Math is a linear subject, with each concept building on the one before. Math teachers are also responsible for covering a large number of standards in a school year. Most math curricula are designed for a whole group teacher-led lesson where the teacher is expected to cover a new concept or process every day. This, combined with the reality that designing lessons with a new instructional model may feel scary or daunting, can make it challenging for math teachers to understand how to use the station rotation model. Math is also one of those subjects where there is typically a wide spectrum of skills and abilities. It can be challenging, if not impossible, to meet all those needs with a whole group teacher-led lesson.

## Why Should Math Teachers Use The Station Rotation Model?

The math classes I have observed follow a similar flow in their lessons. The class begins with a warm-up or reviewing the previous night’s homework. Then, the teacher transitions into a mini-lesson designed to introduce a new concept or process. This is followed by individual practice and review as students attempt to solve similar problems to apply their new learning. During this practice and review time, the teacher circulates, answering questions or providing individual support as students complete practice problems.

### Traditional One-Size-Fits-All Approach to Math Lessons

Although this one-size-fits-all experience is straightforward and feels time efficient, these lessons rarely meet the needs of all students. They also result in several students with a poor or shaky grasp of the material. The inadequacies of the whole group approach to instruction manifest in a couple of common issues I observe in these lessons.

First, the mini-lessons are typically slated for 15-20 minutes, yet it is not uncommon for them to balloon into 30+ minute instructional sessions. These mini-lessons consume more time than intended because a few students struggle to understand the concept or process being presented and need further instruction or explanation. To ensure all students understand the material before moving on, the teacher re-explains a concept or demonstrates another model. Yet, as I scan the class, it is clear that this additional time spent going back over information causes other students to glaze over because either they do not need this additional instruction or they still do not understand the material. This can be tough on the teacher as well because they may not feel comfortable deviating from their lesson plan to meet the different needs of the learners in their class.

Second, as students transition into individual practice and application, the students who get help as the teacher moves around the room are the students who ask for it. They tend to be our most motivated and engaged learners. The students who need the most urgent support often do not ask for it. Instead, they may sit quietly, avoid teacher attention, or decide socializing is more fun than struggling through math assignments they don’t understand or believe they can successfully complete.

In math, where each lesson serves as the foundation for the next, students who consistently finish lessons without fully understanding the material face a growing challenge. Their foundational knowledge becomes shaky, making it progressively difficult for them to develop their mathematical knowledge and skills effectively.

## Shifting From Whole Group to Differentiated Small Group Instruction

The primary advantage of the station rotation model in math lies in its structure, which offers teachers dedicated time with small groups. That allows the teacher to provide differentiated instruction, modeling sessions, and support. In a small group setting, teachers can focus more deliberately on specific problems and tailor scaffolding to meet the group’s needs. Additionally, guiding initial practice becomes more manageable, allowing teachers to quickly identify which students understand the material and which ones require further attention and resources.

Teachers often express concern that a 60-minute class doesn’t allow enough time for several small-group instructional sessions. However, my observations reveal a different story. When teachers use differentiated instruction, they avoid the need to cover the same information repeatedly and provide multiple examples, as often happens with whole-group teaching. While whole-group instruction might seem more efficient at first glance, small-group instruction tailored to specific learners’ needs is more effective. It ultimately saves time because teachers don’t have to revisit the same material over and over.

## Reimagine Your Approach to Lesson Design

Math teachers who are eager to differentiate instruction more effectively may find it challenging to transition from traditional, linear lessons to the station rotation model. There are a few key hurdles they often encounter in this shift. First, the logistics of starting each student at a different station can be puzzling, especially when some students may not reach the teacher-led station until their second or third rotation. This scenario leads to uncertainty about what students should work on before receiving direct instruction, rooted in the belief that they require guidance from the teacher to undertake meaningful tasks.

Second, the pressure to cover a new topic each day is a significant concern. Math teachers worry about keeping pace with the curriculum and meeting the expectations to cover all necessary material.

Lastly, the design of their lessons typically follows a linear, whole-group model, making it difficult to envision how these plans could be adapted for a station rotation. This transition involves logistical adjustments and a shift in mindset towards accommodating diverse learning paths within the same classroom environment.

When I work with teachers, I encourage them to look at their week’s worth of content and break it down into three buckets: 1) instruction, 2) practice and review, and 3) other activities (e.g., collaborative problem-solving). That way, they can envision approaching the week differently and stagger the activities from the individual lessons to accommodate a station rotation.

### 🍎 Teacher-led Station

The instruction moves along a linear path, with the teacher providing differentiated instruction as they cover a new concept or process each day.

### ✏️ Offline-Station

Students engage in spiral review, revisiting and completing practice problems introduced the previous day or week. This can happen individually or in pairs.

### 💻 Online Station

Students can self-pace through personalized practice online, engage in collaborative problem-solving, complete a pre-assessment/diagnostic, or work on a performance task.

In the video below, I respond to a math teacher’s question about how to design math lessons for her 80-minute block period. I describe a strategy teachers can use to reimagine their math lessons.

In training sessions with math teachers shifting to the station rotation model, I provide the resource below to get them thinking about all the different ways they can use their stations.

