Honors capstone to stress small discussions over research

The University Honors Program will tone down the rigor of its capstone course for seniors next fall, stripping away written assignments in the previously research-based class and instead focusing on community building and discussion.

The change will give honors students more time to work on a thesis for their major, which can be in any GW school. Now, most students in the honors program write a 10-page paper in a one-credit course. Next year, the discussion-based courses, which will not include grades or papers, will be capped at fifteen students.

The honors course will emphasize broad, liberal arts-based questions rather than focusing on using the research and writing skills the students developed throughout their time in the relatively exclusive program.

“It just seems like a perfect fit because we get to return to these essential, enduring questions that we started off the honors program experience with,” said Mark Ralkowski, a philosophy professor who helped develop the new capstone. “And we get to return to the intimacy of these small, extremely evocative seminar class formats.”

Capstone courses are common for undergraduates at GW, though not required for every graduating senior at the University, which has been trying to emphasize undergraduate research in recent years.

Researchers at liberal arts colleges published in January that capstone courses usually live up to their lofty goals of increasing academic rigor.

But although capstone courses may improve students’ skills, Ralkowski said a more job-centered approach “can be a little wrong-headed because, I think, there’s a lot more to one’s education that simply getting ready for the job market.”

Director of the University Honors Program Maria Frawley said in an email that the move comes after a yearlong review by honors program faculty, which looked at revitalizing the course by providing a climactic experience without demanding more work.

Some current capstone courses are also taught by adjunct professors, while next year’s classes will be led by full-time honors faculty.

Frawley said the new course will bring honors students together with an honors professor they had previously had, one of about 20 at GW, to reflect on their time at GW.

“Another goal is for you to have a more relaxed academic experience – to engage in intellectual discussion without the ‘carrot or the stick’ of grading,” Frawley wrote.

Although the students will not be completing any assignments while taking the seminar, Ralkowski said the value of coming together one last time for an honors seminar is “obvious to honors students.” Honors program faculty have not yet determined how the course will be represented on the students’ transcripts.

The changes in the honors program come as departments across the University try to upgrade or maintain capstone courses and the faculty time they require.

In the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, GW’s largest school, 63 percent of students are required to complete a capstone course for their majors. The philosophy department, for example, requires seniors to enroll either in two proseminars during their senior year, or take one proseminar and write a thesis.

Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies Dan Ullman said capstone projects emphasize the skills and knowledge a student has mastered throughout their college education.

He said he would be in favor of requiring all Columbian College graduates to complete a capstone course, but was unsure whether it had been under discussion.

Universities across the country face challenges of faculty and resource constraints when thinking of how to build up its offering of capstone courses, said Dan Berrett, a reporter at the Chronicle of Higher Education.

“The problem seems to be that it is a resource issue when everyone in the program has to do them. They are very resource intensive,” he said.

Barry Chiswick, chair of the economics department, said that the department’s proseminar requirements stress the importance of communication by teaching students how to present original research and relate to employers.

Chiswick said staffing its proseminars has been one of the department’s largest challenges because of an influx of majors, but he said he still thinks the value is high.

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