SAA Brown Bag Series: The Capstone Experience (January 28, 2009)

The Capstone Experience (January 28, 2009)

Summary: Nadine Hubbs from Women's Studies presented their capstone course, which has been running for the past five years.  The course is offered in seminar format and is required of all majors.  Students elect the course in the Winter semester of their final year.  The goals of the course are:

  1. to provide their students with an opportunity for summary and synthesis of the field, taking into account the many and widely different forms this might take (on which more below);
  2. to build community among the cohort; and
  3. to contribute to the transition to post-graduate life.  The department has found that the course does in fact facilitate all three of these goals and, gratifyingly, has also signaled the students' real engagement with the theory and praxis of the discipline, sense of intellectual community, and concerns about and desire for continuing these after graduation.

Challenges: The principal challenge for their course, which derives from the interdisciplinary nature of their field and its translation into students with widely varied interests, is structuring it such that it provides the balance between breadth and focus that achieves their goal of summary and synthesis of the field.  A secondary challenge is the size of the course, which is mandatory for their majors and has grown to 45 students, pushing the practical and definitional limits of the "seminar" format.  Women's Studies has responded to the first of these challenges by instituting a (no or low cost) guest speaker series for the course which gives greater breadth to the topics covered, and also making the final course project an autobiographical essay that allows students to reflect on their entry into, as well as ongoing and  future engagement with the field.  In response to the second challenge, the department is considering splitting the course into two sections that would each reflect a sub-field or fields within the major.  These would meet primarily independently but might have a few joint meetings on topics that cut across the sub-fields (e.g., social justice or intersectionality).

Before & After: In the subsequent discussion, a number of practical and philosophical questions were raised, which could be organized into a grid of "before" and "after" the capstone course both for students and for the department:

  • Before:
    • Students: Is there any specific junior-level course that prepares the students for the capstone course? At present, no; What are students' expectations going into the course? These are not generally explicitly solicited, although they have on occasion been discussed in the class itself.
    • Department: Does the department offer any equivalent experience at the beginning of the major? No, in part since students enter the major at all different points in their career.
  • After:
    • Students: does this lead to any bigger project (e.g., research or thesis, whether honors or not)? Not as a necessary component of the major.
    • Department: How is the capstone assessed? As part of the departmental exit survey, and also through both the students' evaluations of the course and the instructor's evaluation of the students' final essays; Have the assessment results (of the capstone specifically) lead to any curricular changes? Not really, but they have underscored the necessity of the breadth of courses in the major, as well as both the benefits and challenges of interdisciplinarity; Has the introduction of the capstone requirement affected the number of upper-level courses being offered in the department? No, and the capstone requirement essentially replaced a previous 400-level elective requirement.

Alternatives/Considerations: a couple of other departments (Geosci and PitE) offered alternate models for a capstone experience, and various participants also had great suggestions or raised cogent concerns:

  • Alternatives:
    • Several Geosci majors require a 7-week field experience in the senior year; the department also sponsors field trips (approximately 10-day) open to faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates.
    • PitE offers a series of 300-level capstone courses in both Fall and Winter semesters.  There are some that are basically standing and a larger group that change each semester based on course offerings.
    • The Residential College offers a series of senior seminars and has developed a set of criteria for these courses.  Their criteria can be found here.
  • Considerations:
    • Departments might think about ways of building social cohesion and intellectual community among the cohort of majors as they enter the major, for example by hosting a newly-declared event (social, course selection, etc.), sponsoring student organization events, etc.
    • Departments might also utilize a capstone experience as a way of developing or increasing community among and with alumni, for example, through social networking platforms such as Facebook (see summary from the Effective Communication with Students Brown Bag).
    • Departments might consider building (on) connections between a capstone experience and a more focused senior research and/or thesis project.
    • As the number of both capstone courses/experiences and double- or even triple-majors increases, Departments might discuss flexible and/or non-mandatory options for their capstone to avoid capstone overload (although this might be more of an issue in the case of capstones with significant thesis-like final projects).

Recommendations: Based on Women's Studies and other departments' experience with capstone experiences, these seem to serve critical functions in a student's educational experience at the University in terms of both the intellectual coherence of the major, as well as intellectual community within the department.  They can also potentially play a significant role in bridging the student's undergraduate experience with post-graduate plans and laying the foundation for the continuance of community and disciplinary engagement beyond the undergraduate years.  Given these obvious benefits to both students and departments, departments that do not currently offer a capstone experience may want to begin a discussion of the desirability and feasibility of developing one, of course taking into consideration the nature of the field and composition of the major cohort, the resources involved, the place of the capstone within the major curriculum, and the functions they would like it to serve.

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