Differentiating Four Levels Of Engagement In Learning: The ICAP Hypothesis

CGI Q&A with ASU Fellow Dr. Michelene (Micki) Chi
Professor, Division of Educational Leadership and Innovation
Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College
Arizona State University

CGI: Please tell me about your work and the ICAP hypothesis.

Dr. Chi: I like to know about an area of research that has been a problem for many, many years. I like to be able to impose some kind of framework on it and make sense of either discrepant data out there, or contradictory studies. My work for this has to do with active versus passive learning. Everybody talks about, “We need students to be active learners.” People talk about that all the time, active versus passive. There has not previously been a definition… That is: What does that mean to be active in learning? What do teachers have to do to help students become active? Or, how do we tell teachers what to do? There are various methods that have been researched and have shown to be effective, but we don’t know which is better than which, why are they effective, and so on… So that’s one thing.

I wanted to put some coherence on this huge amount of data that’s kind of messy. The second thing I like to do in my research is to look at issues from various sides. Instead of looking at things from the expert side, I look at it from the novice side. I also did a lot of developmental work where instead of looking at it from the adult side, I looked at it from the kid side. So, this entire work is student centered, so the question is: “What do the students have to do that we can define as active? What is it exactly that they do?”

For this framework, I developed three categories of activities that students can do that we call active. Then, the categories are contrasted with what is called “passive”, and I also define what passive means. These definitions are based completely on overt behavior. The teachers can see the students’ overt behaviors. So, passive, contrary to what people think, is when the student is paying attention to you. In this case, the student is oriented toward you, paying attention.  However, usually, teachers do not always think that. They think paying attention is active, but “passive” is just receiving information.

“Active,” the second level, is when a student is doing something with the learning materials that does not go beyond the material. What that means is, if I gave you a page to read and you are underlining or highlighting but not going beyond the material, or copying information the teacher is writing on the board, those are all active, the distinction being that the student is not adding any more information than what is already given.

The third level is “constructive.” Constructive means I am actually adding something beyond the material. If you gave me a problem to solve and I start drawing a diagram where no diagram was given, that is creating something new. Another example is a strategy called ‘self explaining.’ That is, if I’m reading a text I can try to explain what that means to me. Without any feedback from anybody, I can just explain what that means to me. In the process of explaining, you actually look to learn something.

Beyond constructive, the last level is “interactive”. If you actually talk to somebody, another student, that’s interactive. You are also constructive while you are talking. What that means is, if you say something, I built on what you just said. Perhaps I asked you to justify, provided an elaboration on what you just said, or I challenge what you said. Those are productive, constructive interactions.

From this, I generated a hypothesis called ICAP. That is, interactive is better than constructive, which is better than active, which is better than passive. Based on students’ overt behavior, being a cognitive psychologist, I can think about the cognitive processes a student is doing while she is doing these things. One way to explain it is to say that when a student is underlining a sentence, what the student is actually doing is underlining something that might be important and she is paying more attention to it. The student is trying to integrate it with herself, so it all makes sense. From a cognitive processes point of view, I generated this ICAP hypothesis for learning. Then, I went to all the studies and literature that I could find. For those that I can interpret the conditions, what the intervention is — for example, the one intervention is interactive, the other intervention is passive — I can say, “Well, obviously they’ll interpret that interactive is better…” I look at the results and put it in my matrix and see if it fits.

I did that for all the studies and then I homed in on specific things. For homing in on ‘self explaining,’ which I know is constructive I would say, “Well, self explaining, it turns out is very successful. It is successful most of the time when compare to active, constructive. But, if you compare it to interactive, it may not be.” And, there are a couple of studies that show that. Also, the theory says something about studies and what kind of control conditions that they use.  If they use a weak control condition, of course you’re going to see an effect.

It also gives some coherence to a lot of studies that look at specific strategies. For example, summarizing. Half the studies say summarizing is good, half the studies say summarizing is bad. It depends on whether you are implementing it as a constructive activity, or active. So, one way people do summarizing is to take a page, and in summarizing they are basically just deleting what is irrelevant. That is called the delete strategy. It is an active strategy. You are not summarizing in your own words. From there, we can get coherence in the literature by saying, “Well, summarizing is good, if you do it this way. And the study is confusing because it is comparing to a passive control condition.”

CGI: So, what are you doing next with the research?

Dr. Chi: IES funded us so now we are asking, Can we, in fact, tell how teachers create these learning activities in their classrooms? For our preliminary attempt we went in to a college classroom and changed the activities for them. We said to the professor, “Show me what you do in class. Here is how we’re going to improve it for you. And, you try it.” We got that data and now we are developing an online module that teachers can use themselves. After going through the module they should know how to change the activities in class that they’ve designed, to improve them. That is the goal. After our preliminary attempt, we held a workshop with about 10 teachers and they tried the class. The data is just coming in and next semester we willl develop the module.

CGI: So, how do games impact your work?

Dr. Chi: For how it relates to games? It all depends. Games are like other technology environments. Technology environments claim they are interactive. Of course, they all need a response. But, you still have to look at what kind of responses do we require from the student. We can look at games, and other technologies and ask, “What kind of response to we require from students? Can we make those responses more constructive, interactive?” And then, we can consider how that would help learning better. It may not, if with an interactive system all you do is select or choose the best answer. Well, that is only active – choose an answer. That’s not ‘give an explanation.’

CGI: Do you think that could benefit the teacher training module to make it a game infused experience?

Dr. Chi: Could we make that into a more game-like module? I’m sure we could, but, I don’t think we could this time.  Beyond that, how could it hurt? It would just make it more interesting. However, not everyone can develop games. Games are very difficult and expensive to develop. And, with kids it is getting to the point where I am noticing a problem. They are so used to playing games, and in games all kinds of things happen. We are having trouble now when we show straightforward materials to kids. It’s not that the materials are simplistic, but it is not like when you push a button and different things come up. There is less happening and they get very discouraged. You know, all we want them to do is push so you see the next screen, lets say, and they just keep on doing that because they want to see what other fancy things might happen. It is like an entire populations of kids are expecting to be wowed by the screen.

Learn more about Dr. Michelene Chi’s ICAP hypothesis at her presentation for the Center for Games & Impact brown bag Fellows Series this month.

You can also download the 2009 paper: Active-contructive-interactive: a conceptual framework for differentiating learning activities.