November 01, 2019 | By John Sanders
TAGS: faculty, career readiness, journal
NACE Journal, November 2019
The capstone course is supposed to serve as the final building block of our students’ education. Faculty in the religious studies department at Hendrix College felt the need to supplement the capstone metaphor with an additional one: “springboard.” We wanted to connect with recent trends in higher education that help students understand the ways in which they are prepared for employment and for life. To this end, we developed a senior colloquium course that integrates the various educational experiences of the students and, in partnership with our career services department, springboards them into their future lives. This article explains the process we went through and the three content areas covered in the course: intellectual autobiography, career preparation, and the research project.
The first key that opened a possible alternative for us was a session called “On not leaving our students at the exit ramp,” sponsored by the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion. The idea is that we get our students up to speed on the educational superhighway and then, via a commencement ceremony, tell them to take the next exit ramp. We do not show them how to navigate the terrain off the interstate. The presenter, Martha Reineke, listed ways that her capstone course drew upon her institution’s career services resources.
The second key was a grant from the Wabash Center that funded research and workshops for our department to rethink the capstone course. We brought in consultants who provided helpful readings and information about what other departments were doing around the country.1 In our departmental workshops, we selected ideas from various institutions that we believed would fit with our college’s mission statement and the resources of our department. One of the ideas involved integrating work on career planning into the capstone course.
In the workshop, we identified three broad areas of value to us that now furnish the content of the course. These are 1) intellectual autobiography, 2) career planning, and 3) a research project. The first two components are not normally part of a capstone course, but they represent a growing trend in higher education to help students transition from college. (Note: I spent a summer designing the course. This involved numerous discussions with career services staff members, plus extensive reading on the theory and practice of career planning. It was important for me to learn that there is excellent research behind career planning and development. In addition, this provided me with finer-grained knowledge of the resources available through career services that I could suggest to students.)
In the course, intellectual autobiography, career planning, and the research project all intertwine, so we approach them in a spiral, rather than linear, fashion. That is, we do not cover all the material on one topic and then proceed to the next. We do some work on intellectual autobiography followed by assignments on the research project and some on career planning and then back to intellectual autobiography and so on. The interspersing of topics continues throughout the semester, though the last part of the semester concentrates on the research project.
An important goal of the course is to produce metacognition regarding the skills, passions, abilities, aspirations, and relational tendencies each student has. When students develop self-awareness of their areas of competence, the sorts of things that interest them, and their preferred ways of relating to the world, then they are in a better position to make wise decisions about their future education or employment.
Students reflect on their entire educational experience, including courses, internships, study abroad, engaged learning activities, clubs, athletics, and volunteer activities. We want them to understand that their education involves more than the classroom. It includes co-curricular activities and, at my college, the Odyssey program, which requires three types of engaged learning projects. Students identify various skills they have developed, their preferred ways of relating (personality), and their “persistent preoccupations,” i.e., those topics or activities that they work on repeatedly.
The first assignment has the students list each of the courses they have taken in their major and then identify a skill or methodology they learned in that course. This enables them to become more aware of content and theoretical approaches they acquired, which is important for carrying out the research project. The students also have to read the learning goals of the department and write an evaluation regarding the extent to which they have achieved each goal. This helps us in assessing whether our department is accomplishing its goals.
The next assignment requires them to compose a flow chart listing each of the courses, engaged learning experiences, roles in student organizations, jobs, and internships they have completed since coming to college. For each item, they note one of the eight NACE competencies that they acquired or practiced in the course or activity. For instance, they may have practiced oral communication in a course or leadership in an organization. From this inventory, they select the competencies in which they believe they are most accomplished. This information helps them reflect on the research project they want to work on as well as potential careers.