## Wrap Up

While the traditional whole-group approach to math instruction feels like a straightforward way to deliver content, it often falls short of meeting the diverse needs of all students. This one-size-fits-all experience misses an opportunity for deeper engagement and understanding. On the other hand, the station rotation model presents a dynamic alternative that supports differentiated learning, allowing teachers to tailor instruction to the various levels in a class.

The transition to a station rotation model may seem daunting at first, but it opens the door to a more effective teaching and learning environment. By dedicating time to work with small groups, teachers can ensure that instruction is within each student’s zone of possibility. This model not only enhances student engagement and learning outcomes but also provides a framework for more meaningful interactions between teachers and learners.

If the current approach to math instruction isn’t yielding the results teachers and students deserve, it is time to consider another approach. For math teachers facing the pressure to quickly cover vast amounts of content, I encourage a strategic pause to evaluate the standards with a critical eye. Leveraging AI or engaging in collaborative discussions with colleagues to pinpoint the most crucial learning standards and skills can help focus efforts on what truly matters. After all, the pace at which we cover content should not eclipse the real goal of genuine learning. If students aren’t grasping the material, we must question the effectiveness of racing through lessons. By prioritizing key concepts and embracing models like station rotation, we can create more impactful and effective math instruction.

## 8 Responses

I am currently teaching in a multi-grade classroom and when using stations I find my students often still need help even with work that was intended to be done independently. As I am working with a group, they then either don’t get any work done, or are interrupting me. How do you recommend I deal with this?

Hi Eva,

It sounds like you’re facing a common challenge when implementing station rotation, especially in a multi-grade classroom. It’s important to remember that every classroom dynamic is unique, and what works well in one setting may require adjustments in another. Below are some suggestions that might help address the issues you’re encountering:

Model and Practice Independence: Spend dedicated time teaching and practicing the skills necessary for independent work at the stations. Model how to approach tasks, manage time effectively, and seek help when needed. Typically, the teachers I coach will onboard students to a new learning activity in the teacher-led station to support students as they try it and develop confidence. Then they release that work into an independent station when students have demonstrated they can complete the task without teacher support (though they may still benefit from peer support).

Clear Expectations: It’s important that students understand the expectations for each station and the value of working independently because they have more control over the pace of their progress and work. Clearly communicate what tasks need to be completed and what resources are available to support their work. They should also know what will happen if they do not follow the expectations for work at a station. For example, you may have a floater desk set aside apart from the other students who are not focusing or distracting others.

Accountability Measures: Implement accountability measures to encourage students to stay on task during station rotations. This could include regular check-ins, self-assessments, or peer evaluations. Help students understand the purpose and value of their work at each station. You may even give them a paper with a checklist for them to fill out as they move around to the different stations, marking what they have completed and filling in any information you’ve requested. For example, tell me 2 things you learned at this station and 1 question you have.

Differentiated Tasks: Recognize that students may have varying levels of readiness and independence. Differentiate station activities to accommodate these differences, providing additional support or challenge as needed.

I know it can be frustrating when students do not do the work or interrupt you when you are trying to focus on your group at the teacher-led station, so it is important that they understand WHY you are using this model. Explain how it helps you to better meet their specific needs. You may want to engage them in a conversation about what they think would make station rotations run more smoothly, and collaborate on a list of expectations. At the end of the day, it is critical that the teacher in a blended learning environment have clear expectations and be consistent holding students to those expectations. If students still struggle, you may need to sit them down and talk to them individually or engage a parent if the behavior does not improve.

Despite the challenges of teaching students to be self-directed and independent learners, this is important work you are doing. Please let me know if you have any follow up questions!

Catlin

Thanks for the information. Is there a way that you can add some clarifying language to the three-part infographic (homework, mini-lesson, practice)? Currently, the way that blog posting is laid out leaves the impression that this is the station rotation model. Maybe a title or caption indicating that this is an ineffective model of math instruction.

I’m worried that people who cross your blog and don’t have time to (or don’t want to) read the fine print will incorrectly develop or solidify a belief that this 3-part linear approach is a model of effective mathematics teaching.

Hi Desiree,

Thanks for taking the time to write about your concern about the graphic. I have added a title to that graphic to clarify.

Take care.

Catlin

Estou impactada com tanta beleza do seu trabalho! Sou professora de Matemática aqui no Brasil e a Playlist é o objeto de estudo da minha pesquisa da pós graduação em Educação Matemática e você é minha grande inspiração. Obrigada por compartilhar seu trabalho conosco!

Thank you for the kind message, Raissa! I am thrilled my work on playlists has been valuable to you and work in education. I love using playlists for anything that benefits from variable time on task. I also appreciate the space it creates in the classroom for teachers to work directly with individual and small groups of students.

I appreciate you taking the time to write!

Take care.

Catlin

Hello!

The video seems to be missing from the blog that is referred to in the statement below:

“In the video below, I respond to a math teacher’s question about how to design math lessons for her 80-minute block period. I describe a strategy teachers can use to reimagine their math lessons.”

Since I do teach math, I am very interested in hearing what you have to say.

Thank you,

Ana

Thank you for the note, Ana. It looks like the embed code wasn’t working properly. I’ve added the video from YouTube. It should be visible now.

Take care.

Catlin