Animal Minds :: Research Proposal

This writing assignment is to produce a research proposal that focuses on an aspect of animal behavior you would like to investigate via a focused series of experiments. You won’t actually do the experiments, but you’ll do the background research and experimental design that would normally precede the project. The first step of the assignment is to choose a specific cognitive process that interests you. You may use any of the topics listed on the syllabus, or with instructor permission, any topic that involves non-human animals and behavioral methods. Your assignment is to write a proposal that

Read this document carefully as it contains many important details.


Research proposals are an essential part of the process of scientific inquiry. Writing a proposal requires to you to transform your initial ideas and observations into a carefully designed, feasible project that will advance understanding in the field. You must consider all the relevant variables and devise a solid, replicable study that tests a specific hypothesis. The goal of the research proposal is to convince a funding agency that your project is worthy of financial support. Before they give you money, they want to know that

Although you will not actually conduct the research you propose, completing this project will enable you to

Road Map

Performing background research and choosing a research question

Before you begin writing your proposal, you must conduct considerable research to determine what studies have been done and what questions remain unanswered. You should consult textbooks, review articles, research articles, and popular science writing. As you read, write down general questions about the concepts, methods, and implications of the studies. If you’re stuck, work through Tinbergen’s four questions. Use these general questions to guide further literature searches.

Once you’re familiar with a number of sources, formulate a novel, specific research question. There is no set formula for generating research questions, but some basic approaches are:

  1. extending research findings to another situation or another population. Example: based on experiments demonstrating that blue jays remember the locations where they cached different food items, you propose a study to test whether chipmunks show similar ability. This approach won’t get you many points on the assignment unless you can make a careful argument as to why this situation or species is particularly worthy of study.

  2. repeating a study with additional controls. Example: early experiments on divided attention failed to control for generalization decrement, so their results were not conclusive. You propose an experiment to address the same question using symbolic matching, which controls for this issue. The success of this kind of proposal lies in identifying the flaws in the earlier study.

  3. resolving apparent contradictions is an excellent basis for novel research. Sometimes two experiments that appear to contradict each other are so different that they can’t really be compared. An example is the large difference in retention interval for delayed match-to-sample tasks compared to radial mazes. One significant difference between these studies is the relative richness of the cues, so you might test whether picture stimuli show longer retention intervals than colored discs in a delayed match-to-sample task.

  4. You can also generate good research questions by combining multiple studies to predict a further result. This kind of research question will yield the best proposals and as a result will tend to score the highest. For example, Gibson and Walk (1956) discovered that pre-exposing rats to visual stimuli in their home cage led to faster learning of a discrimination task. In contrast, many previous studies demonstrated that pre-exposure reduces associability. These two observations lead to the hypothesis that pre-exposure will decrease associability and increase discrimination in the same animals.

It cannot be emphasized enough how important it is that your research question be specific. “Do animals learn behaviors by watching each other?” is a good general question, but it’s not clear how you plan to test this. In contrast, “Do subordinate chimpanzees preferentially copy behaviors of dominant troupe members?” makes it clear what your study species is and what your experimental variables are (copying and social status of model).

Please Note: your research question must be novel. You will not receive any credit for a proposal that simply repeats a previously published study without making some significant improvement or extension or without explaining how the improvement is necessary to move the field forward. If you are in any doubt about whether your study is novel, please consult your instructor.

Designing the experiment(s)

A clear, specific question already contains a sketch of how you will test it. The next step is to fill in the details. Some key concerns your experiment needs to address:

Ultimately, the merit of an experiment lies in how clearly the results support the hypothesis. Thus, in evaluating your own experimental design, it is critical to consider what the possible outcomes are and how you would interpret them. If there are some outcomes that have an ambiguous interpretation, you need to add additional controls or address the question another way. You may propose multiple experiments to test different predictions of your hypothesis; this approach is especially powerful because it is less likely that independent experiments with different designs will share the same kinds of errors.

Your library research should continue as you devise your methods and interpret possible outcomes. You should be familiar with how the experiments you propose are carried out in other studies.

Writing the proposal

Your research proposal will have four main sections. Each should be indicated by a bold heading. The sections, with suggested page lengths, are as follows:

Background and Research Question (1-2 pages): This section accomplishes two major goals, in the following order: (1) discuss research from previous studies to inform the reader about the current understanding of the topic, and (2) present your study’s overarching goals and specific research question. To accomplish these goals, you need to:

Note: it is acceptable to use the first person in scientific writing. For example, you can write, “I hypothesize that…”

Approach (2 pages): In this section, you will describe your experiment(s) in detail. In other words, you need to describe what data you need to address your hypothesis, and how you will go about gathering that detail. This is the meat of the proposal, and it is what readers will use to evaluate whether you have carefully considered your design, possible outcomes, and potential pitfalls. Stay focused on the big picture (i.e. the why rather than the how), but describe the research in sufficient detail that someone else who knows the field could conduct it. You will also need to explain how you plan to analyze your data.

You may choose to subdivide this section using subheadings (e.g. Study Group, Experimental Protocol). You may use visual aids to help explain your experimental design, but these should be relatively small.

Note: This section should be written in the future tense, as you have not yet completed the research.

