In my first couple of years as a classroom teacher, one of the most difficult things for me was finding time to provide my students with small-group or one-on-one instruction. I had students on many different levels, so I did what has been customary in education for as long as I can remember—I taught to the middle. I felt guilty for not providing more differentiated instruction because I knew that my highest-performing students, as well as my struggling learners, were not getting what they needed.
Eventually, I figured out a way to regularly meet with small groups several times a week, and the difference that it made for my students, especially those who were falling behind, was huge. My students and I had many breakthroughs during small-group instruction time. I was able to diagnose why a student struggled on a particular concept much sooner than I ever could when I was only providing whole-group instruction. So, what was the secret? Embracing the station rotation approach to blended learning was the key.
Blended learning helps educators provide students with more small-group and individual instruction, but many teachers are hesitant to give it a shot because they don't have 1:1 devices or they aren't in a tech-forward school. Fortunately, these requirements are misconceptions; station rotation is one of the most widely used blended learning models, and it doesn't require a schoolwide implementation or 1:1 devices. You can implement a station rotation model in your classroom with just a few Internet-connected devices, even if no one else in your building is using a blended learning approach. Ready to get started? Follow these steps to plan your first lesson.
Step 1: Pick a standard.
Review your scope and sequence or state standards, select the standard you want to teach, and determine what mastery looks like. Be sure to translate the standard into student-friendly terms. "I can…" or "We are learning to…" are great starting phrases.
Step 2: Build an assessment.
Build assessments early in your planning process to guide what kind of instruction and activities you offer during the actual lesson. Administering a short assessment before your students start rotating through stations is a good way to gauge their knowledge and understand what you should be focusing on when providing small-group and one-on-one instruction. A four- or five-question assessment will suffice. At the end of the station rotation lesson, once students have completed all stations, administer an eight- to ten-question assessment to evaluate mastery and get data to inform the next steps and future lessons. Be sure that the assessment aligns to what mastery should look like for the standard and provides opportunities to diagnose common misconceptions.
Step 3: Determine how many groups you will need to have based on the number of devices available.
You want to make sure that the number of students in each group does not exceed the number of devices you have because one station will be dedicated to independent online practice. For instance, if you have six devices and 23 students, you will need to have at least four groups because you will need to have six or fewer students in each group.
Step 4: Plan what your stations will look like.
When you are just starting out, I recommend keeping your stations simple. You only need three stations to make the station rotation format work: a teacher-led station (small group), an online learning station, and a group or partner activity station. Also, keep in mind that "station" refers to what students will be doing, not necessarily to a physical space in the classroom. For instance, if you’re using iPad tablets for the online learning station, students can use them at their desks.
Step 5: Determine how much time students will spend at each station.
To determine the amount of time students will have at each station, you first have to figure out how much time will be left after your whole-group lesson and then divide that by the number of groups you have (assuming you want all groups to make it through each station in one day.) For instance, if you have 90 minutes of class time and you will need the first 20 minutes for whole-group instruction and getting students prepared for blended learning, then you will have 70 minutes left for rotation time. It’s also important to think about how much time your students can realistically handle at a single station. Younger students may struggle with being self-directed and remaining focused for long periods of time. Try starting out with short rotations and building up to longer amounts of time spent at each station. And, be sure to take into account time for students to transition between groups and develop an organized procedure for those transitions. Practice rotations with your students to make sure that you’re maximizing class time.
You might be wondering how it would work to have four (or more) groups rotate through only three stations. Each group simply has to rotate through one of the stations twice (or more). In general, it’s easiest to have the group/partner activity station be the one students visit multiple times, especially if you don’t have many devices. Just be sure to plan the activities accordingly so that they will occupy students for an appropriate amount of time.
Step 6: Plan your instruction and your activities.
For station rotation to work, it’s key to go in with a solid plan for introducing the lesson as a whole and for designing what students will do at each station. Again, when you’re just starting out, I recommend keeping it simple. Here’s an overview of the different pieces you’ll need to plan:
- A whole-group mini lesson to introduce the topic (this shouldn’t be longer than five to seven minutes).
- A brief formative assessment to get a pulse on how well students grasped your whole-group lesson and what specific topics you should focus on during small-group instruction.
- An online practice activity that provides data on each student’s performance.
- A small-group or partner activity for practice and critical analysis. This should be something that will take a while because students will spend more than one rotation at this station.
- Three leveled, small-group, educator-led activities: one lower-level activity for struggling learners, guided on-level practice, and an extension lesson for advanced learners.
- A slightly longer assessment to administer at the end of the lesson to gauge student understanding and provide data to inform future station rotation lessons and groups
Step 7: Execute your station rotation lesson.
Once all of the pieces are in place, here's how the lesson can flow:
- Introduce your students to the concepts of blended learning and station rotation, including what they are and why you are implementing the model. Then, teach your students about the different stations they will be working in and your procedure for switching stations.
- Teach your mini lesson to the whole group.
- Administer your formative assessment, and use the data to inform later instruction.
- Using previous data on your students and your knowledge of where they are, place them into appropriate groups. These groupings will never be perfect; the goal is simply to place students working at roughly similar levels together.
- Start your rotations! It's a good idea to have your group of struggling learners go to the teacher-led, small-group station first so that you can provide remedial instruction before letting them work independently. Have your most advanced group come to the teacher-led station second so that you can provide them with an extension lesson and a supplemental activity that they can work on if they finish the group/partner station early.
- Administer your end-of-lesson mastery assessment, and collect data.
Step 8: Evaluate how your lesson went.
You did it! To reflect on the experience, ask yourself these questions:
- What went well?
- What did not go well?
- Were the students able to rotate efficiently?
- Was the amount of time that students had to work in each station appropriate?
- Did students effectively manage their time and behavior while working away from the teacher?
- Was the small-group instruction effective?
- Did you gain data from the online learning activity students completed that you can use to drive or personalize your instruction?
Most likely, the first time you use the station rotation model, it won’t go perfectly, but it's worth it to keep trying. With some practice, you’ll reach a point where you have your students rotating effortlessly, you have data to use from your students' online learning to inform how you teach them, and you have time to do small-group and one-on-one instruction every day. When that day comes, I’m willing to bet you’ll never want to go back to the traditional lecture format.
Want to learn more about the station rotation approach to blended learning? Check out this blog post on 3 Ways the Station Rotation Model Personalizes Learning!