Animal Minds :: Syllabus

Term: Fall 2021
Course Number: PSYC 3240
Instructor: Daniel Meliza (cdm8j)
Class times: Lecture MWF 10-11 AM, Maury Hall 209
Final exam: Due Monday, 12/10, 5 PM
Course site:
Collab site:
Piazza site:
Office Hours: W 11-12 and F 12:30-1:30 (zoom)
Last revised: 11/17/2021

Teaching Assistants

Email Office Hours
Isabelle Moore ilm5fp M 2-3, Th 9-10 (zoom)

What is this course about?

Animals come in a bewildering array of shapes and sizes, and their behaviors are even more diverse. Are there common patterns or relationships that can help us make sense of how animals interact with their environments and with each other? What can we know about the conscious awareness of other species when we can’t communicate with them? And how much of human behavior reflects our common ancestry with other animals?

Most people find animals intrinsically interesting to watch and enjoy speculating on why animals engage in various behaviors. In this course, you will learn how to develop your intuitive narratives into a more rigorous understanding based on the scientific practice of observation, hypothesis, and experiment. In the process, you will acquire a deeper awareness of what animals are doing in your environment, a greater appreciation for the complexity of animal minds, and a better understanding of the behaviors of our own species.

Course objectives

In contrast to many other branches of the natural sciences, understanding animal behavior requires you to master relatively few facts and theories, but you must learn to use these concepts to analyze a variety of behaviors across the animal kingdom. Understanding complex systems in terms of simple rules is a big part of what scientists do, and this course will stretch your ability to think about problems scientifically. By completing this course, you will be able to:

Meeting the objectives

We will use a range of techniques to assess your progress toward these goals. Feedback will be derived from variety of sources, including quizzes, homework assignments, and midterms. Your progress at the end of the class will be assessed through a comprehensive final exam.

Weekly quizzes (25%)

Each week before class on Monday, you will complete a quiz based on assigned readings. These quizzes are open-book and may be taken as many times as you like.

Homework (25%)

You will also be assigned exercises to drill key concepts and build critical scientific thinking. Many of these are designed to prepare you to write your capstone research proposal. Assignments are generally due on Fridays by the beginning of class.

Midterms (30%)

To help you solidify and retain your understanding of course content and themes I will give two midterms during the term. These will test your knowledge of the readings, terms and concepts central to the course, and your ability to reason about experiments, models, and hypotheses. The exams will emphasize short written answers.

Cumulative Final (20%)

As a final assessment of your understanding of the concepts covered in lectures, you will complete an open-book comprehensive final exam.

What materials will you need?

Where do I find stuff?

What is the class schedule?

All lecture topics, readings, assignment due dates, and test dates are shown in the table below. Due dates in Collab take precedence over this calendar, but please ask on Piazza if there is an unexpected discrepancy.

There are many unknowns this fall that could impact our course. Depending on how the COVID-19 situation develops, and based on guidance from the College and University, we may transition to an alternative format. Please prepare to be flexible and take things one step at a time. I’ll use the course email to communicate any major changes.

Week/Date Topic Readings Assignments Due
Theme 1 What are animals doing?
1 Intro, what is behavior (ethology)? Sign up for Piazza
2 How do animals experience the world? AC1, AC2, this syllabus
3 Learning about relationships between stimuli AC5 Animal Observations
4 Learning how to respond to stimuli Classical Conditioning
5 Quantitative models of learning Rescorla-Wagner Rescorla-Wagner
(10/4) Midterm 1
Theme 2 What do animals know about the world?
6 What is a stimulus anyway? AC3 Behavior in the News
7 Can animals count? AC4
8 How do animals know where they are? AC7 Experimental Design
9 What do animals remember? AC10
(11/5) Midterm 2
Theme 3 What’s so special about humans?
10 Communicating? AC11
11 Using tools? AC6
12 Social cognition? AC9 Questions and Hypotheses
13 Planning? (reading on collab)
14 Self-awareness? Language? AC8, AC12 Time Travel
15 Putting it all together AC13
(12/10) Final Exam Due at 5 PM

Other important dates

8/27 no class (departmental retreat)
9/8 last day to drop
9/27 no class (instructor travel)
10/11 no class (fall break)
10/26 last day to withdraw
11/24 no class (Thanksgiving)
11/26 no class (Thanksgiving)

How to succeed

Post questions and check Piazza. Emails to professors often include questions regarding course material or questions on course policies and assignments. The answers to both kinds of questions are of interest to the entire class and are therefore not best addressed over email. Please bring these questions to class or post them online using Piazza, reserving email for questions of a personal nature. Posts are generally only answered during normal working hours, so plan ahead. Emails may take up to 24 hours for a response during the week and up to 48 hours on the weekends.

Complete the pre-class assignments. Class time will be used to consider concepts and processes at levels that go beyond simply “define and describe.” To participate fully in class time discussions and activities, you will need to come prepared. To help you focus on key concepts, you will need to complete the weekly quiz before synchronous meeting each week.

Relate what you’re learning to how you learn. Ever wonder why you forget a lot of what you crammed for an exam after a few weeks? Although the kinds of things you’re learning may differ from what the rabbits and rats and pigeons we talk about have to learn, many of the same mechanisms are at work. You can hone your study habits and become a more effective learner using your new-found knowledge about what conditions promote long-lasting, robust memories. For example, did you know that taking verbatim notes requires over 30 distinct cognitive operations, none of which really help you retain information? Strategies based on outlining or concept mapping are more effective because they require you to use the material as you’re hearing it.

