The Magic of Math Stations or Math Centers

Math stations or math centers are found in almost every classroom, but do you feel that you are getting everything they are worth out of them? Follow these steps to ensure that your students are engaged, learning, and mastering tough concepts through the use of math stations or math centers.
No matter what name you use (whether it be math stations, math centers, math games, or math printable activities) you are sure to love them in your classroom! As an upper elementary math teacher my students LOVED our math station rotations. It was a time when they were given a little bit of freedom, able to practice skills that they had already learned, use technology, and work with their classmates. I loved this time too, but I couldn't help but feel that this time wasn't being used to its full worth, and there was no time to waste.

When I first started using math centers I basically had a bunch of games that I had found in random locations to practice skills that we were learning. This worked. Kind of. Students often needed additional assistance which tied me up instead of being able to meet with other students to strengthen their skills. I instituted a peer coach they could ask which helped, but didn't really solve the problem.

I knew that something had to be done about the actual math stations that we were using. The hodge-podge of copies and downloads that I had cobbled together for each math concept was not doing the trick, and it was taking me FOREVER to find new math games as the year went on. When I really thought about it I knew that I needed many math stations that were targeted on one single math concept. I knew that the repetition would allow students to actually reach mastery. I searched and searched, but everything I could find for my students either didn't fit where they were at, seemed too much like a game and not enough like a learning activity, or would have cost me seven bajillion dollars to print. I mean, I love the colorful look of math stations, but the color ink is a no go in my book.

Math stations or math centers are found in almost every classroom, but do you feel that you are getting everything they are worth out of them? Follow these steps to ensure that your students are engaged, learning, and mastering tough concepts through the use of math stations or math centers.
That's when I sat down and started creating my own math stations. These stations were exactly what my students needed. They are ten centers or activities that can be completed independently, with a partner, or in a small group. This allowed me to be part of the rotation. Students that were struggling with a concept were able to complete the same exact activities, but did so with me as their guide so that I could clear up any misconceptions along the way.

After completing the first set of ten centers on place value I gave them a try. Each station has student directions and a recording sheet for accountability, so I didn't have to spend an hour going over how to use each center which has always been a time killer. I assigned partners/threesomes, handed out the materials, and let them go. I joined my group to guide my struggling learners, and I can honestly say it was a dream! It took about 15-20 minutes for each station to be completed, and we did two rotations that first day. That meant that within the week every student would have a chance to do all ten stations. Bingo!

Excited by the progress that my students were showing while working towards mastery with these stations I set to work on more. While creating them I focused on the BIG skills that we needed help with as well as making my life easier by creating them entirely in black and white so that I could print directly to the copy machine saving precious colored ink. I did print onto colored paper in order to keep things bright though.

These stations have seriously been a life saver for me. You can check them out here, or read on for a little something something later on. After seeing the success in my classroom as well as those of my colleagues I knew they were worth it and now have these stations available for second, third, fourth, and fifth grade standards.

Tips for Success

Regardless of what math stations you choose to use there are some easy steps to take to ensure that your math rotation time will be a success. 
    Math stations or math centers are found in almost every classroom, but do you feel that you are getting everything they are worth out of them? Follow these steps to ensure that your students are engaged, learning, and mastering tough concepts through the use of math stations or math centers.
  • Prepare all of your materials ahead of time. I know that this is a time investment up front, and can be frustrating. I prefer to laminate everything that I print, especially on colored paper, so that I can use it year after year. I also copy enough response sheets for all my students to have one from the beginning. I generally use gallon sized zip bags to keep all the materials in with sandwich bags inside for smaller cards or pieces. Some math centers also require manipulatives and I place those in the bag as well.
    The bottom line is you want students to have everything they need in order to complete the math activity without having to go on a search for materials. 
  • Set clear expectations. This is going to look different in every classroom, but make sure they are something you can stick with. For me, I have never been one for a silent classroom, I encourage conversation when it is on topic and meaningful. I model this type of conversation for my students from day one and encourage students to use their math talk. 
  • Choose partners or groups wisely. While it would be super easy to have students just choose partners and move on with life, this is where I really put my brain to work. Each set of math stations covers a different skill and means a reshuffling of partners because I want students to be at an independent level with that concept. If they are not at that level then they get placed in a group with me until their achieve independence. 
  • Incorporate cooperative learning strategies. Some students need a little more structure than just working together to achieve a common goal. One of my favorite strategies for partner work is Rally Coach. You can check out a post on it here
  • Use math stations as homework. Most math centers have a game-like quality to them which instantly makes them more engaging to students. Instead of sending home a packet of homework why not send home a math station for them to complete with their family? This allows families to get a glimpse into the classroom and sneaks in extra practice with important math skills. 
  • Keep your students accountable for their work by collecting response sheets or showing you some kind of artifact of their learning. I personally prefer to have students check their own work, so I provide the answer keys to them. It depends on the group of students as to how I do this though. With more trustworthy groups I leave the answer key in the bag with everything else and it is understood that they cannot look at it until they have completed the assigned math activity. With other groups I keep all the answer keys in one location in the room, usually a magnetic pocket on the whiteboard, where they can go to check their answers. This allows me to have a visual of who is going to look and when. I know that if someone gets up three minutes into a rotation to look at the answer key then something is up. 
  • Use your student experts. I like to mix up my experts depending on the topic, but I always have at least three students that are bestowed the power to help any group. Most of the time the question has to do with the math concept itself, but sometimes it will have to do with technology or directions. By having three student experts I only once in a blue moon have to leave my group to assist others. 

Why Not Worksheets?

I understand that worksheets are easier to manage, also hold students accountable by turning them in, and I mean they are tried and true right? Well, while I am no stranger to using worksheets and believe they have their time and place (usually accompanied by a cooperative learning strategy) I am not a fan of them for independent work. What happens when a student is stumped? Also, they lead back to that whole silent classroom thing that I am just not into. 

I would much rather have students engaged in their learning and working together on math stations. While they do require more prep on my part they also yield greater results. Additionally I may have the same student complete the same math center multiple times, but I would NEVER ask them to repeat a worksheet. That just seems cruel, but because of the game-like structure math stations don't inspire the same fear from students. 

Now What?

Well, I am guessing that you are itching to get your math game/station/center on! I want to make sure that everyone gets to see their students faces light up when they reach mastery through math stations, so I have a sample set available to you for FREE. This set is geared towards 4th grade place value standards, but will give you the chance to see what you are in for with any of these math centers

Get a FREE Math Station Set!

Check out what Big Ten Math Stations are all about!

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