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Michelle Ellefson


  • Reader in Cognitive Science
  • Bye-Fellow, Undergraduate Tutor and Director of Studies in Education for Gonville and Caius College


E-mail Address


(+44) 01223 767684


  • PhD in Brain and Cognitive Sciences (Southern Illinois University)
  • MA in Brain and Cognitive Sciences (Southern Illinois University)
  • BA in Psychology, summa cum laude (University of Minnesota)

Membership of Professional Bodies/Associations

  • Psychonomic Society
  • Cognitive Science Society (CogSci)
  • Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD)
  • Association for Psychological Science (APS)
  • Women in Cognitive Science (WiCS)

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Michelle Ellefson convenes the INSTRUCT Research Group (Implementing New Student Thinking Resources Using Cognitive Theory). Michelle has scientific interests in cognition, neuroscience, child development, and education, integrating them into a multi-disciplinary research programme aimed at improving math and science education. Using an iterative process, she pairs laboratory based research with classroom learning and curriculum development in order to better understand mechanisms responsible for cognitive development and to leverage that understanding to improve educational practice. Her current research projects focus on the role of executive functions in school achievement and how children's reasoning about causes and effects impacts how they think about scientific phenomena. In addition, she is applying specific cognitive principles to classroom learning, including simplicity and desirable difficulties. Initially trained in developmental cognitive neuroscience, her interests in improving cognitive outcomes for all children have inspired her to reach beyond this foundational training to develop her integrative, multi-disciplinary approach that informs both school practice and theoretical accounts of cognitive development.

Academic Area/Links

Psychology & Education

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Research Topics

  • Applications of cognitive science/neuroscience to improved educational practice
  • Executive functions
  • Task switching
  • Causal reasoning
  • Scientific reasoning
  • Science education
  • Educational neuroscience

Prospective PhD/EdD and MPhil/MEd Applications

Michelle would welcome informal contact from prospective doctoral and master students regarding supervision on any of the research topics mentioned above using quantitative analysis. Prospective doctoral students should contact Michelle to discuss research, supervision structures and funding at least two months before submitting a PhD application (by October. Preference is given to doctoral applicants pursing full-time study and who apply early (first part of December). Dr Ellefson and the INSTRUCT lab hold interviews and make offer decisions by late January. Before contacting Dr Ellefson you should read important information for prospective students on the lab websitePlease note - we are currently considering applications for 2020-21 and are not considering students who have not already been in contact with Dr Ellefson

Current Research Projects

  • Task switching and executive functions in maths and reading achievement
  • Causal reasoning in chemistry and biology
  • Development of executive function abilities in children and adolescents
  • Poverty & resilience in cognitive development and brain development
  • Executive function intervention programmes for older children
  • Evaluating causal efficacy: children and adults, novices and experts
  • Design-based (or inquiry-based) learning for science education

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Course Involvement

  • Postgraduate
    • PhD / EdD supervisor
    • MPhil/MEd (Psychology and Education): Quantitative data analysis, cognition and cognitive development, supervisor
    • PGCE lecturer: playful learning, science of learning, early language development
    • SSRMC lecturer: ethics
  • Undergraduate
    • Undergraduate Tutor for Gonville & Caius College
    • Director of Studies for Gonville and Caius College
    • External Director of Studies for Emmanuel College (Michaelmas 2017)
    • Lectures on cognitive development, language/literacy development, social development, research methods and quantitative data analysis
    • R and I project supervisor

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Selected Publications

Journal Articles

Ellefson, M.R., Baker, S.T. & Gibson, J. (in press). Lessons for Successful Cognitive Developmental Science in Educational Settings: The Case of Executive Functions. Journal of Cognition and Development. DOI:10.1080/15248372.2018.1551219 

Poletiek, F.H., Conway, C.M., Ellefson, M.R., Lai, J., Bocanegra, B. R., & Christiansen, M. H. (2018). Under What Conditions Can Recursion be Learned? Effects of Starting Small in Artificial Grammar Learning of Center Embedded Structure, Cognitive Science42, 2855-2889. DOI:10.1111/cogs.12685

Paes, T., & Ellefson, M.R. (2018). Pretend play and the development of children’s language skills. Impact, 2, 60-63. See the Article

Ellefson, M.R., Ng, F.F., Wang, Q., & Hughes, C. (2017). Efficiency of executive function: A two-generation cross-cultural comparison of samples from Hong Kong and the United Kingdom. Psychological Science, 28, 555-566. DOI:10.1177/0956797616687812

