How to Create Learning Stations to Engage Students: The Design Process

Are you sold on learning stations in the secondary classroom, but just don’t know where to start? If so, you’re in the right spot! If you’re still skeptical of learning stations in the high school setting, head back to my first post, in which I outline the research-based benefits of learning stations and provide my personal experiences with this instructional model.

Learning stations have transformed the way I teach by making my instruction more student-centered, engaging, collaborative, kinesthetic, differentiated, and accessible. In other words, stations are just good teaching.

It can be intimidating to ditch the traditional “sage on the stage” model of direct instruction for the “guide on the side” style of learning stations, but it’s well worth it. If your goal is to cultivate 21st-century skills that will prepare students for the elusive “real world,” then this kind of philosophical shift is essential.

Once you’ve done the mental work of changing your mindset, then you’ll be ready to sit down and design your first round of stations that will engage your students and force them to take more ownership in the learning process.

For me, the design process is a challenge I readily embrace, but I know it can be stressful or tedious for some. To make the process a bit easier, I’ve dissected the steps I take from start to finish when I design a new set of learning stations. I hope this insight helps!

  1. DETERMINE THE LEARNING TARGET

    Before you can create your stations, you need a vision, and that starts with the learning target or standard. Consider the purpose of your lesson and what you want students to accomplish. Your objectives will impact the way you design your stations. Are you:

    • Practicing a skill? Stations are perfect for practicing skills because they offer repeated, low-risk, small-group practice. Students can reach their zone of proximal development with peers and teacher help. I like to use stations to practice literary analysis, discussion, writing skills, and more.How to create learning stations
    • Introducing new content? Ditch your old introductory PowerPoint in favor of hands-on station learning that will spark discussions and get students excited about an upcoming unit or novel study. I use stations to introduce literary movements in American literature and introduce the news determinants and purposes in my journalism class.
    • Analyzing a text? Stations can break up the monotony that often sneaks up during novel studies. I despite chapter question worksheets, but still need to challenge my students with literary analysis, so I often turn to stations! Stations offer effective scaffolding of complex cognitive tasks because they allow students to learn from each other in a low-risk setting.
    • Reviewing content? Stations are great for review because students can learn from each other and quickly realize what they know vs. what they don’t know before studying for an upcoming assessment. There’s also the option of making one station a review task for a spiral review approach.
    • Differentiating? With the right design and grouping strategies, stations can provide differentiation for all types of learners. Stations also allow you to spend more time with the students who need it the most, while more advanced learners work through stations without as much guidance.
    • Remediating? If you know students are struggling with a few key concepts or skills, stations can be an effective way to address those needs without doing multiple standalone lessons to reteach.
  2. EXAMINE, QUESTION, AND REFLECT ON YOUR LESSONS AND RESOURCES

    Why reinvent the wheel when you can recycle and re-purpose existing materials? If you’ve taught a similar lesson before, dig it up, examine it, and consider why you wish to restructure it to the station rotation model. Interrogate your existing resources and reflect on your previous lesson plans.

    • What do you want to change? When I am creating stations, I am usually doing so to make my lesson more student-centered, engaging, and collaborative.
    • What do you want or need to add? What was missing from your previous lesson? I have a growing stash of stations that I use from year to year, but I’m still always tweaking them to engage my students. I often add a more relevant and timely article, task, video, or activity based on the current events, trends, or interests of my students.
    • Another question that might be unique to just me: Do you have lots of little ideas or mini-lessons floating around in your drive or binder, and need a way to synthesize them into a cohesive, meaningful lesson? Stations are the perfect solution to this problem, which I often refer to as my “organized mess” of ideas. I’ll open up a unit folder on my Google Drive and find 7 half-finished ideas in separate docs (maybe one set of doodle notes, one cool video, a thematically relevant song, etc) but no perfectly polished lesson plan. This brings me to the next step: SYNTHESIS!
  3. SYNTHESIZE & STRUCTURE THE CONTENT

    Admittedly, this can be the most challenging and time-consuming step. This is where it’s important to know your learning goal and have a vision for what you want students to learn by the end of the class period.

