Setting up Capstones for Success

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Written by Capsource
By: Tricia Davies, Capstone Instructor/ Adjunct Associate Professor, School of International & Public Affairs, Columbia University

Twenty years ago, I had my first Capstone experience as a graduate student. I was in a group of six studying public administration & policy, and the idea of working as “consultants” where we’d get to apply our learning to a real-life challenge was a unique feature of the program. Our client was the NYC Department of Homeless Services.


Following graduation, I began working for the City as a Budget & Policy Analyst before becoming Director of Operations for the NYC Department of Homeless Services. I cannot say for sure if this Capstone project led me to work in the field of homelessness and social service delivery, but the experience of learning by doing was extremely valuable to me.


Fast forward to a few years ago when I was invited to lead my first Capstone class as an Adjunct Professor. I jumped at the chance to return to my alma mater to share my expertise as a seasoned professional including: management consultant with the global consulting firm, KPMG, capacity building in Ghana, and founding my own research and strategy consultancy, The Public Good.


That first Capstone project led to another the following year (for World Bank Group). Being a firm believer in the value of experiential learning, I look forward to continuing to serve as a Capstone faculty advisor for the next generation of students.


Implementing effective and meaningful experiential learning is no easy task, in fact, there are many common barriers that come along with real-project based learning. As universities continue to explore Capstone as a valuable learning tool, it’s my hope that other educators in the field find these tips, based on my experience as a Capstone faculty advisor and as a management consultant, valuable as well.


Define the learning goals


Every stakeholder in experiential learning has their goals. Ideally, the school, the students and the host company’s goals will overlap throughout the process.


For now, let’s consider the school’s goals and how well they have articulated the value of completing a Capstone project to their students; why it may be required for graduation and what it offers that an internship doesn’t. In other words, how well does your school present the purpose and goals of its Capstone program?

The learning goals for students participating in the Capstone project should align with the goals and mission of the degree program. And if completing a Capstone is a degree requirement, it should be clear why. The learning goals should inform the selection of host companies and their proposed projects. Schools should also make sure the companies value the school’s learning goals and include them in the Memorandum of Understanding, Terms and Conditions or whatever document is shared with the host companies. Schools and the companies they serve should be transparent in this assumption. At CapSource education, transparency is key to creating a cohesive partnership during the collaboration request process, in which schools and companies clearly define their goals for the engagement.


Prepare and excite students


College and even more so, graduate students, get excited about two things: employment prospects and exciting learning opportunities that develop transferable skills. Therefore, the school’s challenge is to source Capstone companies that appeal to the greatest number of students. Ideally, students are incentivized to put in their best effort when they see an opportunity to get hired by an organization following graduation.

As exciting as working as a student-consultant and the opportunities that may follow can be, it is critical to prepare students for the realities of the working world in order to ensure student success and a mutually beneficial, long-lasting partnership between school and host company. Preparing students typically requires fostering the right attitude, setting clear and realistic expectations, creating a professional environment and establishing milestones & deliverables. Of course it will be necessary to adjust and even pivot along the way, but establishing these early preparatory steps can make the difference between an ordinary CapStone and extraordinary one.


Define and assign roles


Each team member should be assigned a specific role with tasks that contribute directly to the overall output. Whether these roles are defined by the team or begin with the typical roles of any project team, defining them along with expectations greatly improves the grading process.

Similarly, the instructor, like a music conductor, should also have a clear role with limits. This can be tricky as it depends on how well the project is defined as well as how experienced the students are in project management and engaging in experiential learning. Some students need more hand-holding; some less. Either way, the instructor should make their expected level of involvement known from the very beginning.


Ensure smooth communication and a valuable feedback loop


Communication and feedback in an experiential learning environment could warrant an entire book. A clear communication path is critically important, yet one of the most difficult aspects of project management. Students, the host company, and the instructor all need a secure, reliable and easy-to-use platform to share and update project tasks and outputs as well as quick and easy ways to change course when needed.


Create and share a clear Capstone grading rubric


Group projects inherently create unique issues in a learning environment; for example, the challenge of managing group dynamics, varying student capabilities of individual students (both technical hard-skills that are required to do the work and soft-skills that are important for managing the team and the client relationships), and leveling time commitment and the effort made by each student.

In the end, each student is awarded credit and a grade. How much is based on the individual’s contribution? The quality of the overall product? The satisfaction of the host company? Grading should be well defined, with objective and measurable factors.

Capstones are a great place to employ 360 degree reviews, where not only the instructor grades each student but students also grade each other. This is where a tool that securely manages peer feedback becomes important. It should also be flexible enough to allow for different assessments, such as numeric scores, qualitative, and short responses.

Anyone who has participated in group work knows that the distribution of effort is rarely equitable. However, making the grading rubric clear is important to protect the instructor or the school from allegations of bias by disgruntled students. And when each student expects an individual grade, the rubric needs to be transparent.

Those of us on the teaching side of experiential learning know how valuable a Capstone can be for the school, the host hompany, and most importantly, the student looking to gain real experience and exposure to support their career goals. All Capstones should be first and foremost, valuable learning experiences – where students develop the skills of creativity, communication and critical thinking that are so essential for the workplace. The right leadership and planning can ensure that every student values their experience.


Patricia (Tricia) Davies leads Public Good Consulting LLC (The Public Good), a planning and advisory firm that translates policies and goals into financially sustainable programs with social impact. Prior to founding The Public Good, Tricia advised government and nonprofit entities on financial planning and risk mitigation as a Manager with KPMG; she served in the US government and in management roles with the City of NY on policies and operations for the homeless. She’s also led several capstone teams exploring the utility of open data at an Adjunct Professor at Columbia University’s School of International & Public Affairs, where she earned her MPA degree.