Capstone Courses and Projects: Demonstrate Everything You’ve Learned in College

Capstone projects are completed at the end of a course of study, usually during a student’s senior year. Capstones require students to integrate their coursework and studies into a final research project, performance, portfolio, or paper. 

Through the creation of an original work that encapsulates their entire academic experience and uses skills learned throughout their college education, students demonstrate their mastery of a subject. They also leave school with a product that reflects their best work and is appropriate to show potential employers or graduate programs.

“…the culminating capstone experience unites faculty and students in an important shared venture that has the best opportunity to support intellectual challenge, dedication to undergraduate research, and an appreciation for scholarly activity. We do not think the capstone experience can be duplicated or achieved by any other single format currently recognized.” Hauhart & Grahe, 2015

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Examples of Capstone Projects

  • Senior Thesis: Typically, a thesis is a lengthy academic research paper that incorporates many of the discipline’s themes and methodologies.
  • Colloquium: Some capstone programs, including those in business programs, culminate with a public colloquium in which students give professional-level presentations of their research or project findings, often in their final college semester.
  • Performance: In performing arts, a capstone experience might be a choreographed dance, performance in a play, or a musical recital.
  • Portfolio: For creative disciplines such as writing or visual arts, the capstone project might be the collection of a student’s best work, often with written explanations of the process or media used.
  • Website: Many capstone projects can include the creation of a website to document or display the student’s work. In the case of a technical major, the website can also demonstrate programming techniques, graphic design, or other skills.

What Can Students Expect?

Many capstones are designed to incorporate all of the work a student has done throughout their college career since their freshman year, and coursework builds naturally towards this outcome, with some of a student’s assignments geared to creating parts of the project. Other capstones may focus on the senior year, with the goal being the creation of a semester- or year-long project such as a thesis. In all cases, students should expect to find a topic or concept upon which they can build this capstone. These projects are generally challenging and should represent the students’ best work, as they reflect their knowledge, skill, and experience.

Over the course of their capstone program, students may need to present their work visually, orally, and in written form to various audiences beyond just their academic mentor or professor.

When asking the question: what is a capstone project? The answer may vary, but capstones provide an opportunity to showcase everything they’ve learned in higher education, and provides a launching point for what comes after their college careers. 

How do Capstone Courses and Projects Improve Student Outcomes?

As part of the process of creating a project and placing their work within a broader academic context, students gain a deeper understanding of their academic discipline, including the history, controversies, and advancements in the field. They bring all of their previous education to bear as they solve a problem or create a new work. This requires students to analyze, interpret, and synthesize a sizable amount of knowledge and present it in a coherent and intelligent manner.

Even in the case of performances or portfolios, students must display a degree of mastery in their subject. To this end, they may need to conduct research in their field. This process allows them to understand how their own work expands upon or challenges what has come before, and explain how their own work contributes to a broader understanding of the field.

How Schools Implement Capstone Projects

Kalamazoo College, Kalamazoo TWP, MI

At Kalamazoo College, every senior must complete a Senior Individualized Project (SIP), typically within their major field of study, and then students must present their work to their peers and professors during one of a number of events throughout the spring semester.