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Nurturing student learning and motivation through the application of cognitive science

Cece Zhou

Cece Zhou

Categories: Cognitive Science, Policy and Advocacy, Tutoring

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.

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:

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

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.

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


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