Office of Assessment of Teaching and Learning

Capstone Resources


Capstone Resources

Capstone courses weave together students’ undergraduate educational experiences (in the major or in general education) and enable them to bring a symbolic conclusion to their acquisition of skills and knowledge. The following sources are provided to assist faculty in designing, assessing, and enhancing their program’s capstone course.

Designing Capstones

Capstones at a Research University

The Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University (2001) gives five recommendations for capstone courses at research universities:

  • Senior seminars or other capstone courses appropriate to the discipline need to be part of every undergraduate program. Ideally the capstone course should bring together faculty member, graduate students, and senior undergraduates in shared or mutually reinforcing projects.
  • The capstone course should prepare undergraduates for the expectations and standards of graduate work and the professional workplace.
  • The course should be the culmination of the inquiry-based learning of earlier course work, broadening, deepening, and integrating the total experience of the major.
  • The major project may well develop from a previous research experience or internship.
  • Whenever possible, capstone courses need to allow for collaborative efforts among the baccalaureate students

Types of Capstone Experiences & Courses

Toward a Model for Capstone Experiences: Mountaintops, Magnets, and Mandates (Rowles et al. 2004). Click for brief summary
This article describes capstone courses as typically organized around either development or assessment. “When assessment is emphasized, capstones are used in assessing program-level student learning outcomes. Essentially, capstones seek to answer the central questions: What does the student know? What can the student do? What evidence suggests what students know and can do? Results from capstones are aimed at improving instructional practices, and capstones are frequently used to provide accountability and documentation for a variety of audiences.”  The article also describes three organizing models for capstone courses: Magnets, Mandates, or Mountaintops (or Mosaics).
  • Magnets: Pull together essential student learning outcomes in the  major; “discipline-specific and … like a magnet attracting precious metal, pull together the richness of content from the discipline in a summative manner”
  • Mandates: Typically satisfy proscribed professional accreditation standards and demonstrating competence; “organized around meeting the needs of an external constituency, typically when licensure, certification, or other circumstances require that competences be mastered and demonstrated in a summative manner”
  • Mountaintops: Are often interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary projects to intentionally draw upon the learning, experiences, and perspectives of two or more disciplines.
    “… students from two (or more) disparate majors ascend to the capstone experience from different, unique disciplinary perspectives, coming together at the summit”
  • Mosaics: (subsequent design, 2012): Reinforce general education purposes and institutional values

Find more information in Assessment Update: Progress, Trends, and Practices in Higher Education, 16 (1):1-2, 13-15.

A Multiplicity of Learning: Capstones at Portland State University (Rhodes & Kippenhan, 2004). Click for brief summary
This article provides a good example of the “mountaintop” model of capstone courses. The stated purpose of the capstones described is to “cultivate in students crucial life abilities that are important both academically and professionally and to allow them to establish connections within the larger community, developing strategies for analyzing and addressing problems and working with others trained in fields different from their own.” The article also proves description of capstone assessment. Find more information in Assessment Update: Progress, Trends, and Practices in Higher Education, 16 (1):4-5, 12.

Capstones and Quality: The Culminating Experience as Assessment (Catchings, 2004). Click for brief summary
This article provides description of the “magnet” model of capstone courses in a department of communication. They designed their capstone course to act as “(1) as a culminating experience wherein students would engage in reflective analysis of their education and (2) as a quality assessment tool to satisfy the standards of accreditation.” Find more information in Assessment Update: Progress, Trends, and Practices in Higher Education, 16 (1):6-7.

From Capstones to Touchstones: Preparative Assessment and Its Use in Teacher Education (Brock,2004). Click for brief summary
This article describes an assessment approach that serves as both a capstone and touchstone, and it talks about how capstone courses can be shaped to meet the demands of the public and/or discipline-specific accreditors. The specific example of this “mandate” model of summative capstone assessment is a portfolio review. Find more information in Asessment Update: Progress, Trends, and Practices in Higher Education, 16 (1):8-9.

Capstone Courses Vary in Terms of Goals, Objectives, Structures and Assignments (Weimer, 2013). Click for brief summary
This article provides a review of the diversity of capstone course designs. “Understanding how the various courses in a major fit together to build a coherent knowledge base should be a learning outcome of every major. Capstone courses are a way of ensuring that students have the opportunity to do that integration.”  Find more information in Faculty Focus.

A Multi-Institutional Study of Student's Perceptions and Experiences in the Research-based Capstone Course in Sociology (McKinney & Day, 2013). Click for brief summary
This article describes student perceptions of and experiences in research-focused capstone courses.  It also provides insight into how the effectiveness of such a course could be assessed using questionnaires, focus groups, and learning reflection essays. Find more information in Teaching Sociology 40 (2):142-157.

Assessing Capstone Experiences

Good Practice Guides

Using a Capstone Course to Assess Learning (Weimer, 2012). Click for brief summary
This article summarizes a more extensive article which describes and adaptable model for a capstone course “designed to assess goals at the programmatic and institutional levels” (p.523). Several assignments are designed to accomplish their goals including 1) simulated academic conference where students pick a paper they’ve written for another class in the major to present, 2) a course mapping exercise in which students rate major courses in the program on how well they met program learning outcomes, 3) open-ended exit survey, and 4)  learning-through-teaching activity. The article (both this summary and the original) shows how capstone courses allow for straightforward collection of assessment data that can be used to benefit students, faculty, and the program as a whole.  Find more information in Faculty Focus, Excerpted From The Teaching Professor (2011), 25 (6): 7.

