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MMB8003 : The Biological Study of Behaviour

  • Offered for Year: 2020/21
  • Module Leader(s): Professor Daniel Nettle
  • Demonstrator: Professor Melissa Bateson
  • Lecturer: Dr Lucy Asher, Dr Tom Smulders
  • Owning School: FMS Graduate School
  • Teaching Location: Newcastle City Campus
Semester 1 Credit Value: 20
ECTS Credits: 10.0


This module aims to provide a thorough training in the skills and concepts required for the study of behaviour from a biological perspective. The concepts taught are equally applicable to students whose main interests are in human behaviour, and those whose main interests are in the behaviour of non-human animals. The module will also be of benefit to students who are likely to conduct behavioural assays with laboratory animals in the course of medical research. Students will gain an understanding of current research practices in behavioural science. They will also acquire skills in the use of mathematical models to predict behaviour, the recording and quantification of spontaneously occurring behaviour, the analysis of behavioural data and the design and conduct of behavioural experiments, and working with laboratory animals.

Outline Of Syllabus

The module consists of three four-week blocks. Each of these has content lectures and a practical, skills-based component embedded within it.

Block 1. The evolution of behaviour

This block deals with how we can measure and quantify behaviour. Students will be introduced to the major types of behavioural sampling and coding, including the use of technology to capture and record behaviour. The practical component will involve the student devising and performing a simple observational project, which they will report in their oral presentation.

Block 2. Experimental design for behaviour

In this block, we will explore different ways to address questions of animal behaviour under controlled conditions. This includes studies of animals in the laboratory, but also experimental manipulations of animals under more natural conditions. The teaching sessions will be interactive discussions between the students and the lecturer, exploring the issues involved in conducting experiments aimed at better understanding the mechanisms underlying a range of categories of behaviour. In addition, the students will carry out a research project on laboratory mice, exploring mice’s perception and memory of objects and their context. The students will be inducted into the CBC in week 5, and thereafter work in pairs with their animals as their schedule permits. The results of their projects will be the topic of the written in-course assessment.

Block 3. Analysing behavioural data

This block will look at how we analyse the data arising from behavioural studies, and how we relate empirical findings to theoretical predictions and interpret them. The practical component will be based on the data generated from the mouse practical in block 2. Students will be introduced to the R language for dealing with and plotting data.

Teaching Methods

Teaching Activities
Category Activity Number Length Student Hours Comment
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesLecture62:0012:00Two Hour Lectures
Guided Independent StudyAssessment preparation and completion140:0040:00Completion of observational project and presentation based on it
Guided Independent StudyAssessment preparation and completion140:0040:00Preparation and submission of mouse project
Guided Independent StudyAssessment preparation and completion120:0020:00Preparing notes from lectures,seminars and reading
Guided Independent StudyAssessment preparation and completion140:0040:00Revision and Preparation for Examinations
Guided Independent StudyAssessment preparation and completion120:0020:00Preparation and presentation of computer model
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesPractical62:0012:00Practically based classes
Guided Independent StudyReflective learning activity116:0016:00Additional Reading and Reflective Learning
Teaching Rationale And Relationship

The emphasis on practical exercises reflects the desirability at MRes level of imparting research skills rather than just knowledge of the literature. By intertwining the knowledge and skills components, we hope to engage students more deeply with a critical understanding of how the data in influential published studies are actually generated, and how the research question influences the choice of method.

Assessment Methods

The format of resits will be determined by the Board of Examiners

Description Length Semester When Set Percentage Comment
Written Examination601A60Unseen written exam, set by School
Other Assessment
Description Semester When Set Percentage Comment
Report1M20Report on mouse experiment
Report1M2015 minute oral presentation on observational study
Assessment Rationale And Relationship

The unseen written exam will feature problem-based questions tapping the student’s ability to think critically about research questions, and propose approaches to answering them (for example, by designing a hypothetical experiment). The in-course written report and oral presentation assess the key skill which we are seeking to develop of analyzing data and presenting results in a clear way to a broad scientific audience, using appropriate software and formats.

Reading Lists