A capstone course is a course designed to be offered in the final semester of a student's major, a course that ties together the key learning objectives that faculty expect the student to have learned during the major, interdisciplinary program, or interdepartmental major.
The faculty member who teaches the course gives the grade for the students; the program faculty or a sub-group of the faculty review and evaluate the work for assessment purposes.
Capstone courses enable:
Faculty to assess the cumulative abilities of students within the context of one course;
Faculty to develop the assessment materials to be evaluated within the context of a course;
Students to produce work to be assessed as they would produce work for any course;
Students to demonstrate how they can integrate the knowledge, abilities, and values that faculty have been teaching or demonstrating.
The capstone course:
May not allow enough time for students to devote enough time and effort to truly comprehensive projects;
May not produce the data faculty need if the exercises or projects are not directly linked to the program learning outcomes and if the faculty teaching the course can do not require what the program faculty have agreed upon;
May only provide time for students to address the major program outcomes and therefore not allow faculty to assess more detailed learning outcomes or sub-outcomes.
Varieties of Capstone Courses:
The major project course:
The major project course requires students to work on one project primarily, such as a research paper or an experiment or a creative project. The course can be designed so that students work on the project in stages, allowing faculty to determine students' abilities to revise and/or reconceptualize their work. Student presentations of the project may be both written and oral, allowing faculty to assess both of those student abilities in addition to knowledge and/or skills.
The multiple experiences or exercises course:
Faculty design the course so that students must provide evidence through a variety of means, such as examinations, research papers, oral presentations, group work, and multimedia presentations. For assessment purposes, the faculty need to determine who and how they will assess each of the types of assignments. If the faculty member teaching the course is the only faculty member to evaluate all of the work, then the faculty must rely upon that person's judgments regarding the implications for the entire academic program.
The portfolio in the capstone course:
The major project for a capstone course may be a requirement that students produce a portfolio of work that then provides one item that the program faculty can assess. This portfolio can be designed so that students include a variety of evidence regarding their abilities. The major limitation is that students may not have access to work that they produced in earlier courses, and so the portfolio may be limited as a document for assessing the entire program.
The field experience or internship as a capstone course:
A number of academic programs require students to fulfill a field experience or internship experience as the culminating activity in the program. In this case, students can demonstrate their knowledge, skills, and values in a wide variety of ways. Field experiences and internships may be evaluated by both a faculty member and a field supervisor under whom the student is working. Evaluations may consist of check sheets and evaluation forms that the supervisor and faculty complete both during and at the end of the experience, notes from advisory meetings with the student during the experience, and materials that the student produces during the experience, perhaps gathered into a portfolio. Faculty overseeing the field experiences will need to share their observations of student strengths and weaknesses with the other faculty for them to discuss and assess.
Creating and Designing a Capstone Course:
Determine the specific broad learning objectives for the academic program;
If you have not already done so, determine how those are translated into the individual courses;
Determine the kinds of student work that should be expected during the capstone course (the content and performance standards);
Design the capstone course to enable students to produce that work;
Determine how and when the faculty will assess the work that students produce;
Inform students in the syllabus or related handouts how the objectives of the course are designed to reflect a culmination of their abilities, knowledge, and/or values.
Provide information in department assessment plans and other documents to be reviewed by various constituents regarding how the course relates to the standards for the program and how they are evaluated.
Evaluating the Work from a Capstone Course:
How you evaluate or assess the work student produce in a capstone course depends upon the nature of the work and the learning outcomes being assessed. For example, you may want to use a rubric to evaluate major projects or portfolios. If more than one faculty member observes the student work, you may want to develop checklists or key questions which can be used to describe what the faculty observe. If examinations are part of the course, there may be a few key questions embedded in the exams that will be used for the assessment purposes. Some departments have professionals in the field observe and evaluate student work, such as business persons evaluating case study presentations, directors and actors evaluating student stage productions, artists and musicians evaluating student art work and musical performances, or teachers evaluating student teachers.
The key step is that the faculty as a whole must have a chance to take part in assessing student work or review the assessment results if a designated sub-group of the faculty or professionals in the field assess the work. This review, discussion, and determination if anything needs to be revised in the curriculum needs to be scheduled as part of the regular schedule for faculty work, including time for any recommendations for change to be submitted to appropriate curriculum committees or administrators.
Often, some real surprises result from a faculty's assessment effort: these may, in turn, lead to modifications of a future assessment, such as focusing upon a specific question that the faculty are concerned about.