If I could teach with only one instructional strategy for the rest of my life, I would choose learning stations, and I’m saying this as a high school English teacher! Stations, or learning centers, have always been popular in elementary grades, but our “big kids” in high school can benefit from them just as much, if not more.
Learning stations involve a set of different tasks or activities that small groups of students rotate through. The station rotation model does require some front-loading to effectively design the learning tasks, but when it comes time for class, it’s one of those lessons that seems to magically “run itself.” This frees up your time, thus allowing you to circulate around the room, interacting with students and providing extra guidance to struggling groups or asking enrichment questions to advanced learners. You also can integrate a teacher conference or check-in station so that you can have meaningful one-on-one interaction with each student!
Learning stations can enhance learning in ways that traditional whole-class instruction often can’t. If you want to make your content more engaging and accessible and reach ALL of your learners in one class period, then learning stations are for you. Your students will thank you later!
My philosophy of teaching is anchored in engagement because I know that if my students aren’t engaged, they aren’t learning. To me, teaching is an art, a design process: How can I create a learning experience that will engage my learners? Full engagement in a room full of sometimes apathetic adolescents is no easy feat, but stations are one of my best solutions to combat low energy or engagement.
I first made the switch to stations after one of my previous PowerPoint lecture lessons—shocking, I know—flopped. It wasn’t a lesson that crashed and burned, but rather, it was one of those days when, halfway through your lesson, you feel a pang of guilt and start to panic as you realize that you are bored with your own lesson. This treason to your own teacher self is bad enough, but then it gets worse because you realize that your students are even more bored.
Disclaimer: These days happen. They still happen to me from time to time. I’m not saying I don’t ever lecture or fail—because I do. However, I can confidently claim that redesigning my lame lessons to create learning stations has always resulted in more engaging, authentic learning experiences for my students.
Almost every unit I teach in American Literature begins with a stations activity to provide historical context for literary movements and preview authors, texts, and themes. All of these stations were born from boring PowerPoints from my first year of teaching. I have also found ways to incorporate stations in my journalism course, whether to analyze the purpose of news in society or revise articles the students have written.
Learning stations are now a staple in my secondary ELA classroom, and they have truly transformed my classroom into a student-centered environment that supports all unique learners. I even redesigned my classroom and switched to flexible seating to make my classroom more conducive to learning stations and collaboration.
A former professor once told me that the teacher should never be doing more work than the students. She was right!
Stations are one of the most effective ways to switch the focus from the teacher to the students. Instead of being a “sage on the stage,” you are a “guide on the side.” Stations force students to take ownership of their learning, but they allow you to better spend your time helping the students who need it.
It can be intimidating releasing more responsibility to the students and adjusting your role as the educator, but it is well worth it. With the right structure, scaffolding, and practice, learning stations can create a more authentic, student-centered learning experience.
Vgotsky’s theory of learning asserts that social interaction is integral to cognitive development, especially when the collaboration is structured in a way that students can learn from a “more knowledgeable other” (MKO) in their “zone of proximal development” (ZPD). A student’s ZPD is his or her “sweet spot” of learning—the zone between what the student can do independently and what the student can do with guidance or peer collaboration.
Learning stations offer the optimal environment for student success and those beloved “light bulb” moments because they rely upon the power of authentic collaboration. Realizing that you are not the only “expert,” or MKO, in the room, and that students may sometimes learn best from each other, is simultaneously humbling and empowering. After all, you are the behind-the-scenes expert, carefully designing these learning opportunities and drawing on all of your resources and other experts—your students—to maximize the impact of each lesson.
When you value collaboration and practice it frequently, your students will grow as learners, communicators, and (more importantly) human beings! Oftentimes, I will notice naturally shy students who would NEVER willingly raise a hand during whole class discussions come alive during stations because they feel more comfortable in a small group of their peers. For this reason, I often like to incorporate “discussion” stations when we are reading novels. The small-scale conversations expose students to more perspectives and always enrich any whole-class discussion that follows.
