Research Matters - to the Science Teacher
No. 9701 Jan. 2, 1997
The Learning Cycle Approach To Science
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
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
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
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,
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,
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