Learning Cycle

The lesson plans on the AGPA website use the Learning Cycle as the instructional model for its lesson plans. 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).

The learning cycle used in these lesson plans 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.

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

The purpose of engagement is to:

  • Focus students' attention on the topic.
  • Pre-assess what students' prior knowledge.
  • Inform the students about the lesson's objective(s).
  • Remind students of what they already know that they will need to apply to learning the topic at hand.
  • Pose a problem for the students 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 students already know about the topic at hand. The teacher could ask questions and have the students respond orally and/or in writing.

B. Exploration:
Now the students are at the center of the action as they collect data to solve the problem. The teacher makes sure the students collect and organize their data in order to solve the problem. The students need to be active. The purpose of exploration is to have students 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 students' data collection, rather than the product of the students' data collection. Teachers ask themselves questions such as the following:

  • How well are the students collecting data?
  • Are they carrying out the procedures correctly?
  • How do they record the data?
  • Is it in a logical form or is it haphazard?

C. Explanation:
In this phase of the process, students 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 teacher also introduces new vocabulary, phrases or sentences to label what the students have already figured out.

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

D. Elaboration:
The teacher gives students new information that extends what they have been learning in the earlier parts of the learning cycle. At this stage the teacher also poses problems that students solve by applying what they have learned. The problems include both examples and non-examples.

Evaluation of Elaboration: The evaluation that occurs during elaboration is what teachers usually think of as evaluation. Sometimes teachers equate evaluation with "the test at the end of the chapter." When teachers have the students do the application problems as part of elaboration, these application problems are "the test."

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Additional Resources

JOURNAL ARTICLES - To access most of these Journal Articles, you must be a student, faculty or staff member at an OhioLINK affiliated institution. Access to OhioLINK may be available to Ohioans through their local, public, or school libraries. Contact OPLIN, INFOhio, or your local library for more information.

Understanding the learning cycle: Influences on abilities to embrace the approach by preservice elementary school teachers
Science Education, Vol. 84, Issue: 1, January 2000. pp. 43 - 50
Settlage, John
The purpose of this study was to deepen science teacher educators' knowledge about the process of instilling the learning cycle within the teaching repertoire of elementary education majors. A previous study revealed great variability in preservice teachers' capacity to understand the learning cycle; the current study was designed to explore factors contributing to this situation. Attitudes toward science and teaching efficacy were posited to explain the rate at which students grasped this.

Students' science perceptions and enrollment decisions in differing learning cycle classrooms
Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Vol. 38, Issue: 9, November 2001. pp. 1029 - 1062
Cavallo, Ann M.L.; Laubach, Timothy A.
This investigation examined 10th-grade biology students' decisions to enroll in elective science courses, and explored certain attitudinal perceptions of students that may be related to such decisions. The student science perceptions were focused on student and classroom attitudes in the context of differing learning cycle classrooms (high paradigmatic/high inquiry, and low paradigmatic/low inquiry). The study also examined possible differences in enrollment decisions/intentions and.

Knowledge management in pursuit of learning: the Learning with Knowledge Cycle
Journal of Information Science, Vol. 27, Issue: 4, August 2001. pp. 227-237
Rowley, Jennifer
This paper suggests that knowledge and learning are closely intertwined. An overview of some of the key differences between the respective concepts of the learning organisation and knowledge management forms a basis for exploring the link between these two concepts. Both concepts are under evolution. A model that contributes to the formation of an ontology for analytic discussion, and.

Integrating concept mapping and the learning cycle to teach diffusion and osmosis concepts to high school biology students
Science Education, Vol. 85, Issue: 6, November 2001. pp. 615 - 635
Odom, Arthur L.; Kelly, Paul V.
This study explores the effectiveness of concept mapping, the learning cycle, expository instruction, and a combination of conceptmapping/learning cycle in promoting conceptual understanding of diffusion and osmosis. Four high school biology classes were taught diffusion and osmosis concepts with the aforementioned treatments. Conceptual understanding was assessed immediately and seven weeks after instruction with the Diffusion and Osmosis Diagnostic Test (DODT). The results indicated the.
of knowledge internalization based on learning cycle theory. A.

Evaluating online CPD using educational criteria derived from the experiential learning cycle
British Journal of Educational Technology, Vol. 33, Issue: 4, September 2002. pp. 367-378
Friedman, Andrew; Watts, David; Croston, Judith; Durkin, Catherine
A set of educational evaluation criteria for online continuing professional development (CPD) courses is developed using Kolb's (1984) experiential learning cycle theory. These criteria are used to evaluate five courses provided by online CPD websites. It was found that these online CPD courses neglect parts of the learning cycle. Suggestions for improvements in these areas are given.

The workplace learning cycle: A problem-based curriculum model for the preparation of workplace learning professionals
Journal of Workplace Learning: Employee Counselling Today, Vol. 16, Issue: 6, 2004. pp. 341-349
O'Connor, Bridget N.
Building on the conceptual foundations suggested in the previous two papers in this issue, this article describes the application of a workplace learning cycle theory to the construction of a curriculum for a graduate-level course of study in workplace education. As a way to prepare chief learning officers and heads of corporate universities, the piece argues, one can engage students in the process of analyzing the learning and knowledge-use in a work environment through the lenses of the.


This is a 300 page collection of articles relating to the nature of science in science education and concentrates on various rationales and strategies. In the section Communicating the Nature of Science Courses and Course Elements, there is a an article on elementary science methods that deals with the learning cycle as well as other teaching strategies.

Originally developed in an elementary science program called the Science Curriculum Improvement Study, the learning cycle (LC) teaching approach involves students in an active learning process modeled on four elements of Jean Piaget's theory of cognitive development: physical experience, referring to the biological growth of the central nervous system; social interaction; physical maturation; and self-regulation, the active process of forming concepts. The LC approach consists of three phases: exploration, concept introduction, and concept application. Implementing the LC requires a shift in educational philosophy from the view of students as empty vessels to be filled with large amounts of information to the use of strategies emulating scientific methodology and incorporating recent cognitive science findings


A learning cycle lesson consists of three phases: concept exploration, concept introduction, and concept application. Describes the application of the learning cycle model to the design of inservice and preservice teacher education curriculum.

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