The four private liberal arts colleges participating in this study – Allegheny College, Augustana College, Washington College, and The College of Wooster – are distinctive in that they require all seniors to engage in an intensive mentored experience (“capstone”) that is designed and executed by the student using the theories, methods, and tools of a discipline, resulting in a scholarly or creative work. While we have long believed the experience to be transformative, the evidence has been largely anecdotal. There have been important questions about the experience that needed to be explored more systematically: What educational and developmental benefits are unique to these senior experiences? What practices lead to a “successful” experience? How do these programs impact faculty mentors? What are the costs, including opportunity costs, of supporting these programs?
The survey reports of capstone students, alumni, and mentors indicate that the capstone experiences typically lead to many of the benefits associated with undergraduate research experiences: development of skills in writing and oral communication, critical thinking, and research; an increased interest in research; an empowering sense of academic self-confidence and achievement; and development of project management skills. On average, other learning outcomes, such as becoming an engaged citizen and developing an understanding from multiple perspectives showed no gains. Although variations emerged, gains occurred broadly at all schools and across academic divisions, GPA ranges, and gender, suggesting that all students can benefit from the capstone experience.