Infusing Best Practices Into an Immigration Law Clinic, or Rubrics and Competencies Needn’t be Feared

In the Immigration Clinic at Southern New England (shortly UMass School of Law – Dartmouth), which is reverting to a full-year curriculum after two years of experimenting with a single semester, I have been trying to adjust the curriculum to implement several of the principles embodied in Best Practices. For those of you who recently attended the AALS Annual Clinical Conference in Baltimore, you may recognize in some of these adjustments hints of Backward Design; that was unintentional. I’ve been forced to conclude, after having attended the conference and learned about Backward Design, that I must be a “natural” Backward Design person!

I set out to restructure the clinic along with the Clinic’s Graduate Fellow, Julie Rahbany, by first identifying overall goals as well as specific ones for student learning. Once that was accomplished, we devised a variety of assessment tools through which students could demonstrate competence toward achieving those goals. Then we devised a system through which the grading criteria would be explicit and predictable, while also providing more predictable and structured feedback to students throughout the term.

The first step, engaged in last fall, was to review the syllabus; the semester-long course was able to be divided rather naturally into seven primary content areas (I expect that for next year’s full-year course we will be creating more competencies.). For each area, we created competency exercises employing a variety of learning modalities (e.g., oral presentation; drafting court documents; client interviewing; drafting direct, cross, and redirect exams; creating organizational flow-charts for easy-reference to complicated legal principles, etc.). The purpose of using these competencies is to provide the students opportunities to learn specific and important lawyering skills as well as to demonstrate their competence in these areas. This semester we implemented this practice, which was of course supplemented by class assignments more specifically focused on ensuring that the students are learning the legal principles relevant to our immigration practice.

Best Practices emphasizes the importance of students knowing from the outset what is expected of them – what skills they are expected to master during the course of their clinic participation, and how they will be evaluated on those skills. To that end, I began my overhaul by re-working the grading criteria and creating a written grading rubric to be distributed during Clinic Orientation. The document reflects the skills practiced in the competencies as well as the other aspects of lawyering that we emphasize in clinic. I will use the same document throughout the course of clinic, during mid-semester evaluations as well as during the final evaluation. In the end, the students will have worked with it, explicitly, on three occasions each semester. This repetition, which we know is necessary to enhance learning, will reinforce the importance of the concepts referred-to in the Grading Criteria Document. While for mid-semester evaluations I will only rate the students on the basis of Check, Check-plus, and Check-minus, at the stage of final evaluation, letter grades will be assigned. The document will also be the basis for the students’ final self-evaluations.

In the event readers are interested, I have attached both the Grading Rubric and the Competency explanation distributed to the students.

Please stay tuned next year, as we assess the effectiveness of the changes adopted.

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