Animals in the classroom: Using animals to teach comparative psychology

Associate Professor of Psychology Julia Meyers-Manor published an article, Animal Farm: Using Common Domestic Animals to Teach about Comparative Psychology, in the International Journal of Comparative Psychology.

The special issue focused on novel teaching methods for comparative psychology and the kinds of comparative psychology experiments that can be done in classes worldwide.

Meyers-Manor writes about how she incorporates hands-on testing of animals in her course Inside the Animal Mind. This gives students the opportunity to see the behaviors of animals in person and apply the concepts learned in the classroom. Students love the chance to test live animals and to see how animals think, Meyers-Manor writes.

Classes have tested both Meyers-Manor’s own pets as well as pets from the local alpaca ranch Workin Together Alpacas. They tested each animal’s ability to follow a human pointing gesture. The test explores whether animals can understand human communication and intentions.

One of the questions that researchers have about the pointing gesture is whether animals’ abilities to follow it are due to experience or genetics, Meyers-Manor says. By testing a variety of species, including dogs, cats, chickens and alpacas, students explore whether animals that differ in how closely they interact with humans also show differences in their ability to understand human gestures. For example, dogs and cats follow pointing much more readily than alpacas and chickens do.

Working directly with the animals is always a highlight of the class for the students, Meyers-Manor says, and simple animal experiments could be incorporated into the teaching of courses in other subject areas.


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