Learning cycle

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A learning cycle is a concept of how people learn from experience. A learning cycle will have a number of stages or phases, the last of which can be followed by the first.

Kurt Lewin[edit]

In the 1940s, Kurt Lewin developed action research and described a cycle of:

  1. Planning
  2. Action
  3. Fact finding, about the result of the action.

Lewin particularly highlighted the need for fact finding, which he felt was missing from much of management and social work. He contrasted this to the military where

the attack is pressed home and immediately a reconnaissance plane follows with the one objective of determining as accurately and objectively as possible the new situation. This reconnaissance or fact-finding has four functions. First it should evaluate the action. It shows whether what has been achieved is above or below expectation. Secondly, it gives the planners a chance to learn, that is, to gather new general insight, for instance, regarding the strength and weakness of certain weapons or techniques of action. Thirdly, this fact-finding should serve as a basis for correctly planning the next step. Finally, it serves as a basis for modifying the “overall plan.”

Kurt LewinAction Research and Minority Problems, 1946.[1]

Kolb and Fry[edit]

In the early 1970s, David A. Kolb and Ron Fry developed the experiential learning model (ELM), composed of four elements:[2]

  1. concrete experience,
  2. observation of and reflection on that experience,
  3. formation of abstract concepts based upon the reflection,
  4. testing the new concepts

Kolb developed a theory of learning styles, whereby each style preferred two of the four parts of the cycle.

Honey and Mumford[edit]

Peter Honey and Alan Mumford developed Kolb and Fry's ideas into slightly different learning cycle.[3] The stages are:

  1. Doing something, having an experience
  2. Reflecting on the experience
  3. Concluding from the experience, developing a theory
  4. Planning the next steps, to apply or test the theory

Honey and Mumford gave names to the people who prefer to enter the cycle at different stages: Activist, Reflector, Theorist and Pragmatist. While different people prefer to enter at different stages, a cycle must be completed to give learning that will change behaviour. The cycle can be performed multiple times to build up layers of learning.


The 5E learning cycle was developed by Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, specifically for use in teaching science.[4] The learning cycle has four phases:

  1. Engage, in which a student's interest is captured and the topic is established.
  2. Explore, in which the student is allowed to construct knowledge in the topic through facilitated questioning and observation.
  3. Explain, in which students are asked to explain what they have discovered, and the instructor leads a discussion of the topic to refine the students' understanding.
  4. Extend, in which students are asked to apply what they have learned in different but similar situations, and the instructor guides the students toward the next discussion topic.

The fifth E is Evaluate, in which the instructor observes each student's knowledge and understanding, and leads students to assess whether what they have learned is true. Evaluation should take place throughout the cycle, not within its own set phase.

Alistair Smith[edit]

In the 1990s, Alistair Smith developed the Accelerated Learning Cycle, also for use in teaching.[5] The phases are:[6]

  1. Create the supportive learning environment - safe but stimulating
  2. Connect the learning - useful knowledge we already have
  3. Give the big picture
  4. Describe the learning outcomes we want to achieve
  5. Input - new information to enable the activity
  6. Activity
  7. Demonstrate the findings of the activity
  8. Review for recall and retention

Unlike other learning cycles, step 8 is normally followed by step 2, rather than step 1.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kurt Lewin (1946). "Action Research and Minority Problems", Journal of Social Issues, vol 2, no 4, pp. 34–46.
  2. ^ Kolb. D. A. and Fry, R. (1975) Toward an applied theory of experiential learning. in C. Cooper (ed.), Theories of Group Process, London: John Wiley.
  3. ^ Mumford, Alan (1997). "Putting Learning Styles to Work". Action Learning at Work. Gower Publishing. p. 121. ISBN 0-566-07890-2. Retrieved 31 January 2013. 
  4. ^ "5Es Overview: The 5E instructional model". nasa.gov. NASA. 24 February 2012. Archived from the original on 23 September 2008. Retrieved 31 January 2013. 
  5. ^ Wegerif, Rupert. "Review of Accelerated Learning in the Classroom, by Alistair Smith". University of Exeter. Retrieved 16 May 2014. 
  6. ^ Smith, Alistair (1996). Accelerated Learning in the Classroom. Network Educational Press. ISBN 1855390345. Retrieved 16 May 2014.