Use Challenge Stations to Differentiate and Provide High Quality Practice

January 1, 2018

Research for This Tool

Learning stations or centers, when well designed and carefully implemented, provide high quality independent practice opportunities for students while allowing for differentiation based on students’ needs.

Effective instructional plans often include focus lessons, guided instruction, collaborative group learning, and independent student practice that follow the gradual release of responsibility (GRR) model, which moves from the teacher taking most responsibility for the lesson (“I do it.”) to greater student responsibility. (“We do it.” to “You do it together.” to “You do it alone.”)

The “You do it alone.” portion of the lesson structure is critical. Independent practice should be more than work sheets and other busy work. By designing and using engaging, interesting, and focused practice activities in learning stations and centers, teachers can make this portion of instruction just as effective as the focus lesson portion of the learning sequence.

These two references provide background and research on the effectiveness of learning stations:

Burden, P. R., & Byrd, D. M. (2007). Methods for effective teaching: Promoting k–12 student understanding (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.

Ocak, G. (2010) The effective of learning stations on the level of academic success and retention of elementary school students. The Educational Review, 146-156.

How to Use This Tool

Use Challenge Stations to Differentiate and Provide High Quality Practice

Learning stations and centers should move beyond rote practice activities to include challenging content specifically designed to meet the needs of all students, including advanced learners and students who may need additional support. The Challenge Stations Planning Form provided here has taken much of the work out of the planning process by providing an easy-to-follow format. After thinking through and completing each section, teachers should end up with a plan for each learning station or center that includes all necessary components. For each station, plans should include:

  • The type of overall instructional design,
  • The Depth of Knowledge (DOK) level,
  • Materials provided in the station, and
  • A brief description of the type of activity.

Use Challenge Stations to Differentiate and Provide High Quality PracticeBy designing stations at various DOK levels, with different types of materials (e.g., print, technology, manipulatives), and then requiring a range of products (e.g., a game, a video, or a song), differentiation becomes logical, sensible, and easy! Suggestions for activities and products that allow for differentiation are on page 4 of this tool.

Additional Resources

Whether you call them learning stations or activity centers, instructional stations and centers are a great way to differentiate and to provide high quality learning activities for all students. The websites below provide general information and references on specific topics:

Activity Centers Handbook

Science Stations

Centers in secondary classrooms

Literacy stations for young students

Reference for this Tool

From Proven Strategies That Work for Teaching Gifted & Advanced Learners (pp.61-64), by K.M. Fad and G. R. Ryser, 2015, Waco, TX: Prufrock Press. Copyright 2015 by Prufrock Press. Reprinted online with permission.

If you are interested in the product that this form is re-printed from, here is the link:


Challenge Stations  (.pdf)