Flow exists in the “just right” space between boredom and anxiety.

In 1975, a Hungarian-American psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, identified a cognitive state of high focus and productivity which he named “flow.” The concept of flow, also described as a state of “effortless attention” was nothing new, but Csikszentmihalyi’s research kicked off a surge of interest in the idea. This research has helped us better understand what flow is and how to achieve it. When applied to learning, flow can engage learners for longer, reduce learning fatigue, and improve the overall learning experience.

According to Csikszentmihalyi and his colleague Jeanne Nakamura, flow is defined by six characteristics:

  • Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  • Merging of action and awareness
  • A loss of reflective self-consciousness
  • A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
  • A distortion of the experience of time
  • Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding

Most of us have probably experienced flow, and if you have, you can probably recognize it as a deeply satisfying feeling. In fact, Csikszentmihalyi became interested in the concept after noticing how artists could become so absorbed in their work and lost track of time so completely that they would forget to eat or sleep. More generally, flow has been associated with higher job satisfaction, greater persistence when facing a difficult task, and overall higher levels of happiness and self confidence.

With all that in mind, it seems obvious that educators should want to create a learning environment that makes it easier for learners to be in a state of flow. Here’s how to do that.

To achieve flow in a course, educators should ensure the following conditions:

1. There are established goals and directions. Most education courses have established end goals, but learners should also know their learning milestones, and should always know what they need to do to make progress. Learners should never be left wondering what they are supposed to do next.

2. There is immediate feedback. Immediate feedback reassures a learner that they are doing the right thing and making progress toward their goal. When there is a lag between when a learner completes a task and when they find out how well they performed, it leaves them in a state of uncertainty, which is inimical to flow.

3. There is a balance between perceived skill and perceived difficulty. Confidence is crucial to achieving flow. An activity should be challenging enough for a person to be interested, but not so challenging that they become stressed. When a learner’s skill outpaces the difficulty of the course, they are likely to become bored. Similarly, when a course outpaces the learner, they become anxious. Both states break flow.

4. There are reduced distractions. Flow naturally helps learners block out distractions, but it can still be interrupted. Too many distractions can also prevent a learner from achieving flow in the first place. (In fact, part of why we developed Focus Mode for LearnDash was to help block out distractions to help learners stay more “in the zone.”)

Using gamification to support flow.

Achieving a state of flow requires active participation. Passive activities like watching TV may be absorbing, but they don’t require the viewer to engage or take any actions on their own. And this is where gamification comes into play.

Of the four conditions we just listed, gamification is specifically relevant to providing immediate feedback, and balancing competence and difficulty. Games naturally have a lot of built-in feedback, and they’re also meant to provide a challenge. In fact, what makes a game “fun” is when the challenge hits that sweet spot between boring and impossible.

Our recent Achievements add-on for LearnDash can add gamification elements to your course that can be helpful in creating flow. For some of these other ideas, you may need to look into some 3rd-party plugins for additional functionality. (You can take a look at our list of 3rd-party plugins to see if any of these meet your needs.)

1. Orient learners through badges.

Learners need established goals and directions, so use achievement badges to help new learners find their way through a course. Achievements badges also provide immediate feedback to learners, not only when they’re just getting started, but as they progress through the course. Earning a new achievement is an easy way to let learners know “you’re doing the right thing, just keep going.”

2. Make quizzes part of the game.

There’s no reason for your quizzes to be a boring or stressful part of your course. In fact, given how many of us are fans of pub quizzes, trivia games, and televised game shows, it’s clear that people enjoy testing their knowledge—so long as they are confident in their skills. Frequent, shorter quizzes that test a learner’s understanding of the material they just covered can keep them in flow by providing the immediate feedback they need to know if they’re doing well.

3. Introduce competition through the leaderboard.

While your quizzing your learners, why not (gently) raise the stakes through a leaderboard? Leaderboards are both a feedback mechanism and a way to make your course more challenging for all levels while also keeping the actual course content within their skill level. (And after all, how many game shows are just quizzes with a leaderboard attached?)

4. Create branching scenarios to stretch a learner’s skills.

While you want to increase a course’s challenge level, it may not be enough to just make quiz questions harder. Instead, offering different kinds of quizzes and assessments may be a better option. Branching scenarios, which allow learners to explore their decisions, can really put a learner’s skills to the test without going beyond what they are able to handle.

Gamification in elearning only has room to grow.

The applications for gaming in elearning are nearly endless, and they will only grow as more technologies become accessible to a greater range of educators. However, it’s important to realize that you can gamify your online course without any fancy technology at all. Doing so will help your learners stay focused on your course, and if a learner finds that they are able to find flow while going through your lessons, it will only make them want to come back for more.

Laura Lynch photo

About Laura Lynch

Laura is a marketing specialist with experience presenting at WordPress events in Ann Arbor and Vienna. She speaks Russian and German and holds a double MA (Hons) in History and Russian Studies from the University of Edinburgh.

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