Research from cognitive science, learning science, educational psychology, and other disciplines has shown that there is a cycle or order to learning. Although there are multiple ways to describe this cycle or order, there is one approach that is particularly easy to remember: the 5E learning cycle. The five Es, in order, are (Bybee et al., 2006; Tanner, 2010):

  1. Engage - This phase sparks students' interest and gets them thinking about the desired concept or skill. Engagements can elicit students prior knowledge about the subject and collect information on what students know, which can be used to guide instruction. 
  2. Explore - During this phase, students grapple with a problem, task, or situation in an attempt to understand the material on their own or in groups. Students can identify what they are confused about, where their ideas conflict, and what unanswered questions they may have. This phase can generate students' "need to know," and thus motivate them to find information on their own or listen more attentively and ask more targeted questions during a short lecture.
  3. Explain - During this phase, students become more familiar with new ideas, terms, or ways of thinking. This can involve a short lecture, reading, or peer instruction. The aim is not just for instructors to explain, but for students to explain their understanding of a concept.
  4. Elaborate - This phase requires students to apply what they have learned to novel problems or contexts. This follows the Explain phase because students' confusions and questions should have been addressed, and students need to try out their new knowledge. 
  5. Evaluate - During this phase, students reflect on and demonstrate their understanding or mastery of concepts and skills, and instructors have opportunities to evaluate student progress toward achieving learning objectives.

How it works

The 5E learning cycle is different from the traditional order of activities in lecture classes because information is delivered, in the form of readings, mini-lectures, or other avenues, primarily AFTER students engage in the material (Explain follows Engage and Explore). The learning cycle also illustrates the importance of Es other than Explain, especially Evaluation, which should not be limited to a few high stakes tests. The following are tips for implementing the 5E learning cycle:

Self-evaluate your use of the 5Es. 

  • Parse a class session you recently taught into chunks of activity, such as: students responded to a clicker question, instructor lectured on the cell cycle, students completed a worksheet, etc.
  • Assign Es to each of the activities. For example, a clicker question could be considered an Engage if it is students' first opportunity to think about the material, and it elicits their prior understanding of the material. Lecturing is an Explain, and students completing a worksheet is likely to be an Elaborate if it is designed for students to apply what they have learned from the lecture. 
  • Determine the prevalence of each E in the class session. Are there missing Es? Too many of a particular type of E? Is Explain always preceding the other Es? 

Tweak your class to align better with the 5E learning cycle.

  • Consider one or two ways you might change the class session to, either by reordering the course of events in class or by adding one or two activities to address missing Es. 
  • You do not need to include all 5Es, just two to three in order can improve learning. Start with Engage, Explore, Evaluate.
  • Explore should precede Explain since exploration cultivates the need to know. 
  • Collect some form of assessment data (i.e., Evaluate) from students every class. Here are ideas for different forms of assessment, drawn from Angelo and Cross's book on Classroom Assessment Techniques.
  • Consider not doing anything new - just change the order of class activities to align with the 5Es. 
  • Write down all of the activities you want to happen during class, then move them around to align with the 5Es. 
  • Have students, rather than the instructor, do the Explaining