The use of learning stations is a teaching approach widely used in elementary and secondary schools. But are they relevant for college students? Absolutely! I have used them into my English as a Second Language (ESL) courses on multiple occasions, focusing each time on different learning objectives. Not only did it result in successful outcomes, but it also increased student engagement.
Drawing from my own experience, I share my insights on designing and implementing your own learning stations into your teaching practice. Whether your discipline is philosophy, science, literature, or mathematics, learning stations are adaptable and offer endless possibilities!
What are learning stations?
Imagine your classroom with 7 to 8 learning stations, displaying different activities based on the content you have been teaching in class in the last few weeks.
Also known as learning centers, learning stations are designated areas within your classroom where students engage in various hands-on, interactive, and self-directed activities to enhance their understanding of a particular topic. This learner-focused method of teaching can include various materials, resources, and instructions for the students to tackle different activities.
Here’s how learning stations typically work. Divided into groups of 3 or 4, the students rotate through the different stations after a determined amount of time (each 10 or 15 minutes). At each station, they do autonomous work and collaborate to complete a given task on a given topic. After the allotted time, the group moves around the classroom to the following station to complete a new task.
This teaching strategy enables them to participate in a variety of activities around a single topic, all the while exploring different learning approaches within a single class.
Why use learning stations?
Learning stations offer several benefits for students since they are designed to promote active learning, collaboration, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. Indeed, this approach will:
- boost student engagement
- support learning autonomy
- encourage collaboration
- foster differentiation
- promote the use of digital tools and multimedia
While the students are engaged in relevant activities, it allows the teacher to monitor and interact with them to assess their progress and understanding. In addition, this approach helps the students to scaffold their skills one at a time as each station focuses on one skill. It leads to better and deeper learning and overall understanding.
My experience with learning stations
I have experimented with learning stations in different contexts within my ESL courses. I find this method particularly effective as a review activity before evaluations.
For instance, in Winter 2023, I designed 8 research skills stations for my 102 B-block students, focusing on paraphrasing, using quotations, citing sources, and writing a bibliography. These stations allowed students to reinforce concepts covered earlier, helping their preparation for an upcoming argumentative essay writing. Based on my observations and the students’ comments, I was able to conclude that it was an effective way to review concepts. The students appreciated the collaborative work and the change from routine classes.
Similarly, for this semester (Fall 2023), I have designed 10 stations on Literary Analysis for my 103 B-block students, addressing both the structure and content of literary analysis essays. Each station corresponds to a key aspect of literary analysis:
- Station 1: Quotes vs Paraphrases vs Summaries
- Station 2: Story Elements and Conflicts
- Station 3: Characterization
- Station 4: Theme
- Station 5: Figurative and Descriptive Language
- Station 6: Literary Devices
- Station 7: The Introduction Paragraph
- Station 8: Topic Sentences
- Station 9: The Conclusion Paragraph
- Station 10: Meet Your Teacher
Using a short story studied in class, the groups of students will collaborate to analyze it step by step. For each station, a task card will provide the students with specific instructions to follow for that station.
To facilitate the process, I also created an Answer Sheet [pdf] for the students to record their answers as they progress from one station to the other.
I am expecting the students to be able to tackle the 10 tasks independently, as we will already have covered these concepts in the previous weeks. I also encourage the students to refer to their course notes if needed.
Designing your own learning stations
Designing your own learning stations may not be an easy task but it’s definitely worth it. Once you have your stations established, you can reuse them as many times as you want. The secret to successfully implementing learning stations is careful planning.
First, before designing your stations, you need to determine the length of each task. Each station should last approximately the same amount of time to make sure the lesson runs smoothly, and the students feel engaged at all times.
Then, you need to determine the overall objective. Are you trying to introduce your student to a new concept? Are you trying to build background knowledge on a text? Are you trying to review key components of a specific text format before an evaluation? No matter which types of stations you want to design, keep in mind the purpose and the end result of your stations.
Types of stations
Once you have defined your learning goal, deconstruct it into different tasks. Each task will become a station. After determining the content of each station, you need to decide on the format. There are various types of stations you can incorporate into your classroom. Here are some examples:
- flashcard station
- mind map station
- summarization station
- writing prompt station
- editing station
- revision station
- audio station
- puzzle station
- app station
- game station
- simulation station
- group discussion station
- problem-solving station
- video analysis station
- podcast station
- image interpretation station
It is usually a good idea to build open-ended activities to allow the students some ownership. For example, using graphic organizers and mind maps is a great way to make the activity accessible to everyone on the team. They can then really do collaborative work in which they all bring something to the task. The stronger student won’t feel under-challenged as the task allows them to lean towards making higher-lever inferences. In addition, it is a great opportunity to incorporate the use of digital tools and multimedia into your classroom.
Remember that the types of stations you choose will depend on your learning objectives, the resources available, and your discipline. Mixing and matching them is the best way to create a well-rounded learning experience for your students.
A teacher station? Why not!
Consider including a teacher station. If your learning stations are properly designed, your students will be focused on the tasks, move around the classroom without hassle, and be autonomous in their learning process. It is a great opportunity for you to take the time to sit down with each group and provide direct instruction or assess their progress.
Setting up the learning stations
Take the time to outline with your students the overall objective of the activity, the physical space, the task instructions, and the time limit for each task.
Then, set up the desks in groups of 3 or 4 students in the classroom to create stations. Place the required material (task cards, worksheets, tools, etc.) in the middle of each grouping. Hand out the Answer Sheet (one per group) where students can record their results for each station. You can create the teams according to the specific learning needs of students to allow for differentiation.
To manage the flow of movement, I suggest using a visible timer to have students move to the next station as a group once the time is up. Then, assign each group to one station. And let the magic happen!
Ready to try?
By thoughtfully designing stations, teachers can create purposeful learning environments that keep students on task while fostering diverse skills and approaches.
Would you like to try learning stations? Or have you already tried them in your classroom? How could you implement them into your discipline? Feel free to share your experience in the comments below!