Direct Instruction or Learning Cycle?

Is direct instruction, popularized by Madeline Hunter's seven instructional elements, and the learning cycle, developed by Robert Karplus, as separable as oil and water? The author reviews Hunter's seven instructional elements and Karplus's learning cycle and attempts to answer the question: How do they compare? The article includes a review of Hunter's seven instructional elements, a review of Karplus's learning cycle, an example of the learning cycle for a beginning electricity activity, how Hunter's instructional elements compare to Karplus's learning cycle, and a discussion of problems associated with trying to teach a learning cycle type of lesson using Hunter's seven instructional elements.

Madeline Hunter's Instructional Theory Into Practice (ITIP) contains much more than the seven instructional elements (anticipatory set, stating the objective, instructional input, modeling, checking for understanding, guided practice, and independent practice), but the discussion concentrates on them with respect to a traditional fifty-minute instructional lesson.

Seven Instructional Elements:

Anticipatory set is used to prepare students for the lesson by setting the students' minds for instruction. This is achieved by asking a question or making statements to pique interest, create mental images, review information, and initiate the learning process.

Stating the objective to students alerts them to what they will need to do and the purpose of the lesson.

Instructional input is where the student gains the knowledge needed to achieve the objective.

Modeling is when the instructor, or student(s), demonstrates how to achieve the objective.

Check for understanding is when the teacher checks to see if the students understand the concept or steps and how to enact them to achieve the objective.

Guided Practice is when the students do the objective under the guidance of a support system that can assure success.

Independent practice is when the students practice what they learn, after they are capable of performing the objective without support.

While these elements are sequential, Hunter has stated that they are to act as a guide for instruction and teachers can combine and eliminate steps as required. Further teachers must constantly evaluate students and adjust what they do sometimes returning to previous steps and reteaching.

Learning Cycle:

Robert Karplus's learning cycle includes three steps, exploration; invention; and discovery, through which instruction and learning continually cycles. The first stage, exploration, is when the students actively experience equipment, materials, objects, ideas, and experiments to accumulate data, knowledge, experience, and explore processes. The second stage, invention, is when students categorize, summarize, and conceptualize the information collected during the exploration. The third stage, discovery is when students discover the usefulness of the invention in their everyday lives. Roger Osborne and Peter Freyberg call this stage application. Application of the concept invented in the second stage. Both refer to the fact that students need to be actively involved exploring the application of the new concept to reinforce their learning, transfer it to other similar situations, and generalize it to useful situations in everyday life. As students expand on the concept they will create new ideas for exploration with the same or different equipment, materials, objects, and ideas. These new explorations will lead to new inventions and discoveries as the cycle continues infinitely.

Hunter developed her theory by collecting large amounts of data on what successful teachers do. Karplus's theory is a cognitive development based model with roots to Jean Piaget's theory and the scientific method of inquiry. To merge these ideas should be helpful for classroom teachers and ultimately students. I will use a beginning activity for current electricity to illustrate the inquiry teaching cycle and then the seven instructional elements.

Electricity Activity and the Learning Cycle:

Imagine a classroom where the teacher has distributed one bulb, one battery, and one wire, to each student. Students are asked to explore with the objects. They begin to collect data and learn information such as: the battery has a top and bottom, what the top looks like, what the bottom looks like, the wire has insulation, it is copper, or has a copper color, the bulb has threads on the side, a terminal on the bottom, glass top, filament inside...or... They are also learning operational information like: if they run a wire from the bottom of a battery to a bulb it will not light, that the same is true for the top, that a bulb will light if its bottom touches the top of the battery and a wire runs from the side of the bulb to the bottom of the bulb, and so forth. As students explore and eventually light the bulb they can be encouraged to draw diagrams to show how they arranged the objects to light the bulb and to discover other arrangements for lighting the bulb. After a reasonable amount of time, relative to the students, students who are unable to light the bulb are given hints to assure that all students are successful. When all students have lit the bulb in several different arrangements and exploration is waning it is time for the next step.

