The ICE model: An Alternative Learning Framework – Monica Vesely

IMost often we approach the design of our main course elements – intended learning outcomes (ILOs), formative and summative assessments, and teaching and learning activities – by turning to Bloom’s Taxonomy (and most frequently the cognitive domain) to help us determine the appropriate level of thinking required and to help us express that accurately in our descriptions.

Sometime we can find ourselves overwhelmed with the distinctions that need to be made in selecting the appropriate dimension and/or domain. Other times, we may struggle with determining where our targeted ILO or teaching and learning activity might fit in the hierarchy. In these cases, it may be helpful to turn to an alternate framework to help guide your work.

The ICE model is one such framework. The ICE acronym stands for ideas, connections and extensions. This model was first introduced by Wilson in 1996 in “an effort to condense the cognitive transformative literature”. Further development by Fostaty Young and Wilson lead to the definition of the three main stages of learning growth from novice through to competence and expertise.

Figure 1: The ICE Framework for Learning and Assessment

ICE Framework Representation

Adapted from Fostaty Young’s presentation, The ICE Approach to Teaching, Learning and Assessment: Examples from Queen’s University and other Canadian Institutions.

In this model, the Ideas represent the “building blocks of learning”. These could be discrete information pieces (definitions, facts, steps in a process, etc.) or discrete skills (taking an instrument reading, removing disposable gloves, etc.). At the Connections stage, the model suggests “appropriate links” are made between these pieces of information or ideas and this linking process includes connecting “new knowledge to what is already know on a broader scale” (within a course, to other courses, to an individual’s personal or professional experience). Extensions “involve re-working the students’ knowledge and understanding by extrapolating, predicting outcomes or working out implications”.

This is very much an iterative process that Fostaty Young describes as “a non-linear, non-hierarchical transformation process”.

ICE Iterative Cycle

Figure 2: The ICE Framework: not linear or hierarchical, but transformative

Adapted from Fostaty Young’s presentation, The ICE Approach to Teaching, Learning and Assessment: Examples from Queen’s University and other Canadian Institutions.

Once extensions are made, learners need more ideas to further these extensions. Fostaty Young points out that once connections form from ideas, they are no longer able to be teased apart; but, instead, form the idea categories for the next pass through the three stages ultimately resulting in “the many enmeshed connections” typical of experts.

By not requiring distinctions between domains, the ICE models provides a more holistic approach to setting intended learning outcomes. It helps to support coherence among course elements in a way that helps students make sense of their learning. The ICE model provides an accessible, common framework for both instructors and students. When this framework is shared and talked about with students, Fostaty Young suggests it can encourage deeper approaches to learning and it can promote learning independence.

The next time you are working on developing one of your course elements or redesigning your course altogether, why not consider using the ICE framework to help you approach your task in a fresh way.



Fostaty Young, S. and Wilson, R. J. (2000) Assessment and Learning: The ICE Approach. Winnipeg Portage and Main Press

Fostaty Young, S. (2005). Teaching, learning, and assessment in higher education: Using ICE to improve student learning. In the proceedings of the Improving Student Learning Symposium. London, UK, Imperial College. (Volume 13, 105-115)

Fostaty Young, S. (2008) Theoretical frameworks and models of learning: tools for developing conceptions of teaching and learning. International Journal for Academic Development (Volume 13, Issue 1)

Leger, A. B. and Fostaty Young, S. (2014) A Graduate Course on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education: Influences on Conceptions of Teaching and Learning. The Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. (Volume 5, Issue. 1, Article 3)

Renyk, G. and Stephenson, J. (2011) The ICE Approach: Saving the World One Broken Toaster at a Time. Canadian Theatre Review (Volume 147, pp.61-67)

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Monica Vesely

Monica Vesely is an Instructional Developer with the Centre for Teaching Excellence where she conducts teaching observations, facilitates the Instructional Skills Workshop (ISW), coordinates the Teaching Squares Program, and assists new faculty with their teaching professional development. In her focus on new faculty, she chairs the New Faculty Welcoming Committee, supports new faculty initiatives across campus, consults with new faculty to assist them with the preparation of individualized Learning About Teaching Plans (LATPs), facilitates workshops and builds community through various communications and social events. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Monica worked with the NSERC Chair in Water Treatment in Civil and Environmental Engineering, taught in the Department of Chemistry, and designed learning experiences with Waterloo's Professional Development Program (WatPD).

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