University of Delaware
The UD Commitment to the Capstone Experience
The Capstone Experience (CE) is an important and critical part of the students’ academic and professional formation and education at the University of Delaware. In its March 13, 2000 meeting, the Faculty Senate approved a resolution indicating that it “endorses in principle…major components of the GEP” (General Education Program), including a “Capstone Experience (CE) which integrates the undergraduate experience such as a senior seminar, group project or similar experience.” The Faculty Senate also resolved that “each department or program responsible for administering undergraduate majors is encouraged to direct its students to acquire basic skills, avail themselves of discovery learning, and participate in a capstone experience.” The University of Delaware’s Periodic Review Report (PRR) (2006:41) to the Middle States Association indicates that “Capstone experiences will be part of the education of all UD undergraduates by 2008.” In making this commitment, it is anticipated that the majority, if not all, of the academic departments and programs will be able to satisfy the CE without the creation of new courses and without increasing the number of credits required for graduation.
The CE will enhance and expand students’ knowledge in their respective disciplines, will prepare them to enter graduate school or the workforce, and will promote lifelong learning. Furthermore, the CE will contribute to having students exposed to discovery learning, critical thinking, and will allow them to develop many of the skills and knowledge that have been established in the University of Delaware’s General Education Goals, as approved by the Faculty Senate.
What is a Capstone Experience?
The Capstone Experience is aimed at synthesizing or integrating the knowledge that students have developed throughout their undergraduate academic careers. Its aim is to have students apply and expand their knowledge through a number of academic or research initiatives. The CE allows students to connect and bring together the knowledge and experiences that they obtained through the courses they have taken to satisfy the requirements for their major. In its 2002 report (Characteristics of Excellence in Higher Education), the Middle States Commission on Higher Education indicates that a CE is a mechanism that can be used to assess learning outcomes as it provides for the “synthesis or aggregation” of information. Wagenaar (1993) defines a CE as follows: “a culminating experience in which students are expected to integrate special studies with the major and extend, critique, and apply knowledge gained in their major.” When defining the Capstone Experience, the Boyer Commission (Reinventing Undergraduate Education, 1998) indicates: “All the skills of research developed in earlier work should be marshaled in a project that demands the framing of a significant question or set of questions, the research or creative exploration to find answers, and the communication of skills to convey the results to audiences both expert and uninitiated in the subject matter.” Palomba and Banta (1999:125) point out that the CE is a “well-thought-out project that is comprehensive in nature and allows students to demonstrate a range of abilities.” John Gardner (About Campus, 2000) argues that “Capstone experiences are created by institutions that recognize that they must provide the most empowering, introspective, reflective, intellectual experiences for their departing students or they are not going to think much of the institution as they walk out the door.”
At the University of Delaware, the Capstone Experience requires students to consolidate and synthesize important learning gleaned from their coursework, experiences, and assignments, and demonstrate their proficiency in applying this knowledge. Reflection, self-assessment, sharing of ideas, and critical analysis are all vital and integrative important components of the capstone experience. However, the emphasis is upon students’ ability to prove what they are now able to do, as they integrate and apply all the learning and growth they have experienced over the past years of their college life. The CE provides a sense of closure to the undergraduate academic experience.
What constitutes a Capstone Experience at the University of Delaware?
Generally, Capstone Experiences will require students to engage in explorations in which the outcomes are unknown, and/or to engage in self-assessment, reflection and analysis that prepares them for future success. These experiences should occur during the senior year or near the end of the program of study, and must have a set of learning goals that are well-communicated to students and directly related to a program’s goals. Students can develop their own individual project, participate in group projects, or work with faculty on an ongoing project. These “experiences” should have a set of requirements that show the depth and breath of the major or discipline, and will allow students to synthesize and integrate their knowledge into an academic or research experience. Faculty supervision and mentorship is critical to ensure a successful Capstone Experience. Capstone Experiences may occur in the context of:
- Honors Thesis
- Capstone Course
- Senior Seminar
- Independent Research
- Field Work
- Study Abroad
- Summer research experiences: McNair, Summer Research Program, Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU), University Research
- Service learning projects (include both service and academic components)
Students will be expected to develop and present a final product that will be graded, and will synthesize their knowledge in their field of study, such as:
- Research paper
- Performance, show or recital
- Oral presentation
- Service learning project
It is important to note that simply participating in any of the above does not, in and of itself, constitute a CE if it does not meet the characteristics described previously. Similarly, a capstone may qualify as a discovery learning experience, but not all discovery learning experiences qualify as capstones. The key is whether the experience is an expression of the totality of the student’s growth, development and learning as an undergraduate.
