The Learning Cycle:

A Comparison of Models of Strategies for Conceptual Reconstruction: A Review of the Literature

Dennis W. Sunal


         Several pedagogical frameworks have been devised that center on conceptual reconstruction. These frameworks or models for the planning of science lessons are designed to provide a template for science teaching. Frameworks have been suggested by Barnes (1976), Driver (1986b), Karplus (1977), Erickson (1979), Nussbaum and Novic (1981), Renner (1982) and Rowell and Dawson (1983) and others. A review of some of the pedagogical frameworks that have been proposed over the past few years follows.



Renner.  Renner (1982) described the most common practice of science teachers is to attempt to pass on to their pupils a mastery over content as the content is envisaged by the teacher.  The theory of learning underlying this approach is, first, that the material to be taught can be given to the learner as information; second, that it should then be verified by the learner through observation; and finally, that the information should be applied in some way to "settle it in".  The first stage, informing or telling, is usually attempted through the teacher's opening statements or as the introduction to a so–called "experiment".  This subsequent activity is not an experiment in the investigatory sense, however, but merely a verification or demonstration since both pupils and the teacher already know the expected outcome.  The final stage, in this typical science sequence––application of knowledge––usually involves answering questions and solving quantitative or mathematical problems from a textbook in preparation for a test of some kind.

            Renner's analogy for this entire process is that of a guided tour where the guide, the teacher, points out all the sights to be observed and the learner is discouraged from taking any detour that, in the guide's view, is not productive.

            If we accept that each of us must develop the understandings we have about a concept for ourselves, then Renner suggests an alternative teaching model as more appropriate.

1) His initial concern is with pupils gaining experience and this becomes the first stage of his teaching model.  Learners are provided with suitable experiences in order to create for themselves what is to be learned.

2) In the second stage, the learner is introduced to some appropriately–specific terminology in relation to the phenomenon being investigated.  The teacher uses this to assist the learner to interpret what has been found.

3) In the third stage, the new ideas of the learner are meshed with existing knowledge in order to expand both that knowledge and the newly acquired idea.  Additional experiences to help this elaboration process are an essential part of this stage.  These experiences would have some of the attributes of experiments because the outcomes would not be known even though the pupils know the concept that is the subject of investigation.

            In summary, Renner's view is that much conventional science teaching is simply a training process that involves telling, confirming and practicing.  Its limitations are obvious.  From the generative learning point of view, it omits the vital activities that involve originating experiences, interpretation and elaboration.


Karplus.  Some other models that have been proposed also reflect a similar viewpoint to Renner's in that they demonstrate a real concern for the cognitive development of the learner.  One such model was proposed by Karplus (1977) and he, like Renner, has been somewhat influenced by the Piagetian theories of development. Karplus argues that science learning should be a process of self–regulation in which the learner forms new reasoning patterns. These will result from reflection, after the pupil interacts with phenomena and with the ideas of others.  Karplus also proposes a three–phase learning cycle.

1) The first phase is one of exploration in which pupils learn through their own actions and reactions with minimal guidance, while the teacher anticipates few specific accomplishments. The learners are expected to raise questions that they cannot answer with their present ideas or reasoning patterns.

2) In the second phase of the Karplus model, the concept is introduced and explained. Here the teacher is more active, and learning is achieved by explanation.

3) Finally, in the application phase, the concept is applied to new situations and its range of applicability is extended.  Learning is achieved by repetition and practice so that new ideas and ways of thinking have time to stabilize.

            An interesting analysis of the use of this particular learning cycle with a science topic is provided by Smith and Lott (1983).


Driver.  An idea or framework will not be rejected until there is something adequate and reliable to replace it with.  Pupils can be given experiences which conflict with their expectations, but these experiences do not of themselves help the pupils to reconstruct an alternative view of the system.  Driver (1986b) proposes a sequence of instruction involving;

1) Evidence or data should be presented so that the pupil has an opportunity to discover the new framework as an interpretive framework, constructed in the mind, and therefore has to be invented.

2) Many times students are left with an incomplete construction or none at all.  The teacher must also present the new ideas as inventions.

3) The pupils are then encouraged to see the value and power of the ideas by applying them in a range of activities.  This will take the greatest amount of time; otherwise will cause students to memorize the new ideas.


Nussbaum and Novick.  A similar three–stage model has been suggested by Nussbaum and Novick (1981).  They sought to explain what happens as learners change their conceptions during instruction.  Their strategy, in common with all of the models summarized here, is based on the principle that "science concept learning involves cognitive accommodation to an initially–held alternative framework".  Or, as we would prefer to put it, the teaching task is to ascertain individual student's conceptions about science topics and to modify these towards the current scientific view.

1) To bring about cognitive accommodation, Nussbaum and Novick suggest that the first step is to expose the alternative framework.

