Leveraging Science Education’s 5E Learning Cycle: Designing Online Instruction to Uncover and Challenge Misconceptions

Concurrent Session 6
Streamed Session

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Brief Abstract

Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, and Evaluate are words that appear simplistic for designing science lessons, but they actually help instructors and designers utilize Conceptual Change Theory to uncover learner preconceptions and misconceptions, which are very difficult to change.  The 5Es provide the conditions to modify them to more scientific ideas.


Dr. Matthew Vick is a professor of science education from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. He has directed/co-directed two grant projects at UW-W: a two-year Wisconsin Elementary and Secondary Education Act Title IIA Improving Teacher Quality Grant entitled "Integrating Science and Literacy Learning with English Proficient and English Language Learners" and a one-year UW System Outreach grant entitled "Collaboratively Implementing the Vision of the Next Generation Science Standards in the Mukwonago Area School District with Pre-service and In-service Teachers". He has published research articles and a book chapter in science education as well as practitioner-based articles. He has presented at the National Science Teachers Association, the Association for Science Teacher Education, the National Association for Research in Science Teaching, and the Wisconsin Society of Science Teachers. He has served as department chair for the department of Curriculum and Instruction and interim associate dean of graduate studies.

Extended Abstract


By the end of the session, participants will be able to

  • Explain the learning science behind each of the 5Es
  • Explain the learning science behind the order of the 5Es
  • Distinguish between the purpose of the Explore and Elaborate activities
  • Select or design appropriate virtual Exploration and Elaboration activities
  • Select or design appropriate physical but distance education examples of Exploration and Elaboration activities

Materials:  Supporting PowerPoint will be shared through the Conference website and app.


Conceptual Change Theory is a framework from science education that helps explain why students’ initial ideas about how the world works are so difficult to change (e.g. Driver Guesne, & Tiberghien, 1985; Driver, Squires, Duck, & Wood-Robinson, 1994; Posner, Strike, Hewson, & Gertzon, 1982).  The preconceptions of learners about scientific concepts seem reasonable to them in some situations, but they then generalize them to situations in which they do not work (Anderson & Smith, 1987; Driver et al., 1985; Driver et al., 1994).  These ideas are resistant to change (Wandersee, Mintzes, & Novak, 1994).  Conceptual change theory has found that learners change their ideas only when their initial ideas are not able to explain a new event or phenomenon.  They need to discover alternatives that are plausible and useful (Hewson & Thorley, 1989).  Explanations provided to learners that use sound scientific reasoning are unlikely to change learners’ preconceptions (Songer & Linn, 1991) because misconceptions are embedded in a particular context which requires students to alter other concepts as well (Strike & Posner, 1992).  Similarly, presentation of anomalous situations does not change misconceptions by themselves because learners often ignore the event or change their perception of the data (Mason, 2001).  In general, three conditions are necessary for conceptual change to occur (Posner, et al., 1982):  the new concept needs to be intelligible by learners, it needs to be plausible in terms of resolving learner dissatisfaction, and it needs to be fruitful by being useful in other situations.

The 5E framework (Bybee, 1997) provides an approach for instructors and instructional designers to utilize the elements of Conceptual Change Theory in a simplified, but powerful structure.  A lesson begins by Engaging students.  This step should motivate them to learn and also allow for current thinking about a concept to be shown.  Second, the lesson involves an Exploration: students should test out their current thinking about a concept by first commiting to predicting the results of an exploration based upon their current thinking and then taking real data.  The Explain step involves a dialog between teacher and student as well as students amongst themselves to draw conclusions from the exploration.  Preconceptions and misconceptions should be shown to be in contradiction to the evidence, but teachers should be prepared for these initial ideas to be very resistant to change.  The Elaborate activity should require students to use their newly discovered or newly refined understanding of a concept.  It should be designed in such a way that common misconceptions should result in errors.  Evaluation can actually occur throughout the learning cycle.  Formative evaluation should occur during the Engage, Explore, and Explain stages.  Summative evaluation could be linked to the Elaborate activity or be a further assessment after the completion of the other stages.


Sample 5E Learning Cycle

Objective: Students will explain how the acceleration effect of gravity is not affected by the mass of an object.



  • Students are shown a video of a variety of clocks with pendulums (wall clock, grandfather clock, etc.)  They are left with the questions of “Does the length of a clock’s pendulum make a difference?  What causes it to move back and forth?”


  • Students will use the simluation at https://phet.colorado.edu/en/simulation/pendulum-lab.  
  • Investigation Question:  How do mass and pendulum length affect the time it takes for a pendulum to swing and return to a starting point?
  • Students are to create a data table testing various masses and pendulum lengths (while also requiring them to use the concept of controlling all variables except for the one being tested).


  • Students use the discussion board to share their results and explain what effect they think mass and pendulum length had on the period of its motion.


  • Students return to the simulation and are asked to find a combination of mass and length to create a specific period (each student is given a different period to find).  
  • Misconception targeted:  By this time students should realize that the mass has no effect on the period, but they may still attempt to see if making the pendulum heavier or lighter changes its period.


  • Students are directed to a video of the Apollo 15 moon mission where a feather and hammer were dropped in the near-vacuum on the moon’s surface.  They are asked the following question to assess their understanding of this sequence of activities:  “How does the Apollo 15 demonstration relate to the results of the pendulum experiment?”


Session Plan (45 minutes)

  1. Overview of Tenets of Conceptual Change Theory (10 minutes)
  2. Overview of the 5E Learning Cycle (5 minutes)
  3. Connection of the 5Es to Conceptual Change Theory (5 minutes)
  4. Example of a virtual 5E cycle (10 minutes)
  5. Example of a 5E cycle done remotely with materials at home (5 minutes)
  6. Brainstorm of ideas for 5E Explore and Elaborate activities (5 minutes)
  7. Question and Answer (5 minutes)


Participant Engagement 

Polleverywhere will be used to solicit audience feedback and ideas throughout the presentation.  Participants will be asked to share out examples of resources through Polleverywhere for sharing with other participants.  Additionally, participants will be able to participate in the Explore and Elaborate examples from Phet.colorado.edu and explorelearning.com.