Think about the last time you got really caught up in something you were doing — maybe you got lost in a really great game, or spent all day finishing your latest DIY project.
Maybe it felt like you couldn’t stop until you accomplished your task, and while you might have felt challenged, you also probably felt like your goal was achievable. You felt sure of yourself and your abilities, not self-conscious. In other words, you were just going with the flow.
This “flow” or “flow state” is a well-documented phenomenon, first termed by psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi in the 1960s. As you may have guessed (or experienced), it’s a positive state to be in: you’re getting immediate feedback from whatever you’re doing and feeling as though you’ve accomplished something.
While we tend to talk about flow as it relates to art, or sports, or music, the concept has value when it comes to learning as well. Consider how you feel when you’re learning something you’re actually interested in, versus something you’re learning because you have to learn it. Now think about how much better it would be if the “have to” material felt as engaging as the “want to” material. Sound impossible? We don’t think so. When we build courses, we think about flow a lot. Read on for some of our strategies that will help you do the same.
1 Make it challenging, but not too challenging.
Let’s think about video games for a moment. A typical game will have small challenges (puzzles, combat, etc) that players need to complete on their way to the “big” action. These sequences keep players engaged, and they reinforce the skills that players need to succeed. In a good game, they’ll be challenging, but not so tough that you give up.
Sound familiar? One of the core characteristics of a flow state is that a task feels appropriately difficult. Too easy, and a person feels relaxed and bores quickly. Too challenging, and a person gets anxious and frustrated. An appropriately challenging task will keep someone hungry for more. This is the state you want your learners to be in. How do you get — and keep — them there?
Try framing your knowledge checks or practice activities as opportunities for positive feedback. Giving them little “wins” will make your students feel like they are competent and can learn what they need to. Psychologist Albert Bandura called this “self-efficacy”—a person’s belief in their own ability to achieve their goals. It’s vital for effective learning.
This doesn’t mean “make it easy”. Something that doesn’t feel challenging enough won’t boost the learner’s confidence or motivation. The overarching goal is to give your learners the high level of skill and knowledge needed to tackle a challenging task.
2 Break it up to boost engagement.
If you’re an educator, chances are you know the concept of “chunking,” or breaking up your content into digestible pieces of information: short videos instead of long ones, longer pieces of text broken up into shorter paragraphs and sections. It might seem counterintuitive, but breaking up the content actually increases flow. That’s because it gives students’ brains a brief break to process information, allowing them to keep going without becoming overwhelmed. Their skill and cognitive capacity are in balance with the challenge of learning the material.
In a lecture, this might happen naturally, when someone asks a question or you pause for a discussion, but online, you often have to make space for it yourself. Maybe you do a knowledge check, maybe you have them stop to post to your course discussion board. Whatever it is, it should wake their brains up and engage more of their senses than just passively scrolling or watching.
3 Foster positive relationships.
HI EXCUSE ME, I just found out the the prof for this online course I’m taking *died in 2019* and he’s technically still giving classes since he’s *literally my prof for this course* and I’m learning from lectures recorded before his passing— Aaron “just a grape” Ansuini 🍇🪴🌱 (@AaronLinguini) January 20, 2021
..........it’s a great class but WHAT
(Anything but this.)
If you’ve taught — or taken — online courses in the past, you know that they can seem a little impersonal, with everyone shouting into their own void. But research (and probably your own personal experience, too) indicates that positive student-instructor and peer relationships increase flow.
While it’s difficult to replace the kind of organic interactions that take place in a physical classroom, that doesn’t mean there’s no opportunity for engagement at all. Start fostering those relationships from the moment your students log in for the first time: You can do this even if your course is asynchronous; even a recorded welcome message introducing yourself and the course content helps create the feeling that the course is being taught by a real (and alive) person.
And don’t forget about helping students foster peer relationships, either. Integrating group work is an easy strategy to accomplish this, but look for other methods too. If your course has a discussion component, make sure students are engaging with at least a couple of their peers’ posts every week. Consider having students lead particular classes, or sections of classes. These approaches help students learn from one another and create a sense of community in the classroom.
As you are trying to get your students into their flow state, don’t forget about your own. Don’t get stuck in a rut of the same old material or methods. Find new teaching tools and techniques. Seek feedback, and embrace new challenges. Students can tell when you’re present and engaged, and everyone will benefit.
Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84(2), 191-215.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: Experiencing Flow in Work and Play, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Magyaródi, T. and Olah, A. (2017). The effect of social interaction on flow experience. International Journal of Psychology & Behavior Analysis.
Wong, C. O. (2020, December 7). Building relationships: How to connect from a distance: Faculty focus.