Curricular Aims:Assessment of a University Capstone Course
This paper shares research findings about Millikin University's University Capstone, which is the culminating general education course for all seniors. Results of the research discuss the extent to which key elements of the university's curriculum were perceived by students as integrated into this course, compared to courses in the major.
Introduction and Background
Albert North Whitehead (1929) believed that the raison d'être of universities was neither for the imparting of knowledge nor for the opportunity for research. Cheaper alternatives for both were and are available to achieve those functions. Instead, he asserted:
The justification for a university is that it preserves the connections between knowledge and the zest of life, by uniting the young and the old in the imaginative consideration of learning. The university imparts information, but it imparts it imaginatively. At least, this is the function which it should perform for society. A university which fails in this respect has no reason for existence.(p. 93)
When Whitehead described the purpose of education in his text, The Aims of Education, he had the luxury of making assertions without the burden of proof. The academy today, while equally as passionate about the aims of education as Whitehead, must not only describe its reason(s) for existence, it must also provide evidence that those aims described as important are ultimately attained by its students. This evidence must be considered and presented both for ourselves (the academy) and for our constituents (i.e., students, accrediting bodies, employers, donors, and society).
Two perspectives are important to any assessment of a curriculum in higher education. The first perspective considers the "reason for existence" issue raised by Whitehead. That is, as an aim of the curriculum, what connections do we intend to make between knowledge and life? The second perspective examines the accomplishment of that aim. This paper addresses primarily the second perspective. [End Page 275]
A decade ago, the faculty of Millikin University developed a curriculum that provided for intentional connections—connections between the major and the nonmajor, connections among the curricular components at each academic level, and connections among the curricular components over the course of four years. In the development of this comprehensive and cohesive curriculum (dubbed the MPSL—the Millikin Program of Student Learning), the faculty identified common threads. Those common threads are: 1) student learning goals; 2) core questions, values, and means; and 3) proficiencies. These were envisioned by the faculty as the fabric whereby the student was prepared for professional success, democratic citizenship in a diverse and dynamic global environment, and a personal life of meaning and value. Millikin University's "reason for existence" is embodied in its mission. The mission of a university—its promise to its constituents—is reflected in and accomplished through a student's successful progression within the curriculum.
In designing the curriculum, Millikin faculty believed that students advancing through the curriculum, as it was designed, would accomplish the university mission. Regardless of the student's major, the common threads as described by the faculty were to be infused in courses throughout the student's college experience. No one course or group of courses could include all of the common threads; this attainment could only be accomplished via the entire curricular experience. That said, however, it was important to identify how a course or a group of courses might accomplish specific components of the common threads within the curriculum. Intentional curricular examination was developed to help inform the faculty in the redesign and refinement of courses within the MPSL.
The University Capstone Course
One course designed to help students accomplish the goals or common threads of the curriculum was the University Capstone, a course designed for seniors to integrate and expand upon the college experiences of a variety of students brought together from all majors. To accomplish curricular integration, the University Capstone was designed around two interrelated components: [End Page 276] reflection and contribution. Reflection was seen as the inner work of students examining themselves, their goals, and their futures through a culminating personal project. Contribution was envisioned as the outer work of contributing to others (the Millikin or Decatur, Illinois, community) through student-driven, multidisciplinary, team projects.
The reflection component of the University Capstone course required that each student complete a Personal Development Plan (PDP). This plan required that students set forth short-term and intermediate-term goals for themselves, both professionally and personally. In addition, they had to identify courses of action that would allow them to move toward each of their goals. These goals moved beyond career and relationship issues to goals of true personal development, including goals for the self. After students identified their goals, they were then expected to employ a variety of resources to gather information that would assist them in planning courses of action.
In contrast to the inner focus of the reflection component, the contribution component of the University Capstone course called upon each student to become other-directed through a multidisciplinary, team project. The contribution component of the University Capstone provided a final test of the students' abilities to work collaboratively on multidisciplinary projects. These team projects took a variety of shapes and presented interesting challenges to the University Capstone faculty. The process started with a marketplace negotiation of possible projects. Each student proposed a project and explained what the team members would do to accomplish that project. It was the job of each student to make others care about the problem being addressed and to delineate the kind of team members who would be needed to fulfill the goals of the project. Each project proposal also had to correlate with the theme of the University Capstone course.
Once all ideas were shared, the most compelling projects generated enough interest for teams of students from a variety of disciplines to adopt them; these groups planned and implemented action contributions based on the proposed concepts.
One of the first tasks each team completed was to write an extensive project proposal. The team established clear roles and [End Page 277] expectations for each member and an action plan of research or development of the project, along with proposed outcomes and methods of evaluation. After the project proposal was approved by the faculty, the team carried out the project, which culminated in team and product evaluations of the final results. Examples of completed projects include conducting tutoring projects for community youth, creating political forums to address local community issues, creating a mural at the local conservation center, implementing a campus health fair, coordinating a community Arts Fair at the local children's museum, and organizing various support drives for nonprofit organizations in the community.
