Student Preparation for and Engagement with Signature Work

For the institutions who participated in the LEAP Challenge: Engaging in Capstones and Signature Work consortium, led by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), a major outcome has been sharing findings about who engages in capstones and signature work and what we are learning about students’ preparation. It has become clear that capstones and signature work need to fit with the broader trajectory of students’ academic work and development—not as an add-on, but recognized by students as the natural outcome of their ongoing studies and broader experiences. From the student perspective and experience, what do we know and what are we learning about who engages in signature and capstone work? And what is needed to broaden successful participation in and engagement with signature work? This article will consider how schools are ensuring that all students can engage in capstone and signature work, where that work is located (for instance, whether it is part of a core curricular experience or an optional summer program), and what we are learning from our students and faculty about student readiness. One issue central to the various campuses is that current curricular experiences are not yet ensuring that all students are well-prepared to engage in this type of work, including even our most talented students. This article shares our joint learning about student engagement with and preparation for capstone and signature work on our campuses.

Who Participates in Signature Work?

As noted in the LEAP Challenge description from AAC&U (2015), “Signature work can be pursued in a research project, in a capstone experience, in thematically linked courses, in a practicum, or in service learning settings.” The overlap among high-impact practices (HIPs) and signature work is notable, but the two are not interchangeable. In signature work, it is critical that students have agency in leading the work (with faculty mentorship), and that students also have the opportunity to apply their learning to complex or unscripted problems. In addition, signature work requires that students integrate learning from their major, general education courses, and cocurricular activities, as well as reflect on their learning. Access to and completion of learning opportunities such as capstone projects, research or other independent creative scholarship, internships, and study abroad enhance the likelihood that students will accomplish signature work, but they provide no guarantee. Colleges and universities contemplating scaling up student engagement with signature work must keep in mind that although high-impact practices can and often do provide venues for signature work, more needs to happen to ensure that the benefits of signature work are realized. According to the most recent National Survey of Student Engagement (Center for Postsecondary Research 2017), 61 percent of seniors report participation in at least two HIPs. Of those students, 45 percent reported that they completed a culminating senior experience, including capstones, with a range of 46 percent to 74 percent depending on the type of college or university. For the colleges participating in the signature work project, most have stated goals of 100 percent participation in capstone projects, with some schools well on the way to meeting that goal. Across our schools, we found that linking signature work to capstones and some other high-impact practices presents an opportunity for scaling up student signature work, though this work needs to be well thought-out.

Given that many of our schools had capstone seminars in place, this was a natural starting place for them to consider scaling signature work. The participating schools came to the recognition that completing a capstone by itself did not necessarily mean a student engaged in signature work as defined by the LEAP Challenge (https://www.aacu.org/signaturework). Not only do capstone experiences cover a wide spectrum nationally (see Henscheid 2000 for a survey of capstone offerings), that variation can occur within a single campus. Among our participating schools, capstones often ranged from upper-level seminars to independent research or internships. At Clark University, many faculty initially believed that requiring signature work as part of the curriculum would not be a challenge or necessary since students were already completing capstones in their major. The other reaction that project team members encountered, particularly from departments with large enrollments, was that these culminating experiences needed to be individual research-related projects. However, faculty in these departments expressed that it would be impractical for every student to complete an independent, original research project. While we recognized that an assessment of capstone goals and departmental practices is a necessary first step for determining how signature work may connect to capstones already existing in the curriculum, work on our various campuses showed there is more to be considered.

Upon examining and assessing the nature of capstone experiences at participating colleges, existing departmental capstones often met criteria for student engagement in signature work, but many either did not or might not depending on how the capstones were set up. Because most capstones are designed around content or skills needed for a major, signature work components such as integration of learning outside the major and reflection were not necessarily included. A review of syllabi at Augustana College, for example, found that most capstone courses did not ask students to integrate learning from outside the major, many lacked a reflection component, and others lacked opportunities for students to make the project their own. As discussed by Hayden-Roy et al. in this issue of Peer Review, although many participating schools have opted to consider ways to incorporate signature work into students’ capstone experiences, each school has opted to do this in different ways.

