Frequently asked questions

Answers to frequently asked questions are not intended to be comprehensive. Need more? See our documents and tools or send your questions to us if you’d like to see them added here. Click on a topic to scroll down to the answer.

What’s in a capstone?

Is a capstone always a project?
Capstones are often projects, because project-based learning provides the scope for students to engage with and evaluate a challenge or situation deeply and independently develop proposals or solutions. Through these processes, they develop a sense of personal and professional identity, and confidence that they can operate autonomously. Nonetheless, this kind of process may not be called a project – it may be problem-based, or a simulation, for example. Care should be taken that the primary capacity-building and transitional goals of capstones are being met, regardless of the nomenclature or approach.

Can a capstone be an internship or industry placement?
A capstone can include a component based in industry, or treated as an internship. However, as McNamara et al (2012) argue, work-based learning alone is not always sufficient to be considered a capstone. A capstone should provide students with an opportunity to integrate, extend and apply high-level knowledge and skills in practice, ensure that they can operate effectively in context, and that they can take ownership of their learning. This can be challenging where students are engaged in a placement. Especially where the work that they carry out is largely under the control of the industry partner. Simulations, projects and competitions are alternative methods of engaging with industry. Where placements are being used, care should be taken that there is scope for students to undertake challenges of some complexity and scale, that opportunities and outcomes for each student undertaking the placement or internship are equivalent, and that there is a degree of academic management and assessment (although this may be combined with workplace supervisor assessment).

Read more on professional contexts in our documents and tools

McNamara, J., Kift, S. M., Butler, D., Field, R. M., Brown, C., & Gamble, N. (2012). Work-integrated learning as a component of the capstone experience in undergraduate law. Asia-Pacific Journal of Cooperative Education, 13(1), 1-12.

Can a capstone be completely online?
While very few capstones are completely online, there is no evidence that they should not be. Individual projects certainly could be carried out remotely, with online support and learning materials. Group projects are more likely to be challenging simply because of the level of interdependence and the difficulties groups can face maintaining momentum and structure. This is easier to manage when groups have some face to face time, but not to the point where online groups should not be attempted. Making the most of social networking, ensuring that early and regular group activities keep students in touch with one another, and providing structures (such as progressive assessments for both individual and group outcomes) can help to keep things on track. Online simulations that use competition or game-based approaches, can be particularly effective in keeping students engaged because intrinsic motivation is high.

Should capstones be discipline-based or interdisciplinary?
Capstones can be either discipline-based, interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary or any related approach. They may be highly specialised or general, concerned with in-depth analysis of a topic or synthesis of a broad area. The choice depends on the nature of the course, the student cohort and their likely career paths, and most of all, the desired program-level learning outcomes. Mixed disciplinary approaches, including inter-professional learning, have some specific benefits and learning outcomes.

Read more on disciplinarity in our documents and tools

Can a capstone be a research project?
Capstones are often research projects. However, it is important to remember that this is not a postgraduate research degree, and it shouldn’t become just another course in basic research methods. Students’ prior experience, as well as time and workload constraints, mean that research projects are more likely to use secondary data analysis, environmental scans and literature rather than involve primary data collection. Individual supervision may also not be feasible for larger groups. Consider group delivery, using lectures and workshops, along with regular reporting frameworks through your LMS or another online process.

How do I manage ethics approvals for research projects?
Where primary data collection is a necessary part of the capstone, consider breaking the capstone into two subjects over a year, the first of which can be used to develop an ethics application. You may need to talk to your ethics committee Chair to explore how to manage ethics, have a contingency plan for what to do if they aren’t approved or if a student needs to take leave half way through, and how supervision will occur. If you are considering a broad ethics application for one study that all students can do, bear in mind that this is likely to mean only very limited activities can take place, and this has to be balanced with the need for students to undertake a study that is relevant and challenging.

Can I have new content in a capstone?
It is often said that there is little or no ‘new’ content delivered in a capstone subject. Certainly capstones should not be an attempt to fill all the gaps, re-deliver substantive content, or simply increase the amount of knowledge students hold. Capstones are oriented toward holistic development – students should be engaged in a transition to independence and professional capability that spans knowing, doing and being. Consequently, content can be delivered in a capstone, but is generally oriented to supporting the learning process and/or inspiring student thinking than delivering large amounts of information that can then be assessed as declarative knowledge alone. Balance is important. Sufficient information should be provided for students to carry out the work, but should not dictate every aspect of the capstone activities and decisions. If students could uncover the information themselves, why not ask them to do that? Your delivery can then focus on supporting the capstone processes, making connections between theory and practice, and inspiring students to think big. Think also about the possibilities for students to deliver lectures – after all, they are on the way to becoming experts in their capstone area.


Students

How much choice should I give students in what they do?
Capstones need to be relevant to individual students, and take account of both the prior learning experience and their possible career choices. This means that there is often a great deal of scope for students to make choices about topics, processes and outputs. Having said that, there still needs to be a degree of structure to ensure equity and manageability, including shared learning outcomes and assessment criteria across the student group. This means that, even where there is a fairly open choice, a common framework should be set that includes the parameters for their choices, what activities they need to undertake, and a likely range of products for assessment.

For a generic capstone outline, see our documents and tools

Will my students be prepared for a capstone experience?
Not always. Capstones are designed to be challenging for all students. They are particularly so when students have not had prior experiences that prepare them to take on high levels of self-management and decision making. Where the capstone represents an abrupt shift from one type of learning to another, students can also be frustrated by the major change in expectations. Some may not have all of the knowledge and skills required to design and execute a project or significant program of activities, or may not think that they do. Some students will take to the capstone challenge regardless. Part of the development process will involve taking into consideration the capabilities students will start with, and building activities and resources into the first few weeks that will help them to understand the requirements, figure out how to manage processes, and provide them with the confidence to work independently in the latter part of the capstone. If whole-of-course or program design is a possibility, scaffolding towards capstone requirements can and should be built in to earlier subjects.

