Signature Work in Action: Senior Capstones Prepare Students for Unscripted Challenges

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Diversity and Democracy

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More than twenty years ago, administrators and faculty at Portland State University (PSU) boldly enacted a comprehensive reform of our general education program in order to create more meaningful and relevant educational pathways for our students. The result was a four-year general education program, University Studies, which mirrors nearly identically the “guided pathway with signature work” model proposed by the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Each University Studies course across four levels is required to address four goals: communication, critical thinking, ethics and social responsibility, and appreciation of the diversity of the human experience. During the first year, each student engages in Freshman Inquiry: an interdisciplinary, theme-based exploration of an important topic organized through courses such as Globalization, Race and Social Justice, and Sustainability. Following Freshman Inquiry, students complete three sophomore-level theme-based courses and three junior-level cluster courses, through which they rigorously examine substantial topics in courses such as Leading Social Change, Global Perspectives, Gender and Sexuality Studies, and Design Thinking/Innovation/Entrepreneurship. In the first and second years, peer and graduate mentors are key to the curriculum, facilitating small-group sessions and enhancing peer-to-peer learning. At the senior level, University Studies culminates in a seminar-style, interdisciplinary, community-based-learning Capstone course, which serves as students’ “signature experience.”

PSU engages over 4,400 students in 220 Capstone courses annually, making ours the largest documented capstone program in the nation. In research conducted at PSU, students overwhelmingly reported that their Capstone was one of the most significant learning experiences in their undergraduate education.

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