Student Readiness for Engaging in Signature Work

As part of the LEAP Challenge, we have also realized that not all students are ready to engage in meaningful signature work when they arrive at the capstone experience. As our schools began to discuss implementing signature work as a student requirement, a question surfaced about the preparedness of our students to do this work. Each of our schools found it helpful to consider efficient and effective ways to make sure students arrive at the culminating capstone experience with requisite skills and capacities so the experience is most meaningful to the student and the burden to faculty is not too great. Ways to do this are discussed below.

Another issue that arose in our discussion of scaling signature work for all students on our campus related to whether institutional resources could keep pace with student expectations and choices. Students are often drawn more toward independent, self-designed projects as opposed to doing their signature work as part of ongoing projects organized by an instructor or other mentor or as part of a group project. One discussion theme was that defaulting to all individual projects does not represent the professional norms in many fields of study, spreads resources thin, and therefore limits the size and scope of projects. There is a critical need for students to learn how to provide creative, individual work within groups. Across our various schools, we came to believe that group projects allow faculty to capture students’ independent contributions and gained skills, and can indeed meet signature work goals.

Locating Signature Work

One central finding stemming from our joint discussions in the consortium was that signature work needs to fit with students’ academic work and development, recognized by students as the natural outcome of their work and broader experiences. To broaden successful participation in and engagement with signature work, each participating school asked whether such experiences needed to be optional or required, and, if required, where signature work resides (e.g., within the major or a general education requirement).

Of the seven schools that have implemented ways to scale-up participation in signature work experiences, six did so as required work and one as part of an optional pathway (see table 1). Five use the major capstone as the means to ensure all students participate, although there are variations in how signature work connects to the capstone. At Bates College, Nebraska Wesleyan University, and College of William & Mary, the focus is on incorporating signature work requirements into the majors’ capstone courses, which are overseen by departments.

Table One

 

Located in the Major and Overseen by the Department

Located as Part of a General Education Program or Other Unit

Involving Curricular and Cocurricular Options

Required
  • Bates College
  • Nebraska Wesleyan University
  • College of William & Mary
  • Augustana College
  • Connecticut College
  • Clark University
  • Elizabethtown College
Optional
  • Oberlin College
   

At Augustana College, in response to observed variations across departmental capstone experiences, signature work is now a general education requirement expected to be completed as part of a student’s major capstone. The college’s general education committee assesses the signature work components. This approach leaves room for some students to continue their valuable off-campus research experiences, such as Research Experiences for Undergraduates programs funded by the National Science Foundation that may be accepted in their majors to satisfy capstone requirements, while also completing a separate portfolio or other integrative component to satisfy a graduation requirement and fulfill the broader signature work goals. At Clark University, signature work is also a student graduation requirement that is either completed in the major as a capstone project that meets the signature work criteria or coordinated through the university’s Liberal Education and Effective Practice (LEEP) center (see: http://www2.clarku.edu/leep/). Elizabethtown College made their signature learning experience (SLE) a student graduation requirement, allowing options for how students may complete their signature work (see http://www.etown.edu/academics/). After the college enacted the SLE requirement, departments responded by instituting capstones in majors to ensure their students fulfilled the requirement. The college also demonstrated institutional commitment by increasing funding to a Summer Creative Arts and Research program.

At Connecticut College, students complete an Integrative Pathway as part of their general education curriculum. Designed and implemented by interdisciplinary groups of faculty members, the Integrative Pathway asks students to integrate their major, their general education courses, and their own individual interests. The college’s interdisciplinary centers provide another avenue for students to integrate their education (see https://www.conncoll.edu/academic-centers/).

