Syllabus, Fall 2011

Psychology 381, Experimental Analysis of Behavior with


Fall Semester, 2011

Professor Mac Ewen

Office Phone: 540-654-1560 (office hours pending and to be posted)



Focus of the Course

Survival of organisms depends on having evolved the necessary biological systems as well as being able to adapt behavior to a changing environment.  Such adaptation we will refer to as learning.  Not all organisms utilize learning, most simple and short-lived ones don’t.  But more complex organisms, that live a reasonably long time, utilize it to their advantage.  We will study the principles and theoretical issues that have emerged from experimental investigations of learning.  This class is experimental and scientific – hence the name: experimental analysis of behavior.  Be prepared to think and act scientifically about human and other animal behavior!

Text and Apparatus

Text: The Principles of Learning and Behavior, (6th Ed.)  By Michael Domjan

For the laboratory, you will produce digital video; the cheapest and easiest method is a digital camera.

Once you’ve decided on an experimental question, you will build your experimental apparatus.  You may get help from dear old dad/mom, a boyfriend/girlfriend, roommate or handy friend.  The apparatus, for the most part, will be simple, easy to construct, and inexpensive.

You need to purchase a “clicker” from Pet Smart or suitable pet supply store.  These are inexpensive, but necessary.


For the main experiment, students will work in teams of 2 or perhaps 3.  Each student will be assigned a small, friendly, lovable white rat.  Your rat is your total responsibility for the entire semester.  You must feed it, see that it has plenty of fresh water daily, clean its cage, and help keep the animal housing facilities spotless.

We will do no harm to these rats, nor place undue stress on them; rather we will treat them as pets.  You will come to enjoy working with your animal.  You will be shown how to take care of them, but I want to make one thing very clear.  If you expect to get a grade in the class, you must care for and work with, your rat daily.  If we see the water bottle too low or empty, or if you generally neglect your rat and its training, that will be grounds for failure in the course. 

The laboratory can be lots of fun as you apply principles of learning to your rat.  Designing and carrying out an experiment to answer a question about your rat is challenging and fun.  Budget plenty of time, for you will be expected to spend at least one hour per day working with your rat.  This course is very time consuming.

Though the course is writing intensive, there are no laboratory reports per se.  Rather, you will:

1)     Design a weekly blog chronicling your work with the rat.  I will show you some blogs of previous students.  The technical aspects of designing a blog are not hard and no cost is involved.  We will use a free service called  We are fortunate to have available Dr. Kate Cooke from the University of Virginia.  She has developed for you some instructional material about how to create a blog and imbed videos.  She has kindly consented to be available on-line for help.  Each week during the lab period, you will talk about your activities with your rat illustrated by blog, graphs, and video.  Your blogs can be seen by everyone including friends, parents, etc.

2)   The final will consist of a Power point presentation of your semester project to be designed and presented by your team.

The other laboratory periods will consist of various topics I want to cover and “brainstorming” about your work.  I am a big believer in “brainstorming” with regards to the design and implementation of experiments.  You will be expected to contribute considerably, failure to do so will result in loss of points.  During the lecture sections, I will present material on learning principles and relevant research and address your questions.

The laboratory is a major focus of this course.  Your grade is heavily weighted on how well you solve problems encountered in the pursuit of the experimental answer to the major question you pose.  It’s exciting to obtain results that suggest an answer to your question, but this is not always possible.  I’m interested how much thought and care you put into your project throughout the semester.  Though I will lend a sympathetic ear and offer suggestions, solving problems encountered along the way is up to each research team.


There will be five quizzes over material presented during the lecture section.   Since this is a writing intensive course, your blogs will be evaluated on their relevant content and design. Your blog should serve as an instructional tool and be easy for anyone to follow.  Each blog post should cover essentially one week of work.  Most people make the post too long, be succinct.  When you begin adding video (see the instructional material Dr. Cooke will provide you), it should be short and illustrate major points you want us, the class and I, to see and make comments on.  Sometimes the videos will show progress and sometimes a problem you are encountering.  Everyone in the class is expected to add comments during the blog presentations.   These presentations will serve as “brainstorming” sessions to help you with your experiment and everyone is expected to help out.

There will be several sources for evaluation of your laboratory work.

1)    I will evaluate your weekly class presentation and blog; how clearly you express what you’ve been doing and how it relates to class material. I will provide you with a rubric for doing this.

2)   There will be no final exam; rather you must produce, with video, a Power Point presentation of the results and interpretation of your study.  I will grade you on how well you solve the continuing problems encountered as you carry out your study.  You will be graded on how well you’ve covered the literature related to your experimental question.  I am not interesting in Nobel Prize wining results, I am interested in how well you think through, and express to others, your study.   You will get semester-long feed back from me about this.  The Power Point presentation must also be given at the Psi Chi convention held by the department in the spring semester.  You must pledge that you will present your results at the convention.  The Psi Chi audience has found these animal studies very interesting.  It will mean getting together with your partner in the spring and reviewing your power point.  I’ll be glad to help you at that time.

3)   The final source of evaluation comes from a) how diligent you have been in taking care of your rat; b) how consistent you’ve been in daily experimentation; & c) how constructively you’ve commented during brainstorming sessions.  This last point can earn you some valuable points.

Points break down as follows:

Each of the five quizzes, covering 2 of the 10 chapters (leaving out chapters 1 and some of 6) , is worth a maximum of 7 points for a total of 35; 16 points for the presentations & blogs; 14 extra points, i.e., number 3 above; and 35 points possible for the Power point final.  The total points add up to 100.  Your total point score will be turned into a letter grade based on the plus-minus system outlined in the UMW catalog.


Quiz Dates: these quiz dates are approximations, indeed, the quizzes will be on-line and you will be taking them outside of class.  I will announce the exact dates and time available for these quizzes.

Quiz 1: 09/16/10

Quiz 2: 10/07/10

Quiz 3: 10/28/10

Quiz 4: 11/11/10

Quiz 5: 12/09/10

Laboratory Dates: (may be subject to some modifications):

08/31: Meet your rat

09/05: trick proposed illustrating principle of reinforcement – begin work

09/07: Instructs on how to use

09/19-23: trick presented in class and on

09/26-30: brainstorm experimental ideas

10/3-7: continue brainstorming

10/10-14: experimental proposals and to-scale drawings of apparatus must be ready and presented on

Brainstorming sessions for each research team takes place each week along with weekly entries.

10/19: experiments get underway – each team must get started

12/9: experimental projects completed

The final power point presentation due during final as scheduled.


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