Students on the Move: Using Station Rotations to Foster Collaboration, Autonomy, and Experiential Learning

Emily Philpott, Associate Director of Global Studies, Upper School Science & History Faculty

I have realized this year just how much I use stations as an instructional practice in all of my classes. While the implementation and structure depend on the desired learning outcomes and course discipline (I teach both history and science), the general premise remains the same: divide up the lesson or task into smaller parts which students complete one at a time. How this looks in practice, varies immensely. It can be collaborative, with students working in groups and moving together through each part, or it can be an individual assignment.

Students collaborate in groups during a stations lesson in psychology.
Students work individually to answer discussion questions in world history. They wrote their thoughts on the wall and when time was called, moved on to the next question. The lesson culminated with each student compiling the comments for one question and presenting it to the class.

The station model can be self-paced, allowing students to move freely on their own schedule through the stations, or the pace can be set by the teacher, with defined time limits at each location. Gallery walks are a great way to get students up and moving if you have a lot of information to share. Post information (such as pictures, charts, or documents) and allow students to move around the room at their own pace.

If I want to help students budget their time and especially if it is not possible for more than one student or group to be at a station at a time, I will serve as timekeeper and set an alarm to keep everyone on track.

Here are the walls after a “brain dump” review. Groups had a certain amount of time at each topic to add information before moving on to the next. By the end of class, each student had spent time with all of the material and knew what concepts they needed to spend more time studying.

Additionally, stations can have a physical space in the room or the task may work best if students can choose their location. Some stations were set up in the room, but for other stations, students could choose to work outside or another part of campus.

Students busy at work on stations set up within the classroom.

Finally, stations can be used as a quick 10-minute bell ringer, a full class period activity, or a longer assignment that students have multiple days to work on.

I have seen many benefits from incorporating this type of model in my classes, and I enjoy the flexibility it gives me to move around the room providing feedback and answering questions. However, I think the main benefits to students are that they gain practice with collaboration, gain some autonomy over the learning process, and participate in experiential learning.  

Collaboration

Stations can give students a space to practice true collaboration. Often what we think is a collaborative assignment turns out to be a group of students who divide up the work and then complete their assigned part individually. With stations, groups can only work on one task at a time, forcing them to work on that one thing together before moving on to the next part. For example, in my AP World History class, I often turn a document-based essay question into a station activity. I use the magnetic walls to place the documents around the room (or you could put the desks into groups and put one document at each grouping) and then have students move in groups around the room. At each document, they read it and then work together to answer a set of discussion questions before moving to the next one. Once students have had a turn at each document we come back together as a class for a culminating activity. It could be a discussion, student presentations, or an individual writing assignment. With this method, I can be fairly confident that students have read, analyzed, and discussed each source. If I divide students into groups and give them a packet of documents and questions with the instructions to “work together”, likely students will each take a document and answer those questions on their own, eventually sharing their answers with the group. The station set-up helps to model what collaboration should look like and gives students the space to practice this important skill.

Autonomy

In Daniel Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, he argues that autonomy is one of the key ingredients for engagement and motivation. He says the research indicates that traditional management (like a teacher directing class from the front of the room) works great for compliance; however, if you want engagement, self-direction works better. While self-direction would not work for everything, at times allowing students the choice of time, place, and/or learning task can improve buy-in and performance. For example, during my unit on sensation and perception in psychology, I have designed a “Sensations Stations” lesson that spans an entire week. It allows students some choice within tasks, lets them complete each task in the order that they would like, and for the most part, when and where they want to. While I monitor progress and answer questions as students use class time to work, this entire assignment is very much self-directed and gives students the opportunity to practice time-management and decision-making.

Mrs. Philpott helping students locate the information they need to complete a station.

Experiential Learning

Experiential learning can have important cognitive benefits for students. While participating in an experience can be powerful in and of itself, a key component is the reflection piece: doing something and then thinking about what happened and why? Stations are a great way to involve everyone in the action with time also built in for analysis. If you typically do a demonstration in class, include it as a station so students can participate. If you don’t have enough equipment for all students in a whole class setting (the case with many of my psychology experiments), create a station so that every student gets a chance to be part of the experience. I have built a stations lesson that I use during our cognition unit. I could spend a class lecturing about cognitive skills or I can let my students experience them first-hand. The lesson takes one class period, and students move around the room in groups of 3 or 4 to complete problem-solving tasks that illustrate cognitive principles. Each task includes time set aside for application and reflection, the most important component.

Students experience perception goggles during one of their station rotations.

While the concept of stations is a teaching strategy that is often used in elementary classrooms, I find that my high school students love the structure and guidance that this practice provides. They thrive when they are allowed to collaborate, have some choice in their activities, experience content first-hand, and perhaps most importantly, move around the classroom.

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