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ASU Professor Micki Chi wins Yidan Prize for Education Research

Prestigious honor a recognition of her rigorously researched framework for helping students be better engaged


Portrait of ASU Regents Professor Michelene Chi

Arizona State University Regents Professor Michelene “Micki” Chi's widely adopted theory of cognitive engagement, called ICAP (Interactive, Constructive, Active, Passive), has set a benchmark for defining active learning, giving teachers a stronger understanding of how students learn, and how to design lesson plans and activities to better engage them. Photo by by Deanna Dent/ASU 

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September 27, 2023

Arizona State University Regents Professor Michelene “Micki” Chi on Wednesday was awarded the 2023 Yidan Prize for Education Research, an international honor recognizing her innovative approaches that help learners reach their full potential and break down barriers to higher education.

The Yidan Prize, the biggest award in education, spotlights education changemakers through a rigorous international judging process. Chi — a Regents Professor and the Dorothy Bray Endowed Professor of Science and Teaching with ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College — will receive the award in a special ceremony in December in Hong Kong, where she will receive a gold medal and a $3.8 million award to help scale her work.

A scholar in cognitive science, Chi’s widely adopted theory of cognitive engagement, called ICAP (Interactive, Constructive, Active, Passive), has set a benchmark for defining active learning, giving teachers a stronger understanding of how students learn, and how to design lesson plans and activities to better engage them.

“We are woefully behind in new learning innovations, just as the need for accelerated learning outcomes increases,” said ASU President Michael Crow. “Micki Chi is a thoughtful creator of new concepts for learning and should help our species adapt to the challenges of the further technological enhancement of all things that we do. She is a transformative thinker.”

Chi is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Education, and she is the recipient of numerous recognitions and lifetime achievement awards in both psychology and education. Using the Yidan Prize funds, Chi plans to strengthen the ICAP framework, create professional development training modules for K–12 and postsecondary teachers, and expand the reach of ICAP globally.

“I am deeply honored to be recognized as a 2023 Yidan Prize Laureate for Education Research, as it has been my life’s work to advance a greater understanding of how people of all ages learn,” Chi said. “This award supports these efforts to further expand research in the role that cognitive science of learning plays in teaching, while also fulfilling a goal of mine to make this knowledge accessible to educators globally.

“I am grateful for the opportunity to continue to advance my work through Arizona State University and Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College in collaboration with many colleagues across disciplines, including those who have graciously participated in my pilot workshops.”

Helping learners understand complex concepts

Educators aim every day to help learners of all ages understand complex concepts. Increasingly, they have turned to “active learning” approaches, even though it is not always clear to educators what that precisely means.

For example, what exactly constitutes active learning activities, why are some activities less effective than others — and how should active learning activities be designed or selected from the many choices available online?

Chi’s ICAP framework, first published in 2009, helps answer these questions and allows for educators to create more effective learning experiences, fulfilling the potential of active learning approaches as well as providing a way to evaluate them.

“This is not about having educators make major changes to their lesson plans or approaches; rather it’s about how they can use the framework to make minor changes that can in fact improve students’ learning substantially across a range of subject matters,” she said.

ICAP’s rigorously researched framework has been widely accepted in academic circles. Five ICAP-focused papers have been cited more than 4,000 times.

With its emphasis on complex academic subjects, the ICAP framework is also seen as having particular value in potentially addressing a need to broaden participation of a diverse range of students pursuing STEM fields. Oftentimes, students who are challenged with grasping STEM-related subjects opt out of considering these careers, and many organizations and education groups are working toward addressing that issue, including ASU’s Center for Broadening Participation in STEM.

“As science and technology increasingly shape our economic and civic life, we can’t underestimate how important it is to teach science well,” said Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College Dean Carole Basile. “What’s remarkable about Micki Chi’s work is that it marries the most advanced cognitive science to clear, usable actions educators can take to deepen the learning of students.”

How ICAP works

Instead of the binary “active” and “passive” ways of designing instruction, ICAP provides concrete definitions that more clearly differentiate “passive” from “active” instruction by expanding the “active” definition to three broad types of behavior modes.

ICAP identifies the passive mode to when students are only paying attention and receiving information, such as watching a video or listening to a lecture, without doing anything else. ICAP then identifies these three kinds of active learning distinctions:

  • Active mode refers to students selectively manipulating instructional materials without adding any other information, such as highlighting the key sentences or choosing an option among the ones provided.
  • Constructive mode means that students are generating additional information beyond (i.e., not presented in) the learning materials, such as posing a question or diagramming a problem. 
  • Interactive mode means that students are collaborating with a peer by co-generating, such as elaborating and building on each other’s inferences. One example includes debating with a peer or jointly writing a critique.

The ICAP hypothesis predicts that learning improves significantly from the passive, to the active, then the constructive and interactive modes (based on students’ thinking processes).

ICAP provides a top-down theory that can provide theoretical predictions of hundreds of laboratory studies already published in the literature with a uniform and systematic explanation. ICAP also can categorize instructors’ actual teaching methods and lesson plans, and is adaptable for physical or online classrooms.

RELATED: Chi’s recommendations for educators

Yidan Prize and next steps

Through the support of the Yidan Prize, Chi will be able to make these insights even more accessible to educators and practitioners nationally and globally. The funding will allow her to expand on ICAP research, develop training modules and workshops, and create a practical manual for instructional developers. The focus will be to scale its impact.

“Michelene’s most significant contribution to educational research is a scientific theory of how students learn. She has organized profoundly different approaches to active learning into a simple, yet widely applicable framework — and she’s passionate about ensuring that this theory changes educational practice on the ground,” said Andreas Schleicher, head of the Yidan Prize for Education Research judging panel.

Chi won the Yidan Prize for Education Research; Shai Reshef, president and founder of the University of the People, was awarded the 2023 Yidan Prize for Education Development.

The Yidan Prize Foundation builds collaboration between research and practice, encouraging partnerships that shape the future of education.

“We’re delighted to welcome Micki and Shai to our global community,” said Edward Ma, secretary-general of the Yidan Prize Foundation. “Our judges noted the work of this year’s laureates is widely applicable and scalable, reimagining education for the needs of today’s learners.”

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