Stations focusing on primary material

How do I cover a lot of material in only one class period?  A few years ago, I would have only said “a lecture.” Now, I have found something much more effective at covering a lot of disparate material in a short time: stations.

How I do it

I prepare four or five stations and questions that students are supposed to answer at each station.  The students have about five minutes to read the excerpted passage, to look at the images, or to look at the objects at each station.  While at each station, the students talk with their fellow group members about questions on a worksheet.  After the students have gone through all the stations, we might discuss ideas that are common to all the stations and/or the students turn in the worksheet for credit.

Benefits

  • The students can be exposed to a wide variety of evidence in a short time.  When I taught about Etruscan and early Roman art and architecture, I had stations on sarcophagi, tomb paintings, temples, mirrors, and pottery imported from Athens.  If I had lectured about all of these images, I would have needed a few class periods.
  • The students can discover ideas about the passages or artifacts for themselves.  If I had lectured about the sarcophagi, I would have mentioned how men and women are depicted together at meals, which is odd for the ancient world, as seen through a comparison to the seclusion of Athenian women.  However, in stations, I could guide students to that insight through directed questions.  Their discovery of the idea is a much more powerful way to learn.
  • The students engage with a lot of primary sources.  The worksheet guides their thoughts, but they are actively using the primary evidence to think about the ancient world.  When I taught a class on Roman law, I had students read transcriptions of papyri recording legal disputes.  They were successfully able to understand the motives behind the people in the disputes.
  • The students’ physical change in location as they moved from station to station can help them mentally adjust to a new, potentially completely different topic, type of evidence, or time period.
  • The students’ potentially short attention spans were never a problem because they moved from station to station quickly.

Potential Drawbacks/Things to Consider

  • Usually, one station or one question about the station is more confusing than others.  I have hovered near that station rather than helping people at all stations or supervising the entire class.  On the other hand, this means I am not only helping one group at most stations because I help everyone in the class with that difficult station.
  • The questions must be geared to the students’ abilities.  Sometimes, I asked questions that were a little too hard for students on the worksheet; other times, the students were incredulous that they had a good answer because it seemed too obvious to them.  The more difficult questions usually require more than five minutes at each station, so students are hesitant to move to the next station as quickly.
  • Do stations make sense for your class? They are great for a day focused on a broad cultural topic.  They may not be good for a history class in which you’re only attempting to present a narrative.  What kinds of stations would you design for a Latin class?
  • It takes a lot of time to prepare the stations and questions.  It is not something that can easily be done for each class period.
  • The size of the classroom.  I have only done this in a large classroom where I could put desks together or have students move to certain tables.  It may be much more difficult to do in a small classroom.

Overall, stations are a great strategy to work into classes, especially survey courses where you try to expose students to a wide variety of material at once.  It also limits lectures and encourages group work!

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