Social Pedagogy and General Education: The CGS Capstone Project

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Summary:  At the College of General Studies, Boston University, sophomores work in groups of 5-7 students on a Capstone project at the end of their sophomore year. The project requires that each group of students conduct research on one of approximately 20 topics that have been described by professors in the division of Natural Science, Social Science, or Humanities (the divisions rotate the responsibility for writing topics); the topics concern real-world problems such as our country’s use of drones, or our relationship with N. Korea, or the local effects of global climate change. The groups must then write a 50-page research paper that analyzes the contexts of the problem they have selected and that proposes a viable solution to the problem.

The project involves social pedagogy because students must share in all aspects of the final paper:  selecting the topic, discussing how to distribute the various tasks in the project, discussing possible solutions to the problem, conducting the research, drafting and editing the paper, and then defending the proposal in a two-hour oral exam. Using ePortfolios has facilitated students’ work since they make it possible to instantly share drafts, sources, links, etc. with other group members so that students work more cohesively on a moment-to-moment basis throughout the project, instead of working mostly in isolation with occasional group meetings. Using ePortfolios with Capstone also helps faculty keep track of individual contributions to the group project, since every student is required to post weekly logs about their work that include all the drafts they write. This helps faculty calculate an individual grade along with a group grade for the project (so students know that they will be held personally responsible for their share of the work), and it enables faculty to check on the progress of students they might be concerned about.

 

Author:  Professor Robert Wexelblatt created the project about 35 years ago, and he still oversees the creation of the topics when it’s the Humanities Division’s turn to compose the Capstone syllabus.

For a full history of the Capstone project, see Professor Wexelblatt’s “The Capstone Project of the College of General Studies, Boston University” in Impact: The Journal of the Center for Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning (Vol. 1, No.1, Summer 2012): http://www.bu.edu/cgs/files/2012/04/IMPACT-Journal-Summer-2012.pdf

Full Description of Practice

Part I: Practice Step-by-step

Students spend the last four weeks of their sophomore year working in groups of 5-7 to research a contemporary problem and write a paper that describes the problem and its contexts and proposes a real-world solution. Students are released from their 3 General Studies courses during this time so they have time to do the research and writing. They are asked to draw from what they’ have learned from all their General Studies courses, so that the perspectives of the Humanities, Social Sciences and Natural Sciences are all represented in the solution they propose, and the research and argumentation skills they developed in their Rhetoric courses are demonstrated.

Students select their groups and their topics (in most cases) before the 4-week project begins. On the first day of the project, the “Capstone launch” day, each team (of approximately 80 students) meets with their 3 team professors to discuss the nature of the project and the professors’ expectations.  A representative from Mugar Library attends each of these “launches” to discuss library sources that might be useful to the students.  After that initial meeting with the entire team of students, the team professors meet with each Capstone group 3 times over the next week-and-a-half. At the first meeting, students are asked to define their topic and discuss the division of labor they’ve developed (some teams also ask that students turn in their own rubric for evaluating their individual input on the project).  At the second meeting, students turn in a brief abstract of their proposal, a short annotated bibliography, and an outline. At the last meeting, they turn in a longer annotated bibliography and a more fleshed-out outline.  At each of these meetings, the faculty discuss the work with the students, give them specific feedback on what they’ve done, guide them to additional sources or additional angles they might consider, and informally assess how the group dynamic is working.  After these three meetings, groups can sign up for additional meetings with the professors, but they aren’t required to do so.  Professors remain available for office hours throughout the process.

At the end of the four weeks, students submit 3 bound copies of their proposal to their team faculty in a Capstone turn-in event for the entire sophomore class. Students are exhausted but exhilarated that they have completed such a substantial research project, and there is considerable buzz in the lecture hall as students file forward to hand their projects to the faculty who line up at the edge of the stage to receive them. After the projects are turned in, the Dean announces sophomore awards—highest gpa, best student leader, etc. For the next two weeks, each Capstone group meets with their team professors for a two-hour oral exam in which faculty ask them questions about the content, style, and mechanics of their paper (students get a grade for their performance in the orals as well as for their individual contributions to the project, and these grades are combined with the group grade for the paper to produce one grade per student—but not necessarily the same grade for each student on a group, due to the varying levels of performance in orals and throughout the process).

When the Capstone project is over, each team picks the best Capstone paper, and the group of students return in the fall for an awards ceremony. Parents are invited, the topics of the winning papers are announced, and each student receives a framed Capstone award.  See a story about the awards ceremony at http://www.bu.edu/cgs/2013/01/28/cgs-2012-capstone-award-winners/

 

Part II: The Role of Social Pedagogy in Advancing Student Learning

The project is highly integrative in that it asks students to draw from all their general studies classes as they construct a viable solution to a real-world problem. They are asked to consider the ethical, economic and scientific dimensions of the problem they address and to use the argumentation and research skills they learned in their Rhetoric courses. Students use ePortfolios to keep logs of their progress (what they read, who they interviewed, what they wrote), and they also archive all drafts they write on their portfolios. This enables them to have a good record of what they’ve done, which can be helpful to them and the other students on their group and their professors.  Eportfolios help the groups to establish a more cohesive voice as they share drafts at many stages and to build on the research of the individuals in the group. They also help faculty to catch early on which students are not pulling their weight in their groups, and they also help us determine a grade for individual participation at the end. Sharing their research and drafts throughout the process helps each individual’s input to be better informed and contextualized. And sharing their work with three professors from three different disciplines reminds students to be aware that their audience is complex and varied and that they’ll need to define all technical terms for everyone involved to understand the argument.

