Nurturing student learning and motivation through the application of cognitive science

Nicole McNeil remembers the moment well: she had just begun a tutoring relationship with a student in a local elementary school, when a teacher mistook McNeil for a social worker.

“The teacher informed me that this student was facing behavioral challenges in the classroom and assumed I had arrived to address those issues,” she recalls.

But by using principles of cognitive science to support his learning, she experienced a different version of the student: he was joyful, deeply engaged in their one-on-one tutoring sessions, and motivated to grasp new concepts. He didn’t exhibit behavioral challenges during tutoring sessions. And by the next school year, he had made accelerated progress in math beyond grade-level.

It’s experiences like these that fuel McNeil’s work today. She’s a professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame, leading a team of 30 student, staff, and faculty researchers through the Cognition, Learning, and Development (CLAD) Lab. In the last few years, she helped launch TutorND, an initiative in Notre Dame’s Institute for Educational Initiatives that blends cognitive science and tutoring by placing Notre Dame students and CLAD Lab research faculty and assistants in local schools to provide evidence-based, high-impact tutoring to PK-12 students. TutorND sets intentional goals to reach students whose families would otherwise be unable to afford the cost of tutoring. It partners with Head Start programs, the South Bend Community School Corporation and surrounding districts, and under-resourced Catholic schools across the country affiliated with ACE Teaching Fellows.

Two young students reviewing words on a workbook held up by their tutor sitting across the table

As a member of our Aspiring Teachers as Tutors Network (ATTN) policy workgroup, McNeil drew from best practices implemented through TutorND to inform our recently released policy framework, which advocates for solutions to accelerate student learning and strengthen the teacher pipeline. In particular, TutorND’s emphasis on applying principles of cognitive science – the science of our how minds work – in tutoring practice has not only bolstered the interest and confidence of some of its tutors to pursue teaching, but also strengthened their instructional skills and meaningfully contributed to PK-12 student growth.

Listen to McNeil share about the importance of tutors and teachers grounding instruction in research-based practices:

Audio transcript:

One benefit that our tutors have is that they’re exposed from this idea from day one about evidence-based practices, what works, looking at the cumulative evidence, what, you know, when we see something in multiple studies showing that it improves student outcomes, those are the kinds of places, or that’s a good starting point. I always try to be careful, I’m a scientist at heart but it’s not the only way of knowing…but it’s an important way. And if we have an infinite number of different ways to start with an instructional practice or with a program, it’s good, it’s sensible, to start with a practice or a program that has been shown to work on average. Then of course, our students are unique, we want to do it in context, we want to iteratively design to make it the best possible program and learning experience for our individual classroom and students. But where to start? You gotta start with the research evidence.


She also speaks to how teacher preparation requires strong footing in both research and practice:

Audio transcript:

You’re a better researcher because you tutor, you know, it’s not just you’re a better practitioner because you know the research, you’re a better researcher because you’re working with kids and watching them learn. So I think that interface is really important. And then providing high-quality practicum experiences. That directly aligns with the Deans for Impact goal here, right? We want people to be prepared when they get into the classroom. We want them to both have the knowledge about the theory, about the evidence-based practices, but also the experience applying them and seeing that, how that interface works.


Today, TutorND trains and supports 175 tutors in schools across the greater South Bend community and across the country. Given that these tutors are students, faculty, and staff interested in cognitive science research and its application to student learning, they’re able to bridge theory and practice, assess the effectiveness of instructional moves, and foster learning experiences for students that are rigorous, affirming, and equitable.

Infographic with program design overview of TutorND


Hear how Notre Dame senior, CLAD Lab research assistant, and TutorND tutor Alexa Mogan uses principles of cognitive science to engage her students to not just learn the procedural aspects of math, but grasp concepts that lay a foundation for them to build more advanced math skills in the future:


Mogan explains how an understanding of cognitive science not only supports students academically, but also nurtures their motivation and identity as learners and as “math people:”


Tutoring experiences like these are not only strengthening PK-12 student learning; they’re also building interest and capacity for students like Notre Dame junior Sophia Alvarez to pursue a career in teaching. Learn how her experience of building relationships and making an impact with students through TutorND has contributed to her deciding to become a teacher:


TutorND is a program in DFI’s Aspiring Teachers as Tutors Network that is currently piloting our tutor training modules. To learn more, visit their website.

Want to learn more about the ATTN or our policy framework? Contact Patrick Steck at

Cece Zhou

Director of Communications

All Blog Posts
Subscribe to Our Newsletter