Capstone Courses in Higher Education

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In higher education, capstone courses, also known as senior seminars, offer undergraduate students nearing graduation the opportunity to summarize, evaluate, and integrate some or all of their college experience. The First National Survey of Senior Seminars and Capstone Courses conducted in 1999 suggested that these courses place the highest priority on culminating learning in the academic major. Enrollments in sections of senior seminars and capstone courses are most often kept at fewer than thirty students. These courses are generally treated as academic major or core requirements, most are at least one academic term in length, and most require a major project or presentation.

The earliest capstones can be traced to the end of the eighteenth century when college presidents taught courses generally integrating philosophy and religion. One of the most famous was a class at Williams College in Massachusetts taught by President Mark Hopkins that inspired, among others, future U.S. President James A. Garfield. Since its inception, the senior seminar has appeared and disappeared in colleges and universities throughout the United States.

The goals and methods of senior seminars and capstone courses in American higher education have been studied at least four times. The first was a study conducted in the early 1970s and sponsored by the Carnegie Council on Policy Studies in Higher Education. For this research, 270 catalogs from colleges and universities in the United States for the year 1975 were examined for course type and structure. The study found that only 3 percent of participating institutions sponsored senior seminars. Arthur Levine, the study's author, later concluded that these courses are offered, at any given time and in various forms, at one in every twenty institutions nationwide.

In a second effort, Joseph Cuseo evaluated proceedings from four national Conferences on the Senior Year Experience and two national Conferences on Students in Transition that convened in the 1990s. His work, centering on characterizing the types, goals, and forms of the senior year experience, including capstone courses, suggested the following goals for the senior year:

  1. promotion of the coherence and relevance of general education;
  2. promotion of integration and connections between general education and the academic major;
  3. fostering of integration and synthesis within the academic major;
  4. promotion of meaningful connections between the academic major and work and career experiences;
  5. explicit and intentional development of important student skills, competencies, and perspectives that are tacitly or incidentally developed in the college curriculum;
  6. enhanced awareness of and support for the key personal adjustments encountered by seniors during their transition from college to postcollege life;
  7. improvement of seniors' career preparation and pre-professional development, that is, facilitation of the transition from the academic to the professional world;
  8. enhancement of seniors' preparation and prospects for postgraduate education;
  9. promotion of effective life planning and decision making with respect to practical issues likely to be encountered in adult life after college (for example, financial planning, marriage, family planning).

In August 2000 Jean Henscheid reviewed modern senior seminars and capstone courses in publication abstracts and presentations available on the Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC) database. The review suggested that these courses are most often associated with a specific academic discipline and coordinated through an academic department or unit. Also in 2000, the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition at the University of South Carolina reported results from a nationwide survey of colleges and universities. This survey, in addition to the findings reported above, revealed that coursework and other experiences students have before they enter the academic major are generally not topics covered, at least in the 864 senior capstones or seminars described by these respondents.

Types Of Courses

In the early twenty-first century senior seminars and capstone courses in higher education generally fall into one of five types. Varying goals, instructional strategies, and topics separate these course types.

Discipline-and department-based courses . The overriding goal of discipline-and department-based courses is to summarize learning within the academic major. These types of classes are also likely to make connections between the academic learning and the professional world. Some institutions use these courses as a means to encourage seniors to pursue postgraduate study. This subset of courses makes up the majority of the capstone courses offered. These courses are typically offered through the academic department and may be required for graduation. Faculty members within the academic discipline typically teach these courses at the conclusion of the students' academic careers. The classes are taught either by a single faculty member or team-taught by faculty members or staff; three hours of semester credit are normally offered for a letter grade. As this type of class is normally offered as the final "piece" of a student's academic major, credit for these classes is typically a requirement of the major. Topics for discipline and department-based courses vary by the academic major; but include issues that are relevant to the professions related to that major. These courses often use a major project and or presentation as a means for communicating and summarizing the student's academic learning.

