A Step Forward or a Step Back in Overcoming the Research-Practice Gap? Questioning Central Assumptions of the ICAP Framework

The interactive-constructive-active-passive (ICAP) framework classifies students' behavior into modes of engagement and hypothesizes that teachers and researchers can infer from behavior whether they are likely to learn. We argue that this assumption is problematic.

“Tell me and I forget.

Teach me and I remember.

Involve me and I learn.”

(Author unknown)

Involvement in learning is key. Learning scientists largely agree that the so-called cognitive activation of students determines learning. The introductory proverb expresses this assumption. Cognitive activation refers to the deep mental engagement of learners. If students are cognitively activated, they engage with the learning material, link it to what they have learned in the past, and think about how and where they may use this information in the future. This involvement in the learning process can be triggered by multiple methods such as asking challenging questions, activating prior knowledge or by confronting learners’ beliefs and knowledge.

Learning opportunities that do not engage the learners, but directly instruct or let the students repeatedly solve conventional problems, are less conducive to learning. The positive effects of cognitive activation are known for a long time, but still it remains hard to bridge the gap and transfer this insight into classroom practice.


How ICAP aims to bridge the gap

One framework that aims at bridging the gap between research and practice is the ICAP framework. ICAP is an acronym for interactive, constructive, active, and passive engagement modes of students. Whether a student is mentally activated could, according to the ICAP framework, be inferred by the teacher from their students’ observable behavior. In addition, the ICAP framework assumes that the interactive mode of engagement is most effective for learning, followed by constructive, then active, and lastly passive modes (I>C>A>P). This nicely aligns with the introducing proverb.

The modes of engagement are differentiated on the basis of students’ overt behaviors. For example, simply reading a text would be indicative of the passive mode, underlining text passages during reading would be indicative of the active mode, generating self-explanations on the text would be indicative of the constructive mode, and discussing a text with a peer would be indicative of the interactive mode. The ICAP framework is often applied in research and practice, for example to classify digital learning tools, or students’ behavior etc.

Why ICAP might be misleading

On the flip side, ICAP has shortcomings. The evidence that overt behavior aligns with corresponding cognitive processes is not convincing. In a recent comment in  Nature Science of Learning, we describe in detail why we are not convinced.

Backed by research, we argue that the covert features, rather than the overt features of student behavior, determine the effectiveness of learning activities. We argue that attending to overt behavior may too often be misleading. Students might actively solve a task or conduct an experiment following the instructions without the need to deeply think about it. Hands on – minds off. This is rather dangerous for sustainable learning.

Instead, teachers need to consider what helps the students to remain cognitively engaged, that is, mentally active, and provide individual support. Furthermore, with regard to the assumed hierarchy of the framework (I>C>A>P) there is no “one size fits all”-order of engagement modes. Classroom activity always consists of multiple steps of activities, such as a challenging question and a subsequent discussion, an additional explanation provided by the teacher, exercises to be conducted by the  students and exchanges in group work.

Cognitive activation may or may not be related to overt behavior. Consequently, changes in knowledge components and competencies can only be detected via deliberate assessment. In our comment, we delineate that overt behavior is an unreliable proxy of the cognitive activities of students and of the effectiveness of instruction.

How to gain insight into students learning and thinking

A prime, evidence-based candidate to gain insight into students’ learning and thinking is formative assessment. Formative assessment comprises systematic and regular assessment activities before, during, and after instruction. Assessment becomes formative when it is used to adapt the teaching and when the students can adapt their way of learning via feedback based on the formative assessment. 

What lies ahead

Our comment on the ICAP framework aims to inspire researchers to think about its use and limits. We hope that our comment stimulates further research towards finding valid cues of successful learning. Bearing in mind the introductory proverb and the suggestion to use formative assessment, maybe this AI-generated proverb is more accurate:

"Teach me without feedback, and I'll forget.

Give me feedback, and I'll remember.

Let me use feedback to improve, and I'll learn."

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