 

Part III: The Role of Design Principles in Describing This Practice

Inquiry:   The entire project is inquiry-based, since they are asked to solve a real world problem. It really is a transdisciplinary project in that sense: a problem-based project that requires input from multiple disciplines. And since they are also required to reflect on their learning at the end, it helps them learn about themselves as learners as well as learning about the subject they research.

Reflection: After students turn in their Capstone project and before they appear at their oral defense, they are asked to write a two-page reflection on their Capstone experience in which they specifically address what they learned from the project, how prepared they felt for it by their general education courses, and how they’ve developed in terms of the competencies featured in our college rubric. These reflections must be posted in their ePortfolio.

Integration: As was mentioned in a previous section, Capstone the project is highly integrative in that it asks students to draw from all general studies classes as they construct a viable solution to a real-world problem.

 

Part IV Evidence of Impact on Student Learning Experiences

The project is an institution-wide part of our general education curriculum and is connected to the following High Impact Practices: Capstone Experiences, Undergraduate Research, Writing Intensive Courses, and Learning Communities. In this Capstone experience, students research and write collaboratively as they work to complete the project. As Professor Wexellblatt writes, “The Capstone Project is the final course undertaken by students at the College of General Studies; it caps two years of study. With classes ended and final examinations taken, the Project refreshes faculty and students when they most need it, deeps their relationships, gives them a focus and a goal, serves up challenges and joys that replace the routine of classes and lectures” (“Capstone Project” Impact 10-11). Capstone faculty consistently report increased levels of student engagement: “Instead of being enervated, students are energized. It has been observed that many students who have performed at only a mediocre level when working on their own come to the fore and excel during the Project period. In fact, most students claim to not only that they have worked hard on their reports, but that they have worked harder on them than anything else in their lives. In part, this is owing to their allegiance to the group, to an esprit de corps” (Wexelblatt 10). To go along with our observations of increased student engagement, see the “Outcomes Assessment” section below for a discussion of our assessment data in the context of our Capstone project.

Reflection as a form of Integrative Learning – Students’ ePortfolio help them transfer their knowledge across multiple contexts and consider the relationship between classroom and non-classroom learning. Students will…

  • Make connections within a course
  • Make connections across courses and semesters
  • Make connections across disciplines
  • Make connections among academic experiences, co-curricular & lived experiences

Reflection as Systematic and Disciplined form of Inquiry – Students’ reflective processes embody…

  • A structured and scaffolded process
  • The Reflective Cycle
  • The connection of their learning to Gen Ed or programmatic competencies

Reflection as Social Pedagogy – students use ePortfolio to share/peer review/discuss/collaborate/ connect with other students around course work, reflections, plans, goals, stories etc. Students will…

  • Share their ePortfolio w/ and get comments from faculty
  • Share & engage in integrative ePortfolio commentary w/ other students
  • Share their ePortfolio & get comments from external groups
  • Link their ePortfolio to other students’ ePortfolio
  • Use  their ePortfolio as a site for collaborative projects with other students

Reflection as a Process of Personal Change  – Students use ePortfolio as part of an inquiry into their own learning and/or advance their integrative identity formation, etc., by…

  • Considering their evolving personal relationship to learning and education
  • Planning/preparing for transfer or advanced education
  • Preparing ePortfolio to showcase to potential employers

 

Professional Development  – Were the faculty and/or staff who designed or used this practice engaged in ePortfolio-related professional development?

  • Yes, they were involved in a professional development workshops and training in ePortfolio.

 

Faculty attended a series of workshops when we first began using ePortfolios, and then sophomore faculty attended another one when we were ready to launch ePorts for use in the sophomore year, particularly with the Capstone project. There were some concerns that sophomore faculty would be resistant to using ePortfolios, but they’ve been much less so than anticipated because those of us in charge of the launch were able to show them how ePortfolios could solve problems that occurred every year in the project—i.e. students saying they did the work all along even though their group-mates report otherwise (the work is either in their portfolios or it isn’t—there’s no more he-said, she-said argument).

