— version 2015-08-25
COGS Q101 — Introduction to Cognitive Science — Fall 2015
Meeting times and locations: Jordan Hall A100 Tu-Th 5:45-6:35; F discussion sections as enrolled
More info at
Colin Allen, Professor, Dept. of History & Philosophy of Science and Program in Cognitive Science
Office hours, Mondays noon-1 PM and Tuesdays 4-5 PM in Goodbody 113
Asst. Instructor
Kim Simmons, PhD Student, Program in Cognitive Science
Office hours, 11 AM - 12 PM Wednesdays and 4-5 PM Thursdays in Lindley Hall 330I

Cognitive Science is the study of how minds work. Cognitive scientists come together from many different research areas to engage in an interdisciplinary attack on the nature of intelligence, memory, attention, imagery, language, reasoning and perception. One way to see why studying mind is a difficult problem is to consider that in virtually every other discipline we use our minds to study something else. In cognitive science the mind is studying itself; we have to use our own thought processes to study those processes. Because this is such a difficult endeavor, we come at the problem from multiple directions, which is why cognitive science spans psychology, neuroscience, computer science, logic, philosophy, mathematics, sociology, anthropology, behavioral economics, robotics, linguistics, and animal learning (to mention just a few of the areas involved). This course will provide you with an overview of the tools and theories that bring these different areas together and provides a common framework for sharing data across disciplines. You will be introduced to some important and some intriguing results obtained so far, and begin to understand how cognitive scientists discover the laws, models, and mechanisms that allow them to explain how complex minds produce complex behavior.

By the end of the course, you should have gained important new insights into what you are and how you work!

Course Objectives

This course satisfies a University General Education requirement in Natural & Mathematical Sciences. The expected learning outcomes of the course include:

  1. an understanding of the broad range of methods for scientific inquiry used by cognitive scientists, and the role of cognitive science in developing the technologies behind artificial intelligence and robotics, and of the foundational concepts those technologies provide back to cognitive science;
  2. an understanding of how cognitive scientists use mathematical and computational models to integrate findings from psychology, linguistics, and neuroscience, how the models relate cognitive information processing to the hardware and "wetware" of artificial machines and biological brains, and how the fact that brains are embodied in organisms that are embedded in social and physical environments is important for understanding the evolution and development of complex cognition;
  3. the ability to interpret experimental data, and to think critically about the ways in which scientific results and their philosophical and practical implications are presented in both academic journals and in news media for the general public.

Along the way, in addition to learning some of the theories, methods, and results in cognitive science (and some quirks of human cognition!), you will also get a sampling of some of the specific research going on in our very own world-class Cognitive Science Program at IU, and you will be introduced to the intellectual and historical context which makes the IU-Cog-Sci view of the world distinctive.


Because every introductory cognitive science textbook tends to be biased towards its author's home discipline, I prefer to use a set of readings drawn from many different sources. These will be made available to you through the course Canvas site.

Many of the readings come from the primary research literature in cognitive science. This is a good thing, since they will help to capture the vitality and excitement of scientific discovery. (Some of this work hasn't yet filtered into textbooks.) These readings may also be challenging, and they will often use terms and refer to ideas with which you are unfamiliar. Don’t be discouraged by this! Though the readings have been chosen to be accessible, we don’t expect you to fully understand everything in them. That is why the readings come with instructors whose job it is to help you understand the difficult bits. You can help us help you by diligently doing the readings (see also the grading basis) and coming to class ready to ask questions.

Overall, we think you’ll get more out of reading the primary literature in this way than by reading the watered-down and less exciting secondary literature, although some home-grown secondary material is included to help provide background.

Attendance policy

This is not grade school, so attendance will not be officially enforced. However, some materials collected from classroom activities will be used to track your attendance, and because there is no text book and no official lecture notes, you will need to come to class to learn the material. You cannot expect to do well without coming to class. In all cases of absence, excused or unexcused, it is your responsibility to get missed notes and information from a classmate. Examinations will not be limited only to material from the readings, but will also cover concepts discussed in the classroom at both the main lectures and discussion sections.

