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Neuroscience and Cognitive Science - Undergraduate Program


The undergraduate program in Neuroscience and Cognitive Science (NSCS) resides in the College of Science, in the School of Mind, Brain and Behavior.  It has two parts: a lower-division pre-major and an upper-division major. 

Coursework in the upper-division portion of the curriculum is divided into a set of core courses designed to provide students with a robust foundation in the principles, concepts, and technologies essential in neuroscience and cognitive science. Two methods courses are included in the core group so that students study not only the outcomes of research but also the methods commonly used in research in neuroscience and cognitive science. Students also choose a track, the cognitive-science track or the neuroscience track, which deepens their understanding of ideas and approaches used in studying the nervous system from one of the two perspectives.  Electives in the major are organized into 6 major topic areas to allow students to customize the program to their own interests and delve deeply into a specific topic.  Each topic area is associated with a menu of courses from which students choose, including research credits. Ethics, professionalism, critical thinking, and both writing and presentation skills are considered essential elements of the program and are addressed throughout the curriculum.

Coursework in the lower division is considered preparatory, providing students with the life-science, mathematics, and psychology foundation necessary to support study of the nervous system – both mind and brain. Admission to the major is competitive and requires, at minimum, a grade of B in NSCS 200, Fundamentals of Neuroscience and Cognitive Science, and an average GPA of at least 2.5 calculated across Chemistry, Biology, Statistics, PSY 101, PHIL 241, an Calculus. The admission process includes several short essays and may include an interview with one or more members of the NSCS Undergraduate Studies Committee.

The NSCS program also has three associated student organizations:  the NSCS Association of Students, which is a student-led organization whose mission is to spread awareness of neuroscience and cognitive science to the UA student body and to the greater Tucson community; Nu Rho Psi - Alpha in Arizona, a chapter of the national neuroscience honorary organization; and the NSCS Ambassadors, student representatives of the NSCS program who act as liaisons of the program to the University of Arizona and Tucson community. Together, these organizations are key components of the NSCS community. 

Expected Learning Outcomes: 

The design of the NSCS major reflects a tiered and customizable approach.  Students develop proficiency in the fundamental concepts of neuroscience and cognitive science in the core courses and enhance their competency in emphasis courses.  The overarching goal is to provide graduates with a breadth and depth of understanding about the field of neuroscience and cognitive science that will render them well qualified for admission to graduate or professional schools such as medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine, nursing, pharmacology, psychology, and related fields, or to be competitive for positions in a variety of health-related industries, in middle school, high school and adult education, and in disciplines that increasingly require understanding of biology and biotechnology, including law, policy-making and business.

A. Learning outcomes related to core knowledge-specific content

Students will develop a firm understanding of the theories, fundamental principles and concepts, and technologies of brain organization and function from both neuroscience and cognitive science perspectives. 

  • Foundation, core and upper-division core courses will provide the theoretical and conceptual knowledge and the technological skills that form the basis of the field of Neuroscience and Cognitive Science
  • Each course in the core builds on pre-requisite courses and on lower-level courses in the curriculum.  Concepts are explored in greater depth at each level and course discussions, exams, and projects require increasing levels of knowledge, culminating at the upper-division level in assignments and exams that require synthesis, integration, critical evaluation, and experimental design.  Assessment is primarily by direct, course-specific measures designed by the instructors but also includes pre- and post-program exams.

B. Learning outcomes related to scientific inquiry

Students will develop the capacity to think critically and with cognitive flexibility about complex problems involving the brain and mind, and will develop the capacity to skillfully communicate concepts and research results to professionals and to the public.

  • Students will acquire a solid foundation of content knowledge about the nervous system and cognitive processes through core courses; these courses will address the distinction between popular beliefs about the brain and mind and what can be concluded on the basis of current scientific knowledge.
  • Upper-division core and elective courses will introduce students to current research issues, and course assignments will require critical analysis of situations and research, in both written and oral formats, and including statistical analyses.  Assessment is accomplished primarily through direct measures as developed by course instructors.
  • Students are strongly encouraged to take on a project in a research lab or to complete independent studies/directed research with faculty, and to present their work in one of several forums (eg., UBRP poster sessions, NSCS research presentations, lab meetings, professional meetings.)    

C. Learning outcome related to ethics and professionalism

Students will apply ethical and professional standards to their evaluation of brain and mind-related research and technical development in the context of their own work and in the context of issues in the larger societal community.

  • Course-work throughout the curriculum will include discussion of ethics and science policy questions relevant to the course topic; assessment is accomplished primarily through direct measures as developed by course instructors.
  • Students are required to attend ethics and science policy seminars.


