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Office of Assessment of Teaching and Learning Capstone Resources

Capstone Resources

Designing Capstones

Capstones at a Research University

The Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University (2001) gives five recommendations for capstone courses at research universities:

  • Senior seminars or other capstone courses appropriate to the discipline need to be part of every undergraduate program. Ideally the capstone course should bring together faculty member, graduate students, and senior undergraduates in shared or mutually reinforcing projects.
  • The capstone course should prepare undergraduates for the expectations and standards of graduate work and the professional workplace.
  • The course should be the culmination of the inquiry-based learning of earlier course work, broadening, deepening, and integrating the total experience of the major.
  • The major project may well develop from a previous research experience or internship.
  • Whenever possible, capstone courses need to allow for collaborative efforts among the baccalaureate students.

Types of Capstone Experiences & Courses

Toward a Model for Capstone Experiences: Mountaintops, Magnets, and Mandates. (Rowles et al., 2004).
This article describes capstone courses as typically organized around either development or assessment. “When assessment is emphasized, capstones are used in assessing program-level student learning outcomes. Essentially, capstones seek to answer the central questions: What does the student know? What can the student do? What evidence suggests what students know and can do? Results from capstones are aimed at improving instructional practices, and capstones are frequently used to provide accountability and documentation for a variety of audiences.” The article also describes three organizing models for capstone courses: Magnets, Mandates, or Mountaintops (or Mosaics).

  • Magnets: Pull together essential student learning outcomes in the major; “discipline-specific and … like a magnet attracting precious metal, pull together the richness of content from the discipline in a summative manner”
  • Mandates: Typically satisfy proscribed professional accreditation standards and demonstrating competence; “organized around meeting the needs of an external constituency, typically when licensure, certification, or other circumstances require that competences be mastered and demonstrated in a summative manner”
  • Mountaintops: Are often interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary projects to intentionally draw upon the learning, experiences, and perspectives of two or more disciplines.
    “… students from two (or more) disparate majors ascend to the capstone experience from different, unique disciplinary perspectives, coming together at the summit”
  • Mosaics (subsequent design, 2012): Reinforce general education purposes and institutional values

A Multiplicity of Learning: Capstones at Portland State University. (Rhodes & Kippenhan, 2004).
This article provides a good example of the “mountaintop” model of capstone courses. The stated purpose of the capstones described is to “cultivate in students crucial life abilities that are important both academically and professionally and to allow them to establish connections within the larger community, developing strategies for analyzing and addressing problems and working with others trained in fields different from their own.” The article also proves description of capstone assessment.

Capstones and Quality: The Culminating Experience as Assessment. (Catchings, 2004).
This article provides description of the “magnet” model of capstone courses in a department of communication. They designed their capstone course to act as “(1) as a culminating experience wherein students would engage in reflective analysis of their education and (2) as a quality assessment tool to satisfy the standards of accreditation.”

From Capstones to Touchstones: Preparative Assessment and Its Use in Teacher Education. (Brock, 2004).
This article describes an assessment approach that serves as both a capstone and touchstone, and it talks about how capstone courses can be shaped to meet the demands of the public and/or discipline-specific accreditors. The specific example of this “mandate” model of summative capstone assessment is a portfolio review.

Capstone Courses Vary in Terms of Goals, Objectives, Structures and Assignments. (Weimer, 2013).
This article provides a review of the diversity of capstone course designs. “Understanding how the various courses in a major fit together to build a coherent knowledge base should be a learning outcome of every major. Capstone courses are a way of ensuring that students have the opportunity to do that integration.”

A Multi-Institutional Study of Student’s Perceptions and Experiences in the Research-based Capstone Course in Sociology. (McKinney & Day, 2013).
This article describes student perceptions of and experiences in research-focused capstone courses. It also provides insight into how the effectiveness of such a course could be assessed using questionnaires, focus groups, and learning reflection essays.


Washington State University