A note about presentation slides: I will sometimes use presentation slides for class, sometimes not — some material lends it better to more structured presentation, some lends itself to a more free-flowing Q&A driven classroom style. When I do use slides, they will be made available through Canvas after class, but they will not reflect the full content of the lecture that day. So you may use them for later study, but they are not a substitute for attendance.

You may request to make up for missed exams or other assignments only for University-recognized officially excused absences:
• For predictable absences due to competitive events, required activities in other classes, etc., documentation must be provided at least two weeks prior to the absence.
• For genuine emergencies, illnesses, or deaths in the family, written documentation must be provided when you return to class.
• Accommodation for religious observances will be handled according to the official policy. (Note that the form must be submitted by the student by the end of the second week of the semester.)

Study habits

A load of 12 credit hours is officially defined as full time, but you are expected to maintain a 15 hr schedule each semester for a 4-year degree plan. A full time work week is 40 hrs, which averages to just under 3 hrs per week per credit. (If you take an overload, then it is your responsibility to do the overtime!) For a 3-credit course, 150 minutes are spent in the classroom, which means typically two to three times that much should be spent outside studying and carrying out course assignments. Individual study effectiveness varies, and you may need (or hopefully want!) to do more than the minimum to do well in the course. And, of course, the amount of reward you get out of your education is a function of how much effort you put in.

For this course you should estimate about 40% of your outside of classroom time will be devoted to the assigned readings, 20% to independent reading and research, and 40% to carrying out assignments or studying for tests (this last category will have the highest variation from week to week).

IU offers excellent help with academic skill development through courses for credit and free workshops provided by the Student Academic Center. Whether you are struggling with specific deadlines, or simply wanting to improve your general skills, the Center has something to offer.

For those of you new to IU (and even for some that aren't) this guide to making the transition to College from SMU will help you understand my expectations. Regardless of where you are in your College experience, you should be interested in this NY Times article on the cognitive science of learning.

Grading Basis

  1. (20%) Responses to Reading
    To get the most out of this course, it is essential that you carefully and critically study the readings associated with each lecture. The main readings are accompanied by overview documents that are intended to help you with some of the concepts and terminology you will encounter in the main reading. These overviews are not substitutes for the main reading -- they do not attempt to summarize the main readings, and in fact they are designed to be quite generic so that they would help you to read any article in the same sub-area of cognitive science. To encourage you to carefully and critically study the readings, and to give the instructor feedback as to what you thought of the supplementary material, you will be asked to provide comments on the readings for each class. You will be required to submit these comments via Canvas no later than noon on the day of the class in which that reading will be discussed. These should take no longer than 15 minutes to complete after you have read the material. The questions due for each class will be assigned at the end of the previous class. We will use these comments to gauge your reactions to (and understanding of) the ideas we’ll discuss, and will occasionally use part of the classroom time to respond to some of the issues you raise in these comments, as well as working them into the weekly discussion sections. Note that a significant portion of your grade (20%) will be based on simply completing these assignments, and that late submissions will not be counted for any reason except documented medical emergencies. These will be graded on a pass/fail (1/0) basis and for full credit you need to have 20 passes from the 23 opportunities during the semester (i.e. you can omit 3).
  2. (45%) Two Exams
    45% of your course grade will be determined by two examinations. The first exam will be on Tuesday, October 13 and will cover material from August 25 through October 7. The second exam will be held according to the official schedule,on Tuesday, December 15, from 7:15 p.m. to 9:15 p.m. and will cover material from the entire course, but with more questions about the second half. The exam on which you do the best will count for 25% of your grade; the other will count for 20%. Each exam will consist of some multiple choice questions and a writing prompt. Make-up exams will be given only in exceptional circumstances with a full university excused absence; the make up exam will also be different in content and possibly format from the original exam. No early exams will be given, so make your travel plans accordingly. To do well on these exams, you’ll need to attend the lectures and discussion sections. Readings and lectures will rarely overlap by more than ~ 25%, but you will be examined on either.
  3. (15%) Questions on PeerWise
  4. This semester we will be using PeerWise as a place for you to create, share and evaluate assessment questions with your classmates. Start by visiting PeerWise here: You will need to create an account (if you haven't used it before) and then log in and then select "Join course" from the Home menu. To access our course, "COGS Q101 Fall2015", you will need to enter two pieces of information:
    1. Course ID = 11630
    2. Identifier = Please enter your IU username (the part before "@" in your IU email address) for this course. (Note that your Identifier for the course is not necessarily the same as the PeerWise username you created, unless, of course, you made it so.)
    More details on how you will be using this tool will be given in discussion sections.
  5. (20%) Short Paper You will be write one short (3-5 page) paper for this course, on an assigned topic which is discussed further below in this syllabus. On or before Friday Nov 13 you must submit a paper proposal. After the proposal is approved, the paper is due by Sunday, December 6th just before the last week of class.
  6. (+5%) Class participationSome of the activities during main lecture and discussion sections will entail you turning in a piece of paper or index card. These will be aggregated during the semester and assessed at the end of the semester according to your engagement with the classroom activities.