For each of the 3 program outcomes above, we have developed several sub-outcomes that describe more specifically the knowledge, skills and behaviors that we expect our students to achieve.  For each sub-outcome, the course(s) in which the outcome is addressed are listed, those in bold indicating that the outcome is a major focus.  The assessment activities for each course are shown in Table 1 under Assessment Activities.

A. Core knowledge-specific content.  All NSCS students will be able to:

A.1) Describe the general organization of the brain and its relation to physiological and cognitive processes.  Explain the fundamental principles of anatomical and functional organization of neuronal circuits and networks underlying the complex capacities of the mind.  Analyze the inputs, outputs, and processes of the mind from different perspectives, including genetics, molecular and cellular mechanisms, systems-level and cognitive modes of processing, environmental or contextual considerations, and modeling.
(NSCS 200, NROS 307, NSCS 315B)

A.2) Explain, including diagrams, the basic molecular and cellular mechanisms underlying neural excitability and synaptic physiology. Predict the consequences of disrupting various elements of the underlying mechanisms.
(NSCS 200, NROS 307, NROS 315B)

A.3) List and explain several common principles of sensory processing across modalities.  Describe the basic features of the motor system and explain how sensory-motor signaling operates.
(NSCS 200, NROS 307)

A.4) List and provide a basic explanation of the major foundations of cognitive science, including representation, computation, and functional analysis.  Define the levels of explanation and explain the relationships between higher level and lower level explanations.  Give examples.
(NSCS 200, NSCS 320, NSCS 315A)

A.5) Give an overview of the concept of cognitive architecture and define the terms: modularity, domain specificity, distributed networks and central systems, and give examples.
(NSCS 200, NSCS 320, NSCS 315A)

A.6) Summarize contemporary understanding of the biological bases of and the cognitive processes underlying behavior, including sensation, perception, language, attention, learning, memory, and action.
(NSCS 200, NROS 307, NSCS 315A, NSCS 320)

A.7) Describe the basic cognitive processes and the primary circuitry involved in language, decision-making, thinking/reasoning, motivation, emotion, and consciousness.  Give examples of normal range of cognitive, emotional and behavioral variability over the lifespan.
(NSCS 200, NSCS 315A, NSCS 320)

A.8) Using an evolutionary perspective, outline evolutionary principles that support use of animal model systems and explain how innate/genetic factors and environment/experience are understood to interact in development.  Explain the relationship between molecular genetics and epigenetics and provide examples.
(NSCS 200,  NROS 307)

A.9) List the basic steps in establishing the wiring plan of the nervous system, including common molecular signaling pathways. Differentiate activity-independent and -dependent steps.
(NSCS 200)

A.10) Describe the cognitive, genetic, molecular and cellular bases of several common diseases and disorders of the nervous system.  Discriminate among these disorders in terms of their presentation and include the clinical tools typically used in diagnosis.
(NSCS 200, NSCS 307, NSCS 320)

A.11) At a basic level, explain the common methodologies and experimental designs used in research in neuroscience and cognitive science.  Evaluate the soundness of the methodological design of descriptive, correlational, and experimental research.  Design, interpret, and evaluate simple cognitive, behavioral and cellular experiments.  Synthesize research findings from the neuroscience and cognitive science literature in the evaluation of questions surrounding the neurophysiology, mind/brain or information processing.  Explain how the study of atypical cases, either natural or accidental, has greatly enhanced our knowledge about mind-brain interactions.
(NSCS 200, NSCS 307, NSCS 315A, NSCS 315B, NSCS 320, upper-division courses)

Core knowledge-specific content for Cognitive-Science (CS) track students

CS.12)  Illustrate the complex relationship between mental faculties and brain structure, providing examples and comparing in several brain structures of how critical features of cognitive architecture, including modularity, domain specificity, distributed networks and central systems are organized.
(NSCS 320,  PSYC 325, and course selections from Philosophy and Cognitive Psychology menus)

CS.13)  Describe the major principles of computational modeling, and compare and give an example of each of the following kinds of models: logic-based models, connectionist models, and Bayesian models.
(NSCS 320, PSYC 325, course selection from Computational Methods menu, and course selection from Philosophy, Linguistics and Cognitive Psychology menus)

CS.14)  Explain how perception of the world works and how the brain interprets the world from limited inputs and prior knowledge; construct examples.
(PSYC 325, course selections from the Cognitive Psychology menu, course selections from the Philosophy and Computational Methods menus)

CS.15)  Describe, providing examples, how cognitive function changes during development and during aging; apply poverty-of-the-stimulus arguments to cognitive development.
(NSCS 320, PSYC 325, course selection from the Cognitive Psychology menu, course selections from the Philosophy and Linguistics menus)

