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Animal Cognition

Module titleAnimal Cognition
Module codeBIO3422
Academic year2021/2
Module staff

Professor Alex Thornton (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks


Number students taking module (anticipated)


Description - summary of the module content

Module description

In this module, we will think about thought. Through their everyday interactions with the physical and social environment, animals encounter problems that require them to process information: to learn, to remember, to think. During this module you will be exposed to cutting edge research conducted by leaders in the field of comparative cognition. We will consider how we can study animal minds, and explore the ways that evolutionary and developmental processes shape the cognitive abilities of different species, including our own. Studying cognition poses unique challenges, because unlike behaviour, cognition cannot be observed directly, but must be inferred through experimentation. By examining the latest research, including work by module staff, we will learn how experiments can probe the secrets of animal minds and delve into the controversies that arise in this young but rapidly growing field. For instance, do tool-using animals understand the laws of physics? Can some animals read each other’s minds and reflect on their own knowledge? We will also consider how an understanding of animal cognition can help us to understand ourselves and help address to improve animal welfare and conservation

Module aims - intentions of the module

The module will provide you with a strong grounding in the field comparative cognition, but the experience you will gain in appraising evidence and critically evaluating ideas will be invaluable to a wide range careers in the biological sciences and beyond. The transferable skills you will gain include:

  • The ability to think critically and evaluate evidence and arguments in the scientific literature
  • The ability to communicate complex concepts clearly and effectively in writing and verbally
  • Time management skills (managing your time effectively, both in independent study and as part of  a group)
  • The ability to self and peer review (taking responsibility for your own learning, using feedback from multiple sources)

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 1. Define cognition and describe and evaluate methods though which it can be studied scientifically across a range of different species
  • 2. Discuss the role of evolutionary and developmental processes in shaping the cognitive abilities of different species
  • 3. Assess and synthesise evidence and critically evaluate controversies in the field of comparative cognition
  • 4. Explain both the fundamental and applied importance of cognitive research

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 5. Describe in detail and analyse essential facts and theory across a sub-discipline of biosciences
  • 6. Analyse and evaluate independently a range of research-informed literature and synthesise research-informed examples from the literature into written work
  • 7. Identify and implement, with limited guidance, appropriate methodologies and theories for solving a range of complex problems in biosciences
  • 8. With minimal guidance, deploy established techniques of analysis, practical investigation, and enquiry within biosciences
  • 9. Describe and evaluate in detail approaches to our understanding of biosciences with reference to primary literature, reviews and research articles

ILO: Personal and key skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 10. Devise and sustain, with little guidance, a logical and reasoned argument with sound, convincing conclusions
  • 11. Communicate effectively arguments, evidence and conclusions using a variety of formats in a manner appropriate to the intended audience
  • 12. Analyse and evaluate appropriate data and complete a range of research-like tasks with very limited guidance
  • 13. Evaluate own strengths and weaknesses in relation to graduate-level professional and practical skills, and act autonomously to develop new areas of skills as necessary
  • 14. Reflect effectively and independently on learning experiences and evaluate personal achievements
  • 16. Work in a small team and deal proficiently with the issues that teamwork requires (i.e. communication, motivation, decision-making, awareness, responsibility, and management skills, including setting and working to deadlines)

Syllabus plan

Syllabus plan

This module will review the field of animal cognition through a combination of lectures and class discussions. Lectures will begin by introducing the historical and philosophical background of the field and the unique challenges of conducting cognitive research. We will then consider the wide range of cognitive processes animals use to solve informational challenges, from general learning processes that are shared across the animal kingdom to species-specific cognitive adaptations. Throughout the lectures we will integrate ideas and methods from psychology and biology to assess how cognitive abilities (including our own) are shaped by developmental and evolutionary processes. We will also use 2-hour seminars to discuss, evaluate and debate contentious topics in this burgeoning field.

Learning and teaching

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled learning and teaching8Lectures (8 x 1 hour)
Scheduled learning and teaching8Discussion seminars (4 x 2 hours)
Guided independent study134Additional reading, research and preparation for module assessments


Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Short answer questions during lectures and discussions Ongoing throughout the moduleAllOral
Contribution to class discussion on essay writing skillsDiscussion seminarAllOral

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Essay601500 words1-13Written on request
Critical review essay401500 words1-13Feedback sheet


Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
EssayEssay1-13August assessment period
Critical review essayCritical review essay1-13August assessment period

Re-assessment notes

Deferral – if you miss an assessment for certificated reasons judged acceptable by the Mitigation Committee, you will normally be either deferred in the assessment or an extension may be granted. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of deferral will not be capped and will be treated as it would be if it were your first attempt at the assessment.

Referral – if you have failed the module overall (i.e. a final overall module mark of less than 40%) you will be required to submit a further assessment. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of referral will count for 100% of the final mark and will be capped at 40%.


Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

  • Shettleworth, S. J. (2010). Cognition, evolution, and behavior. Oxford University Press.
  • Olmstead, M. C., & Kuhlmeier, V. A. (2015). Comparative cognition. Cambridge University Press.

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

Module has an active ELE page

Key words search

Cognition, learning, intelligence, evolution, ecology, development, sociality, animal welfare, animal conservation

Credit value15
Module ECTS


Module pre-requisites

BIO2428 Development of Behaviour and BIO2430 Behavioural Ecology

Module co-requisites


NQF level (module)


Available as distance learning?


Origin date


Last revision date