    1. If it’s not already clear from your learning target, determine your theme or essential question that will unite your stations into a cohesive whole. This should be clear to the students; otherwise, they may struggle to see the value in doing a series of seemingly disconnected tasks.
    2. Determine how many stations you can realistically accomplish in a class period. I teach 42-minute class periods, so I typically aim for 4-5 stations of 5-8 minutes each, but there’s no magic number or time. This is always dependent on what else I want to do before or after the stations, whether it’s a bell-ringer or a wrap-up discussion. What’s best is whatever works for you, your students, and your time frame.
    3. Blend different types of tasks, technology, and content to make your stations as engaging as possible. Stations are naturally more engaging than whole class instruction, but it still helps to diversify the activities at each station.
      • Determine which stations will be more collaborative and which will be more individual. There’s no right or wrong way to do this, but I like to structure my stations as a combination of both. Often, a station will require students to read an excerpt aloud, discuss, and then write individual responses. Most of my stations include some element of discussion, but every once in a while, I will throw in an independent station. Whatever you do, make instructions clear for your students so they know your expectations at each station.
      • Incorporate tasks that allow a degree of student choice, even if it’s as simple as choosing from 2 different texts or activities that ultimately accomplish the same goal.
      • Blend technology in your stations, if possible! One station could be a Padlet, another a Quizlet game, etc.
      • Include different types of texts, if applicable. Your stations could look something like this: an excerpt from a novel, a non-fiction article, a poem, a political cartoon, and a video. This approach helps student engagement, but it also exposes your learners to different genres.
      • Infuse creativity, when possible. It can be easy to overlook creativity when we are under the pressure of standards, but it is so important for our students. You might feel like you can’t teach an entire lesson on something that seems a bit whimsical, but you can probably throw it in your stations. Creativity always enriches the learning experience, and your students will thank you later. Infusing creativity could be as simple as a station where students write a blackout poem that connects to the topic, novel, or skill.
      • If you are struggling to think of how to synthesize and structure your stations, here’s a list of ideas. Some of these might be more ELA than others, but the concepts can still apply to other subject areas:
        • Novel introduction stations to preview or scaffold texts: Provide essential background information and preview key themes or ideas, prompting students to summarize and make connections. If you have an “anticipation guide,” you could use that as the starting point for stations. Another approach involves finding key excerpts from your text to hook students and preview content while asking students to make inferences based on the limited information they are given. I like to do this for characterization and setting in complex novels like The Great Gatsby. My The Great Gatsby Novel Introduction Learning Stations scaffold Fitzgerald’s challenging opening chapter. After analyzing the excerpts in class, reading the chapter for homework is more meaningful and less intimidating for my students.
          GatsbyStations1

          The Great Gatsby Novel Introduction Learning Stations

        • Stations to introduce literary movements or historical time periods: Provide students with background information and key excerpts or quotes that represent the movement or time period. With these kinds of stations, I want my students to discover and define the movement in their own words before I provide supplemental instruction. In my Transcendentalism Learning Stations, students analyze excerpts and quotes from Emerson and Thoreau in an attempt to define Transcendentalism in their own words. I also use stations to introduce Puritanism before reading The Crucible and introduce the Roaring Twenties before reading The Great Gatsby.
        • Mentor text stations: To study writing or grammar in a more student-centered, engaging format, provide students with a different mentor text at each station and simply ask them what they notice. Then, facilitate a discussion about what students found, and supplement with your own instruction.
        • Discussion stations: Provide students with essential questions for a unit or novel, and then ask them to discuss/debate within their station groups before bringing the mini station discussions back to a whole class discussion.
        • Editing stations for writing workshop: Each station focuses on a different trait of writing, a stylistic technique, a common grammatical error, etc. The possibilities are endless!
        • Vocabulary stations: Create tasks that can be used with any list of vocabulary words. Think activities like charades, pictionary, crosswords, vocabulary trading cards, the classic “write a song or poem” using your words, Quizlet, etc.
        • Political cartoon analysis stations: Find cartoons that address a key theme, question, or time period, and ask students to analyze and discuss each. In my American Lit course, I do these with cartoons from the American Revolution, as well as cartoons that offer different perspectives on the American Dream.
        • Primary source stations: Calling all history teachers! This idea is straightforward but effective, and it’s a great way to expose students to primary sources. Gather primary sources for students to analyze and discuss at each station. Such an activity could even form the foundation for an AP DBQ (document-based question).
        • MLA or AP Style stations: Formatting is never fun to teach, but I’ve found that stations can be the least painful way to review the rules of MLA or AP style (journalism). Each station focuses on a rule or set of similar rules and provides examples to guide student.
        • Music analysis stations: Provide songs for students to analyze and/or compare to other texts or content. Do this as part of a poetry unit, use it to preview literary analysis, or thematically pair songs with a novel or non-fiction.
        • Symbolism stations: Provide students with textual evidence, or require them to find it on their own, and ask them to analyze and discuss a different symbol at each station.
        • Goal setting or growth mindset stations: Ask students to set goals, reflect on their progress, and read “self-help” non-fiction. I like to do these at the start of a new semester or year. My New Year’s Resolutions & Growth Mindset Learning Stations are a hit with students. 
        • Google Maps stations: Create a Google map with links and questions so that students can go on a virtual field trip. This could work well for history and geography, but I’ve also used Google Maps to examine setting in novels like Into the Wild.
        • Stations that incorporate a teacher check in/conference station: This is the beauty of stations–you can realistically check in with EACH student, a rare feat for more traditional forms of instruction. This works out perfectly for the writing workshop model.
  4. DESIGN!