Potential Outcomes and Implications (1 page): This section serves two purposes, which you should address in the following order: (1) describe the possible results of your experiment and explain how you will interpret the results in light of your question. You cannot assume that your experiments will work the way you planned, so it’s important to demonstrate that you have given some thought to what alternative outcomes might occur. This includes negative results that don’t confirm your hypothesis. Ideally, you can learn something from both positive and negative results. (2) describe the implications of your study for the field, for the treatment of disease, and/or for society at large. This last point does not need to be too extensive (a paragraph is plenty), but it should be clear that you understand how your project would fit into broader human efforts towards knowledge, health, and well-being.

Note: this section will be predominantly in future tense, as you will be considering possible outcomes and contributions

Literature Cited: You must reference at least 8 sources in your proposal. Sources must be cited in the text and listed in this section in APA style. Your citation and reference format must be consistent. Only academic sources are acceptable for this assignment (articles from peer-reviewed journals or book chapters from edited volumes).

The details

The proposal should be 5-6 double-spaced pages with 1-inch margins, using a 12-point serifed font (e.g., Times New Roman). References may extend onto additional pages as needed. Put your name, computing ID, date, and the title of your project at the top of the first page. Number all pages. Export your document as a PDF and upload it to the appropriate Collab Assignment.

You must use at least 8 academic sources for this paper. You may consult web pages, popular magazine and newspaper articles, and video sources in your research, but only peer-reviewed journal articles and edited book chapters (not textbook chapters) are acceptable references. If you have questions about whether a source is appropriate, please check with the instructor or a TA. All sources must be cited properly within the paper AND in the Literature Cited section.


Your grade will be based on your final submitted paper and on two brief “check-in” assignments, which are designed to help you get you pointed in the right direction and stay on schedule.

Proposal question draft (10 pts)

Due 10/21: Submit one paragraph describing the cognitive process you’re interested in writing about and the specific question you’re considering examining. Provide details on your study species and overall experimental design. You will receive feedback on your choice. If there are problems with your research question, you may be asked to resubmit. This part of the assignment must be completed on your own.

Peer report (10 pts)

Due 11/11: Before this date, meet in groups of 3-4 to discuss your topic, research question, and experimental design. Before meeting, you will need to have completed a literature search and draft outlines for your background and research plan. Ask questions about each others’ proposals and discuss areas where you feel you may get stuck. By the due date, submit one paragraph describing:

Giving and receiving aid in this part of the assignment is allowed and encouraged, but each person must write her or his own report.

Final paper (70 pts)

The final paper is due Friday 12/6 at 5 pm. Your grade will be based on the following rubric:

  1. Background and research question (20 pts)
    1. Topic is relevant to animal behavior
    2. Terms, concepts, and theories are clearly defined and used consistently
    3. Background concisely summarizes state of field
    4. Background introduces and supports research question
    5. Research question is clear, concise, and specific
  2. Methodology (20 pts)
    1. Proposed experiments are clearly described
      1. Study species and sample size
      2. Treatments
      3. Controls
      4. Measurements
    2. Experiments address research question
    3. Experiments are feasible
  3. Potential outcomes and broader implications (15 pts)
    1. Positive and negative results both considered
    2. Possible confounds or limitations described
    3. Broader implications for field considered
  4. General (15 pts)
    1. At least 8 references cited in text and Literature Cited section
    2. Proper formatting of text, references, headings.
    3. Proofreading

Getting Help

The research proposal may be an unfamiliar writing form for many of you. It requires library research, creative thinking, and detailed, clear explanations. You should expect to go through several rounds of revision as you refine your ideas into specific experiments. You may find that there are significant problems with the experiments you originally envisioned. This is a normal part of the process; you will use these initial attempts to refine your ideas.

You will not be able to complete this assignment at the last minute. Seek feedback early and often. You have many resources at your disposal. Working with your peers is encouraged and is not an honor offense as long as your final work is your own. Contact your TAs and instructor with questions.

Model proposals

Example proposals are posted to Collab for you to use as models for experiment design, writing style, and the overall form of a research proposal. The specific sections and headings are different for some of these models, but the general goals are the same.

Literature research

You will need to use search tools like PubMed and Google Scholar to find peer-reviewed and edited sources in your research. You can also find many texts on animal behavior at the UVa Library. All of these tools allow you to search with combinations of keywords, date restrictions, and other approaches that will let you narrow your focus and find the most relevant articles.

Important: You must read the full text of any article you cite. Many journals require a subscription to access the full text online. The University Library maintains subscriptions to a large number of journals, and you should be able to download almost every article you need from on Grounds. If you need to access journals from off-Grounds, you will have to use the UVa Proxy Server following the instructions at Finally, some articles from old editions and more obscure journals may not be available online, but can be requested through Interlibrary Loan. Follow links on the library website or ask a librarian for help.

If you’re not familiar with the many resources the UVa Library has for help with source research, now is the time to learn! You can talk to a reference librarian or set up an appointment with the Life Sciences subject librarian.


The College also has many resources to help you communicate effectively in writing. The UVA Writing Center is staffed with graduate students who can help you at any stage of the process, from structuring to drafting to revision. Some of the tutors are trained for ESL.


This assignment is partially adapted from a writing prompt by Lindsey Smith (Duke U) for a writing course on primate cognition.