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Dr Michelle Ellefson

Dr Michelle Ellefson

University Senior Lecturer in Psychology & Education

Bye-Fellow and Director of Studies for Education, Gonville & Caius College

Faculty of Education
184 Hills Road

Cambridge , Cambridgeshire CB2 8PQ
Office Phone: 01223 767684


Michelle Ellefson convenes the INSTRUCT Research Group (Implementing New Student and Teaching 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.

Departments and Institutes

Faculty of Education:

Research Interests

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



Key Publications

Goedert, K.M., Ellefson, M.R., & Rehder, 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. PlosONE, 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

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

Other Publications

Young, M.E., Wasserman, E.A., & Ellefson, M.R. (2007). A theory of variability discrimination: Finding differences. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review14, 805-822.

Young, M.E., & Ellefson, M.R. (2003). The joint contributions of shape and color to variability discrimination. Learning and Motivation34, 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. 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 Sciences25, 752-753. doi:10.1017/S0140525x02230137

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. New York, USA: Springer Verlag.

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, UK: Oxford University Press. [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). Philadelphia, PA, USA: John Benjamins.

Molfese, D.L., & Ellefson, M.R. (1999). The use of event-related potentials to study cognitive disorders. Journal of Molecular and Chemical Neuropathology13, 263-264.

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