National Association for Research in Science TeachingContact UsSite Map


Research Matters - to the Science Teacher
No. 9701     Jan. 2, 1997


The Learning Cycle Approach To Science Instruction
by Michael R. Abraham, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK 73019,


The Learning Cycle Approach is an inquiry-based teaching model which can be useful to teachers in designing curriculum materials and instructional strategies in science. The model is derived from constructivist ideas of the nature of science, and the developmental theory of Jean Piaget (Piaget, 1970). The model divides the activities of instruction into phases. In this approach, students are first given experience with a concept to be developed. This experience is most often a laboratory experiment and is called the exploration (E) phase. This is followed by the conceptual invention (I) phase where the student and/or teacher derives the concept from the data. This is usually carried out during a classroom discussion. The final phase, the application (A) phase, gives the student the opportunity to explore the usefulness and application of the concept. A useful and extended discussion of the Learning Cycle Approach with examples can be found in Lawson (1995).

The learning cycle approach as a recognized instructional strategy can be traced to the Science Curriculum Improvement Study (SCIS), an elementary school science curriculum project initiated during the late 1950's. (Atkin & Karplus, 1962).

There are several characteristics which, when used in combination, establish the learning cycle approach as a distinct instructional strategy. The most important of these is the presence of three phases of instruction in a specific sequence, E-->I-->A. This sequence has a number of logical consequences. The exploration phase coming first implies that the information exposed by the laboratory activity will be used inductively by students during the invention phase. Since in science instruction the exploration is most commonly a laboratory activity, the data generated by the laboratory will be generalized to a concept. Because laboratory work is used as an introduction to a concept in the Learning Cycle Approach, it takes on a more central role in instruction. Traditional laboratory activities used to confirm concepts are more peripheral to the main focus of instruction.

Students distinguish the Learning Cycle Approach from traditional approaches in the following ways (Abraham, 1981):

  • the Learning Cycle Approach emphasizes the explanation and investigation of phenomena, the use of evidence to back up conclusions, and the designing of experiments.
  • traditional approaches emphasize the development of skills and techniques, the receiving of information, and the knowing of the outcome of an experiment before doing it.

There has been a large amount of research concerning the Learning Cycle Approach since its origins in the 1960's. Most of the research supporting the Learning Cycle Approach is discussed in detail in Lawson, Abraham & Renner (1989).

A summary of this research supports the conclusion that the Learning Cycle Approach can result in greater achievement in science, better retention of concepts, improved attitudes toward science and science learning, improved reasoning ability, and superior process skills than would be the case with traditional instructional approaches (see for example: Abraham & Renner, 1986; Ivins, 1986; McComas III, 1992; Raghubir, 1979; Renner, Abraham & Birnie, 1985). This is especially true with intermediate level students where instructional activities have a high level of intellectual demand (Lott, 1983).


Instructional strategies utilized to teach science concepts are most effective when they consist of activities which serve three functions: (1) to introduce the concept, (2) to discuss the concept, and (3) to apply the concept. The learning cycle approach is an effective instructional strategy because it consists of activities focused on these functions, and uses laboratory activities to introduce rather than to verify concepts.

It is hypothesized that all of the phases of instruction are necessary because each plays a special role in learning. This view is consistent with modern learning theories which emphasize the construction of mental structures (e.g. Piaget's functioning model).

The form or format of each phase of instruction is dictated by the role that the phase plays in instruction. The exploration phase is best suited to introduce the concept. The laboratory format has been shown to be effective in that role. The invention phase is best suited to identify or label the concept. For this role a class discussion format has been shown to be effective. The expansion phase is best suited to reinforce, extend, review, or apply the concept. Because of its varying roles, a number of formats can be utilized during this phase (laboratory, demonstration, readings, problem sets, etc.).


Abraham, M. R. (1982). A descriptive instrument for use in investigating science laboratories. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 19(2), 155-165.

Abraham, M. R., & Renner, J. W. (1986). The sequence of learning cycle activities in high school chemistry. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 23(2), 121-143.

Atkin, J. M., & Karplus, R. (1962). Discovery or invention? The Science Teacher, 29(5), 45-51.

Ivins, J. E. (1986). A comparison of the effects of two instructional sequences involving science laboratory activities (Doctoral Dissertation, University of Cincinnati, 1985). Dissertation Abstracts International, 46(8), 2254A.

Lawson, A. E. (1995). Science teaching and the development of thinking. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Lawson, A. E., Abraham, M. R., & Renner, J. W. (1989). A theory of instruction: Using the learning cycle to teach science concepts and thinking skills [Monograph, Number One]. Kansas State University, Manhattan, Ks: National Association for Research in Science Teaching.

Lott, G. W. (1983). The effect of inquiry teaching and advanced organizers upon student outcomes in science education. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 20(5), 437-451.

McComas III, W. F. (1992). The nature of exemplary practice in secondary school science laboratory instruction: A case study approach (Doctoral Dissertation, University of Iowa, 1991). Dissertation Abstracts International, 52(12), 4284A.

Piaget, J. (1970). Structuralism (Chaninah Maschler, Trans.). New York: Harper and Row.

Raghubir, K. P. (1979). The laboratory-investigative approach to science instruction. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 16(1), 13-18.

Renner, J. W., Abraham, M. R., & Birnie, H. H. (1985). Secondary school students' beliefs about the physics laboratory. Science Education, 69(5), 649-663.

Research Matters - to the Science Teacher
is a publication of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching 


© 2014 NARST
12100 Sunset Hills Road, Suite 130, Reston, VA USA 20190-3221   -   Phone: 703-234-4138   -   Fax: 703-435-4390
Privacy Policy and Terms of Use