Animal Minds :: Syllabus Spring 2016

Term: Spring 2015
Class times: Lecture Tue/Thu 11:00AM - 12:15PM, Gilmer Hall 190
  Review (optional) Tues 6:00PM - 6:50PM, Gilmer Hall 190
Final exam: Tue May 5, 9:00AM - 12:00PM
Collab site:
Instructor: Daniel Meliza (cdm8j)
Office Hours: Gilmer 183, Wed 11:30-12:30, Thu 1:30-2:30, or by appointment via email
Last revised: 23 Apr 2015

Teaching Assistants

  Email Office Office Hours
Victoria Mauer Gilmer 026 Mon 11:00AM - 1:00PM
Doyle Tate Gilmer 244 Mon & Fri 8:30AM - 9:30AM

What is this course about?

Animals interact with their environments and each other in complex yet predictable ways. Their behaviors range from simple programs of locomotion to flexible systems of learning and communication. Questions about why humans and other animals have these behaviors (and not others) have fascinated us for thousands of years. This course will teach you how to ask these questions scientifically.

Behavior can be examined through many lenses, including function, phylogeny, ontogeny, and mechanism. We will consider all these approaches, but our primary focus is on mechanism, specifically on the cognitive processes that are necessary for behaviors and the neural circuits that implement those processes.

How will this course help you succeed?

The study of animal behavior differs from many other kinds of psychology in that it is fundamentally comparative. We aim to identify aspects of behavior that are common to many species or shared among a few species, and we relate those similarities to phylogenetic relationships (homologies) and to mechanisms that arose from shared environmental pressures, physical constraints, or computational limitations (homoplasies). Thus, much of what you will learn in this course relates to the methods of inquiry used in this field. By the end of the course, you will be able to answer the following questions about specific behaviors in a range of taxa:

  1. What cognitive processes are necessary?
  2. If multiple cognitive processes can explain the behavior, what differences would I predict in a given experiment?
  3. How can I classify, quantify, and analyze behavior to test hypotheses?
  4. How does the behavior compare to closely and distantly related species? Is this process likely to be shared among many species, or is it unique to this species or group?

And more generally:

  1. How do animals adapt to changes in their environments?
  2. How are relationships in space, time, and quantity perceived?
  3. What are the social influences on behavior? Why do animals engage in altruistic or violent behaviors that don’t appear to be beneficial? Do animals teach each other, and why?
  4. Do animals have abstract concepts?
  5. Are animals conscious of other minds? How do they use communication to influence each other, and do they attempt to deceive?

What materials will you need?

The required text for the course is Animal Learning and Cognition: An Introduction, 3rd ed, by John Pearce (Psychology Press), ISBN 978-1-84169-656-0.

You will also be assigned readings from other books and from the primary literature. These resources will be placed on the calendar with links that you can access from on grounds or by using the VPN or web proxy as described here, or will be uploaded to the Resources section of the Collab site.

How will your progress be evaluated?

Exams (85%) There will be three exams during the semester (see schedule below) and a final exam. You are required to take three of these. You may take all four and your lowest score will be dropped. The three remaining exams will contribute equally to the final grade. New policy: makeup exams will be offered at the end of the semester to students with excused absences for midterms 2 and 3. The makeups will take place on one of the reading days, with date and time TBD.

Course material builds on facts and concepts from earlier in the semester, so you should consider the exams as essentially cumulative, although they will focus on more recent topics. The lectures and readings are complementary, and the exams will test you on what you’ve learned from both sources. I strongly encourage you to complete the readings before coming to class rather than the other way around.

Some of the exam questions will test your knowledge about basic concepts and facts covered in the text and lectures. Other questions will ask you to apply this information to novel situations. Some questions will be multiple choice, some will be fill-in-the-blank, and others will require short answers. We will use Collab to take the tests in class.

