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One capstone, two capstone, bricolage

Capstones, as the culminating experiences for a course or program, serve a long list of functions. They provide students with the context in which they will integrate and apply prior learning, provide depth and complexity, engender independence and confidence, orient and transition to post graduate life. They are special, significant, challenging and exciting; celebratory achievements. Increasingly, they are also conceptualised as the key location for identifying whether students can demonstrate the achievement of many, if not all, program learning outcomes.

Can a capstone do all of this in a single subject at 1/8th of a full time load? Early analysis of survey data indicates that around 55% of all credit-bearing capstones in Australia are single semester subjects, making up one quarter of the course load in the semester, one eighth of the full time load over the year.

When we asked staff what they would do to improve their capstone given no constraints, many of the respondents with single-subject capstones said that they would make their capstone bigger and/or longer – at least twice the current loading. They argued that students worked far more than the official load suggested, and that there was ongoing tension between the scale of what could be done in a capstone and single subject outcomes.

The logic behind this desire seems utterly reasonable. If the aim is to create the kind of multi-layered, complex and higher order outcomes indicated by the capstone concept, then students need time to do the development and achieve the outcomes. Operationalising the scope in terms of student load sends an important message to students about the work they will do, and recognises the complexity of the outcomes they are required to demonstrate.

But does that mean we should discount the single-subject capstones? What is emerging is a diverse range of these across the sector, many of which focus on particular aspects of the capstone concept. Some are transition-focused, like the Tourism and Hospitality capstone at UQ or exciting extra-curricular experiences, like the nationally competitive HealthFusion Team Challenge. In some universities, curriculum structures suggest that there should be multiple distinct capstones serving discipline and general studies streams.

While these smaller capstones on their own may not provide sufficient learning outcomes to be the sole culminating experience, and don’t meet the scale of what we might normally think of as a comprehensive capstone experience, they serve a useful purpose of their own. Paired with other experiences, or with developmental capstone portfolios such as those proposed at Assuring Graduate Capabilities they make sensible choices to meet specific capstone goals.

The questions might be, then: does a capstone experience have to be one thing? Or can there be a bricolage of student capstone experiences, tailored to individual needs and interests? If a capstone must be a major achievement for students that eclipses the standard unit of study and celebrates the significance of the threshold at which students stand (an idea with which I have some sympathy), then what might we call these other, targeted, experiences? How do we best recognise their role in achieving capstone goals and make links between them? Are these activities, using the nomenclature that Paul Whitelaw suggests, better served by being considered the multiple keystones of a final year experience?
Image: ‘Pillars’ by Isaac Wedin original at Flickr, Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0