January 31st, 2013

Capstone Courses Vary in Terms of Goals, Objectives, Structures and Assignments

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Capstone courses are now a requirement in many departments, programs, and college curricula. They vary across different dimensions, indicating that although their value is universally recognized, they share few common features. For starters, they are offered at various levels; at the department level for students in a particular major, at the college level, say, for students in engineering, and at the university level as a general education integrative experience.

A survey of 24 Midwestern institutions offering capstone courses for accounting majors also found wide variation in how the courses were structured. Some were configured as individual courses; others as internships, volunteer or outreach experiences; still others as research projects; and some as a combination of these options. Definitions for capstone courses also vary, although almost all can be described as “an academic culmination that draws on other courses.” (p. 267) Capstones are taken at different times as well. Some are yearlong experiences for seniors, some are taken the semester before graduation. Some institutions require capstone courses at various times during the college experience so that students begin thinking integratively about their educational experiences well before their final semester.

Is all this diversity an asset or a liability? That’s difficult to say at this point. The rich range of options is valuable for those designing capstones. Options abound. It may be, though, that more consistency is needed at the program or department level. It might be useful if there were some consensus as to the goals, objectives, structures, and assignments best suited for capstones in a given major.

That’s why this analysis of accounting capstones is a useful model. It highlights the diversity within this collection of capstones, including fairly detailed descriptions of four very different capstone courses, but it also discusses a mechanism for assessing these capstones against an established benchmark.

A professional association within accounting has identified a core competency framework. Its 20 competencies are deemed necessary for entry-level accountants. Researchers looked to see if and how this cohort of capstones was addressing those competencies. They found that the courses were “closely linked” to the development of eight of them: research, problem solving, critical thinking, reflection, synthesis, teamwork, communication, and professional orientation. (p. 271)

For many students college still tends to be experienced course by course. Even though links between and among courses are clearly visible to those of us who know the content, students often fail to see the connections. 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. How it is accomplished, whether some course structures and learning activities are more successful at achieving the goal than others, remains a question still to be explored in many disciplines.

Reference: Johnson, G. F., and Halabi, A. K. (2011). The accounting undergraduate capstone: Promoting synthesis, reflection, transition, and competencies. Journal of Education for Business, 86 (5), 266-273.

Reprinted from Capstone Courses: Many Options, The Teaching Professor, 26.1 (2012): 2.

For more on capstone courses, preview the seminar Designing and Teaching a High-Impact Capstone Course »