Writing (15%) As an exercise in experimental design, you will write a short (5 page) research proposal, which can either be based on a published study or on a novel question of your own choosing. Your task will be to explain the conceptual background, specific aims, hypotheses, methods, and potential interpretations behind the research. Your grade will be based on the comments of two of your peers and one of the instructors, and on your reviews of your peers’ proposals. More information, including the rubrics for peer and instructor evaluations, will be given to you over spring break.

Grading scale uses the standard undergraduate thresholds. See FAQ for details.

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. In addition to pledging that you have neither received nor given aid on an assignment, your signature also affirms that 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 and reports are your original work and that references are cited appropriately. 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.

What is the class schedule?

Readings from Pearce are noted with P and the chapter number. If only part of the chapter is assigned, the pages will be given in parentheses.

Schedule will be updated to reflect progress through the material. Check back frequently.

Date Topic Readings
13 Jan History of Animal Behavior  
15 Jan Animal intelligence and cognition P1
20 Jan Comparative perception Shettleworth pp. 57-77 (collab)
    Catania, J Comp Physiol A 1999 (doi:10.1007/s003590050396)
22 Jan Attention Shettleworth pp. 77-95 (collab)
27 Jan Associative learning P2
29 Jan Bottom-up influences on learning P3 (pp. 64-74)
3 Feb Top-down influences on learning P3 (pp. 74-91)
    Garcia and Koelling, Psychon Sci 1966 (collab)
5 Feb Extinction P5
10 Feb Exam 1  
12 Feb Recognition and sensory processing P6 (pp. 149-161)
17 Feb Categorical perception P7 (pp. 171-179)
19 Feb Concepts P7 (pp. 179-189)
24 Feb Short-term memory (I) P8 (pp. 191-202)
26 Feb Short-term memory (II) P8 (pp. 202-211)
3 Mar Long-term memory P9
    Optional: memory in dogs and parrots
5 Mar Class canceled for weather  
10 Mar no class (spring break)  
12 Mar no class (spring break)  
17 Mar Episodic memory Clayton and Dickinson, Nature 1998 (doi:10.1038/26216)
  How to write a research proposal Assignment instructions
19 Mar Exam 2  
24 Mar Research proposal question drafts due  
  Social learning P12 (pp. 296-312)
26 Mar Social behavior: conflict and cooperation Axelrod and Hamilton, Science 1981 (doi:10.1126/science.7466396)
31 Mar Social intelligence & theory of mind P12 (pp. 312-325)
2 Apr Research proposal peer report due  
  Communication and learning P13
7 Apr Spatial cognition: routes P11 (pp. 265-283)
9 Apr Spatial cognition: maps P11 (pp. 283-295)
14 Apr Time P10 (pp. 232-243)
16 Apr Numbers and relationships P10 (pp. 243-263)
21 Apr Research Proposals Due  
  Planning and predicting the consequences of behavior  
23 Apr Causal inference and tool use P4 (pp. 111-121; optional)
28 Apr Exam 3  
5 May Final 9:00-12:00  

Getting help

The TAs and I are more than happy to meet with you during office hours. I will answer questions by email, immediately during office hours (unless I am speaking to another student), and within 24 hours otherwise. If you are unable to make the published office hours, you can set up an appointment by email.

Weekly review sessions are question and answer format. Please come prepared with questions from the readings and lectures.

Policy on laptops, tablets, and phones

Many students like to bring laptops to class so that they can follow along on the Powerpoints and take notes. Recent research shows, however, that college students do better on tests if they take notes by hand. Other research shows that students are not as good at multitasking as they think they are; thus, if you decide to text or check your email during lectures you will probably not retain the material as well. Because lecture materials will not be posted online, you will be at a significant disadvantage if you are not paying attention. Lastly, research shows that students are distracted by other students who use their laptops or phones to text, check email, play games, etc.

If you do decide to use an electronic device to take notes, I ask that you use it for that purpose only and do not check email, text, surf the web, etc. For students who prefer not to use electronic devices, I will reserve a Low Tech Zone at the front of the classroom. Students who choose to sit there agree not to use laptops, tablets, phones, or any other electronic device.

Further questions?

Check out the course FAQ.