Early in my career, my go-to method for introducing a new novel was to create a PowerPoint on the author’s biography and some context for the book. For example, before I taught To Kill a Mockingbird, my students sat placidly and took notes as I prattled on about Harper Lee’s life and Jim Crow laws. I felt that there was always a lot of information to share prior to reading, and that meant a lot of me talking and them sitting and listening.
For all of my carefully selected pictures and the delightful parallel structure of the bullet points on my slides, all this direct instruction drastically limited student engagement. I reduced my students to vessels into which I attempted to pour information. I was the performer, and they were merely the audience; my instruction centered on me rather than on them. Thankfully, I finally discovered the power of learning stations for fostering student engagement and making students into active rather than passive learners.
Imagine a classroom where clusters of students work in separate stations. One group reads and analyzes a sonnet while another watches a video on the importance of Shakespeare. A third group gathers around the Smart Board playing a game that tests their knowledge of Shakespearean drama. Elsewhere, students work together as they sift through a short text on Shakespeare’s life and times to find key terms around which to write a meaningful summary. After a specified amount of time, students switch tasks, cycling through all learning activities.
Strong, meaningful stations are challenging to create, but the benefits in student learning make that hard work worthwhile. Here are six tips for designing meaningful learning stations:
1: Choose content wisely and hold students accountable for learning it. Something that’s fun, like cutting out paper dolls of different characters, may not help students learn anything. Choose your objectives and decide what students need to be able to demonstrate to reach them. To ensure that students are active learners, I require them to fill out a worksheet on which they complete an activity at each station. After receiving a grade, students can use their worksheets as study guides.
2: Switch it up. One of the reasons students enjoy stations is that they have diverse tasks; they’re never doing the same thing for an extended time. Shifting the learning focus from station to station keeps students fresh and engaged. To introduce the Harlem Renaissance, if I have students interpreting symbolism in poetry at one station, I may have them listening to and describing snippets of Harlem Renaissance jazz music at the next. While both stations allow students to flex their critical-thinking muscles and explore important concepts, the tasks are nonrepetitive.
3: Incorporate technology. Have a group use a Smart Board to play an educational game (design your own or find one online) aimed at helping them uncover content. Or have them watch a short video and answer higher-level questions. Implementing technology opens a world of possibilities. I make sure students can complete something on their stations activity worksheet so that they take away concrete evidence of their learning.
4: Provide opportunities for both individual and group tasks. Let students collaborate while still holding everyone accountable for their own learning. While students will complete their own worksheets so no one simply coasts along, interaction unlocks potential and adds to engagement. At some stations, my instructions will include discussing the content with the group before recording answers. Grouping students on your own or randomly with a grouping app (such as PickMe) can help with classroom management and task completion.
5: Coordinate timing. If you’re not careful, one station might take five minutes while another takes 15. You don’t want one group sitting idly, waiting for the teacher to signal that they can move on, while another group feels frustrated at trying to cram too much into a limited time. Completing each task yourself can indicate where you may need to cut corners at a station, or even divide a large task into two separate stations if the content can’t be sacrificed.
6: Help students bring it all together. Students need reminders of why they’re doing these activities. After they complete each station, I require them to synthesize the information; I want them to put all the pieces together to help them reflect on what they’ve learned. For example, after learning about Elie Wiesel’s life, Jewish culture, various groups persecuted by the Nazis, life in the concentration camps, and the geographical regions affected by the camps, I had students write a short summary reflecting on what they learned about the Holocaust and how it affected people.
With learning stations, students don’t just sit back and take notes. They become active rather than passive learners and unlock information for themselves, and you become a facilitator rather than a performer.