Peer Review

Making the Case for Capstones and Signature Work

Early in 2015, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) began an initiative called the LEAP Challenge with the goal of encouraging and assisting institutions as they created and scaled capstones and signature work on their campuses. This initiative, housed in AAC&U’s Office of Integrative Liberal Learning and the Global Commons, was designed to provide a collaborative space for administrators and faculty from eight diverse liberal arts campuses—Augustana College, Bates College, Clark University, Connecticut College, Elizabethtown College, Nebraska Wesleyan University, Oberlin College, and the College of William & Mary—to examine and further develop curricula that result in all students, not just the most fortunate, being well-prepared to engage in significant signature work before they graduate. The project was supported by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. Recognizing that each campus would arrive at different solutions to deepen campus engagement with the LEAP Challenge: Engaging in Capstones and Signature Work consortium, AAC&U also hopes to catalyze further work on other campuses by sharing the experiences of the consortium through this issue of Peer Review.

The LEAP Challenge initiative aims to provide capstone and signature work opportunities for all students to integrate and apply their learning to complex problems and projects important to the students and society. Capstones and signature work are not captured in one assignment; rather, they require students to practice the kinds of sustained work that will be part of their lives whatever they do, enhancing students’ abilities to become critical thinkers who are skilled in analysis and argument around a complex problem. AAC&U President Lynn Pasquerella notes that “capstones and signature work, offered to all students across every major, is one of the best approaches to cultivating the perception, intellectual agility, and creative thinking necessary for them to thrive in a globally interdependent, innovation-fueled economy. By asking students to address big questions and grand challenges from their first to final semesters, colleges and universities encourage students to test the edges of their own ambition and develop new levels of agency.”

AAC&U selected the eight institutions because these campuses were already working on intentional and progressively more challenging curricular designs that encourage students to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to produce a significant piece of work on a problem they define. The campuses were brought together for regular meetings. Over the first two years, the consortium was led by David Paris and Kathy Wolfe, who both served as vice presidents of the AAC&U Office of Integrative Liberal Learning and the Global Commons. After their departures and in the final year of the project, Amy Jessen-Marshall, AAC&U’s new vice president of this area, and Nancy Budwig, an AAC&U senior fellow in residence, took over the leadership role for institutional discussions and disseminating the work of this consortium. The articles in this issue of Peer Review attempt to distill outcomes of our collaborative efforts over the past years in a way that will be useful to other schools working on capstones and signature work. The project’s member schools all learned a great deal and believe that widening the network to include experiences of other institutions will ultimately enhance the quality of student-centered and equitable learning on campuses nationwide.

Emerging Themes

This issue organizes the collective work of the consortium and efforts at our individual campuses around five themes that emerged over the course of our time together:

  • ƒ Defining capstones and signature work. This includes discussion of how campuses came to infuse meaning into the overarching definition that AAC&U provided for capstones and signature work and describes patterns that emerged across campuses as they defined what capstones and signature work meant to them.
  • ƒ Organizing capstones and signature work. This theme examines where responsibility for signature work was located on consortium campuses and explores how capstones and signature work were embedded in available programming and committees on campuses and whether new organizational structures or positions were created to oversee this work.
  • ƒ Student preparedness for capstones and signature work. The consortium spent considerable time discussing the skills and capacities students need to engage in capstones and signature work and discussed how it is often thought that only the very best students on our campuses were ready to employ the range of skills and capacities such work requires. We focus here on the various efforts on our campuses as we considered how to build learning pathways that allow all students—not just the most advanced—to be well-prepared to engage in high-quality capstones and signature work.
  • ƒ Institutional readiness for capstones and signature work. This fourth theme looked at how our institutions were set up for scaling signature work and focused on some of the barriers and obstacles that came up as capstones and signature work began on our campuses. We also review the solutions that were tested and that ultimately helped campuses as they attempted to fully scale capstones and signature work.
  • ƒ Assessing capstones and signature work. A topic that kept emerging is how one can assess capstones and signature work. Many campuses note that this is still an area that needs significant attention. Here we describe practices in place and some early findings pertaining to efforts to assess capstones and signature work on our campuses.

