Transitioning from Coursework to Independent Research: Reflections of Teaching the UMES ORLD Doctoral Capstone Course

During the summer of 2015, faculty in the UMES (Ph.D) Organizational Leadership Program offered its Doctoral Capstone Course, Advance Seminar in Theory and Methods (ORLD 624).  Similar to most capstone courses, it’s designed to be a culminating learning experience for doctoral students; transitioning from coursework toward the process of independent research.  Independent research consisting of preparation for comprehensive exam, development of the dissertation proposal, and writing the dissertation itself.  Students are introduced to a variety of learning outcomes that involve moving toward greater sophistication in scholarly writing and research.  While many of the components of the course may align with the capstone experience in many doctoral programs across the country, in this discussion we offer several observations about the capstone course relative to mid-career doctoral students within weekend-format program within an HBCU context.

Typically, capstone courses are experiential in nature, whereby students apply what they’ve learned in courses (theory) to a real-world setting (practical application). Oftentimes capstone projects within a course are new projects students develop within the course – drawing on previous course to identify projects within their disciplines.  What’s unique about the UMES ORLD program is the experiential project is the development of research proposal.  While students have different projects and content areas, the unifying experience is the process of developing the dissertation proposal for the very first time.  For doctoral students in a weekend format doctoral program, the process of transitioning to independent research also poses some unique challenges for students.

First, students typically spend two years, at a minimum, in course work, attaining relevant knowledge within various fields of organizational leadership.   Students’ content interests vary from history, government, community development, social services, and education and they bring varied perspectives of knowledge as well as diverse practical experiences to the course.  Their appreciation of knowledge and curiosity about their content area contributes to an interesting platform for learning. Yet, students may be reticent in moving beyond the process of attaining knowledge towards building trust about their own observations about this knowledge.  Transitioning to independent research involves knowing how and when to take a stance in your work and students in our capstone course may need support in this process. This course is designed to provide this type of mentoring and coaching.

Second, one of the underlying tenets of the capstone course is making the connection between theory and practice.  While students may have reviewed key theories in their coursework, understanding the applicability of these theories in support of new observations made during the development of their proposals may evolve in new ways.  For example, if students are interested in advancing theories based on their practical experiences or identify a gap in the literature based on their understanding of practice, writing about this connection may be challenging.  Within the course context or pedagogy, building in exercises for collaborative discussion and activities can support new discoveries and the process of building scholarly confidence.

Finally, writing for specific audiences may be new to students.  During the transition to independent research the audience shifts for students moving from the key audience of professors and student colleagues to specific constituents who may have a vested interested in the student’s work.  A major part of the UMES ORLD capstone experience for students is identifying with the audience for their research and why it’s important to build relationships.  Therefore, a key learning outcome for many students is understanding their role in connecting with this audience.

Students with various backgrounds, educational and work experiences engage in research by connecting the dots between theory, application, and scholarship. They draw from each other’s holistic experiences to augment their own knowledge as they not only navigate the capstone, but also strengthen relationships developed during their tenure in the program. The capstone is more than a course to be completed in order to satisfy a requirement for the ORLD program.  It’s a life experience that shapes the lives and futures for all of us.

Written by Drs. Pamela Felder, Tyrone Chase and Prince Attoh, faculty members in the ORLD PhD program and instructors for the UMES ORLD capstone course.  For more information about the UMES Organizational Leadership Program and the capstone course, please visit our website.

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