How to Teach the Capstone

Emily Suzanne Clark

Calling all American religion scholars! Calling all friends of the blog! Calling all Humanities professors! I request the teaching expertise of our readers. 

The beloved Boom's Taxonomy
(image from Vanderbilt's Center for Teaching)
Starting next academic year I will be the Director of Undergraduate Majors for the Religious Studies department at Gonzaga University. (Is there a patron saint of college curricula? If so, pray for me.) We've also been having conversations about redesigning our major and minor in Religious Studies, in part because the core curriculum of the University has changed and because it's good to revisit these things regularly. Part of our conversation has centered on how to cap the major; in other words, what should the senior seminar or capstone class look like? We currently do a senior thesis and are trying to better scaffold it into the program. We recently introduced a junior seminar for majors to prepare them for that senior thesis but that course may be cut by the registrar's office due to low enrollment. This prompts me to wonder, should we try something different? If so, what? If a student is not going to graduate school for religious studies, should they write a senior thesis or would something else serve them better?

Like any researcher, I started with reading. Kristi Upson-Saia has a great article from a few years ago in Teaching Theology & Religion about this topic, "The Capstone Experience for the Religious Studies Major." One of the things she points to is how some are moving away from a long senior thesis and instead considering other ways to cap the major. These include theory and method classes, service learning approaches, portfolio creation, and reflective/synthetic courses. Best practices include: regularly reassessing your current course, thinking holistically about your program, considering the resources in place on your campus, and keeping in mind your program's learning outcomes. 

Senior capstone courses are a big part of our students' experience as a Religious Studies major (or History or Theology or Sociology etc.). Yet conversations about them seem rare. I would like to get a conversation going in the comments. What is the senior capstone/experience class for your major? And why? What seems to be its pros and cons? 


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