How can I manage large cohorts in a capstone?
Capstone delivery can be organised much as you would for other subjects. It is also common to reduce the amount of contact time with students in the latter part of a capstone, as they work more independently. Work-in-progress workshops with groups of 20-30 or more, structured peer review activities and supporting lectures can be used to maximise contact time.


Assessment

Should I use peer assessment in my capstone?
Not necessarily, but it can be a useful learning tool. One of the key learning outcomes at final year should be that students are able to evaluate their own and others work, as well as being able to provide formative feedback to each other. Poor performance is as often a product of not understanding what constitutes ‘good’ work for a particular activity rather than a lack of effort or knowledge. Peer assessment is a useful mechanism for ensuring that students are able to evaluate both their own and others’ work against criteria, and helps them to understand how well they are progressing. Peer assessment can also be used in groups to provide an indication of individual contributions. However, care should be taken that the processes around this do not set the team up for early conflict. These can easily escalate to the point that work cannot proceed because students are expending all of their energy managing the team politics. Use early management strategies to ensure that all students understand what is required of them, teams have processes to follow, and there is room for negotiation and resolution of problems before it gets to a summative assessment stage.

Read more about group work in our documents and tools

Can I have a written exam in my capstone?
Exams are useful and cost-effective for testing written comprehension and declarative knowledge and support easy benchmarking across a discipline. However, they are not effective methods for testing how knowledge and skills are applied in context, working processes over time, or capacity to work with others. They also do not reflect the way that work is evaluated outside of the university context. Use with caution and proportionate to the weighting of relevant learning outcomes.

Do I have to use reflection as an assessment task?
Not necessarily. There is a wide range of ways that reflection can be captured, implicitly and explicitly. Some capstones use reflective journals as a record of personal growth or thinking processes, others don’t include any explicit reflection product but embed reflection in the activities and outcomes. For example, reflection may be embedded in the stages or processes of a capstone as a requirement that students record how they resolve decision points or challenges, and justify their decisions. This can apply to how they deal with others as well as the production of their own work. In the assessment criteria, this may be described as a record of their part in team management and negotiations as well as a logical and well-researched development of ideas and outcomes, rather than specifically as reflection. Students may alternatively be asked to use reflective processes to make connections between theory and practice or their prior learning and future needs.

Schon’s (1983) widely cited theory includes two major types of reflection – reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action. While the theory has its critics, these concepts can be useful ways of framing how students will reflect during the capstone.

Schön, D. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner. How professionals think in action, London: Temple Smith.

Can students fail a capstone?
Yes. Well designed capstones, as any other well-designed curriculum, can result in students putting in more work than for other concurrent studies, demonstrating more determination to deliver a good outcome, and working through problems and developing their own skills and knowledge more consistently. However, there is no evidence of any significant difference in pass rates for capstones than any other subject. If students do not meet the learning outcomes and assessment requirements, they will fail the capstone. Moderation processes, or benchmarking outcomes with other institutions, will help to ensure that standards are maintained and expectations are reasonable.


Organisation

How can a capstone ‘cap’ the course when students are also doing other units/courses at the same time?
This is one of the most interesting conceptual problems with the language. If we consider the capstone as having to ‘cap’ or look back on everything in a course, this suggests that it is the only thing that students are doing in their final months. This is rarely the case. As a result, it can be tempting to make other subjects ‘light’ so that students are concentrating energy on the capstone, and so that it can be considered the cap for the parts of the course that matter. This is obviously problematic, not least because the concurrent subjects also form part of the final degree grade. Making the capstone worth more credit (increasing the weighting and workload), integrating the final subjects so that they build toward a single capstone outcome, or spreading the capstone across two semesters are all options that have been used to make sense of the idea of a capstone as a more significant experience.

Can a capstone be used to assess program quality against discipline standards?
Yes, but with caveats. When measured against program-level learning outcomes and discipline standards, capstones often tick many of the boxes because they can demonstrate the culmination of learning through high-level skills and knowledge. It is important to be mindful that there are limitations to how much students can be expected to demonstrate in a single subject. Where a program or course is narrow in scope, and all students undertake the same (or close to) sets of subjects, it is possible that synthesis of a great deal of prior learning can take place in the capstone. However, if the program is broad or includes elective choice, synthesis has to be both flexible and limited. It is also important to take note of the relative size of the capstone, and what can be reasonably expected by way of investigation and deliverables in the time available. Be wary of over-assessment as a result of anxiety about demonstrating whole of program standards. Over-assessment reduces depth and encourages students to focus on survival, rather than engagement.

Can I have one capstone design for all students?
Yes, if that suits the context. The broader the definition of ‘all students’ (a program or course, a discipline, a school or a university) the more challenging it is to create a single capstone framework and set of learning outcomes that will work for everyone. Use your aims as a guide – are there common learning outcomes for all students, can these be branched so that you have similar capstones but these are differentiated for each cohort, are there specific delivery processes, content and learning outcomes that you need to take account of?

For a generic capstone outline, see our documents and tools

How do I evaluate the success of a capstone?
Capstone evaluation, as with most curriculum, can be undertaken with a number of different aims, each drawing on a range of data and input. The quality of a capstone might be considered in relation to student perceptions and experience; the quality of outcomes; value for transition to employment; and/or resourcing. Inputs might include student feedback pre, during and post-capstone experience; academic review, moderation and benchmarking; graduate employment data; industry or other stakeholder reviews.

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