They note Ausubel's warning that "preconceptions are amazingly tenacious and resistant to extinction" (Ausubel, 1968), and accept that such preconceptions often interfere with the teacher's learning outcomes.  Thus, Nussbaum and Novick propose that the first step in facilitating accommodation should be to ensure that every student is aware of his/her own preconceptions.  To them, this is most easily achieved if some event can be devised which requires learners to make explicit their existing ideas in order to interpret it.  Pupils are encouraged to describe their own views verbally and pictorially, and the teacher assists them to state these ideas clearly, in order to recognize what they can and cannot explain.  Pupils are encouraged to debate the various views represented by all of their fellow learners, in order to better understand the features of each view.

2) Assuming that learner dissatisfaction with their existing ideas results from such activities, and the teacher provides additional experiences that will lead to further dissatisfaction, the conceptual conflict is likely to result.  Nussbaum and Novick imply that this conflict must be sufficient to induce students to recognize that their existing views require modification.

3) Accommodation develops from pupils searching for a solution to their conflicting ideas. Thus, in the Nussbaum and Novick model, concept learning is achieved by exposing alternative frameworks, creating conceptual conflict, and encouraging cognitive accommodation.


Erickson.  Erickson (1979) makes a parallel set of proposals.

1) The first stage of his model is the provision of a set of experiential maneuvers, which allow the learners to become familiar with a wide range of phenomena, so that they might expose a set of intuitive ideas or beliefs.  In this stage, the activities are considered in sufficient depth to allow the learners to clarify their ideas and to develop confidence so that they may begin to make predictions.

2) The second stage contains anomaly maneuvers, involving the creation of situations that lead to unexpected outcomes.  An element of uncertainty is introduced; the learner needs to restructure his/her views.

3) The third stage is a set of restructuring maneuvers to assist the learners in accommodating unexpected outcomes.  Restructuring, in Ericksen's strategy, could be achieved by, for example, group discussions and teacher intervention.


Barnes. Barnes (1976) also contends that learners need to take a prominent part in the formulation of their own knowledge.  To reduce the teacher's perceived control over knowledge, Barnes believes that students should work primarily in small groups.  In practical terms he proposes the following sequence:

1) A focusing stage, in which the teacher, with the students, prepares the ground by presenting preliminary knowledge (which, we assume, includes "alternative frameworks" and "student's science").  When the attention of the class is fully focused on the topic, the teacher moves on to an

2) Exploratory stage, involving much discussion and other activities, including experimentation.  Then in the

3) Reorganizing stage, the teacher re–focuses attention and tells the groups how they will be reporting back, and how long they have to prepare for it.  Finally, in the

4) Public stage, the groups of learners present their findings to one another, and this leads to further discussion


Rowell and Dawson.  A further model has been suggested by Rowell and Dawson (1983).  This more explicitly focuses on the confrontation between student's science and scientists' science.  They suggest the following sequence:

1) Through questioning, the teacher establishes the ideas that children bring to the problem situation.  Conscious awareness of these ideas is of value to both the teacher and the children.

2) These ideas are accepted by the teacher as possible solutions.

3) Students are asked to retain their ideas, and the teacher states that he or she is going to put forward another possibility that the children will help in evaluating later.

4) The "new" idea is taught by linking it to a basic idea already held.

5) Once the new idea is available to students then the old ideas are recalled for comparison, with each other and with reality.

Rowell and Dawson believe that students are less threatened by this approach than some others, since both "old" and "new" ideas are the pupils' own in the sense that all are pooled knowledge.  Assuming that old theories are rarely defeated by contrary evidence but only by better theories, they argue that the children with several ideas available to them are in the best possible situation to accept the scientist's one when it is tested against the others.


The Generative Learning Model (GLM). The GLM model proposed by Osbourne and Wittrock (1983) and summarized by Kyle and colleagues (1989) has four steps that closely parallel the Center's proposed model of learning and teaching:

1. In the preliminary step, before beginning any formalized instruction, teachers assess students' ideas and conceptual explanations.

2. In the focus step, the instructor provides experiences related to the particular concept that motivates the students to explore their level of conceptual understanding.

3. Next, the teacher helps students exchange points of view and challenges students to compare and contrast their ideas and support their viewpoints with evidence (the challenge stage); and

4. In the application stage, students use their newly refined conceptual understandings in familiar contexts.


The Riverina-Murray Model.  The Riverina-Murray Institute of Higher Education (Boylan, 1988) presents a five-stage model of learning and teaching and learners must pass through as they develop a new level of conceptual understanding.  The stages are:


1. The teacher identifies the learner's naive ideas about a selected concept.

2. Based on that information, the teacher selects events, situations and activities for the learner to explore.

3. The exploratory phase provides a practical base upon which the learner begins to develop a new understanding.  The learner is encouraged to make the concept explicit and also is introduced to new language and symbols.

