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Sara Baker


  • Professor of Developmental Psychology and Education
  • Doctoral Program Lead, Faculty of Education
  • Vice Master, Darwin College

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+44 (0)1223 767531


  • PhD (Rutgers)
  • MS (Rutgers)
  • MA (Paris 8)

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Sara's research interests are based in cognitive science. She studied for her Maîtrise in psychology and cognitive neuroscience at the University of Paris 8 while on placement at the Salpêtrière Hospital's Brain Imaging Unit. Sara then gained her Masters and PhD at the Rutgers University Center for Cognitive Science working with preschool children in schools throughout New Jersey. This led on to a three-year ESRC-funded postdoctoral research position within the University of Bristol's Cognitive Development Centre. Between 2007 and 2010 she was an invited lecturer at the Royal College of Psychiatrists teaching basic psychology. Sara held a lectureship in Developmental Psychology at the University of Salford for one year before joining the University of Cambridge Faculty of Education as a University Lecturer in October 2011. She has been a Professor in Developmental Psychology and Education since 2021.   Sara is a PI in the  Centre for Research on Play in Education, Development and Learning and has worked with teachers in Cambs, Norfolk, London and the Midlands.

Academic Areas

Psychology, Education and Learning Studies Research Group

Cambridge Neuroscience

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Sara’s research aims to improve children’s lives by identifying factors at home and school that can support their agency over their own learning. Children’s agency requires cognitive flexibility. In psychological terms, this depends on their developing executive functions. Sara studies the interaction between developing executive functions and the acquisition of domain-specific knowledge, like early science learning. How do children discover the general laws underlying these domains? How entrenched are their beliefs and what kinds of evidence or experiences are needed to revise these?

Sara uses lab-based experiments and works with teachers in schools to translate research from cognitive science into educational contexts. What types of strategies can children use to solve everyday problems more effectively, and how can adults support this? Later in development, what are the key factors in adults’ use of evidence-based reasoning (e.g. critical thinking and scientific reasoning)? And finally, how can neuroscientists and educators work together for better evidence-informed practice and practice-informed evidence? Sara's projects addressing questions like these have been funded by the Newton Trust, a Cambridge Humanities Research Grant, the Economic and Social Research Council, the LEGO Foundation and the Nuffield Foundation.

Prospective Masters and PhD Applications

Sara is not offering any places for doctoral study starting in 2022.

Prospective students are encouraged to consider the research themes outlined above before making contact. For PhD applications, applicants are encouraged to outline a set of potential research questions linked to the themes above when making first contact. For Masters applications, it is not necessary to have identified a specific set of research questions when making first contact.

Current Research Projects

  • Research centre for Play in Education, Development and Learning (PEDAL)
  • Early Years Library: A Curated collection of evidence-based practices to support a range of skills (collaboration with the Early Intervention Foundation)
  • Contextual influences in young children's self-regulation
  • Interventions to improve executive functions (i.e. cognitive flexibility) in preschoolers
  • Scientific reasoning by individuals with and without autism
  • Working with teachers as co-researchers to develop and test evidence-based pedagogy
  • ESRC seminar series in the learning sciences: The Educated Brain
  • Collaborators and PhD student projects based in UK, USA, Mexico, Denmark, Slovakia, South Korea, Ghana, Rwanda, Nigeria

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  • Postgraduate
    • MPhil/MEd in Psychology and Education (Biological Psychology; Developmental Psychology)
  • Undergraduate
    • Bachelor's in Education (Cognitive Development)



Dr Audrey Kittredge – Postdoc 2015-2018 - Consultant for UNICEF in 2019; current Senior Learning Scientist, Duolingo USA

Dr Lauren Bellaera – Postdoc 2014-2016 - Fulbright Fellow in 2019; current Director of Monitoring and Evaluation at The Brilliant Club UK

Dr Dee Rutgers - Postdoc 2020-2021; current Research Fellow in Education at Sheffield Hallam University

Dr Sophia Gowers - Postdoc 2021; current Advisor to Irish government on inclusive education and children's voice

PhD students

Soizic Le Courtois - PhD 2022 entitled Fostering and capturing children’s inner motivation to learn in the early primary classroom in England, currently on parental leave

Janina Eberhart - PhD 2020 entitled "Young Children's Executive Functions in Context: Classroom Experiences and Measurement Approaches", current postdoc in Tubingen, Germany

Joanne Cotton - PhD 2020 entitled "How do Childhood ADHD and Stress Relate to Adult Wellbeing and Educational Attainment? A Data Science Investigation Using the 1970 British Cohort Study", current ESRC postdoc at MRC-CBU, Cambridge