CS.16)  Explain what language is and explain the mechanisms underlying its acquisition. Analyze language samples, indicating examples of syntactic structure, word segmentation, recursion, language processing, word recognition, and indicating level of language acquisition.
(NSCS 320, PSYC 325, course selection from Linguistics menu, course selections from the Philosophy, Cognitive Psychology and Computational Methods menus)

CS.17)  Summarize what is currently understood about the cognitive processes involved in decision making, reasoning, moral judgment and action.
(PSYC 325, course selection from the Philosophy menu, course selection from the Cognitive Psychology menu)

Core knowledge-specific content for Neuroscience-track (NS) students

NS.12)   Describe the basic processes by which macromolecules are assembled and used to carry out common cellular processes (e.g. molecular genetics, signal transduction, second-messenger pathways, organelle assembly, cell division, cytoskeleton) as used in neurons and glial cells. Design an experiment to test involvement of various pathways in a particular process in neurons or glial cells.
(NROS 310)

NS.13)   Explain how neurons detect and process sensory information, including receptor function, transduction processes, and conduction properties.  Compare and contrast these processes in various sensory modalities.
(NROS 310, PSIO 465)

NS.14)   Describe the anatomical organization (include diagrams) and functional properties of the somatosensory, visual, auditory/vestibular and olfactory and taste systems.
(PSIO 465)

NS.15)   Describe the anatomical organization (include diagrams) and network function of the circuits responsible for emotion and arousal.
(PSIO 465)

NS.16)   Explain how motor behaviors are generated, including the basic anatomy of reflex and descending motor pathways, central pattern generators, and regulation of motor activity by higher order circuits in the brain.
(PSIO 465)

NS.17)  For any of the pathways in NS.14-16, predict the consequences of lesions within those pathways.
(PSIO 465)

NS.18)   Explain the major mechanisms understood to underlie cortical plasticity. Use an example to illustrate at least two mechanisms.
(NROS 310)

B. Scientific inquiry. All NSCS students will be able to:

B.1)   Think critically about complex problems involving the brain and the mind.
(NSCS 200, NROS 307, NSCSS 315A, NSCS 315B, NSCS 320, all upper-division courses)

B.2)   Develop strategies to solve complex problems creatively and with cognitive flexibility.
(NROS 307, NSCS 315A, NSCS 315B, NSCS 320; also research opportunities, all upper-division courses)

B.3)   Engage in self-initiated learning and discovery.
(All courses, especially upper division ones; also research opportunities)

B.4)   Read and critically evaluate both formal scientific literature and scientific results disseminated through the mass media.
(NSCS 315A, NSCS 315B, all upper division courses including elective courses)

B.5)   Effectively communicate (orally, written or electronic) the principles and concepts of biological and cognitive sciences to other scientists and to the public.
(NSCS 315A, NSCS 315B, all upper-division courses including elective courses)

B.6)   Analyze quantitative data, showing an understanding of fundamental concepts of statistics and computational approaches to data analysis.
(Pre-requisite statistics course, all upper-division courses, including elective courses)

C.  Ethics and Professionalism. All NSCS students will be able to:

C.1)   Apply ethical and professional standards to their own practice of research and to their evaluation of cases/situations.  

  • Students must complete the online course in principles of scientific research, including with human participants, as part of their NSCS 315B course requirement.
  • Students must attend an annual seminar on ethical issues.
  • All courses address ethical and professional issues that arise in their content or discussions.

C.2)   Articulate the complex interrelationship among science, technology, and society.

  • Students must attend an annual seminar on science policy.
  • Students will read a guide to the structure of the science-policy making enterprise in the US and must pass a short exam about the interrelationships among these elements.
Assessment Activities: 

Assessment activities

Mapping the learnin outcomes to NSCS courses. Each of the learning outcomes has been mapped to particular required courses within the curriculum. Table 1 shows the outcomes for each course.  Tables 2 and 3 specify the assessment activities that are used to determine how well the students meet each of the outcomes.  

Table 1. 

Table 2. The courses listed here are the core required courses in the NSCS major, including NSCS 200 which is required for admission to the major.

NSCS 200 – Fundamentals in Neuroscience and Cognitive Science
NROS 307 – Cellular Neurophysiology
NSCS 315A – Methods in Cognitive Science
NSCS 315B – Methods in Neuroscience
NSCS 320 – Issues in Cognitive Science

Table 3. The courses listed here are either required in the Cognitive Science Track or the Neuroscience Track, or are courses specifically designed for students in the major. Most of these fall in one of the emphases.



