I > C > A > P

The title of this post appears to be a cryptic message, perhaps an arcane relationship from a long-forgotten physics textbook. In reality, it summarizes one of the most important ideas about learning to be articulated in the last 10 years or so.

The relationship makes perfect sense to many teachers when we replace the initials with the words:

Interactive > Constructive > Active > Passive

Many authors who summarize Chi and Wylie’s (2014) ICAP theory capitalize the words to capture the true nature of the types of activity that result in deeper learning. The relationship can be articulated, “learners who are interactive learn more than those who are constructive who learn more than those who are active who learn more than those who are passive.” (Some define a genius idea as one that makes individuals think, “why didn’t I think of that?” Using this criterium, this is a genius observation.)

Practitioners who seek to use this theory of learning to organize and structure classroom activities often differentiate these four types of activities through a combination of learners’ behavior and their products:

Passive learning is characterized by students appearing to pay attention and store information. When there is little produced other than recall, we can be sure the learning was passive.

an image capturing passive learning as information retrieval
Representing passive learning

Active learning is characterized by learners seeking to activate and link information by connecting it to prior learning and to facilitate storage. In general, when learners manipulate information or restate it, they are engaged in active learning. When they are done, they have not created new information.

an image representing active learning as students cognitively enaged with infformation
Representing active learning

Constructive learning is characterized by learners actively processing the information and creating new information as a result. When learners compare and contrast, ask and answer questions, make prediction, and draw images to illustrate ideas; they are generating new ideas and information, thus engaged in Constructive learning.  

an image representing constructive learning as learners creating new ideas
Representing constructive learning

Interactive learning is characterized by learners constructing information with other learners. This finds learners restating others’ ideas, asking and answering each other’s’ questions, and otherwise creating understanding that incorporates another’s perspective.

Representing interactive learning as social construction
Representing interactive learning as social construction

ICAP is a theory of learning; it allows us to predict what types of learning will lead individuals to have more robust understanding and be able to apply their knowledge in new situations. It does have implications for educators as well. When designing courses, units, and lessons, we can design classroom work and assignments to align with the “greatest” type of learning.

As instructional leaders, we face the challenge, as well, of convincing educators that is is not necessary to progress through this learning typology from passive to interactive. Learner can be interactive about ideas, even if they have very limited experience in the field.


Chi, M., & Wylie, R. (2014). The ICAP framework: Linking cognitive engagement and active learning outcomes. Educational Psychologist, 47, 177-188.