Guidebook for Programmatic Assessment of Student Learning Outcomes. University of Nebraska-Lincoln. (Jonson, 2006). Click for brief summary
Section C (pg. 32-37) of this guidebook provides clear and simple descriptions of the advantages and disadvantages of different forms of assessment within a capstone course. It also gives recommendations for programs in using each form of capstone assessment. Specifically, the guide includes standardized tests, locally developed exams, capstone experiences, internships and professional applications, portfolios, assessment center methods, and case or longitudinal studies. Find more information at

Effective Grading (Walvoord & Johnson Anderson, 2010). Click for brief summary
This book is a general guide for evaluating student work and make connections between learning and assessment in college. On page 143, the authors provide an example of how to set-up grading within a capstone course to assess students’ progress toward program-level learning outcomes.

Assessment Clear and Simple (Walvoord, 2010). Click for brief summary
This book provides straight-forward guidance for assessment at the institutional, departmental, and classroom levels. On pages 67-68, the authors present an organization of assessment data that matches student performance in a capstone course and other assessment data with the learning goals of the program. On page 76-77, the authors provide an example of a table that connects measures (such as those in a capstone course) with learning goals and how the assessment information is used to inform program decisions.

Faculty Evaluation of Student Work: Simple, Powerful, and Overlooked. (Shupe, 2007). Click for brief summary
This chapter lays out how, with planning, faculty evaluation of student work in courses such as a capstone course can provide a meaningful and powerful tool for assessing student achievement of program learning outcomes. Find more information in T. Banta, Assessing Student Learning in the Disciplines. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.  Preview available online:

Capstone Design Courses and Assessment: A National Study. (McKenzie, Trevisan, Davis & Beyerlein, 2004). Click for brief summary
This paper describes findings from a nationwide survey that connected ABET (Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) assessment with capstone course design and assessment. This is a great resource for engineering capstone courses and understanding how to connect capstone assessment with professional accreditation.


Useful Websites

University of Washington’s Capstone Courses:

 University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Capstone How-To:



Critical Questions for Programs to Consider in Regard to Capstone Experience Courses (from handout by Stephen Hundley presentation at IUPUI Assessment Institute, 2012)


1. For what types of post degree roles and experiences are we preparing graduates in this discipline and from this institution?


2. What discipline-specific or program-level learning should we expect graduates to demonstrate (know and be able to do) at the time of graduation?


3. What broader institutional and societal values should we expect graduates to demonstrate and/or embrace at the time of graduation?


4. Who are program stakeholders? How and to what extent has stakeholder input helped shape the programs curriculum?


5. How can we design and implement experiences to assess and document learning while preparing students for post-degree roles?


6. What types of assignments and experiences make sense in capstones? What types of assignments and experiences will be necessary to prepare students for capstones?


7. How will results of student performance in the capstone be used to improve the pathway leading to the capstone? What mechanisms exist to facilitate this feedback loop?


8. What are the specific resources needed to maximize the program’s ongoing effectiveness?

Good practices include:

  • Map curriculum to ensure that the critical courses introduce and reinforce the essential skills. Significant new skills or content should not be introduced in a capstone.
  • Capstone experience doesn’t need to be one course necessarily; it could span two courses, or a course and an internship, etc
  • Capstone should be designed and facilitated by a full-time faculty.

Other Tools and Resources for Capstone Experiences

Capstone Checklist: The degree program has:


1. Identified the relevant program SLOs that will be assessed using the capstone experience.


2. Developed explicit evaluation criteria (e.g., rubrics).


3. Identified examples of student work/performance at varying levels of mastery for each outcome.


4. Pilot tested and refined evaluation criteria (e.g., rubrics). Used feedback from external reviewers to improve the assessment process; used external benchmarking data.


5. Informed students of the evaluation criteria.


6. Calibrated/normed those who apply the assessment criteria and routinely check inter-rater reliability.


7. Informed students of the purpose and outcomes of the capstone and students embrace the capstone experience.


8. Made information about the capstone readily available.

Example of Aligning Assessment Data with Learning Outomes, Including Capstone Project Results:

(from Assessment Clear and Simple, B. Walvoord, p.68)

Other Resources

Capstone Courses Prepare Students for Transition to Working World (Kelly, 2009). Click for brief summary
This article provides a short list of what the developmental goals of capstone courses should be. “The special challenges involved in designing, presenting, and then assessing learning in these culminating courses should not be underestimated.” Find more information in Faculty Focus, Excerpted from Academic Leader (Feb 2006). 

Using Scholarly Research in Course Redesign: Teaching to Engage Students with Authentic Disciplinary Practices (Ragland, 2008). Click for brief summary
This article talks about redesigning a capstone course to better identify and communicate the nature of real-world practice of the discipline. Find more in International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 2 (2): 13-17.

Preparing the Senior or Graduating Student for Graduate Research (Tang & Gan, 2005). Click for brief summary
This article talks about how to design a capstone course to prepare undergraduate students for graduate-level scientific research. Find more in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 33 (4): 277-280.
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