Interdisciplinary courses . Interdisciplinary courses, representing a smaller percentage of senior seminars and capstones, offer students an opportunity to synthesize general education, major classes, and cocurricular learning. These courses are more likely to be found at private institutions, taught by a single faculty member. Letter grades are prevalent, and students receive three to four semester hours of credit for completing these courses. Credit for interdisciplinary senior seminars and capstone courses is applied most often as a major requirement, core requirement, or a general education requirement. Presentations and major projects are most often employed as instructional components in these courses. Topics are broad, often involving philosophical issues such as ethics. These courses tend to stress the inter-relatedness of different academic majors and their role within society.

Transition courses . Transition courses, the third most prevalent type of senior seminars and capstones, focus on preparation for work, graduate school, and life after college. Faculty or career-center professionals most often teach these courses, which typically award a letter grade, although they are less likely to do so than discipline-and department-based courses and interdisciplinary courses. These classes generally earn the participating students one semester of credit.

Topics for transition courses mainly consist of students' transition issues, and students enrolled in them are likely to engage in job search and life transition planning. Discussions center around self-assessment, financial planning, the job search and the first year on the job, relationships, and diversity. Presentations weigh heavily in evaluation of performance in these courses, but rather than major projects, students often develop a portfolio or use the career center.

Career-planning courses . Career-planning courses assist students as they engage in pre-professional development. In some cases career planning is the only goal of these courses. In the 1999 First National Survey of Senior Seminars and Capstone Courses, these courses were the least frequently reported major type. Career planning courses are likely to be taught by career-center professionals, but in some cases academic faculty might teach them. Although students typically receive grades for these courses, they are less likely to receive as many credit hours as students enrolled in other types of senior seminars or capstone courses. The classroom experience in these courses is evaluated most often by the creation of a portfolio, followed by a major project and a presentation. Classroom topics for career-planning courses include current trends in the field, procedures for liensure and job seeking, students' roles in the workplace, and development of a résumé, cover letter, and portfolio.

Other . There are also a small number of senior seminars and capstone courses that do not fit in these four types. These courses often span curricular and cocurricular boundaries and attempt to address institutional goals. These courses do share many of the characteristics of other courses. The primary goals (fostering integration and synthesis within the academic major and promoting integration and connections between the academic major and world of work) are similar to those of most types of the other senior courses. These courses do not generally focus on general education, and are almost always taught by a member of the academic faculty. They tend to be the smallest of the senior courses, often enrolling fewer than nine students. They are most often held for one academic term and students are usually assigned a letter grade.

The Future

As is true with many trends in higher education, senior seminars and capstone courses will likely continue to appear and disappear in various forms. Instructional technologies and the changing delivery of student services will affect the content and character of these courses in the future. This, along with changing student demographics and needs of the institutions offering them, will determine the future goals and structure of these courses.

See also: College Seminars for First-Year Students; Curriculum, Higher Education, subentries on National Reports on the Under-graduate Curriculum, Traditional and Contemporary Perspectives.


Cuseo, Joseph B. 1998. "Objectives and Benefits of Senior Year Programs." In The Senior Year Experience: Facilitating Reflection, Integration, Closure and Transition, ed. John N. Gardner, Gretchen Van der Veer, and Associates. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Gardner, John N.; Van der Veer, Gretchen; and Associates. 1998. The Senior Year Experience: Facilitating Reflection, Integration, Closure and Transition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Henscheid, Jean M. 2000. Professing the Disciplines: An Analysis of Senior Seminars and Capstone Courses. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for The First Year Experience and Students in Transition.

Levine, Arthur. 1978. Handbook of Undergraduate Curriculum. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Levine, Arthur. 1998. "A President's Personal and Historical Perspective." In The Senior Year Experience: Facilitating Reflection, Integration, Closure and Transition, ed. John N. Gardner, Gretchen Van der Veer, and Associates. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Jean M. Henscheid

Lisa R. Barnicoat