Later in the course, we read about the nature of a liberal arts education so that the students gain greater awareness of the goals and content of their education as well as how it has prepared them for gainful employment and living a meaningful life. This includes two studies from the Association of American Colleges and Universities2 as well as a piece about a study that shows graduates of liberal arts colleges are more likely to be leaders and mentors in their communities, contributors to society in terms of volunteering and giving, and satisfied with their professional and personal lives.3 From these readings, students understand that they are equipped for both gainful employment and purposeful living in society.
Two class periods are devoted to helping students gain a better understanding of how they prefer to engage people and life. As part of this, the students take the Self-Directed Search (SDS), and a career services staff members discusses the results with the class. Through this, students become more aware of the career options that match their interests, abilities, and competencies. Because the results of the SDS link to the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS), students are able to locate particular sectors of employment in North America that match their test results.
The intellectual autobiography assignments enable the students to achieve greater self-awareness of who they are and how they tend to relate to others, what they know, the skills they have, and their persistent preoccupations. The students report that these assignments provided them greater insight when completing application materials for professional schools, scholarships, employment, and gap year experiences.
Prospective students like to ask, “What job can I get with this major?” Parents want their children’s education to equip them for meaningful employment. This area of the capstone course addresses several aspects of this issue. Even though this course is the capstone of the religious studies major, we want the students to understand that it is not the major that gets one a job. Rather, what makes them desirable are the skills, habits, and character traits they developed through their total educational experience. Of course, the major contributes significantly to these characteristics, but it is not the major, per se, that directly corresponds to a job. To get this idea across, we seek to reframe the issue and break the linkage between the major and the job that is prevalent in our society. Since they are religious studies majors, we ask them what people presume when they tell people they are majoring in religious studies: Typically, the assumption is that they are going to become clergy or go into a religious vocation. Though some of our majors do this, many do not, and our major does not equip people to become clergy any more than a psychology major equips people for jobs in counseling.
One way we strive to overcome the idea that a major is a direct path to a career is through a presentation that our career services office provides. “Guess My Major” uses alumni as examples to illustrate that major and career are not directly linked. For instance, one of our alumni is president and CEO of Logitech, which produces computer keyboards. Students typically guess that Bracken Darrell was a computer science major; in fact, he majored in English. Another alumnus was the deputy chief of staff for the U.S. Secretary of Defense; although students generally guess political science as the major, this alumnus majored in philosophy and religious studies. Such examples help students begin to see that there is no direct connection between major and jobs.
In addition to the presentation, we discuss facts about the changing workplace, including the fact that today’s graduates are projected to have multiple jobs over their lifetimes. I ask them, “Are you interested in a degree that prepares you for one particular job or a degree that prepares you for thousands of jobs, including those that do not yet exist?”
This “open-ended ticket” is produced by the employability competencies students acquire from all of their educational activities. When students make presentations in class or become officers in organizations, they are developing capacities that employers seek. The Hart 2015 survey on employability from the Association of American Colleges and Universities ranks 17 qualities employers look for: Oral communication, ability to work with others, effective writing, critical reasoning, and the ability to apply knowledge to real-world settings were foremost on their list.4 Employers overwhelmingly endorse a broad education and applied learning as the best preparation for long-term career success.5 NACE developed eight competencies that predict career readiness: critical thinking/problem solving, oral and written communications, teamwork/collaboration, digital technology, leadership, professionalism/work ethic, career management, and global/intercultural fluency.6 An increasing number of public universities and private colleges are asking career services departments and faculty to use these eight competencies to help students understand that they are equipped for life-long meaningful employment.7 Hendrix’s president has introduced a campuswide initiative for all departments to help students understand the sorts of competencies they develop in the classroom, athletics, campus jobs, and student organizations. During college, students have to learn to manage the workload from different courses, co-curricular activities, and, perhaps, a job. Though we seldom let students know that this is an important job skill, it is. Reflecting on these competencies helps students identify their employability skills.
