Learning Cycle

It is not hard to learn more. What is hard, is to unlearn when you discover yourself wrong. 

Martin H. Fischer

About this teacher move

A Learning Cycle lesson can be used for any content area in which the goal is to create a motivational learning context in which students are actively engaged in exploring, discussing, and synthesizing information. The Learning Cycle approach to instructional planning capitalizes on what is known about how people learn and is designed to cause lasting changes in a student’s conceptual understanding. The model used here was adapted from the 5E Learning Cycle popularized by the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study. Although this Learning Cycle framework is geared toward building individual lessons, the Learning Cycle approach is more commonly applied when designing instructional units that consist of multiple lessons.

Each step in a learning cycle serves a different purpose and incorporates specially structured activities. What makes this type of lesson format particularly effective is its emphasis on active engagement of the learner and that it requires students to explore their prior understanding as they encounter new material. Finally, the 5 E Model provides opportunities that challenge students to apply these new understanding in novel, but related situations.

Learning Cycles cast teachers in the role of curriculum developers. During the lesson’s actual implementation, teacher responsibilities vary according to what happens during each stage of the Learning Cycle. Sometimes the situation calls for direct instruction. In cases where activities are more student-centered, the teacher plays a less prominent, background role.

Implementing this teacher move

1. Choose a topic and identify the related student Learning Expectations to which the topic is aligned.

2.  Design an assessment that is closely tied to the Learning Expectations that you are targeting. Build a corresponding scoring rubric if necessary.

3. Apply the focusing questions in the Learning Cycle framework to determine the ideal stage for introducing an activity.

  • Always ask, “Does this activity really help students to meet the learning expectations on which the assessment is based?”
  • If an activity is a good one, but does not really address the targeted learning goals, consider using it for enrichment purposes.

4. Assess student understanding.

5. Consider supplementing the Learning Cycle with a Learning Center where students can further explore the topic.


Managing this teacher move with students

The key to building a quality Learning Cycle is to carefully select activities that address the goals for each particular stage in the 5E Model.

1. A quality Engagement activity promotes student involvement in the topic or question in an exciting way.

  • Tends to be of short duration and is highly motivational and interesting.
  • “Hooks” the learner and generate interest in the topic.
  • Focusing Question: What is your plan for generating excitement about the topic?

2. A quality Exploration activity taps into and activates student’s prior knowledge.

  • Offers opportunity for students to mess around and investigate objects, materials, and events based on their own ideas and prior knowledge of the topic.
  • Often reveals student misconceptions.
  • Provides information to the teacher about student readiness for learning about the topic.
  • Focusing Question: What is your plan for activating students’ prior knowledge?

3. A quality Explanation activity provides direct instruction or active learning experiences that build new content knowledge or promote skill acquisition.

  • Often requires a more active role by the teacher.
  • Focusing Question: What is your plan for introducing students to new content knowledge or skills?

4. A quality Extension activity enables students to compare the efficacy of former ideas about the topic with new understandings.

  • Encourages students to apply or transfer their new knowledge or skills in new and different contexts.
  • Can be used to make connections with other content areas.
  • Focusing Question: What is your plan for allowing students to extend their new content knowledge to a new, but related context?

5. A quality Evaluation activity is the opportunity for students to demonstrate their understanding of the topic or question.

  • Is a formative assessment that reveals if Learning Expectations have been met by the student.
  • Provides an indication of teacher effectiveness.
  • Focusing Question: What is your plan for assessing students’ understanding of this topic?