By creating an optimal learning environment that fosters collaboration and values the voices of all students, stations can help cultivate a positive classroom culture that empowers all learners.
4. “CHUNKING” INFORMATION
Studies have shown that students learn content best when it is “chunked” or divided into smaller, more digestible sections. Although research on attention span ranges, one thing is for certain: the typical teen’s attention span is incredibly SHORT, so it only makes sense to structure content, especially new information, in the form of stations. Have you ever sat through a full day of PD, listening to lectures chock full of new information? Even if it is information you genuinely want to learn, you probably leave at the end of the day feeling overwhelmed and burnt out because it was simply too much for you to process. I’d venture to say that this is probably comparable to how our students feel after we deliver a long lecture on brand new content.
This is why chunking matters! When you redesign a lesson to fit the station rotation model, you are forced to think critically and creatively about how to make your content more accessible to students. If you’re a nerd like me, you might even enjoy this process of synthesizing your content or skills and searching for the most engaging way to structure it via stations.
Next time you’re feeling frustrated after your students have already forgotten what you’ve taught them, take some time to reflect on how you structured the content. Could you divide it into digestible sections that intrigue your students and provide more time for processing? If so, stations may be the perfect place to start.
5. KINESTHETIC LEARNING
High schoolers need physical movement too! Stations provide just the right dose of physical movement in the classroom—enough to keep your sleepy teenagers awake and your restless adolescents at ease. To add some energy and fun during rotations, you can even play a few seconds of music as your kiddos transition.
I will admit that sometimes movement elicits groans from some students, but if you value kinesthetic learning and find ways to include it in your instruction, your students will become accustomed to it. Hopefully, they’ll learn to appreciate what it can do for their focus and energy levels. If I let them, my students would mindlessly and robotically stare at their Chromebook screens all day, but they know that movement will be a part of learning in my classroom. In fact, the other day, I had a student complain about stations to me: “They force us to get up and MOVE,” he said, with pure disgust of physical activity (even though he’s an athlete). After listening to him rant, I did hear him concede, “Yeah, they do help me learn better, though…” Mission accomplished! I think many of my students subconsciously appreciate the kinesthetic learning. After all, high schoolers are just big kids. Their bodies are not designed to be stationary for 8 hours a day. Even if they don’t explicitly appreciate it, I can clearly see the difference in their energy levels and engagement at each station.
6. EASY TO INTEGRATE TECHNOLOGY
Whether you want students to watch a quick YouTube video, answer a question on Padlet, check out Google Maps, Earth, or Instant Street View to examine the setting of a story, or listen to a thematically relevant song, the possibilities for integrating technology are endless. If you’re new to technology, stations can be a great way to try new tech tools in a less intimidating setting. If you have limited technology—such as only a few devices, or perhaps only one—you can also use stations to maximize your tech tools. For example, maybe 4 of your stations are traditional paper-and-pencil tasks, but for your 5th station, you set up a video clip for students to watch and discuss.
My school is 1:1 with Chromebooks, so I often create blended stations. If I design stations that are 100% online, I personally think the lesson becomes more of a web-quest, and the students are less like to engage in the collaboration that should define stations. But you don’t have to structure stations just like me, and that’s my point—it’s up to YOU how you want to structure stations. You can easily change your approach based on your technology, content, goals, and students.
By differentiating the tasks at each station, you can accommodate the varying needs and preferences of learners in your classroom. You can also structure your stations to appeal to different learning styles (visual, aural, linguistic, and kinesthetic) and Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences. Whereas a whole-class lesson might only appeal to one or two learning styles or intelligences, learning stations can target more learners.
Differentiation can also be as simple as purposeful grouping; when you structure the groups according to students’ levels, you know which groups to spend more time helping and which groups can master the content independently. With the right structure, tasks, and grouping, stations can help all students learn in their zone of proximal development.
One relatively easy way I differentiate through stations is by creating “Hint Cards” and “Bonus Questions.” (I don’t do this every single time, but when it fits and when I can). The Hint Cards contain guiding questions designed to prompt the students’ thinking. The Bonus Questions are extension questions for students who master the skill or content quickly. These questions are usually a notch higher in terms of critical thinking—often application, evaluation, or synthesis questions. I emphasize that there is NO downtime during stations. If students finish early, they should consult the Bonus Question OR raise their hand (and I’ll usually give them an intriguing question to discuss).
