Evaluating Scholarly Papers

In Animal Cognition, Dr. Irene Pepperberg's students learn how to evaluate scholarly work on animal cognition by trying to think from the animal's point of view of the experiment.  The entire course is set up so that students become critical consumers (and, at the end of the course, producers) of research.  For class meetings, each student is responsible for one paper and has to present the main point of that paper.  They then have a discussion of the experimental design in the papers by thinking about animal cognition.  Specifically, rather than think about experiments from a human point of view, as scholars tend to do, they try to consider the experiment from the animal's point of view.  For example, they consider animals that don't have good color vision, or that hear different pitches than humans.  The class discusses how these types of concerns would impact the experimental design.  They also watch videos from Scientific American Frontiers that show the animals doing the experiment.  This sparks and deepens the evaluation of the experimental designs in the papers.  Irene notes that it is helpful if students have already taken an intro to animal behavior course.

Once students are familiar with the field and with the considerations of experimental design, they are evaluated; on the midterm, they read a paper that they haven't discussed in class and they have to critique it.  Additionally, for the final, the students take an animal that they have not studied and write a research proposal where they design an experiment.  They are supposed to try to address all the holes that they have been finding in other papers all semester long, and create something original.  

Here are descriptions of the midterm and final from the course syllabus:

The midterm will be an assigned reading of a published manuscript that students will be required to critique with respect to sound experimental design and interpretation of the data; it will most likely be assigned a bit late in the semester (e.g., toward the end of October), because I want you to have enough experience with the field in order to do the assignment. It should be no more than 5 pages, and can be less.

The final will be an exercise in designing an original experiment. You mission is to examine a cognitive capacity we have NOT studied in class (nor one that you can easily find via a Google search that has already been studied in a number of species, but that we didn’t have time to cover—an exception, however, could be a particularly novel approach to studying the behavior!) of some animal species we have also NOT studied in class. It should be approximately  8-10 pages, and IS DUE ON THE LAST DAY OF CLASS. I’ll be happy to talk about pros and cons of a choice of subject, and general ideas about the cognitive capacity (e.g., to determine if the experiment is at all feasible), but won’t get into specifics—e.g., I won’t read over an early draft. The paper is intended to be like a grant proposal—you won’t have data to analyze, but you will be expected to discuss the implications of the various possible outcomes of your experiment. I will not accept late papers unless you have a documented illness or family emergency (again, a note from your Resident Dean is the way to go)…please contact me as early as possible so accommodations can be made.