Kristi Upson-Saia thinks it can, and she has data from one field that supports her belief. When her religious studies department (at Occidental College) decided to reassess its capstone course, Upson-Saia looked for relevant publications in her field. Finding few, she began collecting data from other religious studies departments. She asked those departments to explain their course objectives and share capstone materials such as guidelines, checklists, websites, and syllabi. Her analysis of religious study capstones includes data from 29 different programs, and what she found is typical of the descriptive analysis of capstones completed in several other fields. The courses have different objectives, they address content in different ways, and students complete a variety of assignments, although most involve the application of research skills used in the field.

But Upson-Saia found something else. “As I collected materials, I was struck by the fact that most of the faculty with whom I spoke were dissatisfied with their capstones. They told me they were demoralized by the poor quality of their students’ work. … Many told me they invested more time working with these students than any others, yet, despite their efforts, students continued to produce mediocre work that evidenced an unsophisticated understanding of their topic and/or unrefined analytical abilities.” (p. 8)

Upson-Saia thinks the problem is the result of broader definitions for and expectations of capstone courses. Recently, interest in the senior year has grown. Many scholars are writing about it as a time during which students reflect on the knowledge and skills acquired during college. Many recommend that this reflection be “capped” in the capstone course. Moreover, there is also interest in using the capstone as a transition to professional life. In some cases that means interview preparation and the exploration of professional responsibilities, including discussion of ethical and work-life balance issues. And, finally, many institutions are now interested in using the capstone to collect institutional and departmental assessment data.

“[T]he source of our problem lies in the bloated capstone, which has become a dumping ground for departmental and institutional objectives and pressures: in the capstone we seek to synthesize prior learning, to instill new knowledge and skills, to transition from college to the real world, and to assess the success of the students, the department, and the institution.” (p. 11)

For religious studies, indeed for any field, there is no one “best” capstone model. Departments should consider the options and then make decisions. Upson-Saia lists as a first step “judiciously” prioritizing learning outcomes. Given staff in the department, number of students, and other institutional responsibilities, what can realistically be accomplished in the capstone course? “My survey found that the departments most satisfied with their capstones are those which formulated a clear set of learning outcomes for their majors and those which have thoughtfully staged their major requirements to meet those outcomes in a measured and developmentally appropriate way.” (p. 15)

It’s not that what’s being proposed for capstone courses isn’t needed. It’s just unrealistic to expect that one final course can accomplish these multiple objectives. If the writing skills of seniors continue to be of concern within the department, the solution adopted at some colleges might work. Students take a course during their junior year that introduces and develops research and writing skills. Those skills are then built upon with the research work undertaken in the capstone. Integration of knowledge in a field can be an ongoing process. It might even be more effective if it is. The point is simply that the important tasks now being associated with capstone courses could easily and profitably be spread out over a number of courses in the major.

Even though this article focuses on capstones in a particular field, it’s another of those discipline-based publications that asks questions relevant to any field that offers a culminating course experience.

Reference: Upson-Saia, K. (2013). The capstone experience for the religious studies major. Teaching of Theology and Religion, 16 (1), 3-17.

Reprinted from “Can a Capstone Course Try to Accomplish Too Much?” in Academic Leader 29.4(2013)2 © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.