Leading the national conversation on student learning in capstone courses
UND’s Essential Studies (ES) curriculum includes capstone courses, culminating undergraduate academic experiences that are regarded nationally as best practices in general education.
Paul Sum, professor of political science and public administration, and Steve Light, associate vice president for academic affairs and professor of political science and public administration, have been recognized with numerous UND teaching awards for their work in the classroom.
They recently were finalists for a national Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) award based on their published research on how best to assess what and how students learn in a
UND’s capstone courses are offered in all majors across campus. They provide undergraduates, usually in their senior year, the opportunity to summarize, evaluate, and integrate some or all of their previous coursework, especially in their major field of study. An ES capstone is important as a means of emphasizing — one final time — goals that faculty generally agree are important for all students, and in a context where the learning is especially likely to be perceived by students as important.
Light reports that their course, like any well-designed capstone, reflects what SoTL indicates about effective ways to help students learn what they need to. They also added their own unique twists designed to maximize the capstone’s value to enriching the political science curriculum.
Sum and Light designed their capstone around several active-learning exercises in which students learn about and engage directly in the process of assessing their own capabilities in critical thinking and communication. Activities range from a simulated academic conference, in which students present to one another papers written in prior courses, to a “learning through teaching” activity in which teaching teams of seniors present to groups of first-year students on key concepts related to political science as a discipline and reflect on their experiences in the major.
Throughout, students learn about and conduct peer-to-peer assessment of learning outcomes, providing a unique educational experience and a novel data source used by the Department of Political Science and Public Administration to consider what and how its students learn, and to inform a cycle of continuous improvement.
Sum and Light wrote up their findings on how to effectively design a capstone to bring students into the assessment process. The resulting peer-reviewed article, published in a leading
political science journal, was recently recognized as among the top three finalists out of more than 110 submissions for a national SoTL award.
“The secret to our success in the capstone is straightforward,” Sum said. “We seek to foster student buy-in from Day One, investing in them direct ownership in assessing their ability to think critically and communicate effectively.”
Through that approach, Light added, “Our students ‘get it,’ and they leave the course more fully invested in what they’ve learned in the major and throughout their college careers.”
Juan Pedraza | Staff Writer