Capstone Projects for Nursing Programs
Culminating capstone courses and projects showcase what baccalaureate-level nursing students have learned in their programs and prepare them for the transition to successful careers.
Capstone courses function as a bridge between the end of school and the beginning of a career, allowing nursing students to put what they've learned into practice. As the name suggests, students complete capstones toward the end of their nursing training. Not every nursing program requires a capstone, but those that do generally culminate in a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) or doctor of nursing practice (DNP) degree.
Each nursing program sets their own requirements. While capstone formats differ between programs, they typically consist of an evidence-based practice formal paper or presentation. Students might complete their capstone projects as team leaders, and BSN candidates may present their papers to a faculty panel. Projects could include case studies, program evaluations, and policy analyses.
The focus on evidence-based practice allows students to apply research and experiential evidence toward solving a healthcare problem. For example, candidates may develop intervention strategies that promote health, improve outcomes, enhance quality of life, and foster safe practices for patients.
Capstone goals center on the application of knowledge gained during nursing training programs, including topics related to leadership, management, research, theories, and evidence-based practice, along with the strategies needed to transition from students to baccalaureate-level nurses.
Choosing Your Nursing Capstone Topic
When selecting a capstone topic, students should evaluate their interests, strengths, and weaknesses, along with their chosen nursing specialty area. Luther College recommends that students with lower GPAs and weaker nursing skills consider a basic medical-surgical topic. Those with strong clinical skills and high GPAs might choose emergency or intensive care medicine, although some students might prefer outpatient topics, such as clinical services, long-term care, or public health. However, this is simply an example of one school's approach, and readers should keep in mind that each school sets its own policies and recommendations.
Asking for guidance from faculty, supervisors, preceptors, and fellow students also helps narrow down capstone topics. Advisors can also provide assistance in choosing an appropriate capstone site, helping with questions of geographical location, facility size, patient population, and care delivery model.
Students develop and learn the skills needed to complete their capstones throughout their training. These include organization and time management, knowledge of evidence-based practice, writing, and critical thinking. They also learn to conduct literature searches, identify research designs, and evaluate evidence.
Completing Your Nursing Capstone
Capstone formats and completion times widely vary between programs. Students at Luther College and Purdue University Northwest complete their capstones in 4-5 weeks, while Ferris State University specifies a timeframe of 30 hours of online classes and 90 hours of applied project work. Case Western Reserve University's capstone spans 10 weeks.
Regardless of the program, most students follow a PICO format for project proposal questions of inquiry: population, intervention, comparison or condition, and outcome.
Some universities allow capstone projects to be completed in teams, in which students develop and implement the project. Capstone components may include defining the project and the team leader's role, selecting team members, and formulating the project plan.
In addition to the skills previously referenced, such as knowledge of evidence-based care, critical thinking, and effective writing, capstone courses hone leadership and management abilities These include mastering therapeutic communication, applying leadership and management concepts, and developing collaborative relationships and working on multidisciplinary teams.
Presenting Your Nursing Capstone
The capstone process culminates in a paper or presentation that measures students' skills in communication, information dissemination, and application of evidence-based practice skills. Members of the public may attend.
Utilizing the poster format, students commonly use three panels to illustrate: (1) the background, problem, and purpose; (2) methodology; and (3) 2-3 key findings and implications. Students who present using PowerPoint on a laptop or other device should pay attention to time limits, planning for one slide per minute, and verify that equipment and internet connectivity are available.
Visuals like graphs, figures, and bullet points are more effective than large blocks of text. Students should practice presenting in front of others to ensure that they thoroughly know their content and can answer questions. Backing up a copy of a PowerPoint presentation and printing out copies or transparencies guards against last-minute glitches.
How is a Nursing Capstone Graded?
Capstone grading methods differ between programs, with some issuing letter grades and others using a pass/no pass system. Grades typically hinge on a percentage basis of the project's written sections, the final proposal, and the presentation. Faculty evaluate how students execute the capstone course objectives, which may include the following:
Problem identification related to nursing practice, administration, policy, or education
Theoretical research and literature review
Critical analysis and synthesis of literature and research findings
Recommendations for evidence-based practice
Discussion of implications regarding nursing roles, research, policy, and education
Professional and civil collaboration and communication
Use of the nursing process: assessment, diagnosis, planning, implementation, and evaluation
Compliance with the nursing code of ethics, including ethical use of technology
Students' presentation skill evaluation criteria include exhibiting thorough preparation and knowledge of the subject matter, clear and concise communication, adherence to any time limits, ability to answer questions and cite references, and persuasiveness.
What is the Difference Between a Nursing Capstone and a Thesis?
Students complete capstones individually or in groups, while thesis projects must be done alone. Capstone project time lengths span between four and 12 weeks, while graduate students work on their thesis projects throughout their 2- to 3-year programs. Graduate thesis courses generally take place over 1-2 semesters to keep students on track.
Finally, capstone topics evaluate current issues and theories; thesis students incorporate existing case studies and literature while exploring and arguing for their own original research. Some schools require students to publish their thesis papers in a healthcare journal.
Theresa Granger, Ph.D., MN, NP-C
With over two decades of teaching and clinical practice as a family nurse practitioner, Dr. Granger is an expert in nursing education and clinical practice at all levels of education (associate, baccalaureate, and graduate). She has published and lectured extensively on nursing education and clinical practice-related content. Her expertise ranges from student advising and mentoring to curricular and content design (both on ground and online) to teaching and formal course delivery. Dr. Granger is one of the founding faculty members of the University of Southern California’s first ever fully online graduate family nurse practitioner program.
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