Math Stations. One of the current hot button topics for educators and the sessions with the longest lines at any math conference. They are everywhere and gaining popularity. Math stations are not only fun for students but they can be adapted to address a whole host of learning styles– more than we can typically address in a whole class setting. However, using math stations effectively in the classroom can seem like an overwhelming endeavor for beginners.
This page is designed to support those teachers who have been wanting to get started with math stations and to share some of my favorite tips and techniques with beginners and novices alike with the 5 W’s of math stations: Who, What, When, Where, and Why.
One of the greatest benefits of using math stations is their versatility. They can be used in a variety of ways to meet a variety of needs. However, the first and most important thing to do is identify your goal. What do you want to accomplish? Answering this question will help you determine when a station rotation model may be more appropriate than a whole class direct teach. Stations are most beneficial when you want to review previously learned content, focus on new content in a small group setting, provide multiple activities for intervention and/ or challenge, and to reinforce/ practice a new skill in a variety of ways. I know what you’re thinking– Yes! Stations can be designed to suit multiple goals! Here’s a little more about each one:
- Preparing for a test? Compile a few activities that review test content and allow students to work on them in small groups to review instead of using a review sheet.
- Believe it or not, there are some teachers out there who teach the entire year’s worth of content through stations. They meet with each group regularly and teach their content to the group at this time. The other stations would then be used to support this new learning or review previously learned material.
- Because students are grouped, stations allow activities to be focused on a specific student need. For example, stations may be created to reinforce feedback/ data received on a recent assessment. Those students needing intervention can complete a specific set of station activities while those who do not need the intervention can complete challenge activities at each station.
- Stations are great for independent practice! Imagine a set of stations to review each of your measurement skills, such as solving problems involving time, money, area, perimeter, and volume. Look at that– reviewing five skills at once. Wow!
Once you’ve determined the purpose of your station rotation, the next question to answer is related to the frequency of your rotations. Stations can span from one class period to multiple class periods. For example, if you are reviewing for a test, a station rotation may be designed for a single class period or two; however, if the stations are being used to respond to assessment data, they may be used for one or more days weekly.
The next aspect of implementing math stations to consider is what structure to use. This decision is related to how you decide to set-up your stations. For me, the most difficult decision is how to structure my station rotations. However, there are a couple of questions that I need to ask myself when I am deciding what structure to use. I’ve included a short list below:
* How many students do I want to be in a group?
* How many tasks do I want to use?
* How much time is needed to complete each task?
* How much time do I have to devote to the station rotation, i.e one day, multiple days, etc?
Once I have determined the answer to these questions, I select a structure. The table below includes some examples of structures that I have used over the years.
After I have decided on a structure, I determine how I want to theme the stations. In order to meet a variety of learning styles and to help me stay organized, I use the same types of stations each week. For example, for the 4-station rotation, I include a Teacher Station, a Math Facts and Computations Station, a Hands-on Activities Station, and an Individual Practice Station (the picture below shows an example).
The beauty of using stations is that once the structure and organization strategy is in place, the only aspect that changes is the activities and tasks that students need to complete. Organizing the station rotation this way allows me the opportunity to just fill-in the blanks on my station planning sheet. Each week, I know I need an activity to fit each station type.This saves planning time because I know I need a game (hands-on), independent practice (like a menu or a VersaTiles activity), and a computational fluency task (like an applet on the computer). How easy is that!
Depending on the number of stations I am using, I typically include the following themed station activities:
* Hands-on Activities
* Independent Tasks
* Computational Fluency
* Problem Solving
* Math ‘n’ Literature
The chart below shows examples of station tasks that I may use to fill a particular basket. For example, for an independent task, I may choose to fill the basket with a VersaTiles activity that reviews a skill on which we have been working. You’ll also notice the “Tech Tools” box. Whenever possible, I try to have a “Tech Tool” station where the students use a computer or some other technology tool to complete a task; however, if I do not have a station with this theme, I try to include a technology task (usually an online game) for the students to complete. Check out my favorite online games here.
At times, the activity types may overlap, such as using a game during a computational fluency station; but that does not supersede the themed-station task. It may just mean that the students get two games during that set of rotations.
Guidelines for Station Rotation Resources
I have many station-ready resources in my File Cabinet. Check it out here! In addition, you can find resources in my Teachers Pay Teachers store. Be sure to sign-up for my monthly newsletter, “Teaching Tidbits, where I include free station-ready resources.