Program-level assessent

We use an array of assessmen tools to assess how well the NSCS currulum servs its students in reaching the student learning outcomes set out above. We have incorporated into the discussion below some of the findings from our initial efforts in outcomes assessment.  We cannot yet attribute a great deal of weight to some of the assessments so the data serve mainly as a reflection of our progress on the task rather than a strong measure of actual student outcomes. 


Student surveys


We regularly survey our students at the end of each year, with surveys specific for pre-majors, majors, graduating students, and alumni. While these surveys provide feedback on a number of fronts, including advising, engagement and the like, we specifically ask for feedback on how well individual required courses have prepared them for higher level classes and how well specific courses have helped them to achieve the program's learning outcomes.


Faculty surveys.


Every few years, we ask the faculty for feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of the program and for adequacy of student preparations from prior required courses.  Their responses are summarized and used in faculty workshops, program evaluation sessions, and in regular curriculum-committee meetings as the base for discussion of items, concerns or issues that need to be addressed in either the short or the long term.


Pre- and post-test assessment


We conduct a pre- and post-program outcome assessment exam.  The pre-test is a multiple choice test with questions written for each outcome by the faculty member in whose core course a given outcome is most strongly addressed.  The test is given during the first week of the first core course in the program, NSCS 200: Fundamental of Neuroscience and Cognitive Science, a course that is required for admission to the major. The post-test is given during the final semester before graduation. Both the pre- and the post-test were first given in 2016.  The latter will allow us a between-subject analysis of student achievement; the former will allow a within-subject design once those students reach their graduation semester.

Informal student input.

We periodically bring together members of the three student organizations associated with the NSCS program: Nu Rho Psi (a National Neuroscience Honorary), the NSCS Association of Students, and the NSCS Ambassadors. These students help us to address specific issues that come up over the course of each year or provide input on curricular changes that we are considering. We also hold an annual retreat open to all students at the beginning of the spring semester and use part of this retreat to ask for input on both programmatic and curricular issues.

Faculty annual reviews

The NSCS Curriculum Committee meets twice each semester.  Its agenda always includes some aspect of assessment. In addition, there is an end-of-year review attended by the teaching and program-associated faculty and staff to review the status of the program and of our students' ability to achieve the program's learning outcomes. That review also includes the results of all of the surveys as well as any data acquired indirectly. We also hold a program-review workshop every 3 years that is attended by most, if not all, of the teaching faculty for the core courses in the program.  All other faculty teaching courses in the NSCS program are invited, and most come.

Use of this assessment plan

Our goals are to provide timely, accurate, useful and critical data needed to improve the program and to use the acquired data to create a plan that will have buy-in from the faculty and students and that will be sustainable.  Sustainability of the assessment effort is a critical element for us. We have a small core faculty for a program that is rapidly increasing in size and we also are not associated with a particular department but rather with the School of Mind Brain and Behavior in the College of Science.  With the exception of the faculty of the Department of Neuroscience, which has no undergraduate or graduate program of its own, the teaching faculty from the other School Departments (Psychology and Speech Language and Hearing Sciences) are generally primarily responsible for teaching in the undergraduate and graduate programs in their own departments. Thus, their teaching in the NSCS program often has required them to teach on overload or to have assignment to a course that can serve in both their home department and the NSCS program.



Assessment Findings: 

Changes in response to assessment findings are indicated in italics.

AY 2012/13

The small size of the initial graduating class (2013) made it possible for the faculty members of the Curriculum Committee to design an exit interview focused on the knowledge-specific outcomes.  The interviews were carried out by the Curriculum Committee members and additional faculty, with each interview lasting about 30 minutes.  There was no consequence to the students, but even taking into account that some students clearly were not highly motivated, the interviews revealed gaps in the students’ knowledge.  This information was summarized and conveyed to the teaching faculty, who made small changes in their courses; because the number of students was small, and because the curriculum was changed for future classes to have two tracks, it was decided to wait and re-assess before making major changes.

Spring 2013: 3-year review

The 3rd-year review revealed a number of areas of concern.  Changes relevant to the learning outcomes were made over the following two years.

