What are Capstone Projects?
Donna A. Gessell is a professor of English. She has long taught the capstone course for students earning the BA in English with Teacher Certification.
Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of posts called HIPs Implementation about the ongoing USG-directed effort to document and promote HIPs at UNG.
Capstone Courses and Projects is one of eleven High-Impact Practices (HIPs) described by the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U). HIPs have been documented to produce a wide range of positive outcomes, including increased rates of student retention and engagement. As part of the USG effort to encourage and document the use of HIPs across the system, UNG is tracking four HIPs, including Capstone Projects. Because the capstone is so important for ensuring students’ futures, each department at UNG is encouraged to create capstone courses for each of their degree areas.
The definition of Capstone Courses and Projects, according to the AAC&U, is as follows:
Whether they’re called “senior capstones” or some other name, these culminating experiences require students nearing the end of their college years to create a project of some sort that integrates and applies what they’ve learned. The project might be a research paper, a performance, a portfolio of “best work,” or an exhibit of artwork. Capstones are offered both in departmental programs and, increasingly, in general education as well.
As the instructor of the capstone Teaching English course, I’m well aware of the value for my students of the required projects because they consistently compliment the course for its practical value and the applicability of the projects to their careers. They take the course during the Fall semester of their last year as undergraduates and their first semester of a year-long internship in an area public secondary school. It is a time when students are becoming professionals, and a key component of the course is my observation of a class they teach as part of their internship. I ensure that they demonstrate the skills necessary to teach the content of English. This capstone observation not only counts toward their class grade, but also forms the foundation for the professional recommendations I will write for them while they are on the job market.
Students complete capstone projects in addition to making peer presentations in and discussing each of the areas of teaching English, including the pedagogical theories and practice involved in teaching reading, writing, and speaking, using technology effectively, designing curriculum, assessing student work, recognizing and addressing diversity, adapting lessons to meet individual needs, and resolving other challenges that often arise in the English classroom.
The capstone projects are designed to provide tools—both methods and materials—needed by students transitioning into their professional careers. They include developing an English portfolio that involves students’ reflection over their college careers as English majors and evaluating assignments in composition, linguistic, and literary courses to track their own development in each area. Also, a résumé and cover letter project ensures that students are able to represent themselves well on paper, with a wide audience in mind, so as to attract an interview. Finally, a two-week teaching unit asks students to focus on a teaching subject they are particularly passionate about. Although the unit fulfills part of the course requirements, it is meant for their own use in the future, when they will need to pull down a ready-made unit that is complete with internal assessments, assignments, and teaching rationale. In fact, the cover essay for that assignment, which addresses the theory underlying their teaching practice, goes through at least three drafts because it helps them focus on their teaching philosophy.
Students are challenged by the semester. During this process of transformation, they are neither fully students nor fully teachers. They value these assignments and the resulting conversations with their peers, mentors, and teachers—both secondary and baccalaureate—that allow them to integrate and apply what they have learned about teaching and learning English, in all of its many forms.