Assessing Capstone Projects and Dissertations

The assessment of capstone projects and dissertations (CaPDs) is critical not only because they form a major piece of work for the students, but also because students are, in most cases, expected to demonstrate achievement of many of the key programme learning outcomes as a culminating pinnacle of their studies. Comparability of standards between different forms of CaPD is an important issue. As accountability pressures grow, the CaPDs are increasingly seen as an important way to assess the learning experience of students in their major or degree programme (Jones et al 2012). In Sweden for example it is the only piece of student work that is examined by the external quality and standards panel (SNAHE 2011), while in Australia it is recognised that capstone projects can ‘provide a robust vehicle for assessing the professional capabilities of individual students who are about to graduate, as well as provide evidence of the effectiveness and standards of a programme of study for accreditation’ (Rasul et al. 2009, 209).

Assessing Experiential Learning at HKU

It has been recognised for long that learning cannot be separated from experience. Learning can only occur when the learner makes sense of new experiences and incorporates them into a broader conceptual framework . Increasingly, educators in higher education regard experiential learning as an essential component in university curricula attuned to various challenges facing higher education today .

In the University of Hong Kong (HKU), experiential learning is a distinctive feature of the new four-year curriculum. It has been conducted in a variety of forms, examples of which include internships, practicums, simulations, and service learning. Many of these initiatives are supported by the Gallant Ho Experiential Learning Centre, which was established in 2012 with the aim of supporting and promoting experiential learning across the University .

With its increasing popularity, the assessment of experiential learning is also receiving more attention. Though experiential learning or learning by doing has become a well-established concept in recent years, assessing experiential learning is still a relatively new topic in the current higher education environment. This briefing aims to shed light on some emerging questions regarding assessing experiential learning, drawn from informal interviews with nine teachers and two students that have been involved in experiential learning in HKU. Perspectives and case examples from elsewhere are also referred in this briefing.

Experiential Learning: The Ethical Dimension

Embedding opportunities for experiential learning across the subject spectrum is a core component in the curricular changes underway at HKU. A key challenge in designing and implementing new experiential learning initiatives is posed by the ethical questions and dilemmas which can emerge for everyone concerned – the teaching staff, the students, and the members of the community in which the learning is taking place. Such questions can have carry-over implications for the equitable conduct of assessment if not constructively addressed and, where possible, obviated or minimised through careful advance planning.

This briefing therefore aims to provide some initial guidance on the steps that can be taken by course teams in seeking to anticipate and forestall ethical issues in the day-to-day management of experiential learning. Seven steps are identified and outlined. The salience of each of these will of course vary from one course setting to another, depending on the form, content, focus and goals of the experiential learning initiative concerned.

The guidance set out has been distilled from the panel-led discussions that took place at a seminar on Ethics in Experiential Learning convened by the Gallant Ho Experiential Learning Centre at HKU on 3 December 2014 , and a debt of gratitude is owed to the panellists and other seminar participants for their rich reflections and insights.

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