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Lab Stations: How to Make Them Work for You!


Lab stations can be a fantastic tool in our teaching arsenal!



Teaching science requires a multi-faceted approach. Students are all over the place in terms of their learning styles, their ability levels, and their attitudes toward learning.  Great science teachers mix it up every day in terms of teaching strategies and approaches for getting across the concepts we need to teach.  Using only one teaching style or strategy, no matter how wonderful it is, will become old and stale if used day after day after day.

In this article, I'll discuss a strategy that has been around since the dark ages, but seems to be all the rage lately.  LAB STATIONS!

What is the lab station approach?

The term "lab station" has come to have different meanings for different people.  Lab stations are a method of instruction where small groups of students work together on a task or activity in order to learn, review or reinforce a concept.  These small groups move or rotate through a series of lab stations or science centers, and complete an activity at each station.  The term "lab practical" is also familiar to many of us, but in my mind, there is a difference between a lab practical and lab stations.  While both practices require rotating or moving between stations, lab practicals are used as tests and assessments.  For example, in an anatomy class one would rotate through the stations of a lab practical in a testing format to demonstrate proficiency in a particular area of animal anatomy and physiology.  The use of lab stations, on the other hand, is a teaching technique that is used to teach, review or reinforce concepts being covered before a test is taken.

Should lab stations be used as first-day instruction, or saved for a review activity at the end of a unit?  The answer is:  Yes and yes!  On the very first day of school, I have my students complete a lab station activity called Science Chat.  Students are always delighted to learn that they are doing an activity that allows them to be out of their desks.  If lab stations are to be used as first-day instruction, great care must be taken in the way the stations are designed and written.  If no prior instruction has been given, students must have a way to complete the tasks and build upon their pre-existing knowledge.  Lab stations used on the first day of new unit should involve activities that are self-guided inquiry or exploration type lessons.  Lab stations are also a fantastic way to review and reinforce the content of a unit just before an upcoming unit test.  Lab stations used in this way should be written in a style that assumes a certain knowledge base, but challenges the students to use higher order thinking.

What are the benefits of using lab stations?

When used with a combination and variety of other teaching techniques, the use of lab stations is very effective, and because it is so different from other teaching strategies, the benefits are many.

  • One of the most important benefits is that students are up and moving.  Students often need a short "brain break" during class.  It is a very rare student who can sit still for an hour and remain fully engaged the entire time.
  • Lab stations break up the concepts and information into smaller, more manageable, units of learning.  Students often become overwhelmed in a science class when faced with large chunks of new information.  A well-written lab station activity addresses a single concept or task at each station.  For many students, this reduces stress and builds confidence by enabling them to master the smaller units of information.
  • Lab stations allow students to work at their own pace ... within reason, of course!
  • Students enjoy working in a self supervised manner.  
  • Lab stations allow the teacher to interact more freely with students on an individual or small group basis.
  • Lab stations are perfect for labs that have limited resources.  If, for example, your lab has only one spectrophotometer or only a few pH meters, lab stations can be set up to allow all students to rotate to those stations in order to use those limited pieces of equipment.  
  • Peer teaching and tutoring is very effective! Students often learn better from their peers than they do from adults.  Small cooperate learning groups reduce fear and anxiety amongst students.  
  • Hands-on lab experiments and activities increase mastery of concepts and retention of large amounts of information.
  • Lab stations keep students engaged.  When students know that they are about to move to another location, they are more focused and eager to finish the work at one station in order to move to the next.  When the next lab station involves a completely different type of activity, students are less likely to be off-task.  In other words, the change keeps them on their toes.
  • The transition process gives the students a short mental break.

Planning and Set-up Tips:


Teachers who have never written, set up, or utilized lab stations in their teaching are often afraid to give it a try.  Rather than setting up one lab activity, inexperienced teachers may feel as if they have to set up 8 or 10 lab activities in the same class period. The thought of this raises much anxiety!  Rest assured, setting up a lab station activity is no harder or more time consuming than setting up any lab activity.  In fact, often the prep time is greatly reduced!  I find that setting up one of each station is faster than setting up 15 of the same station.  These additional planning and set up tips will help get you started:

