Animal Minds :: Syllabus

Term: Spring 2016
Instructor: Daniel Meliza (cdm8j)
Class times: Lecture MWF 11:00-11:50, Gilmer 190
  Review Tu 6:00-6:50, Gilmer 190
Final exam: Thursday, 5/12, 9:00-12:00, Gilmer 190
Collab site:
Office Hours: Gilmer 183, M 2-3, Th 11-12
Last revised: 2/24/2016

Teaching Assistants

  Email Office Office Hours
Lindsay Collins lnc3de Gilmer 077 MTu 12-1
Sara Medina-DeVilliers sm5bf Gilmer 212 W 12-2

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 learn about animal minds by studying their brains? 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 the reasons for how animals behave. In this course, you will learn how to develop your intuitive narratives into a more nuanced 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 whole host of complex, specialized 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 the instructor, your peers, and yourself.

Warm-up activities (15%)

To guide your readings and use of outside sources, you will be given short pre-class quizzes and exercises that assess your comprehension of the material and ability to apply your understanding to new questions. These are due by 9 AM on the day of class.

Blog entries and homework assignments (20%)

Most weeks you will be assigned a homework exercise to develop your understanding of important concepts in the course. We will use a variety of formats and activities. Some assignments will be submitted on paper, some will be submitted through Collab, and others will be submitted to your personal NowComment blog associated with the course. Instructions for setting up and posting material to the blog are given in the Course Setup due the first week of class. Activities include:

Examinations (40%)

To help you solidify and retain your understanding of course content and themes I will give you two exams, one in week 8 and a comprehensive final at the end of the term. These will test your knowledge of the reading, terms and concepts central to the course, and your ability to reason about experiments, models, and hypotheses. The exams will emphasize short written answers. You will generate most of the exam questions yourselves, each week submitting a possible exam question based on your readings or discussions.

Digital media project (25%)

Working as a team, you will produce a 3-5 minute video or photo story that introduces your peers to an interesting animal behavior and that critically summarizes current research into the cognitive or neural mechanisms of the behavior.

If this sounds daunting, don’t panic. The assignment is broken out into several steps that will help you build toward a successful final product to share on the class website. Each step will be due sequentially to provide you with feedback from the instructor and your peers along the way. Briefly, the components are:

More details on the project will be given in a handout. We will screen the best submissions in class!

What materials will you need?

What is the class schedule?

All lecture topics, readings, assignment due dates, and test dates are shown in the table below. In assigned readings, FCC refers to the Fundamentals of Comparative Cognition and AC refers to Animal Cognition. Readings and warm-up quizzes are due on the day listed. Assignment details are linked below or can be found on Collab under Assignments. Due dates associated with the Digital Media Project are indicated by DMP.

This schedule may change to reflect our progress through the course, so check this page weekly

Week Date Topic Readings Assignments
Theme 1   What are animals responding to?    
1 1/20 What’s a behavior? (ethology)    
  1/22 (snow day) FCC, chapter 1 Survey and Blog Setup due
2 1/25 (snow day)    
  1/27 What do animals perceive? AC, chapter 2  
  1/29 Remembering and learning about stimuli FCC, pp. 17-33  
3 2/1   AC, chapter 5  
  2/5 No Class   Animal Observations
4 2/8 Learning how to respond to stimuli FCC, pp. 33-41 Animal Observation Peer Review
  2/12 Quantitative models of learning Rescorla-Wagner handout DMP: submit initial idea
        Classical Conditioning
5 2/15      
Theme 2   What do animals know about the world?    
  2/17 What is a stimulus anyway? AC, chapter 3 Rescorla-Wagner
  2/19   FCC, pp. 41-48  
6 2/22 Can animals count and tell time? AC, ch 4  
  2/24   FCC, pp. 57-66 Mapping Grounds
7 2/29 How do animals know where they are? FCC, pp. 49-57  
  3/2   AC, chapter 7  
  3/4 How is knowledge stored, retained, and retrieved? AC, chapter 10 DMP: submit storyboard and timeline
    Spring Recess: 3/7-3/11    
8 3/14 Is human learning just conditioning?    
  3/16 Midterm Exam    
Theme 3   What’s the relationship between brain and mind?    
  3/18 How do brains know what’s happening in the world? Catania (1999)  
9 3/21     DMP: schedule demo meeting
  3/23 How do brains generate complex behaviors? AC, chapter 11 Learning to Learn
10 3/28      
  3/30 How do brains change as animals learn? Nader et al (2000)  
11 4/4      
Theme 4   What’s so special about humans?    
  4/6 Communicating and using language? AC, chapter 12 Brain and Behavior
12 4/11 Tool use and reasoning about physical causes? AC, chapter 6  
  4/13     Time Travel
  4/15 Intentionality and planning? FC, pp. 66-80  
13 4/18      
  4/20 Social intelligence and theory of mind? FC, chapter 4 Deceit and Deception
  4/22 No class   DMP: upload final submissions
14 4/25      
  4/29 Self-awareness? AC, chapter 8  
15 5/1 Screen digital media projects    
  5/12 Final Exam    

How to succeed

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. The reading for each class is listed in the course schedule. By 9 AM on each class day, complete the warm-up exercise on Collab that is based on the reading material; this will help you gauge your comprehension of the reading, and it will help me identify particularly difficult material that needs to be clarified during class.

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.

Use College resources for writing and library research. Did you know there’s a reference librarian whose job it is to help students with research projects? Or that some of your peers are Source Dorks who can help you conduct literature searches and find other high-quality references? You can also get help from the UVA Writing Center at any stage of a writing assignment, from structuring to drafting to revision. Some of the tutors are especially trained to help when English is a second language.

Ask for help! The TAs and I are collectively available for 6 hours throughout the week for meetings in our offices. Please, no standing in line – if we’re talking with someone else, we might already be answering your question, so come right in.

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 one of the following Collab forums, reserving email for questions of a personal or private nature. Responses will be posted within 24 hours, so plan ahead.

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.

Complete extra credit assignments

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, reports, and exam answers are your original work and that references are cited appropriately. Your signature also 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.

Further questions?

Check out the course FAQ for information about grading, exam policies, and other topics.