Station Rotation Model: Alternative Group Formations

When I lead blended learning workshops or work as a 1:1 blended learning coach, I field a lot of questions about the design of station rotation lessons. Teachers see my examples which show four separate groups and assume that all station rotations must have four groups. That is not the case. The Station Rotation Model is flexible. Below are some of the most common comments I hear and my responses to teachers struggling to conceptualize how to use this model with their students.

#1 “I can’t use the Station Rotation Model because my classes are only 45 minutes long.” 

Teachers with shorter class periods mistakenly think they cannot make a station rotation work. However, there are several strategies they can use to create an effective rotation in a traditional school schedule. First, teachers can design a station rotation lesson that extends over multiple days. For example, I worked with a school in Southern California that dedicated Mondays to whole group instruction then Tuesday through Friday were rotations. It was a four day four station rotation, so students hit one station on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.

For teachers who do not want to have a station rotation extend over multiple days, I encourage them to try the “flip-flop.” The “flip-flop” is essentially two stations, so the class is divided in half. The teacher works with one side of the room, and the other side of the room is engaged in a collaborative small group activity or individual practice online. Then the groups switch half way through the period.


 #2 “My classes are too large to use the Station Rotation Model. I would have to design at least six stations to make it work.”

I encourage teachers with large class sizes to consider a formation with “mirror stations.” Instead of designing six different stations, they can design three stations, divide the room in half, and have each side of the room rotate through mirror stations. This design decreases the front-loading required to plan the lesson, and reduces the number of students at each station. If the teacher wants to lead a station, then that station will be larger because two groups of students will converge on that station for each rotation. However, teachers who want to provide some direct instruction or model a process can do so in this formation.

Mirror Stations

Note: In the image above, I have purposefully laid out the stations so the teacher is facing the back of the independent practice stations. This way the screens are visible to the teacher, which makes it easier to monitor online work.

#3 “If I’m leading a station, I cannot conference with individual students.” 

The teacher-led station provides valuable opportunities for small group instruction and coaching, but there are days when I want to do side-by-side assessments or work with individual students who are struggling. In those cases, I design a station rotation lesson where I do not lead a station. Often, I will ask students who are particularly strong in a specific area or who are ahead of the group in terms of skill level to design and lead stations. (Check out my blog on student-designed stations.) Then I sit at a small two person table and pull individual students for one-on-one work.

One-on-one Conferencing

These are just a few of the concerns I hear when I work with secondary teachers on the Station Rotation Model. I hope these suggestions will help coaches and teachers get creative with group formations. There is no one correct method for planning and executing a station rotation lesson. It’s important for teachers to make this blended learning model work for them and their students!

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Ongoing Self-Assessments: Students Reflect On and Document Their Progress

For the last two years, I have published several blogs detailing my journey away from traditional grading and assessment practices. The purpose of this shift was three-fold.

  1. I wanted to shift the conversation from points to the development of skills.
  2. I wanted students to take ownership of their progress and skill development.
  3. I do not believe grades should happen to students.

If students are going to develop as learners, then they need to track their progress, reflect on their specific skills, and identify areas that need more time, attention, and improvement.

Ultimately, I want students to take an active role not only in their learning but also in the assessment of their progress as a learner.Click To Tweet This is easier said than done. Students are rarely asked to think about their learning in a metacognitive way. That’s why my students spend time each week reflecting on the skills they are developing in our class.

My co-teachers and I designed an ongoing self-assessment document that we share with our students each grading period to guide their reflections on their progress and skill development.

Click on the image to make a copy.

First, students are asked to articulate three S.M.A.R.T. goals they have for the grading period and describe their action plan for achieving these goals. These goals are designed to guide their progress and keep them focused on developing specific soft skills and academic skills over the course of our six week grading period. Too often students become overwhelmed by all of the work teachers assign and lose sight of what they would like to achieve.

The ongoing assessment has a section for soft skills and a section for academic skills. My teaching team places an equal emphasis on evaluating the development of soft skills because our program is project-based. Students work in teams using the design-thinking process, which requires that they communicate, collaborate, solve problems, take risks, and manage their time effectively.

