Every year toward the end of the semester, each senior stands before a panel of professors, professionally dressed and ready to conquer another significant leap towards graduation. This scene might sound familiar to Communication Studies students, but in reality, regardless of department, the capstone’s importance remains the same.
A capstone in the English Department requires both an oral and written presentation at the end of the semester after finals. Someone with a writing concentration has a variety of options with creative projects like memoirs, short stories and movie scripts. Those on the literature track must write a 20 to 25 page paper.
Associate Professor of English Literature Janet Starner said the capstone is a formative experience that pushes students beyond what they are accustomed to doing in class. The real value of the capstone lies in a student choosing a path of interest and learning.
Depending on who a student talks to, Starner said the project might seem frightening, although the paper’s length is often more what gets people. But students underestimate their ability to handle the challenge, as Starner said they often find themselves on the opposite side.
“It’s surprising, when I work with students, it usually ends up being the case that they have to stop at 25 pages and they understand that they could go a lot longer, but time is up,” she said. “And if that happens, that’s actually the best possible outcome in my view.”
Starner said the capstone is indeed an accurate reflection of graduate school, where students are simply given a task and told to run with it. Still, the experience possesses a special characteristic – one-on-one interaction with faculty that is not possible in the classroom.
Students need to keep in mind that if they don’t do the work, the credit won’t be theirs. The best idea is find out what kind of work and preparation is involved, consult faculty to propose a topic and then get going.
Starner said it shouldn’t be viewed as a punitive experience.
“A person can do disciplinary work and still come up short of perfection,” she said. “We do it all the time as faculty members. I wish students would come to it with enthusiasm and excitement.”
Plus, Starner said the capstone brings a pleasantly surprising sense of gratification for them.
Sometimes, students decide to take a different approach, which might even lead to further publication. But they aren’t the only party with a hand in the process. Starner notes her excitement in students’ capstones and the learning opportunity it is for her.
“One of the most gratifying things for me is to listen to my students come up with brand new ideas,” she said. “It makes me happy because I know they’ll go on to do really wonderful and important things.”
Taking a dive into history brings another longer paper and presentation in front of the class as part of the HST 397 seminar. Topics vary, which seems to present a complication for students, as well as the organization and length of the paper.
Associate Professor and Co-Chair of the History Department Diane Wenger said the capstone might seem like a “daunting prospect,” but students are encouraged to find what interests them in the realm of the topic and are given the tools they need to do the job. She tries to make the capstone like a graduate school experience by choosing a topic she thinks students will like so they can do research and then share it.
Plus, in reality, if the project is done right and time is used wisely, the task is manageable, which students should already know a thing or two about at this stage of the game.
“It should be a milestone, but it’s not insurmountable,” Wenger said.
However, if students don’t do what is required, the blame is on them.
“We’re not failing them, they’re failing themselves,” Wenger said.
Wenger said she tries also tries to emphasize the importance of the capstone by emphasizing the professionalism involved.
Undergrads in the political science department engage in empirical, quantitative research and then write a research paper.
Interim Dean of College Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Thomas Baldino said the struggle for students is the topic, and for faculty, it’s the cycle of drafting and redrafting once the paper comes in. They have to get beyond the technical mistakes before they can delve into the substance of the papers and offer feedback, all while keeping student spirit alive.
As Baldino said, the key to a good research paper is asking the right questions, but they won’t come without a solid foundation and knowledge base, which is why prior familiarity with a topic is important. Another consideration for students is to choose something they can handle for the project’s duration.
They need to be attentive to the serious endeavor that is the capstone, because there’s no skating around the fact that the capstone course is not easy, and more importantly – they can’t walk the stage without a passing grade.
“For those departments that have a research methods course, take it seriously, and remember what you’ve learned in that course because it will be critical for how you approach your capstone and the things you will need to complete the capstone,” Baldino said.
The course can provide the engaged student with a great amount of insight, but only with undivided attention and early on.
Baldino said students who have met the challenge will have gained recognition, and should walk away feeling great.
In the Integrative Media, Art and Design Department, students take a journey into the real world with 15 weeks of job market research, resume and portfolio building, peer critique, creation of personal self-brands and networking, ending with a presentation evaluated by professionals.
“You’re kind of in a real comfy place when you’re in college, and you need that final, intense semester – at least one experience in a course – to prepare you for what’s to come, to sort of tie up any loose ends and fill in any blanks you may not know about,” Faculty of Practice in the department and capstone instructor Sara Moore said.
Students can’t really ever be unclear about IMAD’s expectations when reminders about the capstone start on the first day of class. Seniors also give preliminary presentations, which serve as a helpful hint for all those that await the experience.
However, the prior demonstration and repetition from day one don’t necessarily take away the intensity and time investment required by both students and professors.
“You want to make each moment in each of your major classes count, because you’re building towards that final experience, which will ultimately be the indicator of whether or not you’re going to get a job,” Moore said.
The class is only offered once a year. If portfolios are not strong enough or students happen to falter at the end, they must restart the process. However, the quality check is IMAD’s way of preventing that problem, which is basically a test of admission for the student’s portfolio that Moore said has been helpful.
She said she learns new things every semester from all of her students, and is open to their creativity.
“If you are someone who loves education, you won’t approach an educational situational as if you know everything,” she said.
She said the experience gives students time-management skills and networking opportunity.
“The capstone is about learning to exist beyond school,” she said. “It’s sort of like a first class for life.”
But, that success cannot be had without proper personal attention.
“Nothing of quality will come from what you’re doing if you are fatigued,” she said. “It’s very important to focus on the end point, which is graduation day. If you don’t look ahead, it’s very easy to get frustrated.”
Ultimately, the capstone is a culmination and reflection of a student’s complete learning experience while at the university, as well as a synthetic experience. The goal is to demonstrate that knowledge, whether through original research or replication of research with a personal twist. Double majors can choose to do two separate capstones or one that blends both concentrations.
The possibilities are endless, but no matter what path is taken, everyone agrees that the project must be manageable because time is of the essence — and because traveling into a destination unknown can present a steep learning curve, as Starner said.
“Those people who wait until the midpoint are really in danger of not being able to have enough time to do a really solid project,” she said.
Professors try to motivate students to do a job well done and support them along the way. But, as Wenger puts it, students should be using every penny and ounce of education for what they’re worth.
“You’re paying a good deal of money here at Wilkes, so make the most of it,” she said.
Beyond the capstone’s significance for graduation, there’s also something to be said about the impression left on a potential employer when they are presented with a student’s personal body of work.
The project places an undying responsibility on students, but one that should give them a stamp of pride.
“The capstone experience should be perceived by students as something to be excited about and look forward to completing successfully so you can say, ‘I’m a professional,’” Baldino said.
When you know you’ve got a serious task like the capstone on your plate, be sure to set aside the time to do it right.