- Use ready to go resources– I keep a variety of ready-made card and dice games, tiling task cards, file folder games, critical thinking tasks, and board games available to use. Note:Finding, assembling, and laminating station materials is a great parent volunteer or summer work task. The best thing– once it’s done, it’s done!
- Use familiar activities and tasks– Using games and materials with which students are familiar allows them to start working immediately and cuts down on off-task behavior. I use a lot of games during lessons. Therefore, once it’s been used with the class, it’s likely to show up as a station task.
- Use routines that allow stations to run more smoothly– In order to help students gather resources more quickly, I keep common game materials in school boxes in a place where students can access them quickly. Read more about how I organize station materials here.
One the biggest challenges of station rotations is staying organized. With multiple tasks and a short period of time, organization can make or break your success. Here are some ways that I stay organized:
- Create a rotation chart so that students know where to go. This helps them stay on track and know in what order to rotate.
- I post a grouping chart so that students can remember their group members. This is especially helpful when I conduct stations over several days because some students tend to forget their groups.
- I buy colored baskets and use them to separate the stations. I don’t always label them because I frequently use the same baskets in other subjects; however, I always know what basket goes with each task. If you choose to use the same color baskets and you have a rotation theme, label each basket with the correct task type, i.e. games, computational fluency, etc.
- I place most of my games in plastic bags so that they can be transported easily. If a task requires several different materials, I place them in plastic bags as well so they can be located easily.
- I laminate as much as I can for durability.
- I keep miscellaneous paper, such as notebook paper, scratch paper (the backs of extra copies, unused worksheets, old school announcements/ advertisements), graph paper, and drawing paper in a central location.
- I store items like dry erase materials in table tubs. Each table has its own tub of materials and depending on which table the task is assigned to, my students know to go and grab that particular tub. See the picture below.
- Station tasks are always completed in the same location. When station time begins, students pick-up the correct tub from the shelf (if they’re not out already) and take them to their station location.
Today’s post answers the question who participates in stations? The simple answer is any and everyone. However, participation may vary based on the purpose of the station rotation. For example, if the station rotation is to prepare for a test, everyone may be involved; however, if the purpose of the station rotation is for intervention or challenge, only a select group of students may be involved. I have used them in both ways and see the value in varying how and when a station rotation is used in the classroom. Who
The next consideration is in regards to how students are grouped. Again, this decision is based on the purpose of the station rotation. For example, if the purpose of the station rotation is for intervention, grouping students by performance or ability level may be most appropriate. I use a weekly station rotation to review previously learned content and as a responsive tool to support students who have not mastered a recently taught skill. Because the re-teaching needs of my students vary, I group them by the skill I plan to work on with them. In other cases, I randomly place the students into groups and allow them to work with a variety of ability levels. As an additional strategy, I frequently use stations for after school tutoring groups. It allows me to structure this extra time in a manner that supports their learning needs in a fun and engaging way after a long day of learning.
The last consideration is in regards to managing stations. Teachers often ask me how I get my students to complete their work when I am not standing over them managing them individually. Here’s my response: It is the expectation– completing the work is not optional. But, I know what you’re thinking, my students are not independent workers; they will not be able to complete a station task without reminders of what to do and to keep working. My next response to you is that you have to teach your students to work independently and to follow station expectations. Then. Practice. Practice. Practice.
The chart below shows a common set of station rotation expectations for my students. However, I usually develop them with the students before implementing a full station rotation.
To begin, I may only use a two-station rotation to give students the opportunity to practice the expectations and allow me a little more control over what the students are doing. Gradually, we move to more stations as the students demonstrate that they are able to do more work independently and I can trust that they will follow station expectations accordingly. Eventually, when we reach full station rotation mode, students are expected to self-manage their behavior and their groups as I am unavailable to answer questions or to redirect students when I am working with a small group (but I always have a watchful eye).
Here are some other ideas I have tried or have seen others try over the years:
* Ask 3, before Me- students must ask three other group members a question before interrupting the teacher to ask.
* Focus on improving one station expectation during each set of station rotations and provide specific feedback on that goal. Reward students accordingly.
* Reward groups who exhibit on-task behavior.
* Use sticker charts to “catch them being good.”
* Include a formative assessment task at the end of the station to check for station completion and understanding (more about this in next week’s blog post).
* Have students rate their own participation and behavior and ask for a written justification.
