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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)
  • Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD)
  • Association for Psychological Science (APS)
  • 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). 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 website.

Please note - we have made all of the offers that we can make for 2021-22. If you are interested in PhD entry for 2022-23, then email Dr Ellefson by October 2021.

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Course Involvement

  • Postgraduate
    • PhD / EdD supervisor
    • MPhil/MEd (Psychology and Education) supervisor and lecturer: Quantitative data analysis, cognition and cognitive development, 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
    • Lectures on cognitive development, cognitive psychology, educational neuroscience, learning & memory, (scientific) reasoning

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Selected Publications


Journal Articles

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.MA, & 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 

Tsapali, M., Paes, T.M., & Ellefson, M.R. (2020). Researching cognitive development in primary schools: Methods and practical considerations. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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

Young, M.E., & Ellefson, M.R. (2003). The joint contributions of shape and color to variability discrimination. Learning and Motivation, 34, 52-67.

Young, M.E., Ellefson, M.R., & Wasserman, E.A. (2003). Toward a theory of variability discrimination: Finding differences. Behavioural Processes, 62, 145-155.

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.

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

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., 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.

Michelle Ellefson

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