CAPPING STUDENT SUCCESS:
USING CAPSTONE EXPERIENCES TO ENHANCE STUDENT LEARNING
QUALITY ENHANCEMENT PLAN
The topic of the University’s Quality Enhancement Plan is enhancing student learning by improving student engagement in high impact practices, specifically capstone courses. The University’s QEP topic arises from and is closely related to the University’s strategic planning process. Student success is a major focus of the University’s Strategic Plan.
Goal #2 of the UNC Pembroke Strategic Plan 2012-2019 deals with student success. It states that the University of North Carolina at Pembroke will maximize student success by improving its recruitment strategies and enhancing its academic support systems. In 2016, the Chancellor and his Cabinet developed a set of annual operational goals to guide faculty and staff in the implementation of the University’s mission and vision as articulated in the University’s Strategic Plan. Named “The BraveBook: Our Playbook for Success,” this series of objectives built upon the goals and objectives of the Strategic Plan and provided a series of annual initiatives and targets for the further implementation of the Strategic Plan. The 2016-2017 BraveBook had a thematic goal of maximizing student success. The 2017-18 BraveBook and 2018-2019 BraveBook each had five objectives, one of which was student success.
In summer 2016, the Reaffirmation Steering Committee begin the process of identifying a topic for the University’s next Quality Enhancement Plan. This included reviewing the University’s Strategic Plan and the strategic planning process associated with it to determine what elements in the plan focused on the improvement of student learning or student success and how the next QEP could be derived from those elements. As discussed above, the strategic planning process has continuously focused on improving student success, and the resulting University Strategic Plan and BraveBook operational plans contain more than ample bases for a variety of QEP topics focused on student learning and/or student success. Living and learning communities, advising, tutoring, service learning, and increasing retention, graduation, progression, and placement rates have had a prominent place in the strategic planning documents.
Surveys of faculty, staff, and students in 2017 were used to help determine the QEP topic. After extended discussion, the QEP Topic Selection Committee decided that student engagement was a topic that could serve to encompass a variety of knowledge, behaviors, and skills that students should acquire during their University career. The Committee reviewed research on student engagement and concluded that the emphasis on high impact practices and its connection to student engagement would serve the University well as part of its next QEP. An in-depth review of the literature on student engagement, high impact practices, capstone courses, and integrative learning was conducted in order to discover best practices and use them to inform the development of the specific objectives and student learning outcomes that drive the Quality Enhancement Plan.
Results of the National Survey of Student Engagement and the Faculty Survey of Student Engagement were used to assess the state of student engagement on campus and document a need for initiatives to improve student learning through student engagement. The 2016 FSSE results showed that 76% of faculty found it important to do culminating experiences. The 2014 and 2017 NSSE results showed that a low number of freshman students were participating in high impact practices. Twenty-six percent would like or expected to participate in a culminating experience. Thirty-seven percent of seniors were doing a culminating experience in 2014. In 2017, 29% of seniors didn’t plan to do a culminating experience, and 13% hadn’t decided. The percentage of seniors doing a culminating experience dropped from 37% in 2014 to 28% seniors in 2017.
Results of a survey of 809 UNC Pembroke Alumni conducted by the UNC System Office in 2018-2019 provided a connection between high-impact practices and workplace engagement and lifelong wellbeing across five dimensions. It revealed that while 42% of UNC Pembroke alumni responding reported that they are engaged in their work, 46% reported that they are not engaged in their work. Eleven percent reported being actively disengaged. UNC Pembroke alumni who worked on a project that took a semester or more to complete were 1.7 times more likely to feel engaged with their work and 1.2 times more likely to experience high levels of wellbeing.
Much of the literature on student engagement and high-impact practices highlights the relationship between increased levels of student engagement and participation in high-impact practices and graduation. There is substantial room for improvement on this measure of student success at UNC Pembroke. Although the University’s five-year graduation rate has increased steadily over the last seven years, it has not yet reached its target five-year graduation rate of 46.5% as established by the UNC System Strategic Plan. Although six-year graduation rates have increased steadily over the last six years, the rate of 40.3% in 2018 is still less than about half of the University’s peer institutions
Arising from the University’s mission to prepare students for rewarding careers, postgraduate education, leadership roles, and fulfilling lives and the University’s strategic goal of maximizing student success, the overarching goal of the University’s Quality Enhancement Plan is to increase student learning by increasing student engagement in high impact practices, specifically capstone courses and experiences. With respect to student learning outcomes, students completing a capstone course should be able to:
- Connect relevant experiences to academic knowledge from different courses in the university setting;
- Make connections across disciplines, perspectives, fields of study;
- Adopt and apply information to new situations; and
- Engage in meaningful self-reflection.
