BCSC 183: Syllabus

Fall 2023

Time & Location

Mon. & Wed. 09:00–10:15 AM
Goergen Hall, Room 108


Instructor: Dora Biro

Office: Meliora 305
Office hours: Mon. 10:30–11:30AM

Graduate Teaching Assistant: Oviya Mohan

Office hours: TBA, Meliora, BCS lounge

UG Teaching Assistant: Avi Khanna

Office hours: TBA, Carlson Library 1st Floor

Course Description

“Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”. This famous quote from the eminent evolutionary biologist T. Dobzhansky is at the center the field of comparative cognition. The human mind is as much a product of evolution as the human body, therefore a thorough understanding of human cognition requires us to examine its phylogenetic origins through comparisons with non-humans. This course therefore aims to showcase how studying the mental lives of animals can inform us about the roots of our own cognitive capacities across a multitude of domains. We will examine the processes that allow non-human animals to sense, perceive and learn about the environment, form representations about space and time, reason about the physical and social world, and build societies that collectively solve complex problems and display regional variation in behavior in ways analogous to human culture. The taxa we examine will range from slime molds to humans, and our main focus will be on understanding how natural selection has shaped cognition to suit specific species’ needs, in elegant and sometimes surprising ways.

This course is introductory level and should be accessible to anyone; there are no prerequisites.

Course Objectives

Students will become familiar with:

  • the evolutionary process and how human & animal minds are the product of it
  • fundamental concepts in comparative cognitive science
  • methods of studying animal cognition through observation and experimentation
  • how to read and interpret data from graphs
  • how to critically evaluate observations of animal cognition and "intelligence"

Course Textbook

Clive D.L. Wynne, Monique A. R. Udell (2020) Animal Cognition: Evolution, Behavior and Cognition. 3rd Edition. Macmillan International.

Additional Reading

These will consist of journal articles and will be provided on Blackboard.


You are expected to attend all classes. Attendance will be taken at the beginning of each class. If you are unable to attend, please email the instructor and/or the TAs ahead of class, stating the reason for your absence. Beyond the first two unexcused absences, for each class missed without a suitable excuse, 1% will be deducted from your final grade.


  • Your grade will be calculated based on four exams and on class participation and contributions to Discussion Boards.
  • Exams will consist of a mixture of multiple-choice and short-answer questions.
  • Only your three highest scoring exams will count towards your final grade, each worth 30% (i.e., 90% of the total)
  • The remaining 10% of your final grade will be determined based on your class participation and contributions to Discussion Boards linked to “journal club” sessions (see below).
  • Grades are rounded to two decimal points (89.99 = 89.99; 89.999 = 90.00). There is no “grade bumping”.
  • Grading scale (note that 94.00% is A-, and 89.99 is B+):
  87 < x < 90 = B+ 77 < x < 80 = C+ 67 < x < 70 = D+  
x > 94 = A 83 < x <= 87 = B 73 < x <= 77 = C 63 < x <= 67 = D < 60 = E
90 <= x <= 94 = A- 80 <= x <= 83 = B- 70 <= x <= 73 = C- 60 <= x <= 63 = D-  

Discussion Boards for Journal Clubs

For each “journal club” class, we will read a specific scientific article (see “Reading” column in the Schedule). You are required to post, at the latest by midnight EST the night before the class, at least ONE comment or question to the Blackboard Discussion Board linked to that class. These can consist of clarification questions if some aspect of the article was not clear to you, comments on the experimental design, analysis or interpretation of data presented, comments about the broader significance of the study, or suggestions for potential avenues for future research. If you find that your comment resembles that of another student who has already posted theirs, please try to differentiate yours. Articles & Discussion Boards can be accessed under the “Journal Clubs” link on Blackboard.

Course Policies

  • This classroom respects and welcomes students of all backgrounds and abilities. You are encouraged to talk with me about any concern or situation that affects your ability to complete your academic work successfully. Undergraduates requiring classroom accommodations should contact the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, 1-154 Dewey Hall, (585) 275-9049. Information about the accommodation process
  • Policy on having a judgment free classroom: In this class we discuss a number of issues; these should not be controversial. In order to create an environment that is supportive, inclusive, and intellectually stimulating, individual students must feel that their voices are heard and respected. Every person is responsible for their language and interactions, and should show regard for others while valuing free speech.
  • Policy on academic honesty: You are encouraged to discuss class material with your fellow students. All written work must be your own, in your own words. If you make use of anybody else’s ideas, cite your source — whether that source is a print publication, a web site, or a comment made by a classmate. You are responsible for knowing what constitutes plagiarism and for avoiding it: see the College policy
  • Any updates related to the course will be posted on Blackboard. Students will be emailed through Blackboard with notifications of such updates when they are posted. Please make sure that these emails go to an address that you regularly check. If you have questions about how to use Blackboard, contact University IT (275- 2000, ).