Assessment of a Capstone Experience
The Capstone Experience provides an excellent opportunity for academic units to conduct a final assessment of whether students are graduating with the skills and knowledge that faculty have determined to be essential. It is expected that each CE explicitly states the learning goals for all participating students, and that these learning goals directly lead to the expected outcomes noted above. It is through the capstone that students demonstrate their mastery of these goals, and that faculty assess the degree of mastery.
This necessitates that departments have established links among their programmatic student learning goals, student learning goals within the courses, and the learning goals for the Capstone Experience. The curriculum should allow students to develop, early, frequently and sequentially, the knowledge and skills necessary to achieve the Capstone Experience’s learning goals. Both faculty and students must be aware of these expectations.
The specific learning goals associated with a Capstone Experience should be developed by the faculty of a unit. However, given that the Capstone Experience is a component of the General Education Program as defined by the Faculty Senate, faculty may wish to consider incorporating general education goals into disciplinary learning goals, as illustrated in the following examples:
At the end of this course, you will have demonstrated your ability to:
- Communicate ideas and the results of your work with clarity, concision, and precision.
- Engage in questions of ethics and recognize the responsibilities of (insert language from discipline) to act responsibly towards themselves, their communities, and society at large.
- Use creative and critical thinking skills and knowledge of (insert language from discipline) to effectively contribute to a problem-solving team.
- Accommodate individual differences (cultural, socioeconomic, global, etc.) in your decisions and actions.
- Engage in self-assessment, reflection, and analysis.
The products required in the Capstone (see previous section for examples) should allow students to demonstrate their mastery of the learning goals. It is recommended that a group of faculty assess the students’ performances. The Office of Educational Assessment can assist units in developing simple but effective rubrics that facilitate assessing the students’ abilities to meet the expectations of the faculty as expressed in the learning goals.
Would a Capstone Experience Require Additional Courses?
Given the aforementioned description and expectations for the CE, it is expected that the majority if not all the academic departments and programs will be able to satisfy the CE without the creation of new courses and without increasing the number of credits required for graduation. In the Spring of 2003, the Faculty Senate Committee on General Education conducted a Capstone Survey at the University of Delaware. About 45 departments or programs completed the electronic survey. Twenty eight respondents (Department Chairs or Program Directors) indicated hat they had a Capstone course in their programs or departments. While these results are promising, they must be viewed with caution as the response rate was only about 36% (45 respondents out of about 125 undergraduate programs). Moreover, although a definition of a CE was provided in the survey, there were no clear criteria or guidelines as to what constitutes a CE or its expected outcomes.
The Capstone Experience and the General Education Goals
As mentioned previously, the Capstone Experience is one of the few academic experiences that incorporates a number of General Education goals (as set forth by the Faculty Senate) at the University of Delaware, including:
- Oral and written communication, quantitative reasoning, and information technology
- Think critically to solve problems
- Work and learn both independently and collaboratively
- Ethics and responsibility
- Diverse ways of thinking
- Integrate academic knowledge with experiences beyond the classroom
- Creativity and diverse forms of aesthetic and intellectual expression
If the Capstone Experience is part of a study abroad project or course, it also contributes to developing an international perspective. Further, these academic experiences should foster an environment that promotes and encourages lifelong learning.
Funding for the Development and Implementation of the Capstone Experience
The University of Delaware is committed to the implementation of Capstone Experiences for all its undergraduate students. In order to promote and encourage the development of such initiatives, the Center for Teaching Effectiveness (CTE), the General Education Initiative (GEI), and Information Technologies provide funding through their instructional grants which are designed to advance the General Educational goals at the University, including Capstone Experiences (for additional information, visit http://cte.udel.edu/programs/instructional-grants.html).
About Campus (May 21, 2000). John Gardner interview conducted by Charles Schroeder as reproduced by Jean Henscheid, “Capstone Experience,” presentation to the University of Delaware faculty, June 6, 2006.
The Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University. (1998). Reinventing Undergraduate Education: A Blueprint for America's Research Universities, State University of New York: Stony Brook.
Middle States Commission on Higher Education. (2002). Characteristics of Excellence in Higher Education: Eligibility Requirements and Standards for Accreditation. Philadelphia: Middle States Commission on Higher Education.
Palomba, C. and Banta, T. (1999). Assessment Essentials: Planning, Implementing, and Improving Assessment in Higher Education. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
University of Delaware. (2006). Periodic Review Report. Submitted to the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (May 2006).
Wagenaar, T.C. (1993). “The Capstone Course.” Teaching Sociology, Vol. 21, No. 3:209-214.
*Havidán Rodríguez, Vice-Provost for Academic Affairs, University of Delaware. Thanks to Karen Stein, School of Public Policy and Administration, for her extensive and insightful comments and recommendations.