Come to office hours. The TAs and I are collectively available for over 4 hours throughout the week for meetings by zoom (links are on Collab). You do not need to make an appointment. We might already be answering your question, so you are welcome to join at any point. You are encouraged to come to these office hours even if you have no specific question or problem you want to ask about. Office hours are a time when you can come to ask for assistance in understanding course material or assignments, or they can simply be an opportunity to chat with us about the course or college more generally. Instructors may close the zoom session if no one is there, so send an email if you are unable to join or the room is empty.

Finally, your Association Dean is an important point of contact for any larger-scale concerns about your academic progress. He or she can refer you to the agencies or offices best suited to deal with any problem you may be facing, academic or otherwise.

Flexibility and contingency plans

This is likely to be a challenging semester, and I understand that everyone is under increased stress. I expect that it may be harder to complete assignments on time and to reliably attend class, and that there is an increased chance of medical emergencies. To give you more flexibility, these are the policies on late and missing work:

The baseline policy is that late quizzes and assignments will receive a penalty of one letter grade per day, unless an extension is arranged before the due date or an emergency prevents submission. Emergencies include:

If you just need a breather, you can take advantage of the following exceptions:

I encourage you to have a plan for communicating with instructors in case you become too ill to contact me. Consider nominating a friend or close relative who can contact me and your other instructors as soon as possible, so that we can come up with a plan.

There is a backup plan in place if I become ill and am unable to continue instructing the course. I or the backup instructor will communicate with you by email about how the course will proceed.

What are the course policies?

This section is where you will find my policies on any topics not covered above. The purpose is to tell you ahead of time how I will handle situations where questions or disputes tend to arise. In applying these policies or in dealing with situations outside their scope, my guiding principle is equity: every student should have the same opportunity to succeed and have her course grade accurately reflect her understanding of the material.

If you are unclear about any situation, ask. Unless the matter requires confidentiality, I prefer that you ask on Piazza so that the entire class can benefit.

Waitlist and late enrollment

The Psychology Department does not use course action forms, so if there’s a waitlist, you need to show up to class for the first week or so to see if enough people drop to allow you to enroll. Similarly, if you are thinking of adding the course after the start of the term, you need to attend class meetings. Regardless of when you officially enroll in the class, you are responsible for all material covered in lecture.

You can access the Collab site even if you are on the waitlist, which will allow you to complete reading quizzes and other assignments in case you are able to enroll. You can only receive credit for assignments completed by the due date. There are no make-ups; assignments not completed before enrollment are excluded from the final grade calculation.

No laptops, tablets, or phones

Recent research suggests that note-taking by writing, rather than by typing, improves conceptual learning (see Mueller & Oppenheimer 2014, available on Collab). Additionally, with laptops and tablets, some students distract others (and themselves) by viewing non-course material during class (see Ravizza et al., 2016, on Collab). Therefore, use of laptops, tablets and phones is prohibited during lecture. Put your phone away and have it either off or set to airplane mode (even vibrating is a distraction to you). Having your phone out during lecture will result in losing 10% of your extra credit points accumulated for the semester.

If you feel that your note-taking will suffer without laptop or tablet, it’s easy to get my permission to use one. A permission form is available on the Collab Resources page.


Until further notice, you must wear a mask in class. Follow classroom guidance on distancing. Attendance is not taken and does not contribute to your grade.

Lecture materials

Lecture slides are only available through the Panopto recordings. Note that access to slides cannot substitute for note-taking. Good note-taking is one of the most effective learning strategies, because it requires you to prioritize concepts presented in the lecture and think about how they relate to each other.

You may not distribute any course materials, including lecture recordings, without express permission from the instructor (see University Policy PROV-005).


All quizzes and the final exam are open-book but must be completed individually, in accordance with the UVA Honor Code.

Per College policy, final exams are generally only given during a designated time determined by the time our class meets. You may postpone your exam time under some circumstances with the permission of your Association Dean.


Regrade requests must be submitted in writing to a TA, and can only be accommodated if they are made within one week of when the assignment or test is returned. Your request needs to explain why your answer was correct or deserved more credit, based on the rubric and/or the course materials.

Professional and academic integrity

As practicing professionals, scientists trust each other to maintain the highest standards of ethics, integrity, and personal responsibility. Since you have joined this community of trust to prepare for your future career, I expect you to fully comply with all of the provisions of the UVA Honor System whether or not you sign a pledge. Unless otherwise instructed, you must not receive nor give aid on an assignment.

Your submission of any assignment also affirms you have not knowingly represented as your own any opinions or ideas that are attributable to another author in published or unpublished notes, study outlines, abstracts, articles, textbooks, or web pages. In other words, I expect that all assignments, reports, and exam answers are your original work and that references are cited appropriately. If you are unclear on whether your work meets this requirement, you need to discuss any issues with the instructor before submitting the assignment.

Your participation in this course affirms that you will not share online or in person any information about an exam, any course materials, or the product of any assignment, without express instruction or permission of the professor. Breaking this trust agreement not only will result in zero credit for the assignment in question and referral to the Honor Committee but also will jeopardize your future as a professional scientist or in any field. Don’t let yourself down.


Grade assignments follow the following fixed scale:

A 93 - 100
A- 90 - 93
B+ 87 - 90
B 83 - 87
B- 80- 83
C+ 77 - 80
C 73 - 77
C- 70 - 73
D+ 67 - 70
D 63 - 67
D- 60 - 63
F 0 - 60

Your grades will reflect your proficiency and excellence on course objectives, not your performance relative to anyone else, so grades will not be curved. If you’re concerned about your grade, keep track of your progress early on and get help if you aren’t achieving at the level you want to.


My goal is for everyone in the class to have an equal opportunity to learn and to demonstrate their knowledge. Students with disabilities are entitled to reasonable accommodations. Contact the Student Disability Access Center (434-243-5180) for more information or to arrange accommodations. Please note, some accommodations require you to contact me to make a plan; this must occur prior to any requests for extensions.