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Common types of capstone curriculum

Capstones come in many different forms, with a wide range of lengths, weightings and activities. In our review of capstones, we found that there are four very common approaches across disciplines to capstone curriculum, and two very common for some disciplines but not others. These are described below with a caveat: types are often combined to great effect, and some of the most interesting and exciting student experiences are not in the ‘common’ types because they are best suited to small cohorts (for example, the International Dance Tour at QUT).

1. Externally-oriented projects
This is one of the most common types of capstone. Students engage in a professionally oriented project that is intended to develop a solution for a client. Clients may be actual or imagined, or the project may be linked to a competition or contemporary corporate issue. Students are provided a context, scenario or problem. Most commonly students work toward a solution in defined stages, gathering information, undertaking analysis, making decisions, managing workflow and developing a professional-style outcome. In many cases, this includes the implementation of the outcome – such as an event or product. Assessment evidence generally utilises a combination of behaviours, process and products but where students have individual clients there is less emphasis on the products because requirements, impeding factors and products can vary significantly. The most common assessment deliverables are reports and presentations, which may then be delivered to a client. Presentations are generally public to some degree – to clients, a panel of academics, and/or to peers. See, for example, the VU Graduating Project, or the IT industry project at Monash.

2. Academic inquiry projects
This form of capstone is also common across all disciplines, and may operate as an academic or personal inquiry experience, or as a form of research apprenticeship, very similar to that found in an honours program. Topics for and methods of inquiry may be anywhere on a continuum spanning creative and reflective activities to formal research. In those disciplines where human data is normally collected as part of the research process, secondary rather than primary data are more commonly used. When primary data are used, the capstone is more likely to extend across two semesters to enable ethical approval to be gained. Generally students carry out a structured inquiry and develop an outcome as appropriate to the discipline. As a result, assessment deliverables may range from research reports to book chapters, seminar and conference presentations, lectures to peers, portfolios and creative works. See, for example, the SUNY program at Prague or the Virginia Tech history capstone.

3. Practice-oriented simulations
Practice-based simulations can be found across all disciplines and are very common in the science, business and media fields. Like consultancies, these capstones attempt to recreate the context and conditions of professional environments, providing students with an experience of the pressures, challenges and problems graduates may experience. However, unlike discrete simulation events, these capstones are complex and holistic and continue for a significant amount of time, requiring students to take on responsibility as if they were in a live practice environment. This includes extended planning and management of day-to-day activity. They can be relatively expensive to set up and sustain, as they require intensive support from staff and non-standard delivery – they cannot easily be confined to normal timetabled classes and usually require specifically designed working environments. Assessment evidence depends on the simulation activity, but generally utilises a combination of evidence around behaviours, processes and products. See, for example, the Newsweek intensive program at Gloucestershire.

4. Practice-based consultancies
Practice-based consultancies are also found in most discipline areas, with high profile examples in design and business fields. They are also increasingly used in professional health disciplines. These capstones attempt to intensively recreate the context and conditions of professional environments, providing students with an experience of the pressures, challenges and problems graduates may experience in their first employment and beyond. Unlike discrete projects, these capstones are complex and holistic and continue for a significant amount of time, requiring ongoing staff management – staff often act as practice managers alongside their academic supervision role. The consultancy may also have project-based elements (for example, a consultancy that provides project-based work for clients). Consultancies are relatively expensive to set up and sustain, as they require infrastructure, intensive engagement from staff, administrative support and non-standard delivery – they cannot easily be confined to normal timetabled classes. Assessment evidence generally utilises a combination of behaviours, process and products but there is less emphasis on the products because client requirements can vary significantly. See, for example, the Griffith Oral Health Clinic, or the Miami University interactive media capstone.

Less common but still frequent capstone types

5. Task-oriented simulations
These are defined paper-based or online simulations that do not attempt to capture the entire working environment, but instead focus on a set of defined activities with a set goal. Examples are most commonly found in business-related disciplines. These tend to be highly managed activities, and as such, care has to be taken that they provide students with sufficient complexity and scope to allow them to test, develop and transfer the wide range of skills and attributes expected in a capstone experience and as a graduate. Assessment deliverables are most commonly focused on a series of behavioural and performance competencies, personal logs or reflections as well as the achievement of the simulation goals. See, for example, the Marketing simulation at QUT.

6. Placements
Placements are a common feature of the final year of study in some disciplines, and are particularly prevalent in health disciplines, although not all of these could be considered to meet the ‘capstone’ principles or common definitions. Capstone placements usually emphasise integration of academic and practice knowledge, critical awareness and active learning. As a result, placements often involve an element of supported academic study in which students engage in a critical inquiry or academic activity alongside of their practice, and seek to integrate and resolve conceptual, theoretical and practical elements of their field. They also commonly require students to explicitly focus efforts on reflecting on their personal capabilities and ongoing development needs. Assessment depends on the precise nature and balance of these activities, but commonly involves a combination of demonstrated workplace competencies, short integrative pieces of writing and reflective reports. See, for example, the JCU nursing capstone placement.
Image: The office of the Hoya student newspaper at Georgetown University, by Patrickneil (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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