Creating Capstone Assignments

In this document, we provide recommendations and resources on creating effective capstone assignments that use writing as a means of learning. For more information on capstone requirements, please review information on the Office of Liberal Education’s website. Below, please find some principles and strategies to keep in mind while designing capstone assignments, and check out the list of examples at the end. Additionally, you can consult our resource “Designing Writing Assignments for Deep Learningfor more strategies for designing writing assignments—for capstone courses and other course contexts. 

First, some important information about senior capstones. Capstone courses:

  • Emphasize sharing of ideas, synthesis, and critical, informed reflection;
  • Include student initiative in defining and investigating problems or projects;
  • Have projects that speak to an audience beyond the instructor; 
  • Culminate a student's liberal education

Capstone projects should enable students to draw on what they have learned at Miami to explore difficult projects and use writing broadly understood to try to intervene and make change. Capstone projects should exemplify the threshold concept that writing mediates activity. Writing projects in capstone courses—whether they end up as white papers, articles, films, podcasts, websites, proposals, or prototypes—should have real audiences and real purposes and engage students with real problems. Students should have the opportunity to do hard things and work with others to apply what they have learned. Students can explore and work to solve hard problems in capstone courses by working with stakeholders outside the classroom, from community partners to local businesses or nonprofits to possible funders or groups they identify as being able to enact change. (Miami maintains a list of Partnerships for Community Groups).

Recommendations to keep in mind while designing, scaffolding, and assigning writing in your capstone course:

1. Start with the problem/goal, not the genre/text type. When designing capstone projects, it’s helpful to begin not with the product you want students to complete (i.e., a grant proposal) but with what you want students to do (i.e., identify a need and attempt to solve a problem). Writing mediates activity; that is, we don’t write “just because” but we write to do something: to solve a problem or to spread awareness or to persuade. Beginning with identifying the problem is a generative way to build assignments. As you build assignments, consider:

  • What do you want students to do? 
  • What problems do you want them to solve? 
  • What conversations do you want them to engage with? 

2. The written assignments should follow the purposes of the course. A capstone project doesn’t have to be a prose paper. Form follows function: students should be writing whatever is appropriate to engage with the problem they set out to solve. Be flexible and always consider audience and purpose (see the examples below). Think about the context of your course and the problems you and your students are trying to solve. Then, think about what genre or medium can lend itself to solve that problem.

3. Break the capstone project into smaller parts. Students will be working on a big and complex problem. While this may be messy, you still need to provide scaffolding, support, and structure. Students benefit from larger projects being broken down into smaller steps that build into one another, and where they can receive feedback along the way. If they are working with a client to design a marketing campaign or business proposal, for example, there should be process deadlines and check in points. Students can submit pieces of it throughout the semester, receiving feedback from peers and the instructor. For more insight on scaffolding writing projects, see “Scaffolding Writing Assignments.” 

4. Create projects that draw from students’ strengths and that consider the strengths of the class as a whole. Students come to capstone courses from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines and bring with them a variety of skills and experiences. Look at this as an affordance—the entire group can do what one individual could not do alone. Consider conducting a skills inventory to determine what the group collectively knows and can do, and build assignments where students can use their skills. 

5. Consider adopting team or group projects. Capstone course projects should be challenging, thus students may benefit from working together to tackle the project (or parts of it). The entire class can work on one large project (like redesigning the website and correlating materials of a local non-profit) or small groups can each work on separate projects (such as three groups compiling reports and creating presentations on different issues). Regardless of approach, teams should agree on procedures and policies for their work in order to keep themselves accountable. See our recommendations for facilitating effective group and team work. 

6. Assess prior knowledge and student knowledge along the way. Since students enroll in capstone courses from a range of disciplines, there is likely variation in their prior knowledge of expertise in your discipline, or in writing for your discipline. Thus, it is especially important to assess student’s prior knowledge coming into your course, such as creating and assigning a quick learning survey asking about their experiences with the capstone topic as well as the skills they bring with them to the course. Additionally, you could follow up and keep assessing what they’ve learned and how they are growing by providing reflections at multiple points throughout the course.

7. Help students understand their audiences in capstone projects. There is no such thing as “writing in general,” and all writing should serve a purpose for a particular audience—intended and even unintended. Capstone project audiences may evolve as the students progress on the project, but students should be able to explicitly address real audiences. A capstone course should be a bridge to post-college writing, so the projects should use real genres to communicate with real audiences and solve real problems. 

8. Include multiple modes of communication. Writing presents itself in our professional and daily lives as more than just alphabetic prose. Capstone projects can engage students in other kinds of writing and communication by asking them to create visuals, prepare presentations or speeches, include voiceover narrative, and more. The modes of communication should align with the purposes and audiences. 

9. Design a course where peers support each other and work together. Again, capstones are a bridge to post-university writing. Students need to work together to share resources, read each other’s work, and provide feedback and support. Create a community where peers support one another to achieve a shared goal.

Example Capstone Projects

  • Work with nonprofits to identify a project they need funded and then research funding sources and write one or more grant proposals 
  • Work with a local small business or non-profit to design or redesign a website
  • Research a problem and write a white paper for legislators or a think tank 
  • Work with a local small business or nonprofit to create a PR and marketing campaign
  • Pitch a product or design to a company or investment group 
  • Consider a problem that affects the group (for example, high tuition and student debt and create a campaign to educate stakeholders and/or try to solve the problem. 
  • Design a new business and write a business plan
  • Identify a problem, conduct research, and design a possible solution (varies widely by field)
  • Create a media object (e.g. film, podcast, Insta story) that addresses and engages critical global  issues with public scholarship
  • Work with stakeholders to create a design prototype (e.g. robot, drone, game, app)