Imagine you’ve spent hours designing stations to help your students learn or practice a challenging concept. You’ve planned every last detail, expertly crafted the work at each station, and even carefully divided your students into groups based not only on academics but also their unique personalities.
On the day, you explain the rules to your students: who starts where, how long they spend at each station, which way to rotate -and then you start the timer.
Maybe at first everyone is on task and learning, but it’s only a matter of time before a student finishes before the timer goes off and starts distracting her neighbor, and while you’re trying to redirect the off-task students, another student wanders from his assigned station to hang out at his best friend’s station. As you go to direct him back to his group, the timer goes off and half the class doesn’t remember which way to rotate. Eventually, you get through the class and your students have learned something, but you’re exhausted because it didn’t go the way you planned at all.
Most teachers don’t have to imagine, because they’ve experienced a similar situation at some point in their careers. It may have even deterred them from ever trying stations again.
So let’s talk about some of the challenges of implementing stations in the classroom and ways to overcome them. We are going to focus on the math classroom but these same principles can be applied across all subject areas.
1. Differentiation is difficult and time-consuming
It’s completely normal to be overwhelmed when the word differentiation comes up. Everyone loves to tell you that you should be doing it, but no one seems to have a how-to guide on the topic.
In the context of stations, you’re already creating multiple stations with different assignments or activities at each. Are you also supposed to be creating different versions of each station to meet the needs of every learner?
The answer is: you could but you don’t have to.
Use each station as a way of differentiating. Remember, not every student needs to visit every station, especially not for the same amount of time. Use the data you collect daily in your classroom to inform what topic each station should address. A student doesn’t have to go to a particular station if the data shows that they are either not ready to learn that content, or have learned the content well enough that they will receive no significant benefit from working at that station.
The Weekly Insights and Student Insights features on Mathspace enable you to quickly pinpoint which content needs to be addressed by which students. Teachers can then quickly assign individual assignments to students to meet their specific needs.
2. Creating activities/assignments for stations is a lot of work
Traditionally, when teachers create stations they’re very specific and intended to be used for one particular class period and never again. This means teachers need to create completely new materials every time they want to use stations in their classroom.
To avoid putting in a lot of effort for limited return, create stations with a general theme that can be reused on a weekly or even daily basis. Stations don’t have to be completed in one class period. They can include ongoing learning experiences that students can go back to class after class.
Some examples of stations that can be used fluidly throughout the year are:
- Teaching - the teacher provides direct instruction to a small group of students who then practice the concept independently
- Practice - students work on individualized assignments to master content that is appropriately challenging (Mathspace adaptive tasks make creating work for a practice station quick and simple)
- Visualization - students focus on visual representations of mathematics and are required to explain or defend their thinking (youcubed.org has great materials on visual representations)
- Applications - students who have mastered a concept apply their knowledge to solve a type of problem they’ve never seen before
- Discovery - students investigate a new concept, uncover patterns, and share their observations (The Mathspace eBook is a great source of premade investigations, as are teacher.desmos.com and geogebra.com)
- Project - use a project station throughout the unit, or across multiple units, for students to put their learning to work when other stations are not appropriate
Many of these stations require no more planning than traditional classroom instruction, and they can all become regular fixtures in your classroom year-round with only slight adjustments as the content changes.
3. Classroom management is difficult to maintain during stations
One of the main deterrents for teachers when it comes to using stations is classroom management. If you’re not careful, even the best-planned stations can quickly devolve into chaos.
Fortunately, some of the strategies discussed above will already help by increasing student engagement. By using data to ensure students are at a station that is appropriately challenging, students are less likely to be off task. Keeping stations the same throughout the year will also help students know what to expect.
However, we know engaging work doesn’t eliminate all behavior problems, so some other strategies you can implement are:
- Ease your class into using stations.
Start by introducing one station. Show students the types of work they can expect from that station and model the behavior you would like to see. Then have the whole class work on that station to get practice. Once that station has been mastered, introduce a second station and continue the process until all stations have been introduced.
- Develop clear procedures.
Once all stations have been introduced, make sure you have a clear process for communicating to students which station they should be at, how to turn in their work when they finish, and how they will know what station to go to next. Put the administrative work on the students so you are free to support learning and manage behaviors.
- Incorporate accountability at each station.
If students know they are submitting some form of work at each station, they will be more likely to stay on task. This will look different at each station. It might be a journal entry at the proof station or a Mathspace adaptive task at the practice station. Make sure students know at the start what is being submitted and how they will submit it.
- Make the teaching station visible.
If you are using a teaching station, make it is located in a place where you have easy access to the other stations and that students can see you no matter what station they are at. Having a visible presence will do wonders to limit behavior problems. Also, make sure to provide students at the teaching station with some time for independent practice so that you can circulate the room and check-in with students at other stations.
How to get started
- Start by looking at your data. This will help you decide how many and what types of stations to create.
- Based on your data, decide which students will visit which station(s) and in which order, and share this information with each student. Remember, time spent at each station will vary by the student so always have a backup plan for if a student finishes early or takes longer than expected.
- Decide how work will be turned in at each station and if/how it will be graded.
- Label stations clearly so students can find them easily. Keeping the name/theme of the station the same throughout the year will help with this.
- Start simple and be patient with yourself and your students. You might want to start with a teacher station and a practice station at first, and once you and your students have gotten comfortable with those, you can add more one by one.
Stations can be a great way to differentiate instruction and make learning more meaningful to students. They don’t have to be chaotic or time-consuming. Start small and teach your students to manage their learning. Before you know it, you’ll have your stations running like clockwork.