In his book, Our Underachieving Colleges, Derek Bok (2006) identifies the ability to communicate as key deficiency for not only college freshmen but college graduates as well (p. 67). To remedy this situation, higher education should adapt a capstone writing and presentation project for prospective graduates in order to improve the quality of writing and effective speaking skills. This capstone project should be undertaken in the student’s major field of study in order to capitalize on their acquired expertise and make the project manageable considering other responsibilities the modern student faces.
Modifying academic programs to be more responsive to external influences (Stark & Lattuca, 1997) is a distinct purpose for academic planning (p. 130). Since most institutions only require a minimum of three formal writing courses to graduate (and perhaps only one in the major field of study, depending on the department/campus), this additional requirement will prepare students for their future careers and endeavors by helping them hone and sharpen their ability to communicate with a variety of audiences in multiple delivery methods.
No academic plan change such as this one can be proposed without consideration for theoretical frameworks in the area. In their book, Shaping the College Curriculum: Academic Plans in Action, Stark & Lattuca (1997) present their model for academic planning. Using the Stark & Lattuca model to create a capstone writing project for all graduating students ensures the quality of the planning and the success of the implementation for all involved in the process. In brief, this academic plan meets Stark & Lattuca’s eight elements (p. 10) as follows:
- The purpose is to improve written and verbal communication skills for graduating students before they enter the job market and/or graduate/professional schools, thus improving their chances for success and the reputation of the institution;
- Content is based in their established field of study, where students will create a written thesis approximately 25 pages long and deliver an accompanying 10-minute presentation, thus developing the respective skills noted;
- The sequence of the plan begins as graduation nears, followed by the execution of the processes below. At the end of their matriculation, this project will cull together accumulated knowledge and competencies to demonstrate capability;
- This is a learner-oriented project, as the students themselves will incorporate the essence of individuality and learning into this capstone project to demonstrate capability in essential job and life skills they know they will need after graduation;
- Instructional processes begin in the final year of matriculation, as students will choose a topic in their field of study for research, argumentative persuasion and written/verbal presentation. The verbal presentation will be a semi-private event, open to all faculty and student majors in the department;
- Instructional resources include a faculty advisor to guide the topic selection, research processes and development of argumentative persuasion in the presentation(s). In addition, a fixed (i.e., the same committee for every student in a given year, although the membership may change year-to-year) department committee will be available to all students for additional guidance;
- Evaluation will be conducted by the department committee noted above, which will not include the specific faculty advisor for the project (they can recuse themselves, for example, for their advisee’s evaluation). They will evaluate all final written projects and verbal presentations. Written communications will be evaluated on persuasive and technical qualities, and the verbal presentations will be evaluated for persuasive clarity and technical delivery;
- Adjustments may include the length of the written project, depending on the subject matter and evolution of the project’s success/struggle. The time frame of the project (one year) may be shortened as needed for faculty resources and proven student management of the capstone project.
Changes like this are not easy, but there are proven methods for proposals like the capstone project above. This kind of “piecemeal change” within existing colleges and their curriculum is what Levine (1998) characterizes as the most common form of curriculum change (p. 420). In this capstone project plan, both academic-rational and experiential pre-collegiate curriculum framework models are employed. As stated in Stark & Lattuca (1997), this is “… a linear process in which decisions are made sequentially about objectives, content, learning activities, teaching techniques and evaluation processes”. While a very linear project, sequentially moving through phases, this is also an experiential project providing a chance for “… students in planning their own active, self-directed learning experiences” (p. 32), since the advisors are there to guide and provide resources/information only. Combining these two models maximizes the learning for the students, knowledge and competencies they will need upon graduation.
