Sunday, December 7, 2014

Learning Centers…a.k.a The Station Approach

Educators are constantly working to create a positive atmosphere of learning that engages students and motivates them to want to learn. While attending a conference a few weeks ago I was reminded of an instructional methodology called “The Station Approach.” This approach has similarities to “centers” used frequently by elementary school teachers. I often used the station approach during my years as a high school chemistry/physics teacher. I first learned about this approach during a summer course at North Carolina State University about 18 years ago, so it has been around for quite some time. As a new teacher, I remember being surprised that my students actually performed much better on many topics on the state end-of-course test that did not involve lecturing on my part, but rather a self-discovery, exploratory teaching model that included stations. So how does it work?

In the station approach, students physically move or rotate to various areas in the classroom to actively participate in the instructional undertakings at each station. I always posted a rotation plan so that groups of students would know where to start, their role in the activity and how to progress. The average time per station varied but it was typically between 15 and 20 minutes    which worked well with the attention span of students. Sometimes I designed a couple of stations that were very similar when students needed further explanation of content or practice with skills. I would change the method of delivery to address different learning preferences. For example, a short video or screencast could be used in one station and an interactive simulation could be used in another to explain a similar content topic.

Students were also assigned a role for each station activity such as the experimenter, the scribe, the observer and the reader/leader.  Students would rotate roles allowing each to have opportunities to lead, communicate, execute and experiment. I found a maximum of four students in a group to be most effective in optimizing the hands-on, minds-on experience of each student.   
This approach works well in classroom with limited resources. For example, classrooms with a limited numbers of computers can set up a computer station when 1:1 is not an option. Years ago, in physics, I desperately wanted my students to be able to experiment with a frictionless surface so I built an air track out of PVC pipe and a vacuum cleaner.  I purchased a glider and a photo gate timer and presto!  I was able to design hands-on, student-centered, collaborative experiments for my students.

Admittedly, it does take significant planning and time to design the stations initially.  Like anything else, keep the elements that work and enhance or switch up the ones that are not as effective. Bottom line… the students enjoy the multifaceted experiences and that makes it all worth it.

Additional benefits include the opportunities for students to gain social skills, develop in areas of communication, task completion and persistence. Leadership skills, working as part of a team and learning to share responsibility are also positive by-products.