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Student and staff views on capstone assessments

19 November 2021

UCL Arena publish a report evaluating staff and student experiences of the capstone assessment implemented for first-year students in 2020 as an emergency response to Covid-19.

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In 2020, UCL replaced all first-year undergraduate assessment with a ‘capstone’ as an emergency response to the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Capstone assessment can be defined as assessment that synthesises learning from several modules or, as was the case for this emergency capstone, an entire programme.

The Arena Centre have now published a report detailing staff and student experiences of that capstone. It also considers how a future version might (or might not) work. The research represents the views of 18 staff and 62 students from across the institution.

Broadly positive reaction from staff

Staff were generally more positive about the capstone than students. However, both agreed that UCL’s decision to pivot to the capstone during the early weeks of the pandemic was a positive move that provided clarity amidst great uncertainty.

Staff recognised other positives to the capstone, including a reduction in workload pressures, more time to focus on students other than first-years and unexpected opportunities for students to engage in meaningful tasks even during great disruption.

In general, staff saw many potential benefits to a capstone assessment including a possibility to overcome modular fragmentation of learning, and that this type of assessment allowed for more mature and authentic responses from students. Others saw the capstone as an effective transition to the second year or a precursor to the final-year dissertation.

Staff also identified some concerns and negative experiences. For example, concern that already completed assessment (and often feedback) was disregarded, or that students would miss out on important learning from not revising and sitting exams. There were extra complexities involved for those programmes accountable to external accreditation.

Student views linked to level of support received

Students’ experiences of the capstone were often linked closely to the level of support they were (or were not) given by their department. Positive responses were characterised by clear communication about the task, explained by staff via Moodle, one-to-ones or small group Q&As. Students appreciated a challenging assignment that allowed them to apply their knowledge and skills to a task that tied their year together, so long as it was manageable and expectations were made clear.

Students were also positive about having an option to engage with the consequences of COVID in their capstones which they were free to choose, or not.

They reported most disappointment where they felt the capstone did not represent the effort they had put in throughout the year, for example, by disregarding almost or recently completed (sometimes marked) assessments. The pass/fail marking approach was poorly received by those who received no or very limited feedback on their capstones.

Students shared staff concern that they had missed out on some learning by not experiencing the typical revision process or assessment types, e.g. exams, that will carry more weighting for them in the future.

Key recommendations

The report’s recommendations are divided into actions that should be taken for any future emergency assessment and those that should be considered for any future capstone assessment.

For any emergency assessments, it is important to:

  • ensure expectations and the genre of assessment are communicated clearly and effectively to students as early as possible;
  • make the assessment meaningful in a disciplinary sense and allow for deep engagement from students, whilst balancing a need to reduce stress and pressure on students;
  • consider including both core disciplinary and reflective elements so students can apply their knowledge and skills, as well as reflect on their progression; and
  • provide feedback (preferably personalised) on students’ submissions.

Some clear recommendations emerged for any staff implementing a future capstone project:

  • They should be integrated into the students’ learning and aligned with programme aims rather than being an extra piece of assessment. 
  • Carefully scaffold the introduction of a capstone, with plenty of support, as it's a new genre of assessment. 
  • Offset any lack of familiarity with other forms of assessment (particularly exams).
  • Retain the option of some standalone modular assessment alongside a capstone.

Download the full capstone evaluation report [Word]