Achieving the overarching goal and associated student learning outcomes depends upon the development and expansion of capstone or culminating experiences at the University. A series of steps in the process of creating and expanding capstone courses in order to achieve the desired student learning outcomes have been outlined. These are:
- Step 1— Survey of Capstone Courses. The QEP Director and QEP Advisory Committee will conduct a survey in Qualtrics of coordinators of academic programs to determine the existence of courses that are or could be designated as capstone courses and what they entail. The QEP Advisory Committee will analyze the responses when the survey is completed in order to determine what departments might be most likely to participate in the development process and which might be approached to design or redesign a capstone course. This step will occur in fall 2020.
- Step 2— Guidelines for Standardizing Capstone Courses/Culminating Experiences. The QEP Director and the QEP Advisory Committee will develop standard guidelines for capstone courses/culminating experiences to be included within the scope of the Quality Enhancement Plan. The guidelines will be provided to departments so that faculty can determine if existing courses are good candidates for participation in the development process and to see what might be involved in the development of new capstone courses. The guidelines will be based on the Committee’s research into current best practices in capstone courses/culminating experiences. This step will occur in fall 2020.
- Step 3—Selection of Applicants for Course Design/Re-Design. Departments will be offered the opportunity to develop or re-develop capstone/culminating experiences. To recruit faculty for the capstone course development process, the QEP Director and the QEP Advisory Committee will develop an application process for departmental faculty to apply to develop or redevelop capstone courses. The Committee will offer stipends for participation in the development/redevelopment process. The QEP Advisory Committee will develop selection criteria for applications for course design/re-design. The Committee will review the applications and select those to be included in the development process. These actions will be completed in fall 2020.
With thirty-six undergraduate degrees offered at the University, the goal is to involve a maximum of six undergraduate programs per year in the development process (possibly three existing capstone courses and three new ones). This would result in the Quality Enhancement Plan encompassing 83% of all degree programs over five years.
- Step 4—Faculty Development Workshops. Faculty Development workshops will be held fall and spring. Workshops will focus on the value of integrative thinking and reflective learning, best practices for incorporating these practices into capstone courses, assessment of student learning outcomes on integrative thinking and reflection in capstone course, and rubric training. Workshops will include material related to the incorporation of the desired student learning outcomes into the capstone courses. Participants will be provided with descriptions of ideal capstone experiences. Faculty teaching courses in the capstone course development initiative will receive a stipend for developing capstone courses. Funds will be available for travel to regional or national conferences on the teaching of capstone courses to faculty participating in the course development program and others interested in participating in the program. Faculty development activities will begin in spring 2021.
- Step 5—Offering Capstone Courses. The first newly-designed or redesigned courses will be offered following the completion of the initial series of faculty development workshops. Existing courses that have been redesigned can be offered sooner than ones that are newly-created. Newly-created courses must be approved through the University Curriculum Development and Revision Process that involves administrative and Faculty Senate approval before they can be offered. These processes will begin in fall 2021 and spring 2022 and continue throughout the five-year period of the Plan.
- Step 6—Reviewing Syllabi for Capstone Courses. The QEP Advisory Committee will review the syllabi of capstone courses that are being offered as part of the course development initiative within the University Quality Enhancement Plan. This will occur on a continuous basis throughout the duration of the Quality Enhancement Plan to ensure that the newly-designed or redesigned capstone courses continue to adhere to the guidelines established for the courses in the program. These processes will commence in 2021-2022 and be ongoing for the duration of the Quality Enhancement Plan.
- Step 7—Assessing Student Learning Outcomes in Capstone Courses. The QEP Advisory Committee and the QEP Director will oversee the assessment of the student learning outcomes in the capstone courses in accordance with the assessment plan as outlined below. The AAC&U VALUE Rubric on Integrative and Reflective thinking will play a prominent role in measuring the achievement of the student learning outcomes in the courses. These processes will commence in 2021-2022 and will be ongoing.
The QEP Director will have ultimate responsibility for overseeing the implementation and assessment of the QEP. The QEP Director will be a full-time faculty member with fifty percent reassigned time in the fall and spring semesters to administer the QEP. The Director will receive a stipend in the summer to carry out the implementation of the QEP. The Director will be assisted by an Assessment Coordinator who will be responsible for conducting the assessment and evaluation of the project in collaboration with the Office of Institutional Research. The Assessment Coordinator will be a full-time faculty member with fifty percent reassigned time in the fall and spring semesters and a summer stipend.
Achieving QEP goals with respect to student learning will require a five-year budget commitment of approximately $890 thousand of which approximately $655 thousand is for in-kind expenses and $235 thousand for new expenses. Yearly costs average approximately $176 thousand per year.
The purpose of the assessment process is to measure the degree to which the QEP is achieving its goals, especially its impact on the improvement of student learning. The assessment plan details the processes for evaluating the student learning outcomes outlined in the QEP. The plan contains relevant direct and indirect measures of student learning and measures outcomes at the initial and ending stages of the program. It uses both internal and external comparisons to assess the contribution of the QEP to student learning. The results of the assessment will be reviewed by the QEP Director and the QEP Advisory Committee and used to make modifications to the QEP as necessary.