January 7th, 2019

Engaging the Entire Learning Cycle to Ignite Enthusiasm and Learning


engaging the learning cycle

You can tell it’s exam week when you see countless students standing outside the exam room trying to take advantage of some last minute cramming. We wonder how much of this information they are about to regurgitate has contributed to their knowledge of the subject. Is what we’re “teaching” actually learned? Are we teaching in a way such that students can apply what is learned?

To answer these questions, we decided to use the Zull’s four pillars of learning (Zull 2002) and engage the entire learning cycle into our lesson plan. Engaging the entire learning cycle involves activating four different regions of the brain by allowing time for gathering information, reflection, creation, and active testing. We selected a set of objectives within a well-defined area of content: plant diversity and the plant classification system. The learning objectives are that students will be able to do the following: a) identify plant characteristics, b) classify plants into the plant classification system, and c) recognize structures that developed as plants adapted from an aquatic to a terrestrial environment during evolution. We intended that learners would not only master the objectives but also accomplish long-term learning. Engaging different parts of the brain during the learning process supports long-term learning (Zull 2011, Kolb 1981). Our lesson plan engaged students in a variety of activities that allowed us to measure our learning objectives in a step-by-step process. Moving onto the next stage of the activity required mastery of the learning objectives in gradually increasing Bloom’s levels of learning.   

  • Gathering information. We delivered the content through a lecture-style teaching method, which used videos and other visual aids, such as lab models and specimens. We made the information gathering stage of the learning cycle even more productive by giving an opportunity for the students to go outdoors and locate samples to showcase plant diversity and capture photographs of them. Once they returned to class, each group shared their specimen pictures, and talked about its classification.
  • Reflection. After the information gathering stage, we engaged the students to reflect on the plant classification system with a simple exercise—we described characteristics of a hypothetical plant and had the students work in groups to classify the “mystery” plant. We observed a lot of discussion and peer-teaching during this activity. The groups actively reflected during this time as they also had a goal to work toward—solving the“mystery” plant.
  • Creation. Once the groups correctly classified the “mystery” plant and justified the reasoning behind their answer, the groups designed their own unique hypothetical plant. Next, the groups presented it to the class. It was interesting to see how some student groups created plants that had features designed by the students that placed them in a new category altogether. The students were able to identify that these plants would not only be in a new category, but would also need to be positioned in-between two already known categories on the plant classification system. Seeing the students engage in higher-order thinking and demonstrating mastery of a concept in such an exceptional way is a moment of celebration for any instructor.
  • Active testing. According to Zull (2002), any idea that gives rise to a physical action qualifies as active testing. Talking about the concept, teaching it to others, creating something with it would all be activities that accomplish this. Our learning activity was a step-wise process that enabled the students to engage in active testing in a variety of ways in all the stages of the learning cycle described above. The students worked in groups and discussed how to classify a plant found in nature as well as a hypothetical plant and justified its position in the plant classification system to their peers in a presentation.

Implications for other fields

There is ample opportunity to integrate learning-cycle inspired activities into lesson plans in any discipline in any classroom or laboratory setting. For example, in a large classroom setting, instructors can have students reflect over a specific section of the material covered that day and work in small groups to create a multiple-choice question for potential use in a future exam. Creating a question would be a simple way to get students to think about the material in a different way than they are accustomed to and employ the entire learning cycle with ease. We observed that when this activity was assigned to a large, lecture-heavy classroom, the students enjoyed the opportunity to be creative and think about the subject matter differently. Concept mapping and brain sketching are other creative ways to engage students in the entire learning cycle. We hope that this article would inspire faculty to try similar methods in their classrooms.


Kolb, D. A. (1981) Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Upper Saddle River, NJ, USA: Prentice Hall

Zull, J. E. (2002) The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning. Sterling, VA, USA: Stylus Publishing

Zull, J. E. (2011) From Brain to Mind: Using Neuroscience to Guide Change in Education. Sterling, VA, USA: Sterling Publishing

SageCrowd (2015) The laws of learning: work with the brain’s natural learning cycle (blog), SageCrowd. https://www.sagecrowd.com/blog/laws-learning-work-brains-natural-learning-cycle/

Author bios

Dr. Tennakoon is a visiting lecturer of biology at Texas Woman’s University.  Ms. Raut is a neuroscience doctoral candidate in the Department of Biology at Texas Woman’s University. Dr. Ahmed is an associate clinical professor of biology at Texas Woman’s University.