Assessment of the Course
When faculty designed the University Capstone course, they did so in order to integrate specific common threads of the curriculum. When it was time to assess the course, it was important not to lose sight of that purpose. In assessing portions of the curriculum, faculty often do so by looking at the value of individual courses. Frequently, this value is assigned as a result of faculty evaluations and has been based on a sort of satisfaction survey completed by our students. Do they like the course? Is it as difficult as other courses? Is the textbook understandable? Is the instructor personable? This mechanism of assessment gives us little insight into either the aims of the course or the success of the course in meeting those aims.
The new University Capstone course, developed to meet very specific elements of the MPSL, had been surrounded by the myth that it was not viewed favorably by the students. While there were no hard, evaluative data to support this assertion, there seemed to be a growing number of questions from both students and faculty about its value within the new curriculum.
These researchers set out to ascertain not if the course was popular, but rather if it fulfilled its faculty-assigned role within the curriculum. One way to assess the University Capstone or any other course in the curriculum is through the evaluation of the course's integration of the common threads of the MPSL. This examination is important in that the common threads are the mechanisms by [End Page 278] which the MPSL ensures that students accomplish the graduate outcomes described in the mission of the University. Toward that end, we developed a tool to determine the students' perceptions of the degree to which the University Capstone course integrated the common threads of the MPSL. In conjunction with that assessment, we also had the students assess one other course in which they were presently enrolled as a requirement of their majors. Those common threads and the results of that survey are presented on the following pages.
Survey Instrument and Methodology
The instrument consisted of 46 items. The items in the survey were taken verbatim from the MPSL document and consisted of: 1) the student learning goals; 2) the core questions, values, and means; and 3) the proficiencies that the University faculty believed should be actualized via the curriculum (see Table 1 for complete list). The students surveyed were asked to rate the degree (great, moderate, low, not at all) to which each curricular item was integrated into the courses being surveyed (University Capstone and one required course in their majors). Both of these courses were in progress at the time of the survey.
A convenience sample was used in the study. During the fall 2002 semester, eight of the nine sections of University Capstone were surveyed using the instrument. One hundred sixty-eight students out of the approximately 250 students enrolled in University Capstone during the fall 2002 semester completed the survey using the following procedure:
1. The surveys were all administered within the last 2 to 3 weeks of the 16-week semester with the explanation it was to help faculty "assess elements of your Millikin education."
2. No items of the survey were "interpreted" for the students. For example, the written introduction to the four items under "core values" is preceded with this statement, which, while quite clear to its faculty writers, may have been vague to the senior students: "The following elements will permeate and [End Page 279] distinguish a Millikin education. They variously represent pedagogical praxis, habits of mind, and content areas."
3. The students were asked to complete the survey as it related to the University Capstone first using a black ink pen.
4. The students were then asked to complete the same survey as it related to each of two other courses in which they were presently enrolled that semester, including one course required by their major. Each set of responses was completed with a different color of ink (red/green) on the survey.
5. The students were asked to identify the reason why each of the courses was being taken (i.e., course in major, general education requirement, elective, and so forth).
6. No attempt was made to ask the students to identify their majors for the survey.
The researchers had determined that if the percentage of students who identified a course as meeting the MPSL item to either a "great" or a "moderate" degree was more than two-thirds (67%), then the course integration of that item would be considered significant. Those items are indicated in Table 1. The percentages were calculated as follows for both the University Capstone and the major courses:
n (great) + n (moderate) / total n who responded to that item
The survey findings are shared in the following manner. The survey results are discussed primarily as they relate to the University Capstone, with the information about the major courses shown as a basis for relativity. While the results for the major courses are interesting, they provide only a snapshot of specific major courses at one point in time. Table 1, summarizing survey data, is located at the end of this article.
Analysis of Results
As the University Capstone had been designed, the faculty had anticipated it would help to accomplish the goal of integrating the common threads of the University related to communication skills, critical thinking skills, interpersonal skills, moral and ethical [End Page 280] reasoning skills, and values. In addition, the faculty believed the University Capstone would help students to answer the three core questions posed to them upon entering the University: 1) Who am I?; 2) How can I know?; 3) What should I do?
The ability of the University Capstone to integrate and communicate the common threads of the University related to the use of spoken and written English and the fact that the faculty shared a commitment to extensive integration of written and oral communication in the University Capstone was clearly identified by the students. Indeed, the senior students identified the University Capstone course as having helped them to develop written and oral communication proficiencies to a greater degree than their concurrent major course.
While we had anticipated that the University Capstone course would play a significant role in the development of critical thinking, the students did not identify the course as meeting those common threads of the University's goals to a great or moderate degree. The concurrent course in the major was more likely to help the students question assumptions and think critically.
