I learned about the 5E Learning Cycle at a week long teaching workshop for biology professors at the SEPAL Resource Center at SF State. The 5E instructional model was originally developed by the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study in the 1980s to improve biology instruction in K12. The “5E” refers to five words that begin with the letter ‘E’: engage, explore, explain, elaborate, evaluate. The idea is that when you start teaching a new topic, you should engage the students first, then allow them to explore the topic before going into lecture mode.

The classes I teach all lend themselves to engagement and exploration, because the topics relate to medicine and usually there is some real-world application related to the topic. When looking at my lecture outlines, I realized I was explaining first and then giving the interesting application. Well, that’s too late if you have already lost the interest of some students. Better to start with something to engage the students, so they are motivated to learn more. I used the 5E model to reorganize all of my lectures for my human physiology course (MCB 32).

Example for teaching the cardiac cycle

Engage: Before class, I have students do an online homework assignment using an animation of the cardiac cycle.

Explore: At the beginning of class, I show the students an abnormal electrocardiogram. They work together to determine the cause of the ECG.

Explain: I start with a couple of Clicker questions about heart valves that relate to the homework they completed before class. I’m trying to show them that they can figure out a lot of the cardiac cycle with just a few minimal facts. Then I talk through a figure of the different phases of the cardiac cycle.

Elaborate: We give students a blank graph of ventricle volume and aortic pressure. They work together to draw how the volume and pressure change during the cardiac cycle, again showing them that they can figure out this information rather than relying on memorization. I give them a Clicker question related to the graphs, which they usually do pretty well on. Then we go over the graphs together in more detail.

Evaluate: Self-evaluation comes from Clicker questions and homework questions that follow up on the changes in pressure and volume. On the midterm exam, they are given a graph of ventricular pressure and asked to explain it.

Although I only formally reorganized my MCB 32 lectures this way, I do try to start all of my other classes with something to engage the students — a case study, a problem to work on, a real-life application, a news story, etc. I give students many opportunities throughout the class to work on questions, talk to each other and build their own knowledge.

Check out my STIR presentation from 2016 to hear more about the 5Es and another example of how I used it in MCB 32. This article by Kimberly Tanner at SF State is a great entry point for applying the 5E learning cycle to your class!