Nicole McNeil


Contact information

Nicole M. McNeil

Director, Education, Schooling and Society Minor
ACE Associate Professor of Psychology
107 Carole Sandner Hall

University of Notre Dame
Notre Dame, IN 46556

fax: 574-631-8883


B.S., psychology, Carnegie Mellon University
Ph.D., psychology, University of Wisconsin-Madison


2013 Boyd McCandless Award from the American Psychological Assocition, for an outstanding early-career scholar in developmental psychology

2007-2008 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) 
2004-2005 American Psychological Association (APA) Dissertation Award

Educational research interests

Development of mathematical cognition

Current educational studies

Arithmetic practice that promotes conceptual understanding and computational fluency

Optimizing concrete materials to support children’s understanding of mathematical concepts

Understanding the influence of formal mathematics instruction on children’s informal numerical reasoning

Select publications

McNeil, N. M. (2008). “Limitations to teaching children 2 + 2 = 4: Typical arithmetic problems can hinder learning of mathematical equivalence.” Child Development, 79, 1524-1537.

McNeil, N. M. & Jarvin, L. (2007). “When theories don’’t add up: Disentangling the manipulatives debate.” Theory Into Practice, 46, 309-316.

McNeil, N. M. (2007). “U-shaped development in math: Seven year olds outperform nine year olds on mathematical equivalence problems.” Developmental Psychology, 43, 687-695.


Nicole McNeil is ACE Associate Professor of Psychology in the Department of Psychology and Director of the academic minor in Education, Schooling and Society in the College of Arts and Letters. She is also a Fellow of the Institute for Educational Initiatives at the University of Notre Dame. She is an experimental psychologist who studies how children think, learn, and solve problems in the domain of mathematics. Her research involves several interrelated areas including numerical representation, concept construction, symbolic understanding, and problem solving. As an undergraduate, Prof. McNeil attended Carnegie Mellon University, where she studied chemistry and developed a passion for psychological science. She did her graduate work under the direction of Martha Alibali at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she had the great privilege of working with both psychologists and mathematics education researchers to study students’ transition from arithmetic to algebra.

Before coming to Notre Dame, Prof. McNeil worked for one year as a postdoctoral research associate at Yale University. She has published in top journals such as Cognitive Science, Child Development, Developmental Psychology, Journal of Educational Psychology, and Journal for Research in Mathematics Education. Her current research is funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences. Her goal is to contribute to theoretical issues related to the construction and organization of human knowledge, as well as practical issues related to learning and instruction.

Contact Information

mcneil Nicole McNeil
Director, Interdisciplinary Minor in Education, Schooling, and Society
390 Corbett Hall


Professor of Psychology and Alliance for Catholic Education College Professor


Ph.D. University of Wisconsin-Madison
B.S. Carnegie Mellon University

Research interests

Cognitive development and education; development of mathematical thinking; interventions to promote children's school readiness and mathematics achievement


2018 Elected Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science

2016 Christ the Teacher Award, from the ACE Teaching Fellows program

2013 Boyd McCandless Award, from the American Psychological Association (APA)

2007 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE)

Select publications

* denotes ND student author

McNeil, N. M., *Fyfe, E. R., & Dunwiddie, A. E. (2015). Arithmetic practice can be modified to promote understanding of math equivalence. Journal of Educational Psychology, 107, 423-436.

*Fyfe, E. R., McNeil, N. M., & Rittle-Johnson, B. (2015). Easy as ABCABC: Abstract language facilitates performance on a concrete patterning task. Child Development, 3, 927-935.

McNeil, N. M. (2014). A “change-resistance” account of children’s difficulties understanding mathematical equivalence. Child Development Perspectives, 8, 42-47.

*Fyfe, E. R., McNeil, N. M., Son, J. Y., & Goldstone, R. L. (2014). Concreteness fading in mathematics and science instruction: A systematic review. Educational Psychology Review, 26, 9-25.

*Petersen, L. A., & McNeil, N. M. (2013). Using perceptually rich objects to help children represent number: Established knowledge counts. Child Development, 84, 1020-1033.

*Fuhs, M. W., & McNeil, N. M. (2013). ANS acuity and mathematics ability in preschoolers from low-income homes: Contributions of inhibitory control. Developmental Science, 16, 136-48.

McNeil, N. M., *Fyfe, E. R., *Petersen, L. A., Dunwiddie, A. E., & Brletic-Shipley, H. (2011). Benefits of practicing 4 = 2 + 2: Nontraditional problem formats facilitate children’s understanding of mathematical equivalence. Child Development, 82, 1620-1633.

McNeil, N. M., Weinberg, A., Stephens, A. C., Hattikudur, S., Asquith, P., Knuth, E. J., & Alibali, M. W. (2010). A is for apple: Mnemonic symbols hinder students’ interpretation of algebraic expressions. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102, 625-634.

McNeil, N. M., Uttal, D. H., Jarvin, L., & Sternberg, R. J. (2009). Should you show me the money? Concrete objects both hurt and help performance on mathematics problems. Learning and Instruction, 19, 171-184.

Knuth, E. J., Stephens, A. C., McNeil, N. M. & Alibali, M .W. (2006). Does understanding the equal sign matter? Evidence from solving equations. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 37, 297-312.

McNeil, N. M., & Alibali, M. W. (2005). Why won’t you change your mind? Knowledge of operational patterns hinders learning and performance on equations. Child Development, 76, 883-899.



Nicole McNeil is a professor of psychology and the director of the interdisciplinary minor in education, schooling and society in the College of Arts and Letters. She is also a Fellow of the Institute for Educational Initiatives at the University of Notre Dame. She is an experimental psychologist who studies how children think, learn, and solve problems in the domain of mathematics. Dr. McNeil uses experimental designs, longitudinal studies, structured interviews, and detailed analyses of children's mathematical experiences to test theoretically driven hypotheses about why it is so difficult for children to learn math.

Her work has shown that children's difficulties understanding mathematics are not always caused by something children lack relative to adults, such as general conceptual structures, working memory resources, or proficiency with basic facts, but that difficulties can emerge as a consequence of prior learning. She has hypothesized--and her research has shown--that learners tend to rely on their existing representations, concepts, and strategies, even when they are inefficient or incorrect. Using this "change-resistance" framework, she has enhanced our understanding of the nature of children's difficulties with math concepts such as mathematical equivalence, variable, and cardinality. She has also made unique predictions about the best way to structure the learning environment to help children learn these math concepts. A key contribution of her work has been to show that relatively minor differences in the structure of children's early input can play a central role in shaping and constraining children's understanding of fundamental concepts.

Her research is funded by the National Science Foundation and by the U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences. In 2015, The Boston Globe featured her research in an article asking if small, simple changes in the way mathematical concepts are presented could reap big rewards for children's learning and performance in math.