Publication Date

April 1, 2009

The term “senior capstone” conjures an image of an impressive edifice of knowledge laboriously constructed over a period of four years, with solid foundations laid in first-year work and built upon in later years until it is capped off by a crowning achievement in the final semester. Too often, however, this metaphor is inapposite for such courses, and students may be inclined to view such a class mainly as a final obstacle blocking their exit from college. Leaving aside the question whether building metaphors are the best ones to apply to undergraduate education, this article will argue in favor of organizing the history major around the senior capstone course.

The relative importance assigned to the senior capstone course in a student’s program depends to a considerable extent on one’s view of the ultimate ends of undergraduate education. To the extent that a history degree is mostly about learning as large a body of historical facts as possible or completing a list of required courses, the senior capstone course is relatively unimportant. If, however, undergraduate education aims mainly to build skills and dispositions that may be applied throughout the life of the student, the capstone course assumes a more important role, because it is in that course that the student most fully engages in the practice of history and applies the skills that are central to the discipline. In the typical capstone course each student conceives and executes original historical research, producing in the end a substantial paper.

That product requires students to practice all of the skills they have been learning throughout their undergraduate education, and for that reason I argue that the course is the most important in a student’s career. I therefore propose structuring the history major around the senior capstone course, so that the program expressly builds to it and so that the course reflects back on the broader program.

What specific actions can a department take to emphasize the importance of a senior capstone course? One relatively straightforward but important step is to highlight the course in advising students from initial orientation through ensuing semesters. When introducing new majors to the history department I tell them that the most important course they will take during their undergraduate education will be the senior capstone course. In their senior year they will do real historical work: pose a significant historical question, do research in primary sources to answer the question, and craft a convincing and engaging historical argument. The skills necessary to produce a good research paper, I suggest, are broadly translatable outside of the college classroom and are likely to be in demand in the workplace and the broader world for the foreseeable future. The hope is that, besides getting students thinking about their research interests early, the prospect of the senior capstone course will offer them a more coherent and compelling vision of what their education is about than checking off a list of required classes.

Beyond advising, a second important moment in students’ course of study in the history major is often the methods course, typically designed to be taken in the fourth or fifth semester. I envision the methods course as a place for students to build the skills that will help them succeed in their upper-level history courses, especially the senior capstone. I emphasize throughout the semester that the skills we are working on will be necessary to produce a strong piece of original research in the senior year. We spend time on some rudiments in the methods course. For example, one class meeting devotes attention to the mechanics of footnoting, about which a significant number of students profess ignorance each semester. The methods course is where we try to master these kinds of basic skills, which are essential to conducting undergraduate research. Although advising and the methods course may be the most important means of focusing attention on the senior capstone course, ideally instructors in all offerings in the program should consider the following question as they design their courses: What can I do in this class to help students produce better papers in the senior capstone course? Student performance in the capstone will improve if the program builds to it.

The benefits can be reciprocal as well, if a department thoughtfully uses the capstone course to improve the program as a whole. The course can serve the broader program in several ways. First, the senior capstone is an ideal place to assess student learning, an issue that is increasingly important to accrediting bodies, administrators, and faculty. A senior paper is a far better tool than a multiple-choice test to measure student learning. Students furthermore are frequently asked in senior capstone courses to reflect rigorously on what they have learned in their undergraduate education and offer their evaluations of the strengths and weaknesses of the program. Where faculty members engage in serious, consistent review of students’ written work in the course, they can discern strengths and weaknesses in the program as a whole. The papers at my own institution, for example, have demonstrated limited facility in discussing historiography. The next step, of course, is to address areas of weakness as revealed in student performance in the capstone, and we are exploring ways to give students more opportunities to practice that skill during their program.

The senior capstone course can also benefit the broader degree program by helping to recruit and to motivate students. The course is typically where the best student work is done, and departments ought to celebrate those accomplishments. Outstanding papers can serve as the basis for presentations at university-wide research presentations or at conferences beyond the institution. Potential majors are rightly impressed by students who have presented at national conferences. The capstone course is the place where students most often produce writing samples that they can use in applications and achieve the kinds of successes in which a department can take pride.

What evidence is there that the suggestions offered here can improve student learning? The evidence is impressionistic, but it still suggests that focusing the program on the senior capstone course has paid dividends. More students arrive at the first class meeting of the course with a clear idea of what question they want to pursue than did so two years ago, with some of them discussing possible research questions before the semester begins. This preparation seems to be paying off, as the overall quality of the papers appears somewhat higher. A few students have participated in university-wide competitions, and at least one student presented a paper based on his senior thesis at a national conference. Experience and reflection indicate that departments will be well served by focusing faculty and student attention on the senior capstone course as the most important opportunity to practice the skills of reading, writing, and thinking that animate the historical discipline and liberal education. Students who demonstrate those abilities by producing their own original research have learned skills that will be useful to themselves and others long after they have completed that last research project that stands between them and their degree.

— is an associate professor of history at the University of West Georgia.

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