Scaffolding: The Role of Pathways
To help students successfully complete integrative signature work toward the end of their college experience, we need to nurture the skills necessary for that work. If signature work is to meet the basic criteria of being integrative and drawing on the diverse parts of a student’s education, addressing real-world issues (i.e., “big problems”), and focusing on a topic that is identified and directed by students (Peden 2015, 22), the educations we design must nurture these habits of mind from our students’ first semester. It is not surprising that students need practice and support along the way to develop the ability to successfully make sense of their educations and apply what they have learned to real-world issues. But how do we ensure that students can garner these abilities along the way?

One approach is to scaffold these skills and habits of mind throughout their college educations, introducing them early on to projects that help them practice integrating and applying ongoing learning to a project. These experiences will refine their thinking and better prepare them for the integrative signature work they will complete before they graduate. This sort of gradual and scaffolded approach is consistent with best pedagogical practices articulated in sociocultural perspectives on human learning and development (see Sawyer 2014; Wertsch et al. 1980; Wood, Bruner, and Ross 1976). Equally important, such scaffolding addresses two issues raised across our campuses—the preparedness of all students for signature work, and the distribution of labor-intensive faculty mentoring required for successful signature and capstone work.

We believe that guided pathways provide one kind of scaffold for students by intentionally helping them connect the dots across learning experiences. These pathways have worked well when they are defined by faculty around common learning outcomes that are student centered, helping to prepare students well for their future work and life. The call for pathways encourages campuses to design and sequence learning in ways that explicitly map the learning outcomes across the entire college experience, with new experiences building intentionally on prior experiences at progressively more challenging levels from initial courses to final capstone experiences. Intentionally providing directions and markers along the pathways is critical to ensure all students are integrating their experiences holistically rather than gathering a set of disconnected experiences. As McNair (2016) notes, “Designing purposeful and intentional pathways for student achievement requires educators to help students understand the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of student learning.”

Connecticut College has developed one of the most comprehensive approaches to scaffolding students’ curricular learning through the new Connections curriculum, which requires students to undertake an Integrative Pathway. The design captures the core features of scaffolding through its guided pathways approach. These pathways are organized around central themes (for example, Bodies/Embodiment, Peace and Conflict, Public Health, or Global Capitalism). Each Integrative Pathway consists of four major components, each offering scaffolding to help students prepare for integrative culminating work (see Egan, Kneas, and Reder in this issue of Peer Review for further details).

Pathways typically begin with a thematic inquiry course, taken during the sophomore year, that introduces students to the pathway’s theme and helps them formulate their “animating question.” That question will help focus and guide their work over the next two years, and a student then goes on to explore his or her question through a variety of courses taken in different disciplines. As part of a pathway, usually during a student’s junior year, he or she is required to engage either locally or globally by undertaking a study away, internship, or community-based learning experience.

The final integrative signature work for a pathway takes place during the fall of a student’s senior year and includes a senior reflection seminar and a culminating project. The results of that project are presented at a symposium, where students share their responses to their animating questions with the wider college community. As part of this final integrative work, students are asked not only to reflect on the different elements of their pathway, but also to consider their entire undergraduate experience, ideally including their majors and their significant cocurricular experiences. The Connections curriculum asks students to integrate their individual liberal arts education within a broad intellectual framework (see: https://www.conncoll.edu/academics/degree-requirements/connections/).

Such integrative work requires students to take a broad view of their educations, reflecting upon significant questions, thinking across different disciplines, and considering what other disciplines beyond their majors might contribute to their own knowledge. Because the Connections curriculum is designed to be a four-year experience, Connecticut College introduces students to the thinking and skills needed to successfully integrate and apply their educations beginning in their first semester. First-year seminars, in addition to the explicit goals of connecting the topic of the seminar to other courses in the curriculum and exploring opportunities for local or global engagement, also require students to discuss the college’s liberal arts mission and core values. Many faculty use a written assignment that asks students to critically consider their own goals and educations in light of the school’s mission and values, requiring them to reflect upon where their own strengths lie and what skills and values they would like to develop or explore further—in addition to what courses they might take related to these goals.

