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Many undergraduate academic programs require students to complete a capstone course or project as a culminating experience in their programs. Capstones are typically significant, degree-culminating projects, often associated with multiple program learning outcomes for students. Often other required courses serve as prerequisites to the capstone where particular outcomes are practiced or rehearsed. In the capstone students go even further to demonstrate their learning at a more advanced cognitive level, such as integrating, synthesizing or creating. Since capstones are usually designed for students to demonstrate their mastery of key program learning outcomes, they are ideal for the assessment of student learning. 

Sometimes the successful creation and presentation of a capstone project itself will also constitute a program learning outcome: the program is asking students to demonstrate their ability to design and implement a complex, multi-faceted project successfully–either on their own or in a team. If programs have outcomes such as written communication, oral communication, critical thinking, or information literacy, capstones usually serve as the site for which the assessment of these competencies can be assessed, in addition to any disciplinary outcomes. 

Capstones have other advantages as well. Often, more than a single faculty member is involved in reviewing a capstone project; thus, a program already has a jumpstart on the creation of an assessment committee.


Examples in practice

At SCU, the Environmental Science program uses student capstones to assess three of its six student learning outcomes (using student artifacts that best demonstrate each): 1) Understand how cultural, socio-economic, political, and ethical contexts impact progress toward just environmental solutions (group presentation); 2) Evaluate sources of information for quality, relevance, and fairness (written report); and 3) Communicate complex environmental issues to diverse audiences (poster presentation). Analytic rubrics are used to assess these outcomes and artifacts by program faculty. 

The Communication Department developed a culminating experience for seniors that uses ePortfolios to assess four program-level student learning outcomes, as described in the page on ePortfolios

Many engineering programs that are accredited by ABET use senior design capstone projects as a vehicle to assess all seven ABET-mandated engineering student learning outcomes: 

  1. an ability to identify, formulate, and solve complex engineering problems by applying principles of engineering, science, and mathematics. 
  2. an ability to apply engineering design to produce solutions that meet specified needs with consideration of public health, safety, and welfare, as well as global, cultural, social, environmental, and economic factors.
  3. an ability to communicate effectively with a range of audiences.
  4. an ability to recognize ethical and professional responsibilities in engineering situations and make informed judgments, which must consider the impact of engineering solutions in global, economic, environmental, and societal contexts.
  5. an ability to function effectively on a team whose members together provide leadership, create a collaborative and inclusive environment, establish goals, plan tasks, and meet objectives.
  6. an ability to develop and conduct appropriate experimentation, analyze and interpret data, and use engineering judgment to draw conclusions.
  7. an ability to acquire and apply new knowledge as needed, using appropriate learning strategies.

Written reports, oral presentations, and faculty- and student-evaluations of collaboration and teamwork usually constitute the artifacts that are assessed by faculty, and for particular outcomes (e.g., #3), by a diverse group of stakeholders, including experts. Rubrics guide the assessment of most of these outcomes.