What is a Capstone Project in College?

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Student studying on laptop with text What is A Capstone Course?

The capstone project in college is the apogee, or completion marker, of a student’s coursework leading to the culmination of their program with a degree in their chosen field of study.

The original definition of a capstone focuses on the actual stone placed at the top of a wall or building, marking the successful completion of the structure. It is a significant and celebrated piece of architecture, considered to be the most important of an entire construction project.

Similarly, Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) Associate Dean of Criminal Justice and Social Sciences Dr. Jeff Czarnec called the academic capstone project, whether in an undergraduate or graduate program, “the apex of all a student’s work done throughout their college career.”

There is an expectation that they have all the necessary skills and knowledge coming into the capstone course to be successful. “At this point, students have managed to pass all their course work leading up to the capstone,” said Dr. Thomas MacCarty, associate dean of social sciences programs at SNHU. “It is the culmination of everything that has happened to them as students.”

Students have the opportunity to pick a research topic that is of interest to them and run with it. “After having to write research papers in all of their courses prior to [the capstone], the task is not one to dread, but to enjoy. It is their time to shine as students and to enjoy the journey,” MacCarty said.

The capstone is much more important than a requirement and three credits. It can serve as an opportunity to demonstrate knowledge mastery and creative thinking, which may help a graduate stand out from others vying for the same job.

What is Involved in a Capstone Project?

While each university, program, and instructor may have different requirements – or models – for a capstone project, a general design includes first presenting a topic of interest to be approved by the Dr. Jeff Czarnec with text Dr. Jeff Czarnecinstructor. According to Czarnec, depending on the program, a capstone may include anything from a video presentation or an architectural model, to an art exhibit or short film; however, the capstone almost always includes some sort of paper demonstrating an introduction, theory, evaluation, research and individual issues relevant to the proposal.

“Students are expected to be ready to enter the world as professionals in their field upon completion of the capstone course,” said MacCarty.

As in many other university courses, the capstone is research-based; the difference being that the student chooses the topic early on, allowing them more freedom to conduct research on their own, unlike in other courses which are more guided. Capstone topics align with the specific discipline of program study. In the social sciences realm, “our focus is on human behavior and cognition, which may be different from a capstone course in business or STEM,” MacCarty said.  

In a nutshell, a rough outline of a capstone, according to Czarnec, looks something like this:

  • Select a topic and have it approved by the instructor
  • Evaluate relevance to the proposal
  • Perform necessary research
  • Present results in the agreed upon fashion

Are Capstone Projects Difficult?

“Not necessarily,” said Czarnec. “It does force you to be efficient and very specific to topic. No fluff. Straight forward. Razor sharp. The capstone is more of an opportunity to catch your breath, retrace and pull up what you have learned in a more stress-free environment. It helps validate students as learners.”

Depending upon the major and course requirements, there may be opportunities to match students with outside contacts, not only to assist with the capstone project research and problem statement, but to also provide a networking community.

“Not every research project is, nor should they be, the same,” Czarnec said. “Everyone has a different approach.”

What is the Difference Between a Thesis and a Capstone Project?

Dr. Thomas MacCarty with text Dr. Thomas MacCarty

A capstone is similar to a thesis in that the starting point involves strengths that one needs for a thesis or dissertation work. A student needs to think about the skeletal structure of research and form their theory, hypothesis, and problem statement.

“While a capstone is certainly a scholarly piece of work and does share some aspects of a thesis,” said MacCarty. “The time and detail that is required of a master’s thesis is greater.”

A capstone paper may be 25 pages, where a thesis could be 100 or more, and is a more demanding research paper. If an undergraduate student chooses to further their education and enter into a doctoral program, the capstone project could be an invaluable tool in preparing for a thesis.

It’s All About Student Success

According to Czarnec, capstones of all programs are leading students to the end game. The goal is to develop well-rounded thinkers who can pull their work together in a coherent, articulate, well-organized fashion, while considering the demands of the profession or vocation in which they are interested.

The focus and intent of a capstone should be to create an effective device to assess and measure all that the students have learned throughout their program in an aggregate fashion so they can demonstrate their life-long vocational skills in a nice, neat package. “My goal is for students to leave the program confident about their skills and abilities,” said Czarnec.

According to MacCarty, capstone courses should be structured to support student success in fulfilling program requirements and allow them the opportunity to showcase their academic abilities and skills gained throughout their degree program.

Laurie Smith '14 is a writer, editor and communications specialist. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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