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Professional Development Modules

Learning Cycle

Instructional Model

An instructional model, common to science curricula, provides a roadmap through the teaching experience. Using a model doesn't lock the teacher into one instructional strategy, but opens the teaching episode to the use of cooperative learning, guided inquiry, and the use of technology. A model allows for different forms of interaction between teacher and learners and provides time and opportunities for learners to meet the instructional goals for the lesson.

Learning Cycle

The AGPA website uses the Learning Cycle as the instructional model for its lesson plans and for the modules for providers of professional development (PPD). The learning cycle rests on constructivism as its theoretical foundation. "Constructivism is a dynamic and interactive model of how humans learn" (Bybee, 1997, p. 176). A constructivist perspective assumes students must be actively involved in their learning and concepts are not transmitted from teacher to student but constructed by the student. In the early 1960's, Robert Karplus and his colleagues proposed and used an instructional model based on the work of Piaget. This model would eventually be called the Learning Cycle (Atkin & Karplus, 1962). Numerous studies have shown that the learning cycle as a model of instruction is far superior to transmission models in which students are passive receivers of knowledge from their teacher (Bybee, 1997). As an instructional model, the learning cycle provides the active learning experiences recommended by the National Science Education Standards (National Research Council, 1996). Organizing the PPD modules around the learning cycle model provides the PPD with an effective model of instruction. It is our hope that a PPD-delivered experience of a learning cycle episode may transfer to the participants' use of the learning cycle model in their own teaching setting.

Steps of the Learning Cycle

The learning cycle used in these modules follows Bybee's (1997) five steps of Engagement, Exploration, Explanation, Elaboration, and Evaluation. As in any cycle, there's really no end to the process. After elaboration ends, the engagement of the next learning cycle begins. Evaluation is not the last step. Evaluation occurs in all four parts of the learning cycle. The description of each part of the learning cycle draws extensively from Smith's work.

Learning Cycle - 5E Model

A. Engagement

Engagement is a time when the PPD is on center stage. The PPD poses the problem, pre-assesses the participants, helps participants make connections, and informs participants about where they are heading.

The Purpose of engagement is to:

  • Focus participants' attention on the topic.
  • Pre-assess participants' prior knowledge.
  • Inform the participants about the lesson's objective(s).
  • Remind participants of what they already know that they will need to apply to learning the topic at hand.
  • Pose a problem for the participants to explore in the next phase of the learning cycle.

Evaluation of Engagement: Evaluation's role in engagement revolves around the pre-assessment. Find out what the participants already know about the topic at hand. The PPD could ask questions and have the participants respond orally and/or in writing.

B. Exploration

Now the participants are at the center of the action as they collect data to solve the problem. The PPD makes sure the participants collect and organize their data in order to solve the problem. The participants need to be active. The purpose of exploration is to have participants collect data that they can use to solve the problem that was posed.

Evaluation of Exploration: In this portion of the learning cycle the evaluation should primarily focus on process, i.e., on the participants' data collection, rather than the product of the participants' data collection. PPDs ask themselves questions such as the following:

  • How well are the participants collecting data?
  • Are they carrying out the procedures correctly?
  • How do they record the data?

C. Explanation

In this phase of the process, participants use the data they have collected to solve the problem and report what they did and try to figure out the answer to the problem that was presented. The PPD also introduces new vocabulary, phrases or sentences to label what the participants have already figured out.

Evaluation of Explanation: Evaluation here focuses on the process the participants are using -- how well can participants use the information they've collected, plus what they already knew to come up with new ideas? Using questions, the PPD can assess the participants' comprehension of the new vocabulary and new concepts.

D. Elaboration

The PPD gives participants new information that extends what they have been learning in the earlier parts of the learning cycle. At this stage, the PPD also poses problems that participants solve by applying what they have learned. During this part of the lesson participants should be planning their implementation of the best practice or their enhanced content knowledge into lessons for their students.

Evaluation of Elaboration: The evaluation that occurs during elaboration focuses on participants' plan for classroom implementation and/or their enhanced content knowledge.


Atkin, J. M. & Karplus, R. (1962). Discovery or invention. The Science Teacher 29(2), 121-143

National Research Council. (1996). National science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Smith, W. S. (unpublished). Learning cycle approach to science teaching.

The Learning Cycle as a Tool for Planning Science Instruction
Anthony W. Lorsbach, Illinois State University This site shows the learning cycle as an established planning method in science education, often referred to as the 5 E's.

Teaching Using the Five E's
This site explains that the 5E Learning Cycle is a method of structuring a science lesson that is based upon constructivist learning theory.
This site explains Kolb's Four Learning Styles as a cycle consisting of experiencing, reflecting theorizing and experimenting.

Research Matters - to the Science Teacher No. 9701
Article - The Learning Cycle Approach to Science Instruction by Michael R. Abraham, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK 73019,

ELEARNSPACE-The Learning Development Cycle
This site shows the Learning Development Cycle, which attends to four broad learning domains: transmission, emergence, acquisition, and accretion.

AN EXPANDED VIEW OF THE LEARNING CYCLE: New ideas about an effective teaching strategy. Council for Elementary Science International (resource by Barnum, C. R.)
This site displays a teaching model or instructional strategy that is modeled after the way Piaget and others have described concept development. It consists of three distinct phases: (1) exploration phase, (2) concept introduction phase (invention or term introduction) and (3) concept application phase (expansion, discovery). Also included is a Learning Cycle Checklist to help determine science lesson components.

A Comparison of Models of Strategies for Conceptual Reconstruction: Dennis W. Sunal
This site shows a variety of learning cycle frameworks that center on a strategy involving experience, interpretation, and elaboration. They all fit under the general name of the learning cycle (Karplus, 1979).

Experiential Learning by C. Rogers
This site notes Rogers' Experiential Learning, which addresses the needs and wants of the learner. Rogers lists these qualities of experiential learning: personal involvement, self-initiated, evaluated by learner, and pervasive effects on learner.

Introduction to the Self-regulated Learning Model
Coastline Community College shows Self-regulated Learning (also called the SRL cycle), which refers to specific ways that learners take control of their own learning.

INTERNATIONAL ALLIANCE FOR LEARNING The Professional Organization for Accelerated Learning
This site explains The International Alliance for Learning's Accelerated (six phase) Learning Cycle.