Invention is initiated by having students discuss the information collected from the exploration. This sharing of information gives students an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the system and assimilate or accommodate the information from their exploration. This is done by listing information, making drawings or diagrams of data to focus students' attention and begin a discussion. The discussion helps students record, organize, classify, consolidate, analyze, verify, and communicate the concept and related information in meaningful ways plus allow the teacher to evaluate the level of students' understanding. During this discussion the students' conceptualizations of a closed circuit are compared with each others and through minimal teacher intervention are compared to a scientifically acceptable concept of a closed circuit. Even if students have conceptualized a scientifically acceptable concept of a closed circuit before or during the exploration stage the invention stage is still necessary to complete their learning experience. The invention stage allows students to operationalize a procedure for lighting the bulb and communicating it in a scientific manner appropriate to the students' developmental level. Which makes the learning experience more meaningful. A finished communication for middle school students might be similar to this: To have a transfer of energy from a battery to a flashlight bulb there must be a continuous path (closed circuit) with the following parts of the objects in the path (only once): 1) top of the battery, 2) bottom of the battery, 3) threaded side of the bulb, and 4) bottom of the bulb such that electricity can flow through the receiver. A diagram to illustrate these connections could be drawn. The students have invented a concept of a closed circuit, written an operational definition, and practiced communicating information specific to closed circuits, and been involved in the process of scientific investigation.

The lesson might very well end here, but the cycle should continue to the discovery of how the idea can be used. This is done through any number of activities that could be preselected by the teacher or selected from ideas the students generate during the invention stage or at the beginning of the discovery phase. The main consideration is students discover a use for their new concept of a closed circuit. Some sample activities might be: Use a circuit tester to explore objects by putting them into the circuit and recording if the circuit is open or closed for each object. The students would apply the concept of a closed circuit during an exploration stage and collect information to invent a concept of conductor and nonconductor in an invention stage. Another activity is to have students explore by giving them an additional bulb or battery, have them draw ten different circuits, and label them as opened or closed. This affords students opportunities to generalize the concept of a closed circuit to more complex circuits and lead to other inventions (parallel or series circuits for sources, receivers, or combinations). Both examples show a usefulness for expanding the concept of a closed circuit and open another cycle with an exploration stage. Students' progression through these cycles is similar to the progression through Piaget's learning theory and the progression of increasing knowledge through scientific investigation.

Comparison of Hunter's Instructional Elements and Karplus's Learning Cycle

If an instructional plan can be made to organize and instruct lessons for the learning cycle, then what good is Hunter's instructional elements? The obvious answer is to improve instruction. So let's see how this lesson might compare to a Hunter's lesson and decide if it would increase the effectiveness of instruction. Lets use the bulb and battery lesson as a sample.

Exploration Stage:

Anticipatory set: Teacher holds up a bulb and asks, "What is this?" Teacher holds up a battery and asks, "What is this?" Teacher holds up a wire and asks, "What is this?"

Objective: Today you are going to explore using these three objects. Or if you want a more direct approach. Today you're going to use these three objects and light the light bulb.

Instructional Input: You can take the three objects and combine them any way you like.

Modeling: You can put the bulb on the side of the battery like this (model) and put the wire like this (model how to place the objects differently but do not model a method for lighting the light bulb).

Check for understanding: Chris what are we going to do today?

Guided practice and Independent practice: Let's try it. Teacher moves from group to group or from person to person and evaluates students' progress. Depending of the student's experiences, which the teacher can evaluate as they observe different individuals manipulating the material, the teacher can decide if intervention (guided practice) is necessary or if students can complete the exploration alone (independent practice). After the students have explored the various combinations of objects the exploration stage is over. Have the students move to a location in which they can discuss their data.

Invention Stage:

Anticipatory set: Ask the students to share what they discovered. They can draw diagrams of their circuits and discuss how they worked. The teacher evaluates the students' eagerness to share information and their assimilation or accommodation of a closed circuit during the exploration and determines when to direct the invention with an objective statement.

Objective: Let's find what basic conditions must be met for a transfer of energy to light the bulb.

Instructional Input and Modeling: During this stage the teacher facilitates discussion to invent a concept similar to: A transfer of energy from a battery through the bulb must include a continuous path (closed circuit) with the following parts of the objects in the path (only once): 1) top of the battery, 2) bottom of the battery, 3) threaded side of the bulb, and 4) bottom of the bulb. To do this one of two strategies can be employed (depending on the students' previous response). If there were many drawings the strategy would be to eliminate drawings that are considered the same and ones that do not close the circuit. If there were few drawings then the strategy would be to add more drawings. This can be done by asking how the objects could be moved and still cause the bulb to light. If a student challenges a drawing then have a student create the circuit for justification (modeling). When there appears to have been enough data presented then restate the objective and have students mark all the places where the objects touch each other. At this point the students or the teacher can write an operational definition similar to the one already stated.

Check for understanding: Have the students write the operational definition into their lab book in their words along with a picture. Then give them some examples of circuits and ask if they are closed circuits. Ask them to support their answer using the definition that is in their lab book. Some examples might be putting the bulb on the bottom of the battery and placing the bulb with the spirals touching the top or bottom of the battery. When all the students appear to understand it is time for the next step.