Rather than present case studies of individual campus responses to the above list of themes, project members have modeled true integrative learning by coauthoring articles on each of the topics above. All of the articles that follow were written collaboratively, with the authors named taking the lead in collating responses from all of the consortium schools. In a final article, Jillian Kinzie, Associate Director of the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research and the National Survey of Student Engagement Institute, discusses what is known about quality learning and equity in capstones and signature work using the nationally collected National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) as a springboard for observations.

Making the Case for Why Capstones and Signature Work Matter

The campuses involved in the consortium were selected because they had already made progress in capstones and signature work. Yet one of the major lessons from the consortium has been that this work has not been easy to scale. Stepping back from the project and examining how work proceeded, one issue on most campuses concerned making the case for why capstones and signature work matter. Implementing these projects is a big ask for faculty who would need to provide new levels of support to their students. We consider now how the issue has been framed to date, and we put forth an alternative framing that we believe will not only propel this work, but also help campuses better align campus structures, policies, and professional development opportunities in support of these efforts.

Reframing the Case in Terms of Student Learning

Every new initiative is situated in a time and place, and the work on the LEAP Challenge is no exception. Because it was initiated after one of our country’s most significant periods of financial distress, which had an enormous impact on higher education, it should be no surprise that an initiative focused on capstones and signature work has been framed in terms of the importance for student success after college. For instance, much has been made about the links between capstones and signature work, the skills needed to successfully complete such projects, and employers’ beliefs about skill sets and capacities needed to be ready for employment. A comprehensive survey of employer beliefs (Hart Research Associates 2015) supports efforts to enhance capstones and signature work on our campuses. For instance, it was found that 91 percent of the employers surveyed say that critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving abilities are more important than a potential employee’s undergraduate major. Furthermore, 87 percent of the same employers report that they would be more likely to consider hiring candidates if they had completed an advanced, comprehensive senior project. More recent findings reported annually in Job Outlook surveys created by the National Association of Colleges and Employers continue to show a gap between recent graduates’ readiness to enter the workforce and the skills and capacities employers seek (National Association of Colleges and Employers 2018).

At first glance, a focus on employers’ needs seems like a compelling way to frame efforts on campuses to develop capstones and signature work. Certainly, this framing speaks to the concerns of prospective students and families who are concerned about job prospects after college. But are there better frames for fueling this work on our campuses? Frames, as noted by linguist George Lakoff (2004), cannot be seen or heard. Following the work of others in cognitive science, Lakoff claims that frames are part of the cognitive unconscious, or “structures in our brains that we cannot consciously access” (Lakoff 2004, xv). Lakoff goes on to note that reframing can be an important tool for social change in that speaking in new ways influences thought patterns. While the focus on employer needs may be compelling to students and their families, and it certainly is important, we suggest that, based on efforts pertaining to the LEAP Challenge over the past two years, reframing the work could help move the needle on our campuses. Making the case for capstones and signature work only around employers’ values is not likely to persuade faculty and others on campuses who value liberal education to reinvigorate curricula toward more engaged learning. A new frame is needed. We believe it is better to make the case by drawing on recent research in the developmental and learning sciences on student success and student learning.

Over the last decade, an exponential growth in our understanding of human learning and development points us to new ways of understanding student learning and development. Much of this work (e.g., Budwig, Turiel, and Zelazo 2017; National Research Council 2000) highlights a range of cognitive and noncognitive factors critical to student success. While rapidly impacting curricular reform efforts in the K–12 arena, this work has been noted to have had minimal impact in reform efforts in higher education (Budwig 2013). Findings from the developmental sciences emphasize the importance of developing the whole student, and this has led to consideration of a range of factors beyond cognitive abilities that appear to be predictive of student success. Such factors include social and emotional aspects of learning, including a student’s sense of belonging, interest, and motivation. Similarly, findings from a large body of work from the learning sciences emphasize the importance of engaged learning and participatory practice, again highlighting that the best learning stems from deep and meaningful experiences (see Lave and Wenger 1991; Yeager and Walton 2011).

