The capstone project is an opportunity for students to demonstrate that they have achieved the goals for learning established by their educational institution and major department. The project is designed to assess cognitive, affective and psychomotor learning and to do so in a student-centered and student-directed manner which requires the command, analysis and synthesis of knowledge and skills. The capstone project integrates learning from the courses in the major with the courses from the rest of the academic experience. It requires the application of that learning to a project which serves as an instrument of evaluation. The course fosters interdisciplinary partnerships among university departments and helps cultivate industry alliances and cooperation. In examining a basis for the existence of a capstone project, the literature in the field of education, specifically curriculum and instruction, provides some direction. From a wide variety of definitions for curriculum, one definition, by Hilda Taba, seems particularly useful because it specifies the elements of curriculum. “A curriculum usually contains a statement of aims and of specific objectives; it indicates some selection and organization of content; it either implies or manifests certain patterns of learning and teaching, whether because the objectives demand them or because the content organization requires them. Finally, it includes a program of evaluation of the outcomes” (Oliva, 1982, p.7).
These elements are not mutually exclusive. Their integration should result in a positive and successful learning experience. The critical last element, evaluation, not only validates the learning, but also enables faculty to revise and refine courses or curricula to attain desired outcomes. Just as curriculum development is a systematic process, curriculum evaluation is a systematic process by which the students’ total education is weighed. Student achievement, traditionally, has been assessed by examination. While applicable as a tool of evaluation, the test usually measures one’s cognitive ability to recall and understand knowledge. Another important method of evaluation may be the student project which allows for the application of learning. Such projects are usually limited in scope and closely related to competency in a single course. The testing method of evaluation is normally formative. That is, it is assessment used during actual instruction designed to track progress and understanding. It is a measure of the teaching and learning process. The project is summative evaluation. That is, its role is to assess learning and skills generally mastered in a course; the achievement of course goals.
By its very nature, the capstone project is a method of summative evaluation. It not only assesses previous cognitive learning in the major, but also provides a forum that allows an instructor to assesse the student’s overall collegiate learning experience. Since, in addition to cognitive skills, learning can occur in two other domains (affective and psychomotor,) a capstone project allows for a mix of evaluative styles that assess the broad range of the students’ past experiences. This approach also allows a student, who perhaps excels in one area more than another, to demonstrate the strengths of his or her learning. Achievement in the cognitive domain is usually represented by an ability to recall, understand and apply knowledge. Evaluation of affective learning is characterized by expression of feelings, values and attitudes (especially regarding events, issues and topics related to, or impacting, the students’ field of study.) Finally, psychomotor learning is evaluated by the application and performance of skills. Ideally, a student’s competence will be demonstrated in all three learning modalities. In a summative evaluation of the students’ experience in the university curriculum, a capstone project is an instrument used to measure the attainment of curricular outcomes. It is an in-depth opportunity for the student to demonstrate accomplishment of the full spectrum of that learning. It is, therefore, critical that the capstone project contain a wide and balanced variety of expectations. The student is given the opportunity to analyze and apply the accumulated learning and display creative products and solutions to requirements presented by the course. A useful model for such expectations is Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives as applied to the final course. These progressive levels of objectives are: recall of knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation.
The last three levels are higher-order intellectual activity. They are concerned more with the how and why of learning rather than the what. By requiring students in the capstone project to reach objectives beyond application, they achieve more outcomes of learning. Affective learning is made up of attitudes, interests, values and feelings derived by the student through learning and by interaction with other learners and professors. The affective domain of learning consists of five levels: receiving, responding, valuing, organization, and characterization of a value complex. This final level, the highest order, indicates that one’s beliefs, ideas, and attitudes have been integrated into a total philosophy. Psychomotor learning is an on-going refinement process. Such learning is assessed as units and as courses is completed. Often, new courses bring with them different and unusual forms of learning. For example, an oral performance course may develop voice delivery to a more refined stage while a course in interpretation may require a new application of that previously learned skill. A course in video production may require the development of an unfamiliar combination and synchronization of finely coordinated movements. Psychomotor learning encompasses: gross bodily movements, finely coordinated movements, non-verbal communication and speech behaviors. The capstone project expectations are a display of a mastery of learning and the ability to apply it to new, unusual and integrated project requirements. The capstone project is designed to be a culminating educational experience for the undergraduate student. The project provides for learning, but not in the traditional sense as no new skills are taught. The capstone project can be a self-directed, integrated, learning opportunity. The project is the singular opportunity to determine if the student has assimilated the various goals of his/her total education. As has been previously discussed, these goals have been established on several levels. The first and most global in nature are the general goals of higher education.