• Rats are used in psychology experiments into learning and behaviour and in some universities are used in an educational setting to teach these concepts.
  • Students enjoy using live rats more than virtual rats in laboratories classes.
  • The majority of students in the study would said they would prefer to keep the live rats in the laboratory classes, despite the ethical concerns.

Take Home Message

The paper drew strong conclusions that will result in the continued exploitation of others based on weak premises. The authors justify the continued use of live rats in an educational settings because it improves the students ‘learning experience’.  

Paper's Stats

Animal Status

Rats were harmed for this research.

I want to acknowledge the rats that were exploited to conduct this research and express my deep regret for them.

Rats have long been used as a ‘model species’ to study learning and behaviour in the field of psychology. You might have heard of these experiments, for example rats being trained to push a lever for a reward. Because of this role in the field of psychology some universities still use live rats in their teaching programs.

The idea is that students will gain an understanding of the scientific process and experimental procedures by conducting an experiment in class using live rats. It’s suggested the hand’s on experience of working with live rats will aid student learning. Obviously this is ethically problematic because the rats are being exploited and in most cases will be killed after they are no longer needed.

Sniffy the virtual lab rat.To reduce the unnecessary exploitation of rats in teaching, clever computer-simulations have been created that allow students to conduct experiments with virtual rats. The virtual rat is programmed to respond in the way that a live rat would, based on our extensive knowledge of rat behaviour. This sounds like a great opportunity to end the use of live rats and still gain an understanding of learning and behaviour (though it might still entrench the idea that animal experimentation is ok).  

Despite this possible solution to the problematic use of live rats for learning some educators are questioning the value of virtual rat alternatives. A study out of New Zealand investigated whether students valued the use of live rats more than virtual alternatives as an educational ‘tool’ and whether the ethical concern for the living rats would outweigh the desire to use them.

How did they do it?

The study was conducted within the context of a third-year undergraduate course on behaviour analysis, with 79 students providing feedback for use in the study. There was a laboratory class each week for three weeks where students learnt about learning and behaviour through the use of virtual rats or live rats.

The virtual rat component involved using a program called ‘Sniffy’ which shows an animated rat as the experimental subject. Students worked individually on Sniffy for 90 minutes to teach sniffy to press a lever using reinforcement.

The live rat component was conducted over a two week period in teams of about six students. The students used a Norway hooded rat in their experiments, for 1hr at a time during 6 sessions during the two weeks. Again the students needed to teach the rats to push a lever using reinforcement. Before being able to use the rats the students were told if the rats were ‘mistreated’ they would fail the class and they received basic training in rat handling. Students could opt out of using the rats.

At the end of the course the students completed an anonymous questionnaire responding to whether the labs helped their learning, the use of rats was ethical, rats were treated with care and respect, their views about the use of animals in teaching, and if live rat labs should be retained. For each of the labs they also indicated whether it helped them learn and if they enjoyed it.

What did they find?  

Students indicated that both the virtual and live rat experiments helped their learning but that the live rat work was more helpful. Similar results were found in regards to whether the virtual or live rats helped students understand the course content. Students also evaluated the virtual rat work as less helpful for learning and also found them less enjoyable (I wonder how ‘enjoyable’ the rats found the process?).

The majority of students reported that the use of live rats in the lab was ethical and that the live rat experiments should be retained. With those suggesting that live rats continue to be used also responding more positively in regards to the labs being ethical and helpful to learning.

It’s worth noting that several students indicated that live rats should not continue to be used in the labs.

What’s it mean?

The researchers draw the conclusion that the students positive responses towards the live rat labs means they should continue to be used to maintain the quality of the students learning experience.

Personally, I think this study has major issues not least of which is its premise. The study sets up the idea that minor learning benefits justify the the exploitation and killing of individuals, in this case rats. It then works to determine if using rats in labs has a learning benefit. If a learning benefit is found then it justifies the continued use of live rats for teaching. It’s unfortunate that the researchers didn’t realise that the exploitation of others doesn’t become ethical just because we benefit from it.

If the researchers had started from the principle that rats possess fundamental rights not to be unnecessarily exploited by others then the switch to virtual rat labs would have been the clear ethical choice. Instead it feels like the authors conducted the study to justify their continued use of live rats.

Of particular issue is that they introduce the idea that students might achieve learning benefits from participating in animal experiments. But only test whether students preferred the live rat labs more than the virtual rat labs. While students did self-report that live rats helped them better understand course content this could be biased by their preference for using live rats. A preference which could simply be because they get to play with cute rats. Or because the two experiences were very different, i.e. they played with the virtual rat for 90 minutes on their own but spent 6 hours with a group of friends using the live rat.

The authors use this possibly biased student preference for working with the live rats to conclude that it’s ok to exploit rats. Specifically, they justify the continued use of live rats in laboratory settings because it improves the students ‘learning experience’. To be clear, that isn’t actually a benefit to students learning but rather their ‘experience’ of the learning. If they wanted to test the learning benefits of using live rats vs virtual rats they would’ve needed a much better study design. For starters, they would have to actually evaluate student’s learning rather than their possibly biased preference.

Another issue is that the authors never discuss the value of learning compared to the value of the rats rights. They blindly assume that even a small positive difference in the student’s experience justified the exploitation of the rats. Even from the author’s worldview where animal exploitation is ok for learning benefits, if the benefits between the live and virtual rat experiences is only very small is it still worth it? What if there is actually no practical difference in the outcomes of the students learning between the virtual or live rats, can they still justify the rats exploitation? Not to mention the distinct possibility that most of the students will never use the learnings from the live rat use ever again in their lives.

Rat standing next to sign that reads I am not an Experiment

But even if the authors had conducted a well framed and designed study and found a significant learning benefit it wouldn’t make the exploitation of the rats any more ethical. It would still be wrong and shouldn’t be done. And if students suffer a learning disadvantage from not exploiting animals then teachers should come up with new ethical learning opportunities that fill the gap.

I thought this study was a straw man. To justify unethical practices the researchers asked a bunch of people who already believe it’s ok to exploit animals, whether it’s ok to exploit animals.

Post by

Adam with his beautiful cat Fabi

Dr Adam Cardilini

I’m a scientist, teacher and activist. My training is in ecological and environmental science, but I love all science and enjoy sharing it with others.

Title: Student Responses to Active Learning Activities With Live and Virtual Rats in Psychology Teaching Laboratories

Authors: Maree J. Hunt and Anne C. Macaskill

Journal: Teaching of Psychology

Date PublishedFebruary 8, 2017


Paper Access

Behind paywall

Research Type

Peer-reviewed research