  • Does the activity have goals and objectives that advance the education of your students?  If it is just busy work to keep your students occupied for a day, don't do it.
  • The lab stations should involve a good mix of teaching techniques and learning styles.  Having 10 lab stations that require students to draw and label a diagram at every station will not be effective. Instead, involve the students in different types of activities. Possibilities include small experiments, building structures, reading passages, paper and pencil games, manipulation and ordering of objects, discussion stations, internet research stations, modeling stations or task card stations.  Studies show that varying the types of learning activities greatly increases our ability to master and retain information.
  • Each station should be independent of all other stations.  In other words, it should not matter the order in which they are completed.  
  • How will you place the students in small groups? Should you allow the students to choose their own partners?  Should you place students in groups of YOUR choosing?  Should you have groups of 2 or 4?  Every lab is different.  You know your students and you know what you can expect from them.  One class may be mature enough to allow you to let the students choose their own partner, while this would never work in another class.  I sometimes allow students to choose their own groups, but I most often choose the student groups myself.  At the beginning of the school year I place the name of each student on an index card.  Prior to the lab activity I place these index cards at the lab stations.  As the students enter the room they look for their card.  This allows me to quickly and easily place students in lab groups.  Life lessons are also learned by having students work in a different group each lab period.
  • Each station requires clear signage and complete instructions.  Laminate everything you can so that it can be used year after year.  If students are given a packet of worksheets to complete, make it clear which worksheet is used at each station.  Placing a symbol or piece of clip art on the lab station sign and the same symbol on the corresponding worksheet is a simple and easy solution.
  • Make sure that lab safety precautions are clearly posted at each station.
  • All groups do not have to be the same size.  You know your students and how to group them to maximize the instruction of all.
  • Common sense dictates that all stations should require the same amount of time to complete. Personally, I have found this very difficult to accomplish.  The best solution is to set up multiples of the stations that require more time.
  • You must manage class time effectively.  Continuous monitoring is required to make sure that students are on task and are moving through the stations at the pace you deem appropriate.
  • All students will not finish at the same time.  I suggest setting up an "enrichment" station for the early finishers.  You do not want some students loitering while other students are trying to complete their work.
  • Prior to the lab station activity, decide how you will manage the amount of paper required for the activity.  You might provide each student with a complete packet of handouts, or you might consider placing one set of handouts at the lab station and requiring students to complete the work on their own notebook paper.
  • Students should be required to turn in their own work.  Allowing a group to turn in one worksheet or lab report for the entire group usually results in one person doing the work, and the other group members doing little.
  • Make a rotation plan.  Will you allow the students to move randomly to other lab stations, or will you require them to rotate in a particular order?  
  • Know your space and how to make it work to your advantage.  For example, will the lab station require water or electricity? Or can it be completed at a student desk?
  • Be organized for next year.  Take the time to laminate lab station signs and instruction cards so that you can use them again.  Place all items needed for the activity in a plastic box, or file them  away in your filing cabinet. Include in the box or file folder your notes on what worked well and what didn't work well.  Make a list of any supplies that need to be re-ordered for next year. You will thank yourself for this next school year!

Need to Differentiate?  No Problem!


For inclusion classes (classes containing learners of widely varying ability levels) lab stations can easily be differentiated to meet the needs of all students.  Students with IEP's can participate in the same lab stations by making some minor modifications.  Ways to accommodate special needs learners  might include:


  • All students participate in the same lab stations, but they are given different sets of handouts or worksheets to complete.
  • Because of the random movement of students through the lab stations, you can select which lab stations students will complete. There is no need for a student with special learning modifications to complete every single station.
  • By carefully selecting the small groups, you can create groups that are supportive and will provide an educational atmosphere that will benefit all members of the group.

What is keeping you from trying lab stations?


The most common concerns I hear from new teachers are that they are worried about student behavior as well as the amount of time required to set up and complete an activity.  As for student behavior, students have to be taught and trained from the beginning of the school year in all classroom rules and procedures.  Lab stations are no different.  Refrain from using large groups, and make sure that your expectations are clear and consistent. Teach the students how the process works and what their responsibilities are. Have a set of rules and stick with them.


I hope that if you are new to the idea of lab stations, this article has provided you with some tips and tricks on how to get started.  Has this teaching technique replaced my used of the tradition hour-long lab activity? Absolutely not! Carrying out a full-length lab is VERY important.  But I do enjoy having another "weapon" in my teaching arsenal.

Use this link to view my lab station activities on TpT.

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