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A teacher combines the Challenge Cycle Model with Middle School Chemistry curriculum.

Figure 1. The Challenge Cycle

The Challenge Cycle1 is a way to structure lessons that moves the primary responsibility for learning from teacher to student. As shown in Figure 1, the Challenge Cycle facilitates active learning, thinking and communicating by guiding students through five distinct phases.

For example, a teacher may present The Challenge to students in the form of a question, such as: Is the density of water always 1 g/mL? Students begin their learning by contributing Initial Thoughts in the form of 1–3 written ideas about the density of water. This helps the learner become aware of what they are thinking, and also brings the learner into the moment. Next, in order to engage in the Multiple Perspectives piece, students participate in a lab component. After that, students each contribute to a discussion regarding their findings in a collaborative effort to Reflect and Revise their understanding. This allows students to become metacognitive, improving and understanding their own thought process, and able to identify areas for exploration or refinement. Students can self-assess learning, without becoming anxious about the opinions of others. Finally, Report Out is an essential step because each student group must reach a consensus on two or three ideas that they agree are important enough to share with the rest of the class. This phase also enables the teacher to intercept misconceptions or reiterate key ideas.

Middle School Chemistry,2 meanwhile, is an extraordinary online curriculum resource for grades 6–8. This curriculum includes teacher background information, student activity sheets with guided questions, and complete lab instructions. There are also computer generated animations, and slide shows written to help students understand the chemistry of each activity. Additionally, there are test bank questions that I use for lesson extensions and to create assessments suitable for every learner. This curriculum is fully developed, and is firmly anchored by both NGSS and CCSS. There are also student activity sheets available in Spanish.

I will highlight Chapter 3, lesson 3 of Middle School Chemistry, in combination with my use of the Challenge Cycle. This is a lesson focused on the density of water, where students measure the volume and mass of water and calculate its density, and find evidence that the average density of water is 1g/mL, no matter the volume of water.

Challenge Cycle Part 1: The Challenge
Do different amounts of water have the same density?
A student volunteer comes to the front of the class and lifts two glass beakers that obviously contain different amounts of water, and reports how heavy each beaker seems in comparison.

Challenge Cycle Part 2: Initial Thoughts
Teacher instructions to students: Write your initial thoughts. These thoughts are only for you, to help you focus on the challenge, and will not be shared. Each student records his or her initial thoughts.

Figure 2. Sample student response for Initial Thoughts.

With assurance that these ideas will not be shared, students are more willing to take a risk, to reveal their current thinking, in order to prepare for collaboration with other students. This takes the worry out of being “right” or “wrong.”

Challenge Cycle Part 3: Multiple Perspectives
After students have written their initial thoughts, they work together in lab groups of four to complete the activity. The instructions provided by Middle School Chemistry are clearly written in five steps, and include a sample data table and a frame for students to create a line graph. Students measure the volume and mass of water and calculate the density of each sample.

I make the learning targets explicit, so that I can intercept misconceptions and also help struggling learners, without over simplifying the lab for the rest of the students. Generally, my students engage with Middle School Chemistry’s multimedia slideshow as a performance, which makes it especially fun. We call this performance Readers Theater. This is an effective teaching and learning strategy, because students are engaged and construct their understanding collaboratively through active learning. As their teacher, I serve as a facilitator, stepping in and out of the lesson according to each student’s need.

Challenge Cycle Parts 4 and 5: Reflect and Revise and Report Out
I monitor conversations to allow enough time for small group discussion such that each student has a voice, but only one student per group (chosen by the group) reports out. This is safe for students, because the revised thinking represents a consensus that came from student-centered conversations during Reflect and Revise. The reporter announces what they are reporting, whether it is revised thinking, what they still need help with, or what they want to explore further. This creates an atmosphere of respect and rapport. I rarely, if ever, hear comments such as, “he stole my idea,” or “I was going to say that.” More frequently, students will report out with comments such as, “like so and so said ...,” or “I also think that …,” and “we need help understanding …,” all of which are evidence that students are listening to each other with respect and rapport. This is the point of the lesson where I can reiterate key concepts or intercept misconceptions before these ideas are consolidated by the class.

Challenge Cycle Extension: Reflect and Revise Again (Individually)
After using the Challenge Cycle for several years, I’ve learned that it is important for students to reflect on their own thinking and be metacognitive — in other words, to own their learning. After participating in table and whole class discussions, I have my students once again think and write individually in their notebooks:

  • What did you already know, but now see in a new way?
  • What was surprising?
  • What do you want to explore further?
  • What do you still need help with?

Figures 3 and 4 show examples of student work, and are evidence of extended student thinking enriched by these discussions.

Figure 3. Example of student reflecting on mistakes and making corrections.
Figure 4. Example of student reflecting on prior knowledge and evidence gathered in the lab.

In my experience, the Challenge Cycle has improved students’ learning, as this way of thinking has been internalized by students through practice. With continued practice by both teacher and students, I am seeing more evidence of independent strategic thinking on tests — and less guesswork.

By adding an extension called Reflect and Revise Again (Individually) to the cycle, I see more evidence of concept mastery, as reflected in student notebooks, as well as in district test results. Currently, I am exploring the topics of neuroscience, education, and adaptive expertise using a NED Board3, which reflects key elements of the Challenge Cycle model on a game board, where students move “brains” along the board as they complete each phase of the cycle. This is fun for students because, while it’s still learning, it is more like playing a game with friends. I encourage you to also consider implementing the Challenge Cycle in your own classroom!


  1. University of Washington’s “Challenge cycles” web page. Available at https://www.washington.edu/howdoilearn/challenge-cycles/ (accessed Aug 5, 2019).
  2. American Chemical Society’s Middle School Chemistry site. Available at http://www.middleschoolchemistry.com/lessonplans (accessed Aug 5, 2019).
  3. NED Learning web page. Available at https://docs.google.com/document/d/1k3xK1fSwATMpZ607MplKmKTWVOm53hRbH8NOZCngCC0/edit. (accessed Aug 5, 2019).

Photo credit:
(article cover) digitalista/Bigstockphotos.com