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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Clicker Training for Law Students

Six months ago, I became the proud owner of a Portuguese Water Dog puppy.  In my quest to raise The Best Dog Ever, I naturally sought out the very best doggie obedience training for my little yuppie puppy -- and found myself thrust headlong into one of the hottest controversies around:  The Alpha Wolf vs. The Clicker Trainers.  On one side is Cesar Millan, a media darling whose wildly popular National Geographic Channel show features various Hollywood B-list celebrities  and other assorted rich people seeking help for their spoiled rotten, out-of-control pooches.  Cesar's theory:  Our dogs are out of control because Americans are wimps.  Dog training is all about The Alpha Wolf.  Your dog does not want you to be his friend -- he wants you to be a strong, assertive leader.  In short, he  wants -- and needs -- a good alpha roll every now and then. 

On the other side are the clicker trainers, for whom alpha rolls, choke chains and other dominance techniques are hopelessly outdated and downright destructive.  For clicker trainers, it's all about positive reinforcement:  All you need is a little metal clicker, some yummy treats, and lots and lots of praise.  Ignore the bad behavior, reward the good stuff -- and your dog will eventually develop the "confidence" that he needs to reach his full potential.

It strikes me that the same dynamic is playing out in law teaching these days.  The "old guard" tend to be unapologetic Alpha Wolves.  At Washington & Lee, our quintessential Alpha Wolf was the incomparable Roger Groot, who struck terror into the hearts of generation after generation of first-year students with his old-school, Socratic-style teaching.  (The statement "I got Grooted today" was sure to elicit sympathetic groans from other students -- and perhaps even a "pass" in another professor's class.)  I, on the other hand, am an unapologetic clicker trainer.  I cheerlead, I reward even the smallest, most hesitant attempt to think creatively, I never criticize students who get the wrong answer, even to the most obvious question.  And I usually ignore most bad behavior, as long as it's not distracting other students.  Most other young professors I know are clicker trainers, too.

What is the right learning environment for today's law students?  Do they respond better to alpha rolls, or to clickers and treats?  The popular wisdom on this generation is that they're fragile, that they respond best to positive reinforcement.  On the other hand, lawyers live in an Alpha Wolf world, and the sooner we prepare our students for that reality, the better.  More importantly, isn't the hard-core Socratic method an essential component of learning to "think like a lawyer"?

W&L's Alpha Wolf passed away last spring.  The outpouring of love and respect -- and sheer gratitude -- from his former students was a real lesson for me.  "The day I got Grooted," his students seemed to say, "was the day that I started down the path to becoming a real lawyer."  I can't help but wonder if we clicker trainers, for all our cheerleading, will one day inspire similar outpourings from our students.

Posted by Melissa Waters on November 28, 2006 at 12:37 AM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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Just found this blog. I'm a clicker trainer / motivational trainer that crossed over from traditional military style dog training. Using motivational methods doesn't mean permissive. We do set boundaries and rules to behavior with consequences. Clicker training involves the principles of learning - both classical and operant conditioning. We just choose not to use aversive that cause a learner harm - most of us follow LIMA - least intrusive and minimal aversion. Using intimidation, coercion, force and pain have behavioral fallouts (Murray Sidman - Coercion and It's Fallouts). And just to mention, the clicker is a marker/bridging device that is faded out once the learner has learned.

There is new research about the use of both corrections and reinforcements at the same time on a learner - it causes increases anxieties and stress - search "poisoned cue" by either Jesus Rosales-Ruiz or Karen Prior.

Posted by: Daphne Robert-Hamilton, CPDT | Aug 31, 2007 1:37:41 PM

Jim, what a wonderful post. You've captured exactly what I strive for as a professor -- to have my students say of me, at the end of the day, "She was demanding but fair." And I agree with you 100% -- neither "pure" clicker training nor "pure" Alpha Wolf will get us there. Interestingly, and just to bring this blogging discussion full circle -- this is precisely the conclusion that many dog trainers have reached, as well.

Posted by: Melissa Waters | Nov 29, 2006 10:20:11 AM

This very interesting post inspired one of my own, "Neither an "Alpha Wolf" Nor a "Clicker Trainer" Am I" at


I wrote it before I read the comments posted here, and I'm gratified to see that some of the points I made show up in those comments.

Posted by: Jim Maule | Nov 29, 2006 8:43:50 AM

Joseph, you're absolutely right that I've set up a bit of a "false dichotomy" here in order to spark a debate. The best Alpha Wolves -- and Roger Groot was certainly among the best -- never "intentionally humiliate" their students. Rather, they set seemingly impossible expectations and demand that their students live up to them -- and that is the source of the terror that many students feel (especially among a generation brought up in an era of a "you're all winners and geniuses" mentality). Perhaps terror in the classroom is not always a bad thing, if it pushes students to perform at a level that they didn't know they were capable of. I suspect that Roger's students revered him so because he brought out the best in them, precisely because he never compromised and never lowered those sky high expectations -- and they rose to the occasion and proved him right in his assessment of their abilities.

And there's no reason why we clicker trainers can't do the same. When I first began teaching, I think I did tend to conflate positive reinforcement methods in the classroom with lower expectations of my students. But I've learned -- and one of the proudest moments of my teaching career thus far was when a recent W&L graduate told me that she had studied "extra hard" for my exams, because she "didn't want to disappoint" me.

