparation and personal investment are time consuming, the rewards for faculty are clearly described in several articles in this issue. The experience of being challenged in your own research, attending an undergraduate research day, or helping a student get published underscores the learning value of capstones for both the student and the faculty member.

Good will, hard work, and intellectual stimulation, however, are not enough to encourage more faculty to participate and ensure that faculty do capstones well. The kind of integrated, intentional effort described in this issue needs institutional and administrative support. Funds for faculty development are necessary to provide workshops and informal meetings around the elements that lead to high-quality capstones—curricular design, sequenced assignments, attention to research methods, applied work, supportive feedback, and a wide variety of assessment strategies. Grand Valley’s faculty development materials and LaGuardia’s teams of faculty are two of many examples in this issue of how faculty can be supported in this work. Such support also must be complemented by recognition that this work “counts” in the personnel processes for evaluation, merit pay, and promotion. As or more important than this kind of material support is the development of a broader culture that celebrates the work that faculty do in preparing students and supervising capstones. Campuses that value this work weave it into their traditions, for example, taking a whole day to celebrate and share projects, handing out awards to the first students who turn in their theses, or as Reed College does, leading the campus admissions tours to the library to show off where all the theses are kept.

Administrators may also want to take every opportunity to convey the notion of the shared responsibility for student learning and development as not just personal gain but also as a public good; successful capstones can be less about doing “my work” than about fulfilling “our mission.” Encouraging the integration of the knowledge and skills developed through general education and the major to serve not only intellectual development but also civic responsibility can extend the reach of the campus. Helping departments explore numerous ways to responsibly interact with the larger community on applied projects helps students see early in their education that they can make a difference. Opening doors with alumni for internships and mentoring can give students perspective and guidance as they set their course. Administrators need to be persistent, respectful, strategic providers of both material and symbolic resources for these efforts. Namely and above all, the focus of “our mission” is the intellectual and personal development of the student reflected in the capstone in which the student becomes an independent learner or actor and demonstrates his or her capacities and readiness for addressing significant challenges, whether in work or the community. Good examples of such life transforming and community transforming projects are well described in the Hampshire, Portland State, and La Verne articles in this issue.

The examples above and the key elements of promoting successful student learning and development around capstones—integrated and sequenced curricular designs, ongoing interaction with faculty involving engaging pedagogy, intentional administrative support for faculty development, and a broader sense of mission—implicitly assume students going through a more or less traditional four-year experience. However, the traditional four-year experience on a single campus is less and less common among undergraduates. Significant numbers of students transfer from two- to four-year institutions. Increasingly, students build their degree in pieces through online work and adding a course or two from various sources to complement their work at the institution from which they seek the degree. It is important to note that the students who are most likely to “swirl” or need to build a degree out of a variety of pieces are nontraditional and come from underserved populations.

Scaling the Capstone Experience

These shifts in the nature of students’ undergraduate experiences raise some questions about our ability to provide capstone experiences (or for that matter many of the other high-impact practices) for a growing segment of the student population. If students cannot have the kind of integrated and developmental experience culminating in a capstone at a residential institution like those highlighted in this issue, are there ways to address this inequity? If increasing numbers of students attend multiple institutions or otherwise piece together their education in different settings, are there common learning experiences that could be provided to support capstones?

Adapting the Capstone Experience

There are no clear answers to these questions, but we can look at places and ways the elements promoting successful culminating projects might be adapted for working with students across settings and through different modalities.

Transfer policies and curricular pathways. As students “swirl” through different institutions, even within the same public system, interpretations of requirements and policies on transfer credit have often delayed completion or even discouraged students from continuing altogether. States are now mobilizing to create shared “pathways” for general education and the majors. This movement for alignment involves institutions and systems making clear what courses will transfer in fulfilling graduation requirements. It is possible to imagine that alignment policies might also involve specifying in more detail the competency level or proficiency that qualifies for transfer beyond the grade or credit for the course. For example, student products that demonstrate proficiency in writing or critical thinking might be required for transfer to more advanced studies. Currently WICHE (Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education) is experimenting with a “passport” for transfer credit within and across states that is based on assessment of demonstrated student competencies (WICHE 2013). This kind of qualitative evaluation of transfer credit might be a vehicle for determining how to prepare students for a significant capstone experience.

“Signature assignments” and core curricula. Similarly, as we think about consistency in transferring credit through demonstrations of skill, it is critical that the assignments actually call for and result in challenging and intellectually engaging student work. Over the past few years there has been some experimentation with the idea of a “signature assignment” to facilitate meaningful assessment. Such assignments serve to ensure consistency in standards within institutions as well as between institutions. For example, Salt Lake City Community College’s general education program requires each student to complete such an assignment that includes reflection and application to a real-world problem, elements that can be integral to building toward a successful capstone.

Common assessment rubrics and e-portfolios. In addition to locally developed assessment to allow students and faculty members to track student development and coach/mentor accordingly, campuses could make use of the VALUE rubrics in order to make comparisons across institutions (Rhodes and Finley 2013). If assignments and assessments were part of students’ e-portfolios, faculty working with transfer students might more easily and productively work with them, and students would have a better idea of their own developmental path and needs. Similarly, portfolios might also include (assessed) instances of student work on projects, internships, material from online courses etc. that can be used to fashion a suitable capstone for a student. Currently, several state systems are cooperating on an initiative in which student work and VALUE-based assessments are being shared and compared (Berrett 2013). AAC&U’s VALUE rubrics are well suited to integrating learning experiences from several sources based on common descriptors of both the outcome and the level of accomplishment. Some rubrics might be more germane to high-quality capstones than others; for example, the integrative learning rubric should be widely applicable to many capstones, except those that involve highly specialized, disciplinary work.

Admittedly, we are a long way from seeing how the above ideas and experiments might actually be put into widespread practice to support preparation for an effective capstone experience for “swirling” students. Nonetheless, we note a growing trend toward greater consistency within and across institutions in terms of curricular design, improved pedagogy, and common assessment of desired outcomes. The elements of pathways, intentional and developmental assignments, and systematic assessment are potentially parallel between and across institutions.

Capstones for All?

It is also true, however, that we still have a long way to go in the traditional settings for full-time and residential students if the underlying aim is that all students have the benefits of working up to and completing a capstone—a significant project integrating their intellectual, social, and personal learning experiences. Just as greater consistency and intentionality is sought across institutions, so too are efforts to be more intentional within institutions. The cultural shift within institutions from “my student(s)” to “our shared responsibility” reveals a tension between faculty and students working in individualized ways toward their highest aspirations and a culture of more shared responsibility of higher education that all students, not just honors students, have the developmental opportunity of working toward and completing a capstone.

This last element, a broad sense of shared mission on behalf of and responsibility for student development, may be the most important of all. Achieving a broader sense of and agreement on more consistent and intentional practices that lead to students having the educational experience(s) leading to a successful capstone could help institutions be more efficient and effective in working with all students. In a time of constrained resources, suggesting that faculty and students just work harder to achieve high-level learning outcomes is short sighted. Institutions that thoughtfully redeploy resources and redesign learning experiences will be well positioned to accomplish their goals. Happily, some of the developments described above and the work of institutions like those featured in this issue suggest that it is possible to develop this more collective sense of purpose and put it into practice.


Berrett, D. 2013. “States Demand That Colleges Show How Well Their Students Learn.” Chronicle of Higher Education, October 28. (

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.

Rhodes, T. L., and A. Finley. 2013. Using the VALUE Rubrics for Improvement of Learning and Authentic Assessment. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. 2013. “Interstate Passport Initiative: About the Initiative.” Accessed November 25.

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