Independent Study/Honors Thesis Research Guide

revised December 2016


The Independent Study (COGS 301) and Honors Thesis (COGS 398) are designed to provide you with first-hand experience conducting research in cognitive science. Through this intensive research experience, you will gain a deeper understanding of the scientific method, develop essential skills for conducting research in cognitive science, and contribute to the body of scientific knowledge.

Both COGS 301 and COGS 398 emphasize the independence of your research experience, although there are several differences. COGS 301 is usually a one-semester project that can be carried out during any time of your time at Penn. COGS 398 is typically a year-long project in the senior year, although there have also been one-semester projects. COGS 301 can be a research project suggested by your supervisor (e.g., a component of an existing project), as long as your independent role in the project is made clear. By contrast, COGS 398 needs to be a topic of your own initiative, which can of course be developed jointly with your supervisor. In other words, you should have a bigger share of the project “ownership” for COGS 398 than for COGS 301. It is often the case that the COGS 398 project evolves out of a prior COGS 301 project. Note that there cannot be more than two non-course research credits counted toward your Cognitive Science degree.

Course Structure

During COGS 301/398 you will read relevant research, formulate a hypothesis, collect data investigating this hypothesis, then analyze and report these data.

You must have a faculty member as the supervisor, with whom you develop the project together, including a research plan. It is of course allowed, and in fact encouraged, to work with other members of your research group, including graduate students and post-doctoral researchers. But the faculty member is ultimately responsible for your research project and evaluation.

A course worth one credit unit at Penn, on average, is expected to demand 10 hours per week of a student’s time. You are thus expected to spend a total of 10 hours per week on activities related to research. How you spend these 10 hours will vary week to week according to the needs of the project, but may include time spent in the laboratory (e.g., collecting and analyzing data) or out of the laboratory (e.g., library work, writing, programming).

You are expected to stay in contact with your research supervisor on a regular basis. It is typical to hold weekly meetings with the supervising faculty member, for both COGS 301 and COGS 398.

Research Plan

A research plan must be developed in collaboration with your supervisor and be submitted to the Program Director before the “add” deadline at the beginning of each semester in order to register for COGS 301 and COGS 398.

The plan will consist of:

  • a brief statement of the research project, its relevance to the study of cognition, and expected outcome
  • the required skill sets and experience for the project and the student’s qualification
  • the role of the student in the project, focusing on his/her independent efforts
  • a list of reading materials required for research
  • a week-by-week schedule of the anticipated progress of the project


For COGS 301, a research report is required. A letter grade will be assigned at the end of the semester.

For COGS 398, a thesis must be approved by the supervisor and then submitted to the Program Director at its conclusion. A letter grade will be determined by the supervisor. For year-long project, a report is not required for the first semester, although that is at the discretion of the supervisor. A letter grade is still required to assess the progress of the project.

In both cases, a research report will have the following structure:

  • literature review
  • statement of hypothesis
  • description of data collection methods
  • presentation of results with descriptive and inferential statistical analyses (with supporting tables and/or graphs as needed)
  • discussion of the interpretation and implications of findings
  • a list of cited works
  • an appendix with supplementary materials (if appropriate)

COGS 398 theses are eligible for the annual College Alumni Society Prize for Research in Cognitive Science. Because the deadline of the competition is early April in order for the winner’s name to be printed on the commencement program, those who wish to be considered for this Prize need to submit a preliminary draft of the thesis to the Program Director by early April.

Code of Academic Integrity

It is your responsibility to ensure your behavior does not violate the Code of Academic Integrity. You must observe the policies regarding various forms of academic dishonesty. The following statement about academic dishonesty has been provided by the University of Pennsylvania: “Activities that have the effect or intention of interfering with education, pursuit of knowledge, or fair evaluation of a student’s performance are prohibited.” Academic dishonesty will not be tolerated and may be handled by the Office of Student Conduct. More information on academic integrity is available here.

Work-study and Double-counting Issues

A student cannot receive course credit for work done for pay. If a student is employed in a lab (including work-study positions), there must be a clear distinction between work that is being done to earn money and research that is part of an independent study project.

Some students complete two related majors, each of which has a research/thesis requirement. If a student is in this situation, s/he cannot have a single project count for both requirements. The student is allowed to complete both projects in the same lab, but there must be two distinct projects.