Skip to main content

ASU professor straddles 2 disciplines with cognition, learning science research

Michelene Chi's work on improving how students learn complex concepts has earned her the top faculty distinction

michelene chi
February 05, 2019

Michelene Chi has tackled one of the thorniest problems in education: finding a way to get children to learn complex concepts.

Chi, a cognitive and learning science researcher, has been working for years not only on theories of how students learn science concepts and why they struggle, but also on ways to improve classroom teaching.

Chi has been so proficient in her field that she has been named one of four Regents' Professors for the 2018–19 school year — the highest faculty honor, which is achieved by only 3 percent of faculty members at Arizona State University.

Chi is the Dorothy Bray Professor of Science and Teaching in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. She leads the Learning and Cognition Lab at ASU, and she has written more than 150 research papers.

“I really straddle two fields, and when you straddle two fields, you’re not usually central to either, so to be recognized is great,” said Chi, whose research into cognition spans psychology and education.

She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and last year won the David E. Rumelhart Prize from the Cognitive Science Society for significant contributions to the theoretical foundations of human cognition.

One of Chi’s most significant achievements is the development of ICAP Framework, a way to deeply engage middle school science students in learning. ICAP stands for Interactive, Constructive, Active and Passive, which describes the four kinds of engagement that teachers can use. 

She also has studied “vicarious learning,” to see how students learn by watching videos. Her research found that students learn better by watching a video of a tutoring session, with give-and-take between the tutor and tutee, than by watching just a straightforward instructional video.

Her more recent work focuses on how to overcome students’ misconceptions about science concepts to improve teaching of complex processes. Her theory is called PAIC, for Pattern, Agent, Interaction and Cause.

“People have a natural tendency to think that these processes have a singular-multiple or sequential cause-and-effect, and they don’t understand collective causes,” she said.

For example, when geese fly in a “V” formation, many students believe it’s because the birds are following the leader goose, but it’s actually a complex system involving wind resistance. In the PAIC framework, students get additional content during the lesson that primes them to realize their misconception and better understand concepts such as diffusion and natural selection. That’s being tested this spring with ninth-graders.

Chi’s research is significant because it not only elucidates the theory, it sets out a way to use it in the classroom, which she describes as “translation” work.

“Translation research is not simply taking a theory or some finding in the lab and applying to the field. It’s not that simple, especially when it comes to learning,” she said.

“It has multiple steps, and in every step it can fail.”

For example, Chi’s most recent paper, published in 2018 the journal Cognitive Science, is a study of using ICAP in the classroom.

“We have to design a module to explain what ICAP is to teachers. Then we have to assess teachers’ understanding with a paper-and-pencil test,” she said.

“Then the third step is we see how well they understand it by how well they revise their lesson plans and how they design the classroom activities. Then we have to see whether they can implement it in real time while they’re teaching,” she said.

The fifth step is to see whether students actually do what the teacher asks them to do and whether they learn.

“You can’t just take a result and plunk it into a classroom,” she said. “You have to design the process in which the theory makes it into the classroom.”

Many times a theory about learning is turned into a professional-development module for teachers without that thoughtful, multi-step progression.

“Almost no one links from step one to that final step, which is student learning,” she said. “What you’re talking about is transferring what the teacher understands into a dynamic implementation process in the classroom, which is extremely difficult.”

Chi said that the more she works on translating theory to classroom learning, the more hurdles she uncovers. For example, so far the lab has not been able to replicate its success with students’ watching tutorial videos in a research study to a real classroom. One reason was because the students in the actual biology class didn’t like watching the tutorial videos.

“The dialogue video includes students making mistakes and they said, ‘We don’t want to learn from watching mistakes,’ but they don’t understand that the mistakes help them to learn.

“So you’re encountering this phenomenon where students’ beliefs about learning are not compatible with learning.”

She has found that collaborative interaction is one of the best ways to learn.

“But you can’t just put two people together and expect them to interact well,” she said. “What we need to do is to develop a training system to teach people how to collaborate.”

Also, working with teachers can present practical problems. In one project, Chi started with 20 teachers and was down to seven by the end of the study as teachers retired or moved to other classes. And sometimes they resist the methodology.

“A lot of teachers don’t like students to collaborate because they say, ‘I’ll lose control of the class,’ ” she said.

Sparking that moment when a student understands is critical, but Chi is driven by a wider goal.

“How do I describe that instruction so that I can hand it to you and you can do it? It’s no good if it can’t be scaled up,” she said.

Chi originally trained as a psychologist and wrote a highly cited paper about the difference in cognition between experts and novices in physics. 

“But then once I found the difference, I realized it’s not possible to teach a novice to become an expert because that difference is so great. It takes at least 10 years to become an expert,” she said.

“That’s when I turned my attention to learning.”

Chi said that ASU’s design inspirations, including a focus on use-inspired research, align perfectly with her mission.

“That's what my research direction is since arriving at ASU — I conduct research that can have an impact on student learning.”

Top photo: Regents' Professor Michelene Chi (photographed Jan. 28 on the Tempe campus) directs the Learning and Cognition Lab in the Institute for the Science of Teaching and Learning at ASU. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

More Arts, humanities and education


The word "hello" written in different languages on a chalkboard.

ASU to host CoLang2024; event focused on language preservation, documentation

The world’s leading Indigenous language activists, community scholars, students and academics will converge on Arizona State University in early June for CoLang 2024, the biannual event put on by the…

A photo from the view of a patio looking out to a lawn with a tree and a cloudy blue sky.

Students connect with cultural history through digital humanities

Digital humanities is a field that applies innovative digital tools to traditional humanities disciplines, such as art, literature and history. In the School of International Letters and Cultures,…

Row of school buses under a tree

Annual symposium to explore fundamentals of trauma-informed education

When it comes to fostering positive and safe classroom communities, teachers are on the front lines every day. And, as society changes, educators increasingly need access to the right tools,…