At Hendrix, faculty regularly tell students that they are ready for the work force. However, in my experience, most students simply do not feel this is the case. It is not enough to tell students they are prepared. Rather, they need to understand the specific ways in which they are career ready. Among other actions, career services recommends that students develop a resume, do mock interviews, learn how to network, and such. Our capstone course includes these assignments as well as other helpful activities, including reading assignments from a career services-recommended book on the career search process8 and class discussion on the transition from college to workplace and college to professional school.9 These sorts of assignments, in conjunction with those about intellectual autobiography, enable our students to articulate the competencies and traits they possess, giving them the confidence that they are well prepared for employment or professional school.
The research project is an engaged learning activity that integrates material from the other two components of the course. It draws upon the student’s intellectual autobiography and is useful in job preparation. The student must take an idea “from concept to product.” Whatever form the project takes, the student must show in the research proposal that he or she has the background required to complete it. The background typically comes from specific courses, an internship, and/or co-curricular activities.
Although some students choose to do a research paper focused on a narrow topic, we encourage them to select the more challenging task of applying research to a real-world situation. For example, one student had done a summer internship with the publisher of a journal and learned about various aspects of publishing. The student had also been part of a program at our college devoted to languages and writing. The student used this background to compose and publish a journal of poetry, short stories, and other writings on spirituality written by fellow undergraduate students. The process of soliciting contributions, selecting, and editing them was a tremendous learning experience.
Other students have applied research to particular issues they encountered during an internship with an organization. For instance, one developed lessons for a series of presentations for high school age students on race relations while another created a website of resources and approaches for coping with crisis situations, such as suicide, in youth work.10
To carry out this capstone project, students initially submit a few ideas that we discuss in class. Questions and comments from the professor and fellow students help each student to think more precisely. The student then discusses one idea for the project with a faculty member in the department, and, if specific expertise on a topic is needed, with a faculty member of another department.
From these conversations, the student drafts a proposal that includes the rationale for the project, the background that qualifies the student to undertake it, and the theoretical or methodological approach the student will draw upon. The student also must provide a bibliography and the individual steps needed to complete the project. We discuss the draft proposals in class, during which students often provide insightful comments and ideas to their fellow students. Using this input, the student revises the proposal and submits a final draft, which includes deadlines for the completion of various steps.
Students regularly give updates in class about their progress and challenges encountered. These sessions provide the opportunity for helpful feedback. Through this process, students discover that they have to adjust and fine-tune their work as the research unfolds. They may have to focus on something they had not anticipated or may have to reduce the scope of the project in order to complete it within the allotted time. Designing a task, reporting to a supervisor, and making adjustments are typical experiences encountered in the workplace, and the course mirrors and helps students develop competency in these areas.
The research project culminates with several assignments that help develop career competencies. The student writes an executive summary of the research project, concisely stating what he or she has learned. The summary helps the student prepare for the public presentation. All the members of the department—and often the student’s friends and family—attend the public talk. As the presentation has a time limit, the student must select salient ideas and clearly communicate information about which the audience is unfamiliar. The student also has to respond to questions from the audience. All of this is excellent preparation for future employment and other life settings.
One of the eight competencies for employability listed by NACE is “leadership,” which includes the ability to manage projects from beginning to end. The research project requires students to identify and break down the various components of the task, set deadlines, make a presentation, and then assess what they did. A few days after the public presentations, the faculty members of the department (as a group) meet with each individual student for about 20 minutes. At this meeting, students respond to questions about the scholarly resources, the theoretical approach, the process, and the final product of the research project. With all of this information in hand, they write an assessment paper. First, they identify the knowledge and competencies they developed. Then, they provide an evaluation of what went well and which elements need improvement. The critical assessment of one’s own work is a valuable skill. When talking with potential employers, students can use their research project as a concrete example of how they took an idea from concept to product. It illustrates a range of skills and competencies, such as being self-directed, setting deadlines, organizing, finding information, communicating in written and oral formats, and being able to assess one’s performance.
