The Learning Cycle in Elementary Science

Hands-on activity is important in science. As students observe, measure, and manipulate, they are exploring content as well as the very nature of science. Yet these hands-on investigations don’t always equate with deep, meaningful, and correct understanding of scientific concepts. In many cases, students will interpret an activity in a way that strengthens misconceptions, rather than corrects them.

How can teachers ensure that hands-on science leads to real learning? One effective way is through the implementation of the learning cycle.


The learning cycle incorporates hands-on activity, reading science text, directed discussion, and problem solving. By alternating hands-on and minds-on activities, teachers can ensure that students receive needed guidance as they develop conceptual understanding. In general, the learning cycle can be broken into three phases:

  1. Exploration: Students are engaged through firsthand experiences and investigations.
  2. Concept Introduction: Students build ideas through text and guided discussions.
  3. Concept Application: Students use ideas to solve new problems.

Since the learning cycle was introduced in 1967, many variations have been created. One popular version, the 5-E model, uses the following sequence:

  1. Engage: The teacher uses an object, event, or question to spark student interest in the topic.
  2. Explore: Students conduct firsthand experiences and investigations.
  3. Explain: Students read, participate in guided discussions, and explain their understanding.
  4. Elaborate: Activities allow students to apply concepts or to extend their thinking.
  5. Evaluate: The teacher assesses knowledge, skills, and abilities and students reflect on their understanding.

Some explain the 5-E model as four sequential steps, with the fifth E (Evaluate) occurring throughout the cycle.

Related models range from three to seven “e-word” phases, but all involve hands-on activity, directed discussions, and opportunities to solve problems and apply new concepts.


The “cycle” in learning cycle refers to more than the alternating hands-on and minds-on experiences. Instead, the sequence is meant to lead back to the beginning, with Elaboration and Evaluation flowing back into Engagement and Exploration. Too many times, students (and teachers) view learning as sequential steps with a clearly defined start and finish. The learning cycle mimics the ongoing nature of learning – and of science.


Alternating hands-on activities with directed discussions has been found to increase achievement and retention. Learning cycles also lend themselves to inquiry-based instruction, in which students actively investigate the answer to a question they do not know the answer to.


Using a learning cycle to plan and select lessons doesn’t have to be difficult. Many existing lessons and activities can be adapted to fit within the learning cycle or to promote inquiry-based learning. Several of the resources listed at the end of this article provide suggestions and guidance for teachers looking to use learning cycles in their instruction.


The Learning Cycle
An overview of the three-part model of scientific inquiry.

Best Teaching Practices: Learning Cycle
An overview of the 5-E learning cycle model.

The Learning Cycle
Another variation of the 5-E learning cycle model.

Examining the Learning Cycle
This article from the National Science Teachers Association journal Science and Children provides an overview of the learning cycle and how teachers can plan and use learning cycle instruction. Free for NSTA members, $0.99 for nonmembers.

Instructional Models in Science Learning: Learning Cycles Promote Inquiry
This article discusses learning cycles in general and explains how to select lessons based on a learning cycle and how to use inquiry methods in conjunction with learning cycles.

Strategies for ELL Success
This article from the National Science Teachers Association journal Science and Children describes how to modify the 5-E learning cycle to help English Language Learners master science content. Free for NSTA members, $0.99 for nonmembers.

“Inquirize” Your Teaching
This article from the National Science Teachers Association journal Science and Children describes how to use the 5-E learning cycle to plan inquiry-based instruction. Free for NSTA members, $0.99 for nonmembers.

This article was written by Jessica Fries-Gaither. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Kimberly Lightle, Principal Investigator, with any questions about the content of this site.

Copyright April 2009 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.


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