    If you’re creative like me, this is the fun part. I love designing aesthetically appealing resources with pretty fonts and graphics, but if you don’t, have no fear! Here are some practical tips to streamline the design process:

    • Design in PowerPoint! I promise it will simplify the process and allow you more room for creativity, without the headaches that Word can give you. Google Slides work, too, but I’m a die-hard PPT girl. I’ll design in PowerPoint, PDF, and then upload to my Google Drive.
    • Whatever you do, set your slide size to 8.5 x 11 to print on regular paper. Once you make your first station, it can function as a template for the rest of your stations; just right-click and select “Duplicate slide” to copy the slide. Then all you have to do is change the titles and plug in new text/tasks for each station. I even have some ready-to-go templates for those times when I have an idea in my head, but not all the time in the world to leisurely design stations. You can check out my Watercolor Learning Stations Template here!Watercolor Learning Stations Template COVER
    • After creating slides/papers for each station, I make a “recording sheet” where students will write down all of their answers. I usually make this simple, with a title and a table with the number of stations. I label each box “Station 1,” “Station 2,” etc. and I do not include the questions or any other information; otherwise, students might try to “cheat the system” by answering the questions without thoroughly reading the information and following the instructions outlined at each physical station around the room.
    • At the bottom of my recording sheet, I usually include a simple exit ticket or reflection task for students to complete after circulating through all of the stations. It’s often as simple as “Summarize what you learned from these stations” or “Explain [topic] in your words.”
    • As discussed in my previous posts, sometimes I create “hints” or “bonus questions” to accompany my stations. When I do, I design these as small task cards that I can print and cut. The hint cards contain guiding questions designed to help the students arrive at an answer. They are the types of questions I ask my students when I walk around the room during the stations. Since there’s only one of me, and sometimes more than one group that needs help, these hints can come in handy. It’s like having another teacher in the room. To design these, just think of the questions you would ask to lead your students to understanding. The bonus questions are essentially extension tasks 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 usually just ask that students discuss these questions; I don’t want to make them feel like they’re doing too much extra work, but I do want to mentally challenge them and prevent any down time during stations.
  5. FACILITATE!

    Sorry, this one’s a teaser…head on over to my final post on how to facilitate learning successful learning stations for more information on implementation, classroom management, and other practical tips and tricks.

I hope this glimpse into my design process will help you create engaging stations for your secondary students. If you missed it, check out my previous post on the benefits of learning stations.

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5 Comments

  1. April 30, 2018 / 7:52 pm

    I seriously CANNOT WAIT to start implementing cool strategies like this next year! (I’m a traveling elementary teacher on special assignment now, but going back to the high school English classroom next year…) Love what you’ve put together!!

    Do you have any professional resource recommendations that talk about learning stations in the secondary classroom?

  2. Chelsea
    July 23, 2018 / 3:40 pm

    I like the idea of reviewing MLA using stations, how do you go about doing that? I have at least FOUR different preps this upcoming year, so I’m looking for easy ways to make classes interesting as I won’t have a lot of planning time. 🙁

  3. Rae G.
    July 27, 2018 / 5:03 am

    Thank you! I am a first year ELA teacher, and all of your blogs are PURE GOLD!

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