At this juncture, it’s clear why the plan will help students achieve Bok’s undergraduate education goal of improved communication skills: they will be held to standards of evaluation in order to graduate, and the motivation of graduation will drive them to enhance their skills in these areas Bok denotes. The educational environment is shaped by influences: external, organizational and internal (Stark & Lattuca, 1997). The external influences are strong here: society and the marketplace (p. 17) dictate the need for this project to build skill sets currently lacking. Discipline associations, alumni and sponsors also can be considered a part of these influences, as each group has a stake in the quality of the graduates from any given institution. Meanwhile, internal influences such as faculty and program missions (p. 17) drive this proposal as well, since both entities truly need to emphasize communication clarity in their own worlds. In addition, since the writing requirements for college graduation are often so minimal (for example, for both the University of California and the California State University systems, only three composition courses are required to graduate), this final writing experience in the major field of study provides excellent opportunity to focus the writing skills learned in the direction that will most benefit the student after graduation.
Support for this initiative will come from most faculty, particularly older faculty, as well as alumni/board members and community leaders/board members, while opposition to the proposal likely will come from students, some of their parents, administrators and some newer faculty. As noted in Cervero & Wilson (1994), “the only way to plan responsibly is to act politically” (p. 117). As Bok notes, employers repeatedly highlight the important of communication skills (p. 67). This knowledge must be employed to demonstrate to all constituents and stakeholders that the implementation of this plan is in the best interests of each of them. While Stark & Lattuca (1997) note that “At the collegewide level, students’ influence … is usually indirect” (p. 187), the students should eventually see the value of this project. They will resist more work at first, in addition to the credit hours and additional tuition. However, they can see the value in a return-on-investment argument: if they have better skills, they will rise faster in the organization they choose to work for when they graduate.
Alumni can help the students see the value in this project, as can community/business leaders. Alumni and community business leaders are often very similar groups, particularly for regional campuses, and letting the students know that hiring priorities might be skill-based in this area will motivate students to accept the proposal. Older faculty will like the standards-based quality assurance factor in the proposal, while new faculty might hesitate a little at the potential extra workload involved for them as advisors. Administrators may see it as another program they need to find funding for, while some parents might balk at the new requirements placed on their children in a seemingly never-ending word of requirements. This political scenario noted by Cervero & Wilson (1994) requires a skilled manipulation of stakeholders, demonstrating the win-win value to everyone. If the institution graduates more skilled individuals, this raises everyone’s buy-in to the proposal: students and alumni have more value added to their degrees, administrators and faculty have more prestige for their own careers at the institution, and business/community leaders have more highly-skilled employees than before the project’s inception/implementation. Diamond (2006) argues that significant change will never occur until the forces for change are greater in combination that the forces preserving the status quo. Significant change of this nature to academic plans and requirements will only succeed if all these stakeholders see the value in the change, and that should be manageable in the end for skilled leadership. For “piecemeal change” like this proposal, Levine (1998) argues it relies more on political negotiation instead of educational philosophy (p. 420). However, in this case, leadership can use educational philosophy to fuel political negotiation to the benefit of all stakeholders.
In the end, Derek Bok is correct. Students demonstrate a distinct lack of communication skills upon graduation from universities and colleges across the country, as Fortune 500 companies routinely spend billions of dollars training employees how to write (O’Neil, 2005). This plan for a capstone project focusing on writing and effective speaking uses proven methodology for design and implementation in order to meet that learning deficiency. Not everyone will see the benefit right away, particularly students and some of their parents who will only see it as more work, time and tuition money. But through careful and responsible social action through political avenues, this proposal can be approved by all the stakeholders involved in the process to further benefit students, their institutions and higher education overall. By increasing the competencies and skills of graduates, the value of the degree will rise, the relevance of higher education can be solidified and society overall can benefit greatly. After all, if we can all be great communicators, solving the world’s problems should be possible.
Bok, Derek. (2006). Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Cervero, R. M. & Wilson, A.L. (1994). Planning Responsibility for Adult Education: A Guide to Negotiating Power and Interests. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
Diamond, R.M. (2006). “Changing Higher Education: Realistic Goal or Wishful Thinking?” Trusteeship (pp. 14-18)
Levine, A. (1998). Handbook on Undergraduate Curriculum. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.
O’Neil, R. (2005). ‘Woe is us’ — bad grammar permeates language. Retrieved February 21, 2017, from http://rss.msnbc.msn.com/id/10004296/.
Stark, Joan S., and Lattuca, Lisa R. (1997). Shaping the College Curriculum: Academic Plans in Action. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.