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Michelle Ellefson


  • Professor of Cognitive Science
  • 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)
  • Women in Cognitive Science (WiCS)
  • SPARK Society

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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 & Learning (PELS)

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Research Topics

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

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

Prospective PhD 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). Prof Ellefson and the INSTRUCT lab hold interviews and make offer decisions by late January. Before contacting Prof Ellefson you should read important information for prospective students on the lab website.

Please note - Prof Ellefson has completed offers for 2024 entry and is no longer able to consider applications until the next application cycle (2025 entry). If you are interested in 2025 entry, then email Prof Ellefson by October 2024. Applications are due December 2024 and offers will be made by late January 2025.

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Course Involvement

  • Postgraduate
    • PhD / EdD supervisor
    • PGCE lecturer: science of learning (cognitive psychology and educational neuroscience)

  • Undergraduate
    • Undergraduate Tutor for Gonville & Caius College
    • Director of Studies for Gonville and Caius College

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Selected Publications



Journal Articles

Eberhart, J., Paes, T. M., Ellefson, M.., & Marcovitch, S. (2023). Executive functions and play. Trends in Neuroscience and Education, 30, 100198.

Lai, R. P., & Ellefson, M. R. (2023). How multidimensional is computational thinking competency? A bi-factor model of the Computational Thinking Challenge. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 61, 251-282. Preprint: Data/Scripts:

Tong, K., Chan, Y. N., Cheng, X., Cheon, B., Ellefson, M., Fauziana, R., Feng, S., Fischer, N., Gulyás, B., Hoo, N., Hung, D., Kalaivanan, K., Langley, C., Lee, K. M., Lee, L. L., Lee, T., Melani, I., Melia, N., Pei, J. Y., Raghani, L., … CLIC Phase 1 Consortium. (2023). Study protocol: How does cognitive flexibility relate to other executive functions and learning in healthy young adults? PloS One, 18(7), e0286208.

Ellefson, M. R., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2022). Is replication possible without fidelity? Psychological Methods. Advance Online Publication. Preprint: Data/Scripts: 

Zonneveld, A. K., Serpell, Z., Parr, T., & Ellefson, M. R. (2022). Executive function measurement in urban schools: Exploring the links between performance-based metrics and teacher ratings. Developmental Science, 25, e13319. Preprint: Preregistrations: and Data/Scripts: and

Patel, J., Aldercotte, A., Tsapali, M., Serpell, Z., Parr, T., & Ellefson, M. R. (2021). The zoo task: A novel metacognitive problem-solving task developed with a sample of African American children from schools in high poverty communities. Psychological Assessment, 33, 795-802. Preprint: Data: Zoo Task (Creative Commons license):

Vasilopoulos, F., & Ellefson, M. R. (2021). Investigation of the associations between physical activity, self-regulation and educational outcomes in childhood. PLOS One16, e0250984. Preprint:

Xu, C., Ellefson, M. R., Ng, F. F., Wang, Q., & Hughes, C. (2020). An East-West contrast in executive function: Measurement invariance of computerized tasks in school-aged children and adolescents. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 199, 104929. 

Ellefson, M. R., Zachariou, A., Ng, F. F., Wang, Q., & Hughes, C. (2020). Do executive functions mediate the link between socioeconomic status and numeracy skills? A cross-site comparison of Hong Kong and the United Kingdom. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 194, 104734.

Barsham, H., & Ellefson, M. R. (2020). Can teaching upper primary about the ‘testing effect’ increase feelings of confidence about test-taking? Impact, 8. See the Article 

Ellefson, M. R., Baker, S. T., & Gibson, J. (2019). Lessons for Successful Cognitive Developmental Science in Educational Settings: The Case of Executive Functions. Journal of Cognition and Development, 20, 253-277.

Tsapali, M., & Ellefson, M. R. (2019). Using direct instruction to train primary school children in decision-making skills in the science classroom. Impact, 5, 18-21. See the Article 

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

Ellefson, M. R., Shapiro, L. R., & Chater, N. (2006). Asymmetrical switch costs in children. Cognitive Development, 21, 108-130.

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.

Books and Book Chapters

Apedoe, X. S., Ellefson, M. R., & Schunn, C. D. (2021). Supporting conceptual change in chemistry through design-based learning: The heating/cooling system unit. In I. Henze and M. J. de Vries (Eds.) Design-based concept learning in science and technology education. Brill (pp. 49-74).

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].

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.

Michelle Ellefson

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