We have now completed three iterations of the course with 21 students. The first time we tried the new content, we had mixed results. However, the second and third times have been successful. The faculty members are particularly pleased with the quality of the research projects. In the future, I plan to use a pre- and post-course survey to document student learning. In terms of career planning and the transition from college, students self-report that the course helped them identify areas of interest and competencies and that they feel much more confident to enter the work force or pursue advanced degrees because they understand the specific ways they are prepared for these undertakings. They report that their anxiety levels about transitioning from college have significantly decreased. In short, they appreciate that we did not abandon them at the “exit ramp“ but helped them learn how to navigate and responsibly plan for a new journey.
An important benefit of the course is that students do career planning as part of an academic credit. Although some faculty members believe that, lacking expertise in this area, we should just send them to career services, we found that our students benefitted from an integrative course that helped them identify their interests and competencies, provided opportunities to develop some of these more fully, and gave them the vocabulary and knowledge to responsibly transition to the next phase of their lives. In addition, the course affords direct contact with of the career services staff who bring their expertise into the classroom; as a result, we found that students were more likely to make use of the career services office.
Our capstone course integrates the total education of the student, including courses, internships, and co-curricular activities. The course involves analysis and assessment of the student’s educational experience. The metacognitive work helps students identify their interests and competencies. From the assignments, students gain confidence that they are prepared for multiple possible futures. The students have come up with some innovative engaged learning research projects that connect to their persistent preoccupations and may be of value to their future careers. We believe that the contents of the course are a model of how to combine a variety of important values, including career preparation, research, and self-awareness.
The course is also a model of how faculty and career services staff can work together to help students both understand their areas of competence and gain confidence that they are prepared for multiple possible futures. This is particularly significant in today’s society, where there is discussion about how a college education, especially a liberal arts education, prepares students for meaningful careers. This integrative capstone course provides students with a summative experience as well as career competencies that springboard them into their future.
1 One article was particularly helpful to our department; see Kristi Upson-Saia, “The Capstone Experience for the Religious Studies Major,” Teaching Theology and Religion, Vol. 16, Issue 1 (January 2013): 3-17. Though it is a study of capstone courses in religious studies majors, it is relevant to any liberal arts major. The author surveys the typical content, goals, problems, and best practices in capstone courses at 29 colleges.
2 Association of American Colleges and Universities. The Economic Case for Liberal Education, retrieved from https://www.aacu.org/leap/economiccase; and The Civic Case for Liberal Education, retrieved from https://www.aacu.org/leap/civiccase.
3 Inside Higher Ed (January 22, 2016). The Proof Liberal Arts Colleges Need? Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/01/22/study-traces-characteristics-undergraduate-education-key-measures-success-life.
4 Hart Research Associates (2015). Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success. Association of American Colleges and Universities. Retrieved from https://www.aacu.org/leap/public-opinion-research/2015-survey-results.
5 Olejarz, J.M. (July – August 2017). Liberal Arts in the Data Age. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2017/07/liberal-arts-in-the-data-age.
6 National Association of Colleges and Employers. Career Competencies Defined. Retrieved from https://www.naceweb.org/career-readiness/competencies/career-readiness-defined/
7 Nunamaker, T.; Walker, K.; and Burton, N. (November 2017). Competencies: The Not-So-Unchartered Frontier and the Call to Learn From Employers. NACE Journal, 29-35.
8 Curran, S., and Greenwald, S. (2006). Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.
9 Robert Reardon, R.; Lenz, J.; Peterson, G., and Sampson, J. (2012) Career Development and Planning: A Comprehensive Approach. Fourth edition. Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt Publishing. Chapter 15 deals with these transitions.
10 To prepare for this kind of work, these students took courses in other departments, e.g., psychology or education. The design of our major allows students to take one course in another department and count it toward the religious studies major.
John Sanders, Th.D., is a professor of religious studies at Hendrix College. Sanders earned his doctorate at the University of South Africa and has authored or edited eight books along with more than 60 articles and book chapters.
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