Moreover, I could never do what Roger did -- and I suspect most young professors (especially women) just can't pull off the Alpha Wolf trick. Besides, I think the key to good teaching is to be oneself: I'm a natural cheerleader, so that works for me. On the few occasions that I've tried to do the "icy glare" that Jay mentions, or to otherwise strike terror in the hearts of my students, I have failed miserably. Students, just like dogs, can spot a fraud in a second.

Posted by: Melissa Waters | Nov 28, 2006 11:12:56 PM

I agree entirely with Larry that we are doing no favors for our students if we fail to identify when their arguments are half-baked or their understanding of the doctrine lacking. I also practiced for years before teaching and was screamed at by judges and questioned aggressively by senior lawyers. I do think, however, that we can create a balance in the classroom between coddling (and infantilizing)our students and humiliating them. I have found the most effective way to prepare students for the rigors of practice is to do role plays in class -- I appoint students to represent one side or the other and then I play judge. That way, I can maintain my clicker personality when I am in supportive professor mode, but can help students learn what life will be like once they leave the hallowed halls of academia.

Posted by: Rachel Godsil | Nov 28, 2006 10:53:01 PM

Doesn't this more broadly reflect our present orientation toward child rearing? The "you're all winners" and "my child is a genius and that genius must be discovered" slogans seem to prevail. No alpha dog tactics or "because I'm your mother," responses for this group - everything can be debated and negotiated. This is the product that I get to deal with when they get to higher education.

Posted by: family guy | Nov 28, 2006 8:43:44 PM

This post gets at what I regard as a serious problem in legal education. The vast majority of law students pay all that tuition because they want to acquire the skills necessary to succeed in the profession. But most law teachers (especially at the highly-ranked schools) have limited experience (and success) in the practice of law, and even less interest in what it takes to succeed in the profession. Most did not like practicing law and therefore fled to the academy. To the extent that they concern themselves with the professional development of their students, they think about the profession as they would like it to be, not as it is. So they tend toward "gentler" teaching methods. Not coincidentally, such methods are consistent with the teachers' own interest in obtaining high student evaluations, at least at institutions where such things matter in tenure review. But once students graduate, there is very little "clicker training." For many years before I joined Chapman's faculty, I supervised young lawyers, and I can say confidently that very few supervisors treat everything that comes out of a young lawyer's mouth as a pearl of wisdom. And if a supervisor does not stop a young lawyer from surfacing some half-baked idea, opposing counsel most certainly will not engage in "clicker training." If law school is to give students the tools they will need to succeed in practice, it must transition them toward a world where everything they say will be scrutinized with a hypercritical eye, first by supervisors, then by adversaries, and finally by a judge. This is, of course, not a defense of tactics that demean students or that attack them personally, but the reality is that students' arguments are going to be attacked vigorously once they graduate, so they had better learn how to handle such attacks -- and how to refine their own thinking in order to anticipate and defuse such attacks -- before they graduate.

Larry Rosenthal
Chapman University School of Law

Posted by: Lawrence Rosenthal | Nov 28, 2006 2:33:50 PM

This made me wonder how profs typically respond to a cell phone ring or embarrassing failure to turn off computer volume in class. I've seen everything from totally ignoring it to a quick comment (with varying degrees of bite) to a prolonged, icy glare (which I think is worse than a simple verbal rebuke). Obviously it might also depend on the length of the disruption and whether it's due to negligence (the cell phone) or getting caught watching a baseball game online in class.

Posted by: Jay | Nov 28, 2006 2:07:38 PM

On the dog front, there was recently an op-ed in the NYT criticizing the "Alpha Dog" approach. Turns out that dogs respond to reinforcement as well as punishers.


(It's behind an archive wall now.)

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Nov 28, 2006 12:52:34 PM

My mother, a masterful high school math teacher who's been in the teaching business for many years, says that her secret is to be "firm and fair" (an approach she tends to take in life as well as in the classroom). She praises her students sparingly, but also never mocks or humiliates a student.

My dog usually seems very attached to me, and my mother does not particularly like dogs and tends to ignore mine, save for a head pat now and then. Nonetheless, whenever my mother comes to visit, my dog follows her (not me) around for her entire stay.

Posted by: Sarah L. | Nov 28, 2006 12:37:03 PM

I don't know anything about dog training, but as to classroom teaching, I think it's a bit of a false dichotomy. I think it's both possible and desirable to be challenging and rigorous without going out of your way to intentionally humiliate students. There's a line between pushing students a bit outside their comfort zone to try to get them to a higher level, and using first year classes as hazing/initiation rites or for the Prof. to show off.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Nov 28, 2006 11:50:28 AM

As a 1L, I find this post great. I have all "clicker" professors and yet many of my fellow students still bemoan getting cold-called in class. On top of this, the discussions tend to get off track fairly easily by students who jump into the coversation with wild and often confusing hypotheticals that tend to lead nowhere. I'd prefer, to be honest, a professor that was tougher on the students during class time. Test us, challenge us, cut us off. I want to feel like I have faced some tough class time before the even tougher exam.
But, that's just me...I prefer adversarial situations much more than other people.

Posted by: KWA | Nov 28, 2006 11:20:49 AM

Bruce Ackerman once mentioned that he thought that shame at having performed poorly is a much better motivator than pride at having performed well.

Posted by: Chris | Nov 28, 2006 11:09:32 AM

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