Min Kyung Lee – PhD 2018 entitled “Associations between Maternal Executive Function, Parenting, and Preschool Children’s Executive Function in the South Korean Context”, current teacher in South Korea

Elaine Gray – PhD 2018 entitled “The Role of Executive Function, Metacognition, and Support Type in Children’s Ability to Solve Physics Tasks”, current postdoc at University of Edinburgh

Esinam Avornyo – PhD 2018 entitled "Investigating Play and Learning in the Ghanaian Early Years Classroom: A Mixed Methods Study", current postdoc at University of Pennsylvania

Yishu Qin - PhD 2018 entitled "Developing an Implicit Association Test to Explore Implicit and Explicit Stereotypes of Empathy in Scientists among University Students in England", current Lecturer at Yangzhou University

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Selected Publications

Baker, S., & Perry, N. (In press). Multiple influences on parental scaffolding for young children’s self-regulation. In (Eds). In M. McCaslin and T. Good (Eds). Encyclopedia of Education. Routledge.

Avornyo, E., & Baker, S. (In press). ‘He will play because it is play’. Exploring Ghanaian early years parents’ ethno-theories about play and learning. Early Years.

Baker, S., & Le Courtois, S. (2022). Agency, children's voice and adults' responsibility. Special issue editorial: Developing children's agency in theory and practice. Education 3-13.

Baker, S., Le Courtois, S., & Eberhart, J. (2021). Making space for children’s agency with playful learning. International Journal of Early Years Education, 1-13.

Bellaera, L., Weinstein-Jones, Y., Ilie, S., & Baker, S. (2021).  Critical thinking in practice: The priorities and practices of instructors teaching in higher education. Thinking skills and creativity, 41.

Kazanina, N., Baker, S., & Seddon, H. (2020). Actuality bias in verb learning: The case of sublexically modal transfer verbs. Linguistics. , 000010151520200183. doi:

Bailey, J., & Baker, S. (2020). A synthesis of the quantitative literature on autistic pupils' experience of barriers to inclusion in mainstream schools. Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs, 20 (4), 291-307.

Baker, S. (2019). Adult-child interactions in playful early science learning. In M. Peters and R. Heraud (Eds). Encyclopedia of Educational Innovation. Springer.

Marulis, L., Baker, S., & Whitebread, D. (2019). Integrating metacognition and executive function to enhance children's perception of and agency in their learning. Early Childhood Research Quarterly. Special Issue.

T. Krude and S. Baker (Eds.) Development: Mechanisms of Change. (2018). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ellefson, M., Baker, S., & Gibson, J. (2018). Lessons for successful cognitive developmental science in educational settings: The Case of executive functions.  Journal of Cognition and Development, 1-25.

Cotton, J., & Baker, S. (2018). A Data mining and item response mixture modelling method to retrospectively measure DSM-5 Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in the 1970 British Cohort Study. International Journal of Methods in Psychiatric Research, 28(1).

Baker, S. (May, 2018). Cognitive skills for active learning in the early years. Impact: The Journal of the Chartered College of Teaching. online here

Avornyo, E. A., & Baker, S. (2018). The role of play in children’s learning: The Perspective of Ghanaian early years stakeholders. Early Years, 1-16.

Lee, M. K., Baker, S., & Whitebread, D. (2018). Cultureā€specific links between maternal executive function, parenting, and preschool children's executive function in South Korea. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 88(2), 216-235.

Burra, N., Baker, S., & George, N. (2017). Processing of gaze direction within the N170/M170 time window: A combined EEG/MEG study. Neuropsychologia, 100, 207-219.

Baker, S.T., Leslie, A.M., Gallistel, C.R., & Hood, B. (2016). Bayesian Change-Point Analysis Reveals Developmental Change in a Classic Theory of Mind Task. Cognitive Psychology, 91, 124-149.

Cotton, J., Baker, S.T., & Wilson, J. (2015). An Exploratory case study of three children with ADHD and social difficulties: Child and parent responses to an educational intervention designed to facilitate self-regulation and deep learning. The Psychology and Education Review, 39, 3-8.

Baker, S.T., Gjersoe, N.L., Sibielska-Woch, K., Leslie, A.M., & Hood, B. (2011). Inhibitory control interacts with core knowledge in toddlers’ manual search for an occluded object. Developmental Science, 14, 270-279.

Baker, S.T., Friedman, O., & Leslie, A.M. (2010). The Opposites task: Using general rules to test cognitive flexibility in preschoolers. Journal of Cognition and Development, 11, 240-254.


Blog on Oppression, Agency, Play and Education

Coverage of Bayesian change point work on the learning curve

Coverage of my research on executive functions in young children

Times Higher Education profile piece on playful learning approaches in young children

Podcast discussing play and the learning sciences