Their ongoing assessment document links to rubrics aligned with each skill so students can read the language of a 1, 2, 3, and 4 to accurately assess where they are regarding their development. In addition to assessing their skills, they must link to work that supports their self-assessment scores and provide a narrative explanation for why they gave themselves a specific score. If they have a question, comment, or request for support, they attach a comment to their narrative explanation and tag one of us so we can follow up with them directly.

To be successful, students need time in class to reflect on their learning. Once a week, I dedicate a station in one of our station rotation lessons to their ongoing assessment documents.

The more students stop to think about their learning and document their progress, the more they focus on developing skills. They begin to advocate for themselves and articulate their needs as learners, which makes it easier for me to provide the necessary support. These ongoing self-assessment documents are also critical to their ability to prepare for our end of the semester grade interviews. If they have not spent time reflecting on their learning, then they cannot make a strong case for why they deserve a particular grade in the class.

Teachers often lament they are short on time. This process of teaching students to set goals and assess their progress as learners takes time, but the payoff is worth it. I love that my conversations with students focus on the development of skills, not the accumulation of points.

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Station Rotation Model: Grouping Strategies

The Station Rotation Model is a blended learning model where students rotate through a series of online and offline stations. This model is an easier shift for elementary teachers who are already use learning stations with students. Unfortunately, most secondary teachers do not learn how to design lessons using stations in credential school. Most of us are still be trained to teach using a whole group lesson model, so reimagining a lesson to rotate students through a series of stations feels daunting. That said, there are clear advantages to using this model at the secondary level. It makes it possible for secondary teachers to:

  • Create smaller learning communities within the larger class.
  • Maximize limited technology since they do not need a device for every student.
  • Work directly with small groups of students.
  • Shift the focus from them to their students.

When I train teachers on the Station Rotation Model, they are quick to ask how I group my students. I tell them that I use multiple grouping strategies. I create groups based on:

  • Reading level
  • Writing level
  • Interests
  • Strengths in a group dynamic
  • Expressed learning preference
  • Random

Mixing it up is key! The grouping strategy should make sense for the specific lesson. Unfortunately, more often than not teachers place students skill level groups and leave them there indefinitely. Kids are smart. It doesn’t take them long to figure out what their group means. I worry about how this will impact their self-esteem and their feelings about themselves as learners.

Use Google Sheets to Keep Track of Your Groups

I know that creating groups is time-consuming, so I wanted to share the strategy I use to organize my groups.

  1. I create a Google Sheet for the school year labeled “2018-2019 Grouping Strategies.”
  2. I create a sheet for each of my classes. (See bottom of the Google Sheet to create additional “sheets” or pages.)
  3. I copy and paste student names in the A column of each sheet.
  4. Each column after the students’ names becomes a grouping strategy. As I gather information about their reading and writing levels, personalities, interests, etc. I create groups accordingly.
  5. I also use a random group generator to spit out groups when I don’t think the lesson will benefit from a particular grouping strategy. Here are some random group generator tools. If my random group generator spits out a great collection of groups, I capture those in my spreadsheet too!

I love not having to recreate groups every time I create a lesson. I also don’t think my students have any idea how they are being grouped because the groups change constantly.

Stealth Grouping

Once I’ve designed a Station Rotation Lesson, I select the grouping strategy that makes the most sense given the objectives of the lesson. If I am focusing on writing thesis statements in my teacher-led station, then I will break students up by writing level so I can tailor my instruction and scaffolding to each group. If students are working collaboratively at one station, I might group them by strengths in a group dynamic, so I do not have all of my type A students in one group. If I want to offer a differentiated reading station, then I might group them by reading level. The key is to match the grouping strategy with the lesson.

Then as my students walk in the room, I put a small colored post-it note on their desk. That post-it note signals that we are doing a Station Rotation. They grab their post-it and go to the corresponding station. I do not tell them what the different colors mean, and I change the colors up so there isn’t any pattern.

Hopefully, these simple strategies will help teachers using the Station Rotation Model to think about how they are grouping students. If you have other strategies you use that you think might save other teachers time, please post a comment and share!

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