SIP 3.11 “Centers” in University Classrooms

Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?Six cartoon people sitting around a table

Supplementary instructional materials such as websites or YouTube videos can enhance student engagement and enrich course material, but are also difficult to integrate into a course without overburdening students or taking up too much time in class. Assigning these materials together as a whole group might actually diminish interaction or feel like a laundry list of to-do items. How can an instructor maximize student engagement with a variety of ancillary materials and not minimize active or collaborative learning?

Take a SIP of this: “Centers” in University Class

“Centers” are often used in elementary and secondary classrooms—but the concept is surprisingly adaptable to higher education. Centers (key words: “learning centers” or “work stations”) can be thought of as mini-work stations, set up in the classroom, that allow students to work in partners or small groups to explore ancillary materials more closely during class time. Here is one example of learning centers used in a secondary classroom that can be easily adapted for a university classroom:

There are a variety of ways to set up centers depending on how much time you have and how many different activities you want students to complete. Centers require preparation before class. However, once they are prepared, they can be reused from semester to semester. Some questions you will want to consider as you plan for centers include:

  • Will all students visit all of the centers or can you have them visit some centers (or most centers)?
  • Will students have a set amount of time or be able to move more freely between the centers?
  • How will students be grouped for centers (pairs, small groups, individuals)?
  • What instructions / materials will need to be prepared before class?
  • What technology might be necessary? Can students use their own technology or will the instructor need to provide it?
  • Will there be a center in which students meet with the instructor, or will the instructor circulate around the room to answer questions, provide clarification, etc.?

For example, one instructor had a variety of materials and YouTube videos for students to explore and engage with in small groups. For this activity, the instructor ended up with 15 different centers. The students moved in pairs around the classroom as they wished, spending as much time as they felt necessary at each center to complete the task. Students were not expected to visit every center, but visited a range of centers during the time given. At each center, there was a folder that contained instructions and materials for the center. One center, for example, had students watching a You Tube video and participating in a discussion about the video:

  • How does this video illustrate concepts we have been reading about? What connections can you make from coursework (either this course or other courses you have taken) and the video? Discuss the video and your connections as a group. In particular, focus on the intersection of gender and race.

Students were assigned to take notes on a handout which was collected at the end of class:

Description of Center Questions, Comments, Aha Moments

After class, the instructor reviewed the handouts looking for themes or big ideas.

You could have a smaller number of centers with a given schedule for rotating through each center. For example, you might assign students to groups and then have them rotate through each center at 15 minute intervals. In this case, each center should take approximately the same amount of time.

Still thirsty? Take another SIP of “Centers” in the University Classroom

Learning centers are one way to provide students with multiple ways to engage with content—which is one of the principles of Universal Design for Learning. To learn more about UDL principles visit:

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