Making connections between and among courses across disciplines is nurtured further in other experiences such as ConnCourses, which are designed to be an alternative to traditional introductory (usually 100-level) courses. In ConnCourses, students explore a discipline’s connection to the other liberal arts and sciences. Intentionally diverse in perspective, ConnCourses examine how knowledge is constructed in a specific field of study and then ask students to connect those ideas and concepts to the world around us. ConnCourses cultivate an integrative approach to learning and problem solving, prepare students for the work they are expected to do over their four years at the college, and are engaging for both the teacher and the students, regardless of their intended major. (Visit https://www.conncoll.edu/connections/conncourses/ for a more comprehensive listing of current ConnCourses and their descriptions).

In both the first-year seminars and ConnCourses, students are required to not only make transdisciplinary connections, but also be critically reflective by considering how what they learned applies to themselves and the world around them. The ability to make those connections, developed from the beginning of their educations, is essential preparation for the integrative, signature, culminating work they will be required to complete. Making those connections also helps them to take a broad view of liberal learning, allowing students to tell compelling stories about their own educations, and the value of that education in their personal lives, to their local communities and the larger world.

Challenges

The experiences of the various schools in the signature work consortium highlight two kinds of challenges across our campuses. First, we note that most schools used existing structures and requirements as the basis for inserting signature work into the curriculum, and the most common method was to revise some sort of senior capstone experience. However, many of the schools are questioning whether capstone projects meet the ambitious learning goals of signature work and have noted that, especially when organized within the majors, it is tricky to ensure that signature work’s broad integrative learning goals are being met. Some schools have set up mechanisms to keep an eye on this, such as the use of additional assessment committees. A second challenge plays out in the opposite direction. To ensure that students are meeting the ambitious goals of signature work, some schools have redesigned their curricular structure by creating new curricula. This redesign process is not easy for schools to work through, and the schools taking this approach have had issues with faculty fatigue and the institution’s capacity to scale the new curriculum without steady resources.

No matter the challenges, the consortium schools agree that preparing students to undertake meaningful, integrative capstone work requires intentionality when designing curricula. That preparation appears to be key to enabling all students to be well-prepared to engage in the kind of signature work that we know will serve them well as they move beyond the campus to live lives of meaning and purpose.

 

References

Association of American Colleges and Universities. 2015. “Signature Work.” https://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/LEAP/LEAPChallengeSignatureWork.pdf.

Center for Postsecondary Research at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis. 2017. “NSSE 2016 High-Impact Practices.” http://nsse.indiana.edu/2016_institutional_report/pdf/HIPTables/HIP.pdf.

Henscheid, Jean M. 2000. Professing the Disciplines: An Analysis of Senior Seminars and Capstone Courses. Monograph Series No. 30. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.

McNair, Tia B. 2016. “Designing Purposeful Pathways for Student Achievement through Transparency and Problem-Centered Learning.” Peer Review 18 (1/2). https://www.aacu.org/peerreview/2016/winter-spring/guesteditor.

Peden, Wilson. 2015. “Signature Work: A Survey of Current Practices.” Liberal Education 101 (1/2): 22–29.

Sawyer, R. Keith, editor. 2014. The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Wertsch, James V., Gillian Dowley McNamee, Joan B. McLane, and Nancy A. Budwig. 1980. “The Adult–Child Dyad as a Problem-Solving System.” Child Development 51 (4): 1215–21.

Wood, David, Jerome S. Bruner, and Gail Ross. 1976. “The Role of Tutoring in Problem Solving.” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 17 (2): 89–100.

 


Nancy Budwig, Professor of Psychology, Clark University; Senior Fellow, Office of Integrative Liberal Learning and the Global Commons, AAC&U; Jeffrey Ratliff-Crain, Associate Dean for Curriculum and Enrichment, Augustana College; and Michael Reder, Director, Joy Shechtman Mankoff Center for Teaching and Learning, Connecticut College

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