Faculty Work to Enhance Learning in Capstone Courses: Hutchings Workshop

Pat Hutchings speaking at May 2016 Assignment Design WorkshopWSU faculty had a unique opportunity over the summer to enhance high-impact culminating senior experiences for students. On May 25-26, WSU hosted a two-day workshop with Dr. Patricia Hutchings, senior scholar with the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), and previously senior scholar and vice president at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, where she worked extensively with the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.  Thirty one faculty participated in the workshop, representing 24 departments and 4 WSU locations. Workshop participants shared a capstone (senior-level culminating) assignment with peers in conversations intended to help guide assignment revision as a summer follow-up activity. The assignments were from both UCORE capstones and other capstones for the major.

The workshop, sponsored by the Office of Undergraduate Education and the Office of Assessment of Teaching and Learning, framed assignment design as one of the most consequential intellectual tasks that faculty undertake in their work as educators. Specifically, the workshop focused on assignments that support integrative learning. Dr. Hutchings explained that one of the most important challenges in undergraduate education today is providing students with opportunities to connect and integrate the various elements of their learning. This means making connections across courses, between general education and the major, and between academic coursework and work, citizenship, and personal life—something that capstone assignments, in particular, can help students do.

Vice Provost Mary Wack speaking at May 2016 Assignment Design WorkshopMary Wack, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, thanked the faculty for their contributions in offering a critical experience to students transitioning into the workplace, and noted: “Capstones have a special place in the curriculum; they carry a strong responsibility for eliciting students’ best work at the culmination of their undergraduate careers.”

The workshop was based on a charrette model, used by NILOA and others. The charrette—a term borrowed from architecture education, denoting a collaborative design process—is an opportunity to talk in small groups with other faculty interested in trading ideas about the design and use of the various tasks, projects, papers, and performances set for students in integrative capstone assignments.

Valuable learning and collegial discussions: Participants reported that they got concrete ideas about how to strengthen their assignments.

  • “I came away with a much better understanding of capstone courses and their purpose.”
  • [The workshop was] “really a helpful, rewarding experience. I learned a lot that I can apply to my other classes also.”
  • “I received valuable comments from the members of my break out group.  It was also valuable to have two days to self-consciously reflect on the capstone assignment.”

Faculty discussing assignment design

Areas for revision: Faculty participants revised their assignments over the summer.  Common areas for change included:

  • Making the purposes and instructions for the assignment more transparent; explicitly communicating capstone expectations to students (why this is “not just another assignment”)
  • Explicitly designing in more integrative learning, to synthesize various aspects of the curriculum and encourage complex, sophisticated analysis; help students get more out of the capstone assignment
  • Scaffolding or chunking pieces of a larger project in smaller segments; rethinking the timeline and identifying specific milestones
  • Refining the rubric to provide clearer feedback and criteria

PowerPoint slides and handouts from the workshop:

Faculty can participate in follow-up activities this fall, such as a faculty panel discussion of the assignment revision process, or choose to share their revised assignment within WSU and/or submit it to the NILOA assignment library.

Please contact Kimberly Green, Director of the Office of Assessment of Teaching and Learning, with questions or to learn more about capstone resources or charrettes.  As Green explains, “We’d like explore ways to continue these rich discussions and support faculty in refining capstone assignments and courses, as culminating experiences in the undergraduate curriculum.  Also, the charrette process can be useful to a department interested in looking at assignments within the major and refining them.”