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Signficant Learning Experiences - The Capstone Project

The Capstone Project: A High Point of Your University Studies

When you finally earn your degree and look back at your years at university, what do you think your most rewarding learning experience will have been? What will you be most proud of having accomplished during your studies?

You might be tempted to say something about building a body of knowledge that will help you succeed in your professional life. Curiously, when we ask our own graduating students these same questions—and we ask every one of them—almost no one mentions knowledge acquisition. Perhaps they take it for granted.

Or, more likely, they have realized that college isn’t (only) about building a foundation of theoretical knowledge however useful that may be for a career. After all, gaining knowledge without at the same time cultivating the desire, means, and ability to continue learning on your own isn’t much use. Some of the knowledge you acquire through your studies will be out-of-date soon, some you’ll simply forget. Just as importantly, there will always be something new to learn. And having the agility to learn on your own in light of new circumstances and challenges is one of the most valuable competencies to have in today’s rapidly changing world of work.

Not just acquiring but using knowledge

No, the most satisfying learning experiences our graduating students mention are not so much about getting knowledge as using it. Students in the M.S. in Psychology program, for example, often mention their clinical internships, while those in the M.A. in Applied Linguistics routinely cite their teaching practicum as the most rewarding learning experience. Undergraduate business students are put in a professional team situation and confronted with a real-world business problem for which they need to find a strategic solution.

This makes sense. By applying the theoretical knowledge that they learn within and across areas of learning students, students can see the real-world applications of their understanding and are thus more engaged in the learning process and more invested in building their competency.

The capstone project

Many of our graduating students point to their final capstone project as the most satisfying learning experience. Usually completed during the final year of studies, these semester-long projects are a required part of many US university degree programs. They serve an opportunity for you to integrate, apply, and showcase the knowledge and skills they have acquired throughout your degree program.

The term “capstone” comes from the final finishing stone placed at the top of a structure and is used metaphorically to describe a high point or crowning achievement. Likewise, a capstone project is the culmination of all the work that you as a student will have done before.

Depending on your discipline, your project can take a broad variety of forms and draw on a range of competencies, from research and analysis to problem-solving and creative work. If you are majoring in film scoring and music production, for example, you will be asked to prepare and present an original score that they compose for a TV show, film, or video game. If you’re doing an undergraduate degree in psychology, you’ll conduct and write up a small-scale, empirical research project that might involve administering a survey, doing field observations, or conducting an experiment.

The capstone is also a unique chance for you to explore an area of interest and do original work. An undergraduate student in the B.A. in English Language and Literature program used his capstone and his interest in theatre to investigate how drama techniques could be used in an EFL classroom to help young students develop their language skills. A graduate Conference Interpreting student devoted hers to exploring how the physiological effects of stress affected an interpreter’s performance and how techniques to reduce and regulate stress reduction could be applied within the professional setting.

A recent graduate from the B.S. in Informatics student used his capstone project to develop a tool that could eventually enable deaf and hard-of-hearing persons to use their native language to communicate online with English-language speakers who do not know American Sign Language. He said that the capstone let him pursue an idea that had been on his mind since the lockdown that would not have time for otherwise. “I wanted to use it to do something I couldn’t otherwise do and at the same time to learn new things and to make something of value.”

What makes the capstone so challenging—but also so rewarding?

A good many students are daunted at the prospect of undertaking the capstone. After all, these are big, complex assignments. They demand a significant investment of time and effort over a relatively long period of time. They require you to dig deep, synthesize information and knowledge from multiple sources and from different disciplines.

You need to plan, execute, and manage your project to meet deadlines and deliver quality work. You are, in essence, your own boss and project manager. You will be the one setting milestones, monitoring your progress, and adapting, if needed, to unforeseen challenge. (Of course, you can count on the support of your advisor, but you will need to take the initiative to coordinate with him or her).

But many of these same challenges can also be a source of reward. Effectively meeting the challenges of completing a large and complex project—navigating difficulties, adapting to setbacks, and persevering in your goal—will foster personal growth and confidence. Successfully completing a capstone project is a significant achievement that can bring you a sense of fulfilment and, yes, pride.

Since many capstone projects involve hands-on application of skills and knowledge to real-world problems, you also gain practice experience that mirrors the challenges of professional work in your field. A well-executed capstone project can serve as a portfolio piece that showcases your abilities to potential employers or graduate programs.

So, yes, capstone projects are a challenge, but the kind that pushes you to deliver your best!