One strength of the University Capstone identified by the students was its ability to help them meet the common threads of the University related to interpersonal skills. While the course related to the major encouraged teamwork—students working collaboratively on projects—the collaborative work done by students in the University Capstone was deliberately designed through the formation of multidisciplinary teams. It appears that bringing members together from diverse majors challenges them to better understand the motivations, intentions, and emotions of themselves and others. The University Capstone also seemed to allow students the opportunity to demonstrate their leadership abilities to a greater degree than the concurrent major course that was surveyed.
Although the researchers had anticipated that the University Capstone course could help to accomplish the goals of the University related to moral and ethical reasoning and values, we were surprised to the degree to which the students identified it as doing so. To a greater degree than their concurrent major courses, students identified the University Capstone course as helping them to clarify personal values and to recognize and reconcile moral dilemmas. [End Page 281]
Millikin University's "reason for existence"—to prepare students for professional success, democratic citizenship in a diverse and dynamic global environment, and a personal life of meaning and values—is clearly embodied in the common threads related to values. Furthermore, these common threads were integrated to a great or moderate degree through the students' experiences in the University Capstone course. Students reported that they believed the University Capstone helped them to develop a service mindset, attunement to social justice, and civic responsibility while enhancing their self-respect. In addition, more so than in their concurrent major courses, the students identified the University Capstone course as helping them to develop a respect for differences and human dignity as well as serving to increase their personal integrity.
Finally, the University Capstone was perceived by the seniors as dealing significantly with the core University questions of Who am I? How can I know? and What should I do? Clearly, the University Capstone course helps to bring students from diverse curricular areas back together their senior year to refocus on the overarching purpose of the University. The University Capstone course provided a mechanism to imaginatively impart information and help to accomplish the University mission. While the purpose of the University Capstone course was never to accomplish the infusion of all of the common threads of the curriculum, it did integrate those we had anticipated it could.
When the Millikin faculty reformed the curriculum, they knew that they were placing an emphasis on strong, four-year experiences in the major as a disciplinary home. They also knew that a coherent curriculum would require a careful counterbalance of four-year experiences in the university studies general education program. While a majority of the common threads and learning goals could be integrated into the major, certain concepts or goals would need to be communicated through requirements to supplement and complement the major. The faculty deliberately tried to avoid the "get general education courses out of the way" mentality in favor of a four-year [End Page 282] integrated experience of general education and discipline-specific courses. The University Capstone was designed primarily as an opportunity for seniors to reflect on their intellectual development and to prepare for the impending departure into the external communities: the public square, the workplace, the graduate school, or wherever their hearts' desires would take them. The goal of the University Capstone was for students to gain a critical perspective on their abilities, their knowledge, and their commitments to lifelong learning beyond the discipline.
When the researchers considered the significance of the results of this survey, we observed that many of the common threads the University wants to bring together are shared responsibilities of both courses in the majors and the University Capstone. Writing, oral communication, and teamwork are integrated into Millikin's emphasis on active learning throughout the curriculum. It is not surprising that both the University Capstone and the courses in the majors employ extensive writing and communication to carry out the mission of integrating theory and practice.
Courses in the majors require in-depth knowledge and skills related to the analysis and use of context—primary texts, models, methods, analysis or information in the discipline. These courses are especially effective at developing critical thinking abilities within the context of the discipline's discourse community. However, the courses in the majors do not necessarily address the broader issues of integrity, ethics, citizenship, and a life of personal value and meaning. They do not necessarily help students understand and appreciate differences in disciplines and among other students. The University Capstone does.
Finally, only in the University Capstone do more than two-thirds of the students identify that they are deliberately dealing with the connections between the personal, the professional, and the public through the core questions of Who am I?, How can I know?, and What should I do? As an interdisciplinary, interdepartmental course, the University Capstone will always be somewhat of an academic orphan in a world of academe where every other element of the curriculum is delivered through a deliberate division of labor into various areas of expertise. However, it is only through such an interdisciplinary course that students can compare and discuss and [End Page 283] come to understand the value of the entire curriculum. It is in this University Capstone experience that seniors at Millikin University can come together and learn to value each other. Subsequently, students learned to value their disciplinary differences as well as their commonalities as members of an integrated, academic community.
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Randy Brooks is a Professor of English and serves as Chair of the English Department and the Assessment Coordinator at Millikin University. He has received national awards for service learning and is a leader in curriculum design of writing programs emphasizing the integration of active learning, community service, technology, and publishing.
Jodi Benton-Kupper is currently the Director of the School of Education at Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois, where she administers twelve undergraduate teacher education programs and acts as certification officer. She is also an Associate Professor of Education, teaching courses in middle-level education and educational psychology.
Deborah Slayton is an Associate Professor of Nursing and has been active in curricular assessment activities for Millikin University and the School of Nursing for twenty-five years. She has received the Excellence in Nursing Award for Nursing Education from the Nursing Task Force and served as Distinguished Faculty Lecturer at Millikin University.