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Capstones: The icing on the (assessment) cake or the cake itself?

by Susan Jones

When I was a student, in the 70’s, my lecturers, all products of the British university system, used to terrify us with tales of their ‘finals’ – in which they were expected to answer long essay-type questions that could address any aspect of their disciplinary area – which they may or may not have studied specifically. Such wide-ranging questions, requiring skills in synthesis and analysis as well as a deep understanding of core disciplinary concepts, can be considered as a form of capstone assessment: the student’s award depended on their performance in the ‘finals’.

No doubt those graduating students of the past could demonstrate that they had acquired a certain level of understanding of the fundamental knowledge of their discipline. Where, though, was the suite of graduate learning outcomes that we now expect our graduates to demonstrate? Today’s graduates need transferrable skills, including the ability to work in multidisciplinary teams: this is increasingly evident in published graduate learning outcomes. Ideally, a carefully integrated program of study ensures that the student has already acquired learning that scaffolds their capstone experience.

The notion of a definitive ‘capstone’ assessment for an undergraduate degree did get me thinking more about capstone units/subjects in today’s Australian universities and their role in assessing and assuring graduate learning outcomes. With the current strong focus on graduate employability, academics and employers across the sector are talking much more constructively about embedding authentic experiences into undergraduate learning.

In line with this trend, it is clear that there are a number of approaches to the design of capstone units, which are nicely outlined in a previous blog post on this site. Broadly speaking, capstones appear to fall into two main groups: those that allow students to demonstrate their ability to practice within their disciplinary context (e.g. an independent research project) and those that require them to perform within a real or simulated workplace (e.g. an industry placement). The form of assessment necessarily varies in accordance with the type of capstone. For example, in ‘academic inquiry projects’, the assessment piece might be a research report, seminar, or creative work, as appropriate to the discipline, while assessment of professionally –orientated placements is more likely to include a self-reflective report and some assessment of the student’s ability to work in a team.

It is pertinent to ask, therefore, whether the assessment associated with a capstone unit can, or should, address the full complement of graduate learning outcomes for the award in question. In other words, what relative weighting do we – or should we – place upon the capstone experience in the context of the student’s overall achievement? In today’s university system, the student’s final assessment is (usually) an amalgamation of their performance in a suite of discrete units/subjects. Does a capstone provide an alternative ‘short-cut’ mechanism for holistic assessment and assurance of those graduate learning outcomes? What happens, though, to students who fail, or just do not perform well, in their capstone? Does this, or should this, affect their ability to graduate if they have met the full suite of graduate learning outcomes in their other units/subjects? To turn that around, how should we regard a student who performs poorly through their course of study but ‘aces’ their capstone?

These are complex questions to which there is probably no single answer. Well-designed capstones energise and motivate students, provide an integrative framework that contextualises their studies, and give them the confidence that they are ready to move out into the professional world. However, given the cumulative and additive model of assessment that applies to most degrees in Australia, students, academics and potential employers do need clarity around how the capstone is weighted, both objectively and subjectively, in the student’s final assessment.

Susan Jones
University of Tasmania

Image attribution: Carlo Alberto Cazzuffi at en.wikipedia, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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