Note: Readings and topics are only definite 3 weeks before the date. All readings will be made available via Canvas (login required).

Paper topic

  1. General description of the assignment: We define the "internal (methodological) validity" of a scientific study in terms of how well it was designed to test the researcher's hypothesis; i.e., did it use appropriate methods and correct logical and statistical analysis? We define the "external (ecological) validity" of a scientific study as its relationship to the world outside the lab; i.e., both (a) do the study findings seem important "in the real world"?, and (b) did the stimuli or tasks used in the study adequately represent conditions outside the laboratory; e.g., if studying student learning, was the task used in the experiment similar enough to what students encounter in classrooms to make the findings generalizable to real classrooms. In this short (3-5 page) paper, you’ll discuss the internal/methodological and external/ecological validity of a part of cognitive science, and compare an actual scientific report with its presentation in the news media.
  2. Materials [Describe and provide copies or links for Paper proposal due Nov 13]: Choose any recent (past 10 years) example of peer-reviewed cognitive science research which also received press coverage in a major newspaper or magazine -- e.g.: The New York Times, The Guardian, Scientific American, Discover Magazine, and Wired. [You may pick an example covered in class, or find something else. See a list of IU cognitive scientists in the news for locally-relevant stories. You may also want to follow @sciammind or similar.]
  3. Full Paper Structure: Write a short (3-5 page, double-spaced) paper in which you:
    (a) summarize, in your own words, the main point, methods, and results of the research as reported in the original scientific article (internal/methodological validity);
    (b) describe how this research was presented in one or more of the journalistic treatments (did they report it accurately? did they use language and concepts not in the original?) (journalistic accuracy);
    (c) say whether the journalistic presentation and the scientific presentation covered external/ecological validity of the research, and if so, how (comparison);
    (d) give your own assessment of the external/ecological validity of this research (critical evaluation);
    (e) discuss what you would say to someone who disagrees with your assessment of the external/ecological validity of the study — i.e., play ‘devil’s advocate’ to generate arguments for alternative views to your own, and then try to counter them (self-critical analysis).
Statement about Academic Misconduct

University rules concerning academic misconduct will be rigorously enforced in this class. See IU Code of Ethics, Part II for details. You will also be required to review materials and take the test at IU School of Education plagiarism tutorial. The College of Arts and Sciences also provides a guide to "Academic Integrity at IU"

Statement for Students with Disabilities

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a Federal anti-discrimination statute that provides comprehensive civil rights protection for persons with disabilities. Among other things, this legislation requires that all students with disabilities be guaranteed a learning environment that provides for reasonable accommodation of their disabilities. If you believe you have a disability requiring an accommodation, please contact IU Disability Services for Students.


Portions of this syllabus are adapted with permission from Prof. Brian Scholl's Introduction to Cognitive Science syllabus at Yale University.