8. RELATIVELY QUICK AND EASY TO ASSESS
Because you are not actively “teaching” during stations, you are able to observe and informally assess students as they work their way through the stations. You can likely gain the data you need to inform your instruction, so you might not even need to formally grade students’ station response sheets.
Still, I almost always have students complete a stations response sheet because most of my stations ask questions and I want something tangible to keep students accountable. (This doesn’t lock me into “grading” the stations, though.] However, if one of the stations is a discussion station, I will not require students to write anything down; I feel like that just defeats the purpose of students having a natural discussion. Instead, I ask that the students “invite” me over to their discussion at some point during the rotation so that I can check their group off and give them credit.
Another easy but effective option for grading station work involves spot-checking one station response. Yet another alternative is to create an exit ticket that requires students to synthesize what they learned and just grade that! It should give you all of the evidence you need to assess understanding.
But even if you are grading each response, you can use your informal observation to help you grade. For example, if you heard a student making great points during the station, do you really need to pore over his/her response for that station? Probably not!
If your students have devices, you can also streamline your station grading process by having them submit their responses digitally, through a Google form or Google Classroom question. I personally prefer the Google Classroom question, because the students can see their peers’ responses when they submit their own response. This way, the small group discussions can build upon one another, and students can learn from the WHOLE class in a SMALL group setting—it’s truly the best of both worlds!
9. PERFECT FOR BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS
Whole group instruction, while necessary at times, is often not very interactive or intimate. It can be difficult to connect with students and build relationships solely through direct instruction. It’s just not possible to have a one-on-one conversation with a student because then you’d be putting the other 29 kids on pause. Because stations free up the teacher, they allow for more meaningful conversations with individuals and small groups.
While I love facilitating stations all year long, I especially find them valuable in the beginning of the year. I feel like I am really able to get to know my students by walking around the room and chatting with them at various stations. I will actually pull up a chair and join the small group as if I am a student. There’s something powerful about literally getting on a student’s level and actively participating in your own lesson, instead of just leading it.
10. YOU DON’T HAVE TO TOTALLY REINVENT THE WHEEL!
As a teacher, I understand that time is always the biggest obstacle. However, sometimes it can be as simple as taking content from your existing PowerPoint slides or worksheets and adding an intriguing question that will help students process the information. Admittedly, my stations are usually more creative than that, but I’ve definitely resorted to simple reformatting in a time crunch when I knew I didn’t want to bore my students (or myself) with a lecture but didn’t have time for a complete extreme stations makeover. I even created a learning stations template to simplify the design process. You have to start somewhere, and even though this kind of quick restructuring might not be learning stations in all their glory, it still makes the lesson more accessible and student-centered. Once you’ve got the structure down, then you can infuse more creativity to make your stations truly engaging.
Ideally, you want to examine your content and skills and think deliberately about HOW you can best restructure it to fit the stations model. This is often the most challenging part of designing stations. But it’s incredibly rewarding when you, as the expert, figure it out and piece your content together to design a meaningful learning experience for your students. If you’re interested in my process of designing stations, stay tuned for my next blog post in this 3-part stations series.
The second post will walk you through my station creation process and provide specific examples and ideas of stations. My final post will outline how I implement stations in my high school classroom. If you have any questions or ideas that I can address in the following two blog posts (or possibly a fourth post), PLEASE comment below! I appreciate your feedback so much! In the meantime, feel free to check out some of the best-selling stations I currently have in my Teachers Pay Teachers store:
- Puritanism Learning Stations (Great Pre-Reading for The Crucible)
- Transcendentalism Learning Stations
- The Roaring 20s Learning Stations (Perfect Pre-Reading Context for The Great Gatsby)
- Harlem Renaissance Learning Stations
- The Great Gatsby Novel Introduction Learning Stations