Many teachers believe that the best checking system to see whether or not students stay on task and complete the station work is to assign a grade. While I will admit that I have collected an assignment every once in a while because I needed a grade for something, station tasks in my classroom are not graded. This is mainly because I view station tasks as opportunities to practice, not to assign grades. I do, however, give formative assessments after stations that may result in a grade– more on this topic below.
One of the questions I hear most often when I talk about using math stations is, “Where do they fit in your day-to-day math program?” One of the best qualities of math stations is their versatility. They can be used in a variety of ways to meet many different goals. For example, they can replace an old, dated math review. Or, they can be used to provide a variety of practice opportunities for a specific skill. In addition, they can give new life to an intervention or tutoring session.
The table below identifies three instructional uses for math stations– as a formative, summative, or responsive tool. Use the illustration to explore ways stations rotations can be used to support classroom assessment and provide essential information that can be used to support instructional decisions.
Another question that I receive is about grading. I am frequently asked whether or not I grade station tasks. The simple answer is no. I view station rotations as opportunities for review and do not use the tasks as opportunities to get additional grades for the gradebook. Believe it or not, this philosophy actually makes stations the most enjoyable instructional activity that we do for the students. The students know that the stations are about learning and nothing more.
However, if I need some data to support instructional decisions, I use one of the strategies above. I either create a skill-based question to support the work done after each station task is complete or I create a short assessment to be completed by the class after the station rotation is finished. In both of these cases, the second case more so than the first, I may assign a grade for informative purposes and to allow the student, the students’ family, and me to be on the same page with the students’ strengths and areas for growth.
I want to share all of the reasons why I love using stations in the classroom and answer a few burning questions that I receive regularly from teachers. The illustration below shows five reasons that I love using math stations.
I would like to address, or readdress, a few of the questions that I receive the most regarding stations:
- How do I ensure that my students are working and not just playing around?
It’s important to be very specific about your expectations. Teaching students what math stations should look and sound like will help them better understand what is expected of them. Also, using a gradual release of control may help you, as the teacher, feel more confident about your students’ ability to work independently. Read more here.
- Using stations is an overwhelming task for me. How can I make the process flow more smoothly?
Organization is key! Taking a little extra time to set-up and get your system organized before beginning will save you tons of time in the end. Ideally, once your system is up and running, the only thing that needs to be done before each rotation is to re-fill the baskets and add the task directions. Once done, the task directions can just be printed and stuffed in the basket. Spend the time to make the first one and then it’s done. Read more here.
- I don’t have time to make new resources every week, what ready-made or easy to implement resources can you recommend?
There are lots of resources that can be easily assembled once and then used over and over again. Using these types of resources allows the students to get started right away because they are familiar with the task and how to complete it. As a general rule, you may want to limit the addition of new resources in the rotation cycle to one per cycle. New resources take time for students to learn how to complete and you will need to review the directions thoroughly before beginning the rotation; however, using the resource during the learning cycle will help alleviate the need for this pre-rotation teaching time. Read more here.
- How do you keep up with all of the grading for the work that the students complete?
Because I view stations as an opportunity for review and practice, I do not grade station tasks. This does two things. It lessens the grading burden on me and allows the students to enjoy the station tasks without worrying about a grade. I purposefully create tasks that the students may not finish so that they have no excuse to stop working. Since some students work more slowly than others, knowing that the task has to be completed for grading purposes creates unnecessary anxiety. However, if you would like students to have more accountability, using a short formative assessment afterwards to assess the station rotation’s included skills and content may provide more beneficial information about the students’ understanding for both you and the students. Read more here.
- Where do you find the time?
Station rotations can be used in many ways throughout the learning process. In fact, they can replace something that you were already planning to do. For example, if I am teaching a lesson on multiplication and division of larger numbers, I can replace the independent work time with a station rotation. Or, I can teach students the multiplication and division strategies over a few days and then use a station rotation to provide independent practice. In this case, my stations may include basic algorithmic practice (using VersaTiles), a game with multiplication and division word problems, fact practice on the computer, and a teacher time activity involving estimation and assessing answers for reasonableness.
In addition, I love to use stations to review. In fact, a few years ago, I created a massive station rotation to prepare for our state test with about 16 stations that reviewed all of our grade level content and skills. After I assigned each group a starting location, groups then worked at their own pace to complete the tasks to earn a completion sticker. Each station also included a multiple choice question that would better help the students prepare for the state test. The students had a week to work on the stations and collect the completion stickers. They loved it and I had the opportunity to float around and see how the students were doing. I called it the the Amazing Race: 5th Grade Math Edition! Read more here and here.