 

 

Outcomes and Assessment

Last year we conducted an ePortfolio assessment of the work of 106 students over two years in our program (see results below). The results indicate that our college has a strong positive impact on the development of our students. Capstone, of course, is part of that impact, but not a part we’ve assessed separately. But anecdotal evidence over the years indicates that students feel a profound sense of accomplishment in having produced such a sophisticated report, and many feel ready to handle the challenging demands of graduate school or a new job because in Capstone they were able to research and propose a workable solution to a problem they knew very little if anything about at the beginning of the process. Reading our students’ reflections on their Capstone experience can be useful, too, and you can read a couple of them at the links in the “Supporting Documentation” section below.

Assessment Score Sheet: Averages 2012

Skill Levels : 1--no mastery; 2--developing; 3--competent; 4--excellent
 Term 1Term 2Term 3Term 4+/-Change
Written & oral communication2.232.502.622.83.60+27%
Analyzing & documenting information2.322.562.742.93.67+29.5%
Awareness of historic & cultural contexts2.272.462.752.88.62+27%
Awareness of rhetorical & aesthetic conventions2.292.492.602.80.51+22%
Critical thinking & perspective taking2.342.482.662.92.58+25%
Integrative and applied learning2.222.412.662.89.67+30%
Quantitative methods21.532.42.5.54+27.5%

 

Technology

Eportfolio has been a valuable addition to the Capstone project and has contributed to its effectiveness. Students use ePortfolios to keep logs of their progress (what they read, who they interviewed, what  they wrote), and they also archive all drafts they write on their portfolios. This enables them to have a good record of what they’ve done, which can be helpful to them and the other students on their group and their professors.  Eportfolios help the groups to establish a more cohesive voice as they share drafts at many stages and to build on the research of the individuals in the group. They also help faculty to catch early on which students are not pulling their weight in their groups, and they also help us determine a grade for individual participation at the end. Sharing their research and drafts throughout the process helps each individual’s input to be better informed and contextualized.

 

Scaling Up

Since 2009 we have made numerous presentations on campus through the Center for Excellence in Teaching and other forums, including Boston University’s annual conference on Innovations in teaching. While our presentations primarily focus on our assessment project and our work with ePortfolio in general, we often use our Capstone project as an example of the type of work our program values.

 

Supporting Documentation

Part I: The Capstone syllabus is available at http://www.bu.edu/cgs/students/fact-sheets/capstone/

Part II: Sample Student ePortfolios with Capstone Projects including reflections:

https://bu.digication.com/chase_gorland_boston_university/Capstone_Rough_Research/published

https://bu.digication.com/gunita_singh/Capstone_2012

 Capstone Chase Gorland Capstone Gunita 

Robert Wexelblatt’s “The Capstone Project of the College of General Studies, Boston University” in Impact: The Journal of the Center for Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning (Vo. 1, No.1, Summer 2012): http://www.bu.edu/cgs/files/2012/04/IMPACT-Journal-Summer-2012.pdf

 

Part III: Connections to other Polished Practices:  Our Capstone Project connects to our…  

Reflective Pedagogy Practice: Click here to see our reflective pedagogy section.

Professional Development Practices: Click here to see professional development section.

Outcomes Assessment: Click here to see our outcomes assessment section.

Obviously our practice involves reflection, since students reflect on their learning at the end of the Capstone project. And it involves professional development because all sophomore faculty had to be trained in the use of ePortfolios before we could use them in Capstone. It also related to our outcomes assessment because it represents a substantial portion (25%) of the students’ work in all 3 of their general education classes in the spring of their sophomore year. When we assess students’ progress from first term to fourth term (see above chart), the Capstone work and their reflection on it are the last pieces we assess.

Conclusion

We believe that our Capstone derives its strength and effectiveness from the fusion of several High Impact Practices: Capstone Experiences, Undergraduate Research, Writing Intensive Courses, and Learning Communities. In terms of takeaways that would be useful for others, it is important to remember that the unique, integrated, team-based design of our program allows students and faculty to come together and work across disciplinary boundaries; at our college, Capstone is our most compelling manifestation of the power of our team based teaching. Yet it would be impossible to fully replicate our Capstone project in a non-team based general education program. As Randy Bass writes, “We must fully grasp that students will learn to integrate deeply and meaningfully only insofar as we design a curriculum that cultivates that; and designing such a curriculum requires that we similarly plan, strategize and execute integratively across the boundaries within our institutions” (Bass  “Disrupting Ourselves: The Problem of Learning in Higher Education”  32). We believe that our Capstone project illustrates the type of integration that Bass recommends, and it will be interesting to see in the coming years whether such integration becomes a trend in higher education. At a recent AAC&U Employer-Educator forum on Oct. 28 in Boston, college presidents, administrators, corporate leaders, and faculty came together to discuss how employers and educators can better work together, and while Senior Projects were lauded as valuable learning experiences, many college representatives expressed a desire to have a similar project before senior year, a high impact, transformative experience during the sophomore or junior year. As one administrator remarked, if a senior project is transformative, we don’t see it because those students have left campus. Thus there does seem to be an interest in projects like ours, and C2L member John Regan, who was an invited speaker, fielded many questions about Capstone even though his presentation was primarily focused on our overall assessment project.

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