Capstones and signature work are not only important to future employers, but they are critical because they embody the best pedagogical practice for how students learn. Furthermore, as reviewed in a new report commissioned by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2017), framing the case for capstones, and signature work in terms of signature work experiences goes hand in hand with what developmental and learning scientists have recently reported is critical to the predictive promise for college success, especially for underserved populations.

We contend that moving the needle on the sort of campus change required to implement capstones and signature work will require a stronger and more immediate framing of why this work is important. Framing this work in terms of student success and focusing on capstones and signature work as a platform for engaging in the kind of best practices outlined in recent studies of human development and learning will establish a more compelling frame for faculty on campuses that embrace integrative liberal learning than a focus on employer needs. Furthermore, this framing is consistent with promoting inclusive excellence and equitable outcomes based on our knowledge that the practices associated with capstones and signature work advance student success for diverse populations and are believed to enhance college graduation rates and inclusive excellence.

Concluding Comments

The efforts of the eight campuses described in this issue provide an impressive beginning for defining and organizing structures on campuses to support capstones and signature work. Most campuses have learned that capstones and signature work require creating developmental pathways that prepare students for work across their time on campus. The campuses note that attending to the professional development of faculty and staff has also been required to build the necessary institutional capacity. Assessment efforts are in the early stages, but the LEAP Challenge consortium institutions view them as critical to helping campuses monitor and adjust practices as they begin this ambitious work.

Reframing the development of capstones and signature work on our campuses by emphasizing the importance of this work to student learning, inclusive excellence, and equitable outcomes is critical, and we believe it is an important and urgent catalyst to campus change. By itself, though, it will not bring about sustained change. A new framing, with its focus on the whole student, leads to a ripple effect in how we think about a range of campus issues including strategic planning, policies and procedures, and organizational models built on traditional boundaries between disciplines, between the curricular and cocurricular areas, and between student and academic affairs. Ferren and Paris (2015) outline some beginning thoughts on the importance of considering such issues, and additional examples of this contention can be found in Budwig, Michaels, and Kasmer (2015). As the LEAP Challenge work on capstones and signature work has unfolded, we have realized the importance of attending to these issues, but they go beyond the scope of this project.

There is much to be learned from the eight campuses who describe their efforts as they considered ways to scale capstone and signature work on their campuses. We hope this work generates a second round of learning as we unite to improve student learning and inclusive excellence on our campuses.



Budwig, Nancy. 2013. “The Learning Sciences and Liberal Education.” Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning 45 (3): 40–48.

Budwig, Nancy, Sarah Michaels, and Lisa Kasmer. 2015. “Facilitating Campus Leadership for Integrative Liberal Learning.” Peer Review 16/17 (4/1): 19–22.

Budwig, Nancy, Elliot Turiel, and Philip Zelazo, eds. 2017. New Perspectives on Human Development. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Ferren, Ann, and David Paris. 2015. Faculty Leadership for Integrative Liberal Learning. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Hart Research Associates. 2015. Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Lakoff, George. 2004. Don’t Think of an Elephant! White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Lave, Jean, and Etienne Wenger. 1991. Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Supporting Students' College Success: The Role of Assessment of Intrapersonal and Interpersonal Competencies. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

National Association of Colleges and Employers. 2017. “Job Outlook 2018: College Hiring to Increase by 4 Percent.”

National Research Council. 2000. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Yeager, David S., and Gregory M. Walton. 2011. “Social-Psychological Interventions in Education: They’re Not Magic.” Review of Educational Research 81 (2): 267–301.

Nancy Budwig, Professor of Psychology, Clark University; Senior Fellow, Office of Integrative Liberal Learning and the
Global Commons, AAC&U; and Amy Jessen-Marshall, Vice President of the Office of Integrative Liberal Learning and the Global Commons, AAC&U


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