Capstones and the final year experience
Higher education contains two critical transition points for students: the first year of their experience or ‘transition-in’ (whether that be in the first year of a course or their first experience) and the final year of their program, or ‘transition-out’ (Webb, 2012). Over the past decade, much effort has been expended to systematically improve the first year experience of students. With a few notable exceptions, the final year has received much less focused attention.
This situation is rapidly changing. Over recent years there has been increasing interest in the importance of the final year and in final year curriculum in particular.
Why is the final year important for students?
Gardner and van der Veer (1998) argue that the final year is a ‘critical final period of the undergraduate experience’ (p. xii) and that final year students share a set of characteristics:
- They are influential in terms of reflecting institutional quality through both their own views and their performance as graduates, and as the next wave of alumni
- They have high expectations, having invested substantial time and resources completing their degree, they expect a ‘exciting, satisfactory, rewarding and proud accomplishment’ worthy of celebration and leading to well-paid employment
- They are undertaking a period of personal transition when it is critical for them to make sense of their undergraduate experience as a whole, and to prepare to move forward the next stage of their lives
Chickering and Schlossberg (1998) argue that the transition out of university life is filled with ambiguity, that students often have a poor understanding of what is to come, and that the transition pre and post-university is often disconnected. In a study of student perceptions of final year experiences, they found that students’ common concerns are:
- That what they have learnt might not be relevant
- Fear of leaving social and academic support networks
- Uncertainty about who they will be once they are no longer students
- Vague or overly optimistic expectations about what happens next, and/or
- Confusion and paralysis about what to do next
In short, the final year of study is a momentous period in a student’s life, heralding the achievement of a significant life goal, as well as the formation of new personal identity. The final year is not only critical to students in terms of their overall perception of their experience with us, it is also our last chance to provide them with the opportunity to build, consolidate and test the knowledge, skills and attributes that will underpin their future careers. It is an opportunity to provide them with learning experiences that build understanding and confidence about the nature of expectations beyond their studies.
While there are commonly a range of services and activities intended to support student transition in final year, the curriculum is undoubtedly the core of the student experience. Capstones, with a focus on building on and integrating knowledge, skills and attributes; professional and authentic processes and products; and student empowerment, are a natural fit to meet the challenges posed by the final year experience.
Chickering, Arthur W, & Schlossberg, Nancy K. (1998). Seniors as people in transition. In J. N. Gardner & G. van der Veer (Eds.), The senior year experience: Facilitating integration, reflection, closure and transition (pp. 37-50). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Gardner, John N, & van der Veer, Gretchen (Eds.). (1998). The senior year experience: Facilitating integration, reflection, closure and transition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Webb, Marion. (2012). Outduction: Enhancing the final year experience. Final report to the HE Academy. Kingston: Kingston University.