Posted on: October 20, 2020
This short article introduces the ‘five-step learning cycle’ and how it is confirmed by what we know about how brains learn. Successful teachers, consciously or unconsciously, take their students through this cycle. Putting it into practice will improve learning outcomes for students across different age-groups and subjects.
The Five-Steps of the Learning Cycle
Step 1: Prior Knowledge
Prior Knowledge is the knowledge the student has prior to you starting the topic. Our understanding of how the brain makes memories tells us that your student can only understand what you are telling them if they can link it to something they already know.
This means that assessing your students’ prior knowledge is a vital first step to ensure your words do not ‘fall on deaf ears’. If you find that prior knowledge is missing, repairing this is an important first step in their learning.
Step 2: Presenting new material
This step includes methods and important considerations to use when presenting new material to your students. These include:
- Recognising the Working Memory limit to ensure that you do not overload your students with too much new information at one time.
- Linking to Prior Knowledge to help students make connections which lead to good long-term memories.
- Using a Multi-sensory approach to make use of more parts of your students’ brains for learning.
- Giving your students an Advance Organiser to help them see the big-picture of your topic as you teach the detail.
- Linking Abstract ideas to Concrete Examples to enable students to understand the more difficult ideas you teach.
Step 3: Challenge
These are ways to set your students tasks which are most likely to make their learning of the new material effective.
1. To know what the task is, you can use Modelling and Worked Examples to show what a good answer or product would look like.
2. You can set tasks which are not just words by setting Graphical and other Non-linguistic tasks.
3. You can get your students to improve their planning, monitoring and evaluation using Metacognition.
4. If students work effectively in groups, Cooperative or Collaborative methods are effective to promote thinking.
5. Thinking tasks, such as problem solving and hypothesis testing can deepen your students’ knowledge and consolidate the surface thinking.
Step 4: Feedback
These are methods to show the student how to improve. Note the importance that they implement the feedback, not simply receive it!
There is no ‘best’ way to give (and receive) feedback. You could give it verbally or written. Students get feedback by marking their own (or another student’s) work.
Step 5 Repetition
These are methods which give the student the opportunity to develop long-term memories by revisiting the new material over time. The evidence, both from the classroom and from neuroscience, is that spaced repetitions are vital to create long term memories.
This means that it is not so much the individual teaching methods that are important, it is whether the student has been taken through the Learning Cycle.
Learning cycle from the brain’s perspective
As learning consists of making new long-term pathways between brain-cells, from the brain’s perspective, the Learning Cycle looks like this:
1. Prior Knowledge: Ensure there is something to connect to
2. Presentation: Initiate the pathway
3. Challenging Task: Activate the pathway
4. Feedback for Improvement: Check that it’s the right pathway
5. Spaced Repetition: Secure long-term connections by re-using the pathway over a period of time
The Fundamentals of Teaching by Mike Bell
If you found this article useful then take a look at Mike Bell's new book which explains how evidence-based research can be combined with frontline teaching practice at each stage of the learning cycle.
“I can see this book becoming a firm favourite for a great many teachers”. Tom Sherrington
Read the foreword by Tom to find out why!