Teparek, M., Morgan, R., Ellefson, M., & Kingsley, D. (2017). Starting from the end: what to do when restricted data is released. Data Science Journal, 16, 10. DOI:10.5334/dsj-2017-010

Goedert, K.M., Ellefson, M.R., & Reder, B. (2014). Differences in the weighting and choice of evidence for plausible versus implausible causes. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning Memory and Cognition, 40, 683-702. DOI:10.1037/a0035547

Hughes, P.W., & Ellefson, M.R. (2013). Inquiry-based training improves teaching effectiveness of biology teaching assistants. PLOS one, 8: e78540. DOI:10.1371/JOURNAL.PONE.0078540

Apedoe, X.A., Ellefson, M.R., & Schunn, C.D. (2012). Learning together while designing: Does group size make a difference? Journal of Science Education and Technology, 21, 83-94. DOI:10.1007/S10956-011-9284-5

Vousden, J.I., Ellefson, M.R., Solity, J., & Chater, N. (2011). Simplifying reading: Applying the simplicity principle to reading. Cognitive Science, 35, 34-78. DOI:10.1111/J.1551-6709.2010.01134.X

Ellefson, M.R., Treiman, R., & Kessler, B. (2009). Learning to label letters by sounds or names: A comparison of England and the United States. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology , 102, 323-341. DOI:10.1016/J.JECP.2008.05.008

Apedoe, X.A., Reynolds, B., Ellefson, M.R., & Schunn, C.D. (2008). Bringing engineering design into high school science classrooms: The heating/cooling unit. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 17, 454-465. DOI:0.1007/S10956-008-9114-6

Ellefson, M.R., Brinker, R.A., Vernacchio, V.J., & Schunn, C.D. (2008). Design-based learning for biology: Genetic engineering experience improves understanding of gene expression. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 36, 292-298. DOI:10.1002/BMB.20203

Young, M.E., Wasserman, E.A., & Ellefson, M.R. (2007). A theory of variability discrimination: Finding differences. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 14, 805-822. DOI:10.3758/BF03194106

Ellefson, M.R., Shapiro, L.R., & Chater, N. (2006). Asymmetrical switch costs in children. Cognitive Development, 21, 108-130. DOI:10.1016/J.COGDEV.2006.01.002

Young, M.E., & Ellefson, M.R. (2003). The joint contributions of shape and color to variability discrimination. Learning and Motivation, 34, 52-67. DOI: 10.1016/S0023-9690(02)00504-0

Young, M.E., Ellefson, M.R., & Wasserman, E.A. (2003). Toward a theory of variability discrimination: Finding differences. Behavioural Processes, 62, 145-155. DOI:10.1016/S0376-6357(03)00024-X

Christiansen, M.H., Conway, C.M., & Ellefson, M.R. (2002). Raising the bar for connectionist modeling of developmental disorders. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 25, 752-753. DOI:10.1017/S0140525X02230137

Molfese, D.L., & Ellefson, M.R. (1999). The use of event-related potentials to study cognitive disorders. Journal of Molecular and Chemical Neuropathology, 13, 263-264.

Books and Book Chapters

Christiansen, M.H., Dale, R.A.C., Ellefson, M.R., & Conway, C.M. (2002). The role of sequential learning in language evolution: Computation and experimental studies. In A. Cangelosi and D. Parisi (Eds.), Computational approaches to the evolution of language. Springer Verlag: New York.

Christiansen, M.H., & Ellefson, M.R. (2002). Linguistic adaptation without linguistic constraints: The role of sequential learning in language evolution. In A. Wray (Ed.), The transition to language: Studies in the evolution of language (pp. 335-358). Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK. [Chapter selected by peer review].

Molfese, D.L., Narter, D.B., Van Matre, A.J., Ellefson, M.R., & Modglin, A.A. (2001). Language development during infancy and early childhood: Electrophysiological correlates. In J. Weissenborn and B. Hoehle (Eds.), Approaches to Bootstrapping: Phonological, lexical, syntactic and neurophysiological aspects of early language development, Volume 2 (pp. 181-229). John Benjamins: Amsterdam-Philadelphia.

Ellefson, M.R. (1996). Someone I love has cancer: An interactive workbook for children whose loved ones have cancer. American Cancer Society, Minnesota Division, Minneapolis, MN.