Digest No. 11 - August 2023

Delivering Focused Outcomes with Capstone and Writing-Intensive Courses

Kilgo, C.; Ezell Sheets, J.; and Pascarella, E. 2015. “The Link between High-Impact Practices and Student Learning: Some Longitudinal Evidence.” Higher Education.


Capstone courses usually occur in the final year of a student’s study. They ask students to produce a unified demonstration of their learning and skill in their chosen major field. They often require an extended period of work and study and are designed to help students integrate their knowledge, gain mastery experiences, and help them showcase their skills in tangible ways that may be useful in the job market. Writing intensive courses use writing as a tool to help students think more deeply and clearly, and often require students to write a series of smaller papers throughout the semester and at least one large paper over an extended period of time. Often, students also gain experience writing for different audiences and revising their written work. In the context of this study, a writing intensive course was considered to be any course that required students to author a 20-page (or longer) paper.

This study examined the four-year effects that these two practices (among others) had on critical thinking, moral reasoning, inclination to inquire and engage in lifelong learning, intercultural effectiveness, and socially responsible leadership. Using data from the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education, the authors examined 17 different institutions, recruiting either all the incoming 2006 first-year class, or a random sample of this incoming class. The authors then followed up with these students four years later in 2010. Depending on the outcome considered, the total usable sample ranged in size from 883 students to 1,845 students. The outcomes included critical thinking, moral reasoning, inclination to inquire and engage in lifelong learning, intercultural effectiveness, and socially responsible leadership.


The authors ran two analyses: a conservative analysis that accounted for the effect of each high-impact practice over and above the influence of all other high-impact practices, and a relaxed analysis that did not control for the influence of other high-impact practices.

Capstone courses appeared to consistently affect two outcomes. First, it predicted a reduction in students’ critical thinking. Second, it predicted an increase in students’ inclination to inquire and engage in lifelong learning, or their “need for cognition.” Under relaxed conditions, it appeared to have a positive effect on attitudes toward literacy and socially responsible leadership as well, but these are less reliable than the former effects and may have been due to exposure to other high-impact practices. The simultaneous reduction in critical thinking and increase in inclination to inquire seem to be directly contrary to one another. One tentative possibility is that the capstone experience shows students how much more they have to learn and demonstrates the practical utility of their learning, enhancing their desire to continue learning and to seek out more knowledge. Yet capstone experiences may not be deep enough to produce changes in critical thinking. Without specific research into the practices that make capstones more or less effective in regard to different outcomes, these explanations are hypothetical at best.

Writing intensive courses had no effects in the conservative analysis. In the more relaxed analysis, they tended to predict higher intercultural effectiveness, but only on one of the two measures of intercultural effectiveness that the study employed. Thus, writing intensive courses appear to have no consistently reliable effects on any of the outcomes tested in the author’s study.


Campus leaders should regard these practices with caution if implementing them to deliver broad, high-level student outcomes. There is little empirical evidence to support these types of implementations and possibly contradictory findings based on this study. However, they may be associated with other valuable outcomes (for example, capstones might create a skill demonstration useful for future employers and writing intensive courses may boost students’ writing abilities), and campus leaders should focus on deploying these types of practices in focused and targeted ways, not as a strategy to improve broad student outcomes like retention or completion.


Cindy Ann Kilgo is an associate professor in the Center for Postsecondary Research, Educational Leadership, and Policy Studies at Indiana University-Bloomington.

Jessica Ezell Sheets is a student success instructor and assistant director for transfer and nontraditional student support at the University of Arkansas.

Ernest T. Pascarella is an emeritus Mary Louise Peterson Professor of Higher Education at the University of Iowa.


Kuh, G. D. 2008. High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.