What’s in a capstone?
The capstone, traditionally, was a stone placed at the top of a pyramid or building, both signifying its completion and as protection for the walls below. Capstones were often considered the most important part of the building, and elaborately decorated to signify the culmination of the achievement. Similarly, in education capstones are culminating curriculum experiences for students, undertaken in their final year of study. As such, they signify a crowning achievement for students and are one of what Kuh (2008) refers to as ‘high-impact educational practices’.
In the past, the capstone was defined quite literally as a learning experience that consolidated all that had gone before, synthesising knowledge and skills in a high-stakes assessment exercise. More recently, that definition has expanded to take into account the role of capstones in providing the context for building on prior learning, transition to independence and the development of professional identity (Bailey, van Acker, & Fyffe, 2012; McNamara et al., 2012).
Within those broad definitions, capstones are experiences that build student confidence and capability by providing large and complex challenges. Good capstones are authentic, complex and relevant. They engage students in work that is meaningful and contextualised, that highlights their strengths while providing opportunities to bridge weaknesses, and allows them to deal positively with failures. They provide students with power and responsibility both in terms of their own learning, and in the work that they do. In this way, students develop their capabilities as producers and self-authors (Baxtor Magolda, 2009; Healey et al., 2013). As a result, they build self-awareness, resilience, capacity to lead and confidence to act in the world.
While capstones may have similar aims, the models are diverse, with a wide range of scale and foci, teaching approaches and activities. They may be research-focused, work-based or personal projects, they may be team or individual, focus on synthesis or analysis, topics can be broad or highly specialised. They may also take the form of inter-professional or interdisciplinary activities, that require students to engage with each other as professionals and test their capacity to deal with the interdependencies, complexities and achievements of working with other disciplines and fields. Deliverables extend across a wide range of products and processes – for example practice observations, team management processes, presentations, reports, performances, debates, or physical products. Some capstones represent a year of full time work, while others take up less than a quarter of the student load, yet others are integrated, with work developing in several subjects but brought together with a capstone ‘theme’.
Capstones are also often project-oriented, or have curriculum features that reflect some of the characteristics of projects, such as requiring students to:
- Address authentic, significant and/or complex problems or situations
- Define the problem or challenge, and make decisions about the most appropriate approach to take to its resolution
- Consider the relevance of their current knowledge and skills, synthesise and address gaps
- Carry out iterations of development during which they evaluate progress and address issues
- Work independently and act professionally, either individually or in teams
- Disseminate and celebrate their work, either with peers or more publicly
Whatever the focus and scale of the capstone, it is an opportunity for students to take part in an exciting and challenging experience that allows them to take charge of their learning and to test their professional and personal capabilities, as well as developing confidence and preparing for the transition to life beyond their course or program.
For more on capstone design concepts, visit our guides and tools, as well as the useful resources list. More descriptions of capstone approaches and capstone-related curriculum can be found in:
Bailey, Janis, van Acker, Elizabeth, & Fyffe, Jacqui. (2012). Capstone subjects in undergraduate business degrees: A good practice guide. Brisbane: Griffith University. Download from: http://businesscapstones.edu.au/
Baxter Magolda, M B. (2009). Educating for self-authorship: Learning partnerships to achieve complex outcomes. In C. Kreber (Ed.), Teaching and learning within and beyond disciplinary boundaries. Abingdon: Routledge.
Healey, Mick, Lannin, Laura, Stibbe, Arran, & Derounian, James. (2013). Developing and enhancing undergraduate final-year projects and dissertations National Teaching Fellowship Scheme. York: The Higher Education Academy. Download from: http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/projects/detail/ntfs/ntfsproject_Gloucestershire10
Kuh, George D. (2008). High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. Washington: American Association of Colleges and Universities.
McNamara, Judith, Kift, Sally M, Butler, Des, Field, Rachael M, Brown, Catherine, & Gamble, Natalie. (2012). Work-integrated learning as a component of the capstone experience in undergraduate law. Asia-Pacific Journal of Cooperative Education, 13(1), 1-12.
Also see: https://wiki.qut.edu.au/display/capstone/Home – the website from the OLT-funded grant project on curriculum renewal in legal education