Animal Minds :: Syllabus

Term: Spring 2017
Instructor: Daniel Meliza (cdm8j)
Class times: Lecture MWF 11:00-11:50, Gilmer 190
Review M 6:00-6:50, Gilmer 190
Final exam: Monday, 5/8, 9:00-12:00, Gilmer 190
Course site:
Collab site:
Office Hours: Gilmer 183, Tu 3-4, W 2-3
Last revised: 4/6/2017

Teaching Assistants

Email Office Office Hours
Lindsay Collins lnc3de Gilmer 077 M, Th 11-12

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 the beginning of class.

Homework assignments (20%)

Most weeks you will be assigned a homework exercise to develop your understanding of important concepts in the course. There will be a variety of formats and activities. Some assignments will be submitted on paper and some will be submitted through Collab. Activities include:

Most homework assignments may be completed in groups.

Examinations (45%)

To help you solidify and retain your understanding of course content and themes I will give you three exams, two during the term and a comprehensive final at the end of 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. You will generate most of the exam questions yourselves, each week submitting a possible exam question based on your readings or discussions.

Research Proposal (20%)

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. This assignment is broken out into several steps that provide you with feedback along the way. Your score on this assessment will be based on the preliminary activities, on the comments of two of your peers and one of the instructors on the final draft, and on your reviews of your peers’ proposals. More information, including the rubrics for peer and instructor evaluations, is available at this link.

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, warm-up quizzes are due on the day listed. Assignment details are linked below or can be found on Collab under Assignments.

This schedule may change to reflect our progress through the course. You will be notified by email if it does.

Week Date Topic Readings Assignments
Theme 1 What are animals responding to?
1 1/18 What’s a behavior? (ethology)
1/20 AC1 CATME Survey due
2 1/23 What do animals perceive? AC2
1/27 No Class
3 1/30 Remembering and learning about stimuli AC5 Animal Observations due
2/3 Learning how to respond to stimuli Animal Observation Peer Review due
4 2/6
2/8 Quantitative models of learning Classical Conditioning due
2/10 Rescorla-Wagner handout
Theme 2 What do animals know about the world?
5 2/13 What is a stimulus anyway? AC3
2/17 Rescorla-Wagner due
6 2/20 Can animals count and tell time? AC4
2/24 Midterm 1 (Theme 1)
7 2/27 How do animals know where they are? AC7
Spring Recess: 3/6-3/10
8 3/13 Memory: How is knowledge stored, retained, and retrieved? AC10
9 3/20
Theme 3 What’s so special about humans?
3/22 Communicating? AC11
10 3/27 Research proposal question due
3/29 Tool use and reasoning about physical causes? AC6
3/31 Learning to Learn due
11 4/3 Midterm 2 (Theme 2)
4/5 Intentionality and planning? (reading on collab - no quiz)
12 4/10 Social intelligence and theory of mind? AC9
4/12 Time Travel due
13 4/17 Self-awareness? AC8 Research proposal peer reports due
14 4/24 Language? AC12
4/28 Research proposal (final draft) due
15 5/1 Putting it together: comparative cognition AC13 Research proposal peer evaluation due
5/8 Final Exam (all themes): 9:00-12:00

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. By 10 AM on each class day with an assigned reading, 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 4 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 Piazza, reserving email for questions of a personal or private nature. Posts are generally only answered during normal working 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.

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 online course FAQ for information about grading, exam policies, and other topics.