  • Students at all levels indicated via surveys a need to be better grounded in anatomy (A1-3, NS 14-17). More anatomy content was incorporated into NSCS 200 and an elective course in the Neurobiology emphasis, Neuroanatomy (NROS 330), was developed and offered first in Fall 2014.
  • Students who responded to the surveys wanted more content on clinical disorders and diseases (A10, NS17).  Faculty of the core courses agreed to incorporate more case studies and discussion of clinical disorders where possible, but this is an ongoing issue, made difficult because the major already has a large number of required units.  Students in the Neuroscience track who are also in the Neurobiology emphasis may take Neurogenetics (NROS 430), which includes extended discussion of several neurological disorders, but does not address the clinical aspects of the disorders.  Another course, NSCS 450, Neurons and glia in health and disease, does include more clinical aspects, but again is not a required core course..
  • Faculty wrangled with course sequencing for NROS 307, 310 and PSIO 465 with two goals in mind: 1) ensuring enough repetition of ideas to reinforce student learning objectives  while advancing the level of learning, and 2) ensuring that students in the cognitive-science track would not be disadvantaged by entering NROS 307 with neuroscience-track students who had a higher level of comprehension about molecular and cellular biology having taken NROS 310 first.  This issue has been resolved (Catalog Year 13/14) by putting NROS 307 in the fall semester and NROS 310 in the spring, the new sequence also requiring some NROS 310 revision.  In addition, the change allows students who wish to complete the required neuroscience-track core courses in one year to do so, as NROS 307 is a pre-requisite to PSIO 465.

AY 2013/14

The results of student surveys and faculty discussions in the Curriculum Committee indicated the following areas for concern:

  • No capstone experiences are available (A11).  This is a resource issue that we will not be able to resolve in the short term.  Students in the honors program must present their theses in the end-of-year poster session, but these are not scored or evaluated.
  • There is not enough neurodevelopment in the core curriculum, either from the neuroscience or the cognitive-science perspective (A9, CS15, NS18).  Very basic neurodevelopment – initial embryonic events in formation of the nervous system – is addressed in NSCS 200, but further content is found only in elective courses, mainly in the Development and Aging Emphasis.  Because neuro and cognitive development were considered important enough to be included among the learning objectives for the program, the curriculum committee will address the issue during AY 15/16.  

AY 2014/15

The results of student and faculty surveys and faculty discussions in the Curriculum Committee indicated the following areas for concern:

  • Lack of a capstone course (A11)  This remains a faculty resource issue.  In the long-term, we would like to have a capstone course for each of the emphases.  We will revisit yearly to determine if it is possible to implement this, as it would strongly aid in meeting the Scientific Inquiry outcome.

AY 2015/16

Results of pre- and post-test. The curriculum committee used the NSCS learning outcomes to devise a 43-question multiple-choice test that necessarily was centered on the material in the core courses.  This first iteration of the pre-test was given to students at the beginning of NSCS 200, in the spring of 2016.  The same test was given to graduating seniors in the late spring of 2016. 

The average score on the pre-test was 49.4% with a range of 21- 74% (n=126 students); that on the post-test was 70.9% with a range of 47 – 88% (n=73 students.) The average for the pre-test was 49.4% while the average for the post-test was 70.9%, which was a significant difference but 71% for a post-score is clearly not acceptable. Preliminary item analysis revealed that abu 15% othe items needed to be improved so we did no further detailed analysis by outcome.

Many caveats: Most of the students taking the test were Neuroscience-track students; for these students, the Cognitive Science material had been studied mainly in their core courses, a year and a half earlier. Some of the questions are likely to need revision in terms of quality. Some students come in with some neuroscience knowledge from high school or earlier classes, so perhaps our questions need to address higher-order concepts. Importantly, the graduating seniors had no consequence for a poor score and thus no particular motivation to try hard.

Future discussion of how to do this program assessment (testing approach) better should include:

  • Possible use of short-answer questions, graded by paid TAs
  • Consultation with experts on writing meaningful and excellent assessment exams
  • Incentives
  • Item analysis for the current exam with question revision as needed


Change in Response to Findings: 

Since the 3rd year review meeting, the curriculum committee has developed student learning outcomes for the program, developed a plan of assessment of student achievement of these outcomes, and initiated that plan in AY 2015/16. The first iteration  of the pe-post test revealed a test to be improved and a possible need to strengthen learning opportunities related to cognitive-science outcomes. 

Because the results of student surveys and faculty review sessions have made it clear that we need to add opportunities related to cognitive and neurobiolgical development, the NSCS Curriculum Committee will include discussion of this in AY 2016/17. Feedback from students and faculty on the 1-unit methods course NSCS 315B suggests that we need to align it better with the content discussed in NROS 307.  Accordingly, we have decided to make NSCS 315B essentially a lab/discussion section associated with NROS 307 in order to improve our students' achievement of program outcomes 1 and 3.  

An obviously related element for achieving student learning outcomes is teaching excellence so we also have developed and begun to implement a plan for peer evaluation of faculty and teaching assistants.

Updated date: Mon, 07/02/2018 - 16:23