Guided practice Give the student a worksheet with some different circuits on and have them predict if the first example would be closed or open. Call on a students and have them demonstrate to the rest of the class how they would check to see if their prediction was correct.

Independent practice: Have the students finish the rest of the worksheet at school or you might try one of the following. Challenge students to give examples of how their definition can be used at home Have the students create a different circuit and explain why it did or did not work. Have students explain how a flashlight works, any electronic object, or electrical wiring in homes.

If the teacher is not going to have any additional activities on electricity then the previous discussion is the discovery stage. If the teacher plans on continuing to study electricity he or she might ask students to find an example of a closed circuit, according to their definition, to discuss in the next class. The next class could start by discussing their ideas in the anticipatory set and move into another activity by stating the objective. This next activity would be considered discovery, because it would be selected for the specific purpose of providing students a chance to use the concept invented during the lesson. Obviously at some point the teacher will want the class to move to another topic and the discovery stage will be included in the guided practice or independent practice of the last invention stage.

The author recognizes that there are an infinite number of ways for a lesson to progress. The learning cycle is helpful in planning and implementing developmentally appropriate instruction. Madeline Hunter's elements of instruction can increase teacher effectiveness by focusing the teacher's attention on the need to provide students with certain elements. Particularly stating the object, modeling, checking for understanding, and providing a time for students to work on a task. It has been criticized as promoting instruction that over relies on teacher talk to provide instructional input. Karplus's learning cycle has been promoted to provide students with instructional input through personal student centered exploration. Each has elements that are important for teachers to consider when making instructional decisions. The question of selecting one or the other, or integrating ideas from one to the other, or selecting an entirely different instructional method is one individual teachers must make daily.


There are three problems that can be associated with integration: 1) stating the objective so that it gives too much to the student and removes the "thrill of the discovery", 2) trying to integrate all three stages of the learning cycle into one linear set of the seven elements, and 3) not allowing exploration or too much teacher talk before students are ready.

The first, can be dealt with by simply not telling the student the outcome or the concept to be invented during the objective element and the introduction of the exploration stage. Instead tell them how they should explore. Today you are going to observe the frogs after you place them into the terrarium. Today list all the ways these ten objects can be classified.

The second, was addressed by the author by considering all seven elements for each stage. Some teachers want to economize and put the three stages into one set of the seven elements. The problem with this is the invention stage is too often short changed. What happens is the teacher uses the instructional input and modeling for explaining how to explore, then checks for understanding of the exploration, and uses guided practice for guiding the students through the discovery. The tendency is to have independent practice for the exploration. This is not acceptable. The invention stage must include instructional input, checking for understanding, and guided practice that starts with what students have learned from their hands on experience. Two solutions are possible: modify the order of the seven elements, or consider all seven for each stage. The author recommended using the seven elements in each stage because it can lead to more flexibility. Hunter suggests the elements are for planning. When planning the teacher uses the elements as a guide to consider what might be done. Elements can be used, eliminated, or combined as the teacher sees fit. If teachers will consider the seven elements in this manner for each of the three stages that provides flexibility.

The third problem, not allowing for exploration is not inherent to any one instructional strategy. To avoid this problem we must understand that children learn best when they are physically exploring, performing mental operations during the explorations, and communicating about the experiences. We must continually remind ourselves of this and plan experiences that provide it.

The author has instructed students using this integrated approach and found it to be workable. He has also taught undergraduate and graduate students to use the integrated approach and they too have found it workable. So, are Madeline Hunter's seven instructional elements and Robert Karplus's learning cycle as separable as oil and water? Well maybe not. However, the questions as to why one would want to use a seven step plan instead of a three step Learning Cycle plan is a question that may be more relevant.


Eakin, J. R., & Karplus R. (1976, January) SCIS final report. Lawrence Hall of Science. University of California. Berkeley, CA.

Hunter, M. (198 ). Mastery teaching. El Segundo, CA: TIP Publications.

Karplus, Robert. (1964). The science curriculum improvement study. Journal of Research in Science Teaching. 2. pp. 293-303.

Kotar, M. (1989, April). The learning cycle. Science and Children, 26(7), pp. 30-32.

Osborne, R. & Freyberg, P. (1988). Learning in science: The implications of children's science. Auchland, NZ.: Heinemann Publishers.

Renner, J. W. and Marek, E. A. (1988). The learning cycle and elementary school science teaching. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Science Curriculum Improvement Study. (1973, May) SCIS Omnibus. Lawrence Hall of Science. University of California. Berkeley, CA.

Dr. Robert Sweetland's Notes ©