Condensing the Capstone

Rowan University offers a key undergraduate course during a condensed winter session.
Condensing the Capstone

IN DELIVERING THEIR programs, business schools must meet the needs of a wide range of students, many of whom work while they take classes. Schools address these needs through online and hybrid courses, as well as courses of varying length held during nontraditional semesters.

At Rowan University’s Rohrer College of Business in Glassboro, New Jersey, we redesigned the capstone business course taken by all undergraduate business students. Business Policy not only covers strategic management knowledge, it requires students to work in teams to complete consulting assignments. While the course has traditionally been offered during the normal-length fall, spring, and summer semesters, we revamped the course five years ago so that we could deliver it in a condensed semester called the Winter Intersession.

Our goal was to provide another option to enable students to graduate on time. Over the years, students have noted other reasons for enrolling in the Intersession course. For instance, some want to lighten their course loads in the spring semester while freeing up time for professional responsibilities. Others want to devote themselves to this crucial course without the demands and distractions of other courses.

The class meets on ten evenings during two or three weeks in early January before the start of the spring semester; each class is four hours. Those 40 hours equate to the number of hours students would spend in the class if they took it during a regular semester.

About half of the students in the course work full- or part-time, so offering it in the evening allows both traditional and nontraditional students to enroll. However, we make it clear in advance that the course can be very demanding, and many working students arrange to take time off from their jobs.

KEY ELEMENTS OF THE REDESIGN

We wanted to make sure that, even in a compressed timeframe, the course achieved its key learning objective: helping students develop strategic planning skills in environmental scanning, strategy formulation, and strategy implementation. We achieved this by redesigning the course in three important ways.

We require students to do a great deal of preparation in advance. Students who want to enroll in the Winter Intersession version must attend a mandatory pre-course briefing in the fall semester, about six weeks before the first Business Policy meeting. During this briefing, we give students a realistic preview of the course, outline our expectations, discuss research strategies and resources, and review pre-course readings and assignments. We also describe the scope of work and the deliverables we expect from the consulting project.

Before the initial class, we expect students to have read the textbook. They also should have conducted extensive individual research on the organization that will be part of the consulting project, and they should have created a draft of an environmental scanning document.

We revamped the required consulting project. During regular semesters, student teams complete three consulting projects designed to develop specific skills in environmental scanning, strategy formulation, and strategy implementation. In the condensed program, teams complete three sequential assignments focused on a single organization, so that we can achieve the learning objectives within the time constraints.

Every company selected for student consulting projects must have sufficient public information available that students can research through library databases. For the past two years, the consulting project was conducted for a prominent lifestyle brand, which provided us with a full array of pointof- purchase merchandising materials for its product line. Because the Winter Intersession has a dedicated classroom, and because students focused on a single company, we enhanced the immersion experience by decorating the room with the materials the company supplied.

We strive to build high-functioning teams. On the first night, students choose their project teams. During the first half of this session, all the participants introduce themselves, sharing the relevant background information that would make them valued team members. Because of the compressed nature of the course, students recognize the importance of being part of a team with highly motivated, qualified members.

After students form their teams, we use an ice-breaker decision-making exercise that prepares team members to work together effectively and to resolve any problems early. In this exercise, students individually review the credentials of potential appointees to the Federal Reserve Board; then, they discuss their lists of preferred candidates with one other team member until both reach consensus. Eventually, all team members come together to harmonize their lists and make their final recommendations as a group. Each team presents its recommendations and justifications to the class.

Students then engage in a facilitated discussion on the group decisionmaking process, which helps develop positive working relationships.

These teams begin working together during the second half of the first class, developing plans that will allow them to quickly submit a written environmental scanning report and deliver a related presentation. The work that students have completed in advance is instrumental because the first of the three consulting assignments is due on the fourth evening of the class.

INSIGHTS AND LESSONS

The condensed capstone course has proved to be a popular option with students, usually reaching its enrollment capacity within the first day of registration. Although we officially cap the course at 30 students, we occasionally have added students based on their situations and graduation plans. Depending on future demand for the condensed course, we would consider offering an additional section.

Through course surveys, we have found that students consider this to be one of their best class experiences. Through observation over the past five years, we also have learned four valuable lessons about how to make the compressed course successful:

1. All participants must be highly motivated and prepared to devote the necessary time and effort to complete course requirements.

2. All participants must attend the pre-course briefing so they are prepared for the demands of the course.

3. The business faculty librarian should be involved in the precourse briefing to make sure participants have the resources to complete readings and assignments ahead of the first class.

4. Faculty members who teach the course must be as prepared as the students, because it represents a significant workload. For that reason, we do not expect these faculty members to engage in labor-intensive institutional service during the Winter Intersession. Faculty must turn around assignments quickly and provide timely, detailed feedback so student teams can make the expected progress on their next consulting assignments. We have committed to providing this feedback by noon the day after each assignment is submitted.

The only real tradeoff we feel we have made by offering the course during a condensed semester is that we have time to focus on only one organization for the consulting project. However, feedback from course participants and graduates indicates that the benefits of the intensive immersion experience greatly outweigh this disadvantage.

Although this was not one of our considerations when we were deciding to offer this course during a compressed semester, we have found that it is a great team-building and bonding experience for participants as well. As more schools move away from traditional classroom delivery models, they might also want to consider offering intensive capstone courses in compressed timeframes.

Robert S. Fleming is a professor of management and former dean at the Rohrer College of Business at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey.

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