4. The learner organizes the new idea and establishes links with relevant prior knowledge; a new mental scheme emerges; and

5. She learner practices and applies the new idea in novel situations to consolidate the newly developed understanding.


The Hewson-Hewson Model.  The Hewsons, after reviewing studies on science learning, summarize "key points in instructional strategies which help students overcome their naive, inappropriate conceptions" (Hewson and Hewson, 1988:607).  Teachers must:

1. Diagnose students' thoughts on the topic at hand.

2. Provide an opportunity for students to clarify their own thoughts.

3. Directly contrast students' views and the desired view through teacher presentation or class discussion.

4. Immediately provide an opportunity for students to use the desired view to explain a phenomenon:  and

5. Provide an immediate opportunity for students to apply their newly acquired understanding in novel situations.


The Lawson-Abraham Model.  Anton Lawson (1988), Michael Abraham (1989), and colleagues (Lawson, Abraham, and Renner, 1989; Renner, 1986) long have advocated a three-step learning cycle.  This is based on a three-step cycle first proposed by Atkin and Karplus (1962). They later used it in the innovative elementary science program, the Science Curriculum Improvement Study (SCIS). 

1. Derived from Jean Piaget's developmental theory, the learning cycle approach first uses a laboratory experiment to expose students to the concept to be developed.  Abraham calls this the exploration or gathering data phase. 

2. Next, the students and/or teacher derive the concept from the data, usually a classroom discussion (the conceptual invention phase). 

3. The final phase, expansion, gives the student the opportunity to explore the usefulness and application of the developing concept. 

            Lawson (1988) and others prefer to call the second phase "term or concept introduction" because they recognize that, while teachers can give students new terminology, ultimately the student must actively invent or generate the concept.  Lawson has recently proposed that there are three kinds of learning cycles, descriptive, empirical-deductive and hypothetical deductive.  The sequence of learning-teaching events is essentially the same in each.


Driver-Oldham Model.  Driver and Oldham (1986) describe a constructivist teaching sequence used in the Children's Learning-in-Science Project.  They suggest that it be viewed as a flexible outline because the demands of different conceptual areas and the time available for learning and teaching will vary.

1. In the orientation phase, students are motivated to learn the topic.  In the elicitation phase, students make their ideas explicit through discussions, creation of posters, or writing.

2. In the restructuring phase, teacher and students clarify and exchange views through discussion; promote conceptual conflict through demonstrations; exchange ideas; and evaluate alternative ideas.

3. In the application phase, students use their new ideas in familiar and novel settings.

4. The review phase allows students to reflect on how their ideas have changed.

5. The model incorporates several aspects of technological problem solving and decision-making notable evaluation of alternative ideas and reflection at the end of the learning sequence.



         These frameworks are similar in that they center on a strategy that involves experience, interpretation, and elaboration.  See Table 1.  They all fit under the general name of the learning cycle (Karplus, 1979).  The learning cycle is designed to adapt instruction to help students:

1) Become aware of their prior knowledge,

2) Foster cooperative learning and a safe positive learning environment

3) Compare new alternatives to their prior knowledge,

4) Connect it to what they already know,

5) Construct their own “new” knowledge, and

6) Apply the new knowledge in ways that are different from the situation in which it was learned. 

The learning cycle has been effectively used with students at all levels to accomplish these purposes.  This learning cycle approach helps students apply knowledge gained in the classroom to new areas or to new situations, because students:

1) Are more aware of their own reasoning,

2) Can recognize shortcomings of their conceptions as a result of being encouraged to try them out, 

3) Can apply procedures successful in other areas,

4) Can search more effectively for new patterns, and

5) Can apply what they learn more often in new settings.

Instruction must strengthen these tendencies in all students and discourage unquestioning acceptance of poorly understood concepts, theories, and thinking skills.

            The learning cycle involves students in a sequence of activities beginning with exploration of an idea or skill, leading to a more guided explanation invention of the idea or skill, and culminating in expansion of the idea or skill through additional practice and trials in new settings.  This sequence represents a single lesson on one concept lasting one to several instructional periods.  Because of what occurs in each phase, the three parts of the learning cycle are called: exploration (experience), invention (interpretation), and expansion (elaboration).  A teacher has a large number of choices in deciding how to provide instruction for students.  The selection of pedagogical methods to use in teaching (e.g. lecture, inquiry, a hands-on approach, film, cooperative learning, etc.) should be determined by the

1) Type of idea(s) or skill(s) to be taught,

2) Developmental level and specific learning needs of the student,

3) Part of the learning cycle the teacher is involved with,

4) Form and content of student’s prior knowledge and the number and kind of instructional activities needed to create conceptual restructuring, and

5) type of knowledge representation required for the idea to be understood (Sunal, D. 1992 & Sunal and Sunal, 1990, 1991, 1994).

Table 1


Varieties of Learning Cycle Frameworks






Nussbaum & Novak





Exposing alternative frameworks





Creating conceptual conflict





Encouraging cognitive accommodation





Rowell &


Osbourne &










Assess student






Introduce new ideas

Exchange points of view


Restructuring maneuvers


Comparison of ideas

Use ideas







Riverina and Murray

Hewson and Hewson

Lawson  and Abraham

Driver and Oldham


Identify naïve ideas. Select events.



Orientation and motivation


Exploratory activities

Opportunity to clarify and contrast

Conceptual invention

Elicitation of ideas


Organize ideas and establish links

Practice new idea


Restructuring ideas through exchange


Practice and apply new idea

Apply idea


Application and review