January 2nd, 2009

Capstone Courses Prepare Students for Transition to Working World

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Much attention continues to be directed at those freshman experience programs in college. As important as that time is, it’s not the only portion of a student’s career to which attention should be directed. True, seniors are no longer likely to drop out of college, but they face a transition just as compelling as the one that brings them from high school to college. They are about to depart from college to professional lives. It is a time for reflection, integration, and closure.

Some of this reflection, summary, and ending occurs inevitably, but all of it can be expedited by a capstone college course experience. According to Jervis and Hartley (referenced below) in order to effectively end a college career and begin a professional one, capstone courses should:

  • Promote the coherence and relevance of general education.
  • Promote connections between general education and the academic major.
  • Foster integration and synthesis within the academic major.
  • Explicitly and intentionally develop important student skills, competencies, and perspectives that are tacitly or incidentally developed in the college curriculum.
  • Improve seniors’ career preparation and pre-professional development, that is, facilitate their transition from the academic to the professional world.

A survey of capstone courses summarized in the article referenced below found that capstone courses most often integrated and synthesized content within the academic major, according to student reports.

In thinking about a capstone course currently offered in one’s department or when contemplating the possibility of adding one to the curriculum, the special challenges involved in designing, presenting, and then assessing learning in these culminating courses should not be underestimated. Much like the introductory general education course, where a whole field must be overviewed for a less-than-captivated crowd, capstone courses must address different but equally challenging instructional realities.

Typically courses in a curriculum are not well connected to one another. Helping students integrate learning across courses so that they can see a field’s coherence only happens if the teacher has broad content knowledge. It also requires sophisticated synthesis. Further, if they are to realize their objectives, these courses cannot rely on objective assessment methods such as multiple-choice exams. Students need to write, make oral presentations, and work with others on group projects. This adds to the design complexity, as well as the time that must be devoted to grading.

The lofty goals that capstone courses can accomplish make them worth the effort. We know how important first experiences in college are. We need a greater appreciation of how equally important a final summarizing experience can be.

Reference: Jervis, K. J., and Hartley, C. A. (2005). Learning to design and teach an accounting capstone. Issues in Accounting Education, 20 (4), 311–339.

Excerpted from Academic Leader, February 2006.