Animal Learning and Intelligence

In Animal Learning and Intelligencestudents will explore the reasons why we consider certain animals “intelligent” or “not intelligent”, and the theories surrounding how animals learn.  They will discover how ZSL uses the science of learning behaviours to benefit animal welfare at the zoo - including the opportunity to try out animal training techniques on each other!

Animal learning and intelligence education session

Age group:  Years 12-13 (AS/A2, Ages 16-18)

Duration: 45 minutes approx.

Capacity: 35 students

Learning Space: Education Centre


Exam Board Specification links:


AQA A Level Psychology A

Unit 3 PSYA3 Topics in Psychology - Animal learning and intelligence

  • Simple learning (classical and operant conditioning) and its role in non-human animal behaviour
  • Intelligence in non-human animals, for example, self-recognition, social learning, Machiavellian intelligence


OCR A Level Biology (H421):

A2 Unit F215: Control, Genomes and Environment

Module 4: Responding to the Environment - 5.4.3 Animal Behaviour

  • (c) explain the meaning of the term learned behaviour
  • (d) describe classical and operant conditioning as examples of learned behaviours


EDEXCEL A Level Psychology (8PS01):

Unit 2 Understanding the Individual

  • 3a Describe the main features of classical conditioning, including unconditioned stimulus (UCS), unconditioned response (UCR), conditioned stimulus (CS), conditioned response (CR), extinction and spontaneous recovery
  • 3b Describe the main features of operant conditioning, including positive and negative reinforcement, punishment, primary and secondary reinforcement


AQA A Level Physical Education

3.1 Unit 1 PHED1 - Opportunities for, and the effects of, leading a healthy and active lifestyle

Learning and Performance

  • Learning theories: operant conditioning, positive & negative reinforcement


OCR AS Level Physical Education (H154):

AS Unit G451: An introduction to Physical Education

Section B Acquiring Movement Skills - 3.1 B. Learning skills in physical activity

  • theory of operant conditioning
  • discuss positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement and punishment


Intended learning outcomes:

Students will be able to:

  • Explain how animals learn through classical and operant conditioning, and social learning
  • Give examples of how this knowledge is used to benefit animals in the zoo

Please be aware that though we aim to use a live animal in this session, we do not guarantee that they will be present – animals can fall ill or be unwilling to be handled and their welfare is ZSL’s first priority. 


For this session


Before your visit:

  • Use the Animal Learning and Intelligence pre-visit information sheet:  Pre-visit information sheet_Animal Learning & Intelligence 2015 (266.86 KB)
  • Ask students to work in groups and brainstorm the different ways that using rewards (positive reinforcement) could help you look after a zoo animal.
  • Ask students to plan a route to take around the Zoo that allows them to see the animals and exhibits that they would like to focus on.


While at the Zoo:

  • Why not consider giving you students the opportunity to do a double session and particpate in Animal Behaviour Study.  This session allows students to use digital tablets to undertake behavioural ethograms of squirrel monkeys in the zoo.
  • Use the Animal Learning and Intelligence pre-visit information sheet and undertake the suggested activities onsite
  • Watch the Animals in Action show in the Amphitheatre to see several animals which are trained to show off their natural behaviours to visitors.  Try to spot the signals and methods the trainers use to communicate with and reward the animals.  Write a list of the animals seen and which behaviours they were trained to show.
  • Visit Gorilla Kingdom  and the Parrot aviaries and observe.  These are considered by many to be “intelligent” animals.  What evidence can you see to support or refute this?
  • Observe the many species living together in Rainforest Life.  Keepers may sometimes need to feed one animal by itself to give medication.  How could they use conditioning and positive reinforcement to make this easier?


After your visit:

  • Ask students to choose an animal welfare situation in a zoo or at home (e.g. needing to trim an animal’s claws) and consider how to solve this problem using the training and learning methods discussed.  Each student should design a training plan for the animal, breaking it down into steps and explaining fully what the trainer should do and expect at each stage.