What Helped: Setting Conditions for Flow

“What helped your learning?”

I spent an extraordinary amount of time and energy working on this course. I believe I invested more time, energy and attention than was officially required. I am convinced that there were several factors which sustained my focus and channeled my energies so purposefully in this course. One factor is my own interest in developing skills and knowledge which I consider invaluable for my personal and professional development. Another significant factor is the conditions created within this course which enabled me to consistently perform at an optimal level.

I will discuss the factors which helped my learning within the framework of Flow Psychology proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. The author defines “flow” as the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity (Csíkszentmihályi, 1990). He adds that flow is completely focused motivation and a single-minded immersion and represents the ultimate in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning” (Csíkszentmihályi, cited in Goleman, 2005, p.91).

This definition of flow accurately describes my experience of learning in this course.

In this Wikipedia article, the writer(s) summarize some of the factors proposed by Csíkszentmihályi, which are said to characterize an experience of flow. I will quote the factors verbatim as a basic framework for my discussion.

1. Clear goals (expectations and rules are discernible and goals are attainable and align appropriately with one’s skill set and abilities). Moreover, the challenge level and skill level should both be high (Csíkszentmihályi, 1997).

  • Clear set of goals and expectations

From the outset, the course documents and the various assessment rubrics clearly defined the level of performance which was expected of me. In the first week, the class took part in discussions. When the exercises was taking place, we were constantly being moved a notch higher by the instructor, who kept reminding the class of the characteristics of a “4-point” discussion. She pointed out gaps in the performance, and gradually (actually quite suddenly) brought the level up to the expected level. The level was high, it was challenging, but it was not beyond my capabilities. It was just slightly beyond what I could achieve, at that point. But with practice, I was able to reach the target within a short period of time.

Writing the blog was also an activity in which I was challenged to do better. For the first blog, I received a paltry 10 points out of a possible 40 points. However, after the prompt feedback, and a suggestion to re-read the rubric in order to review the expected level of performance, I quickly improved. Once I knew the goals and expectations, I rapidly progressed, and my performance improved significantly.

The clear set of goals and expectations also provided a challenging target for developing my own course. I knew right from the beginning that I was expected to demonstrate creativity and mindfulness in the structuring of my activities, and also precision in communicating my instructions. Some expectations which were not communicated directly in writing were communicated through course observations. From observing those exemplar courses, I became aware of the standard which I needed to set for my own course. The goals and expectations were also set from experiencing the course in which I was directly participating. I knew that this was the level which was expected.

With these goals repeatedly communicated in various ways throughout the course, I knew that excellence was the target. It was unambiguous.

  • Level and sequence of tasks

The tasks were also set a level which was challenging and was constantly nudging me and my classmates towards the ultimate target of excellence. I have taken many courses in my academic life, but this was the course that best matched my skills, knowledge and interests. The level was set a little higher than my current level. However because the tasks were sequenced from easy to difficult, I was gradually able to progressively move forwards. There were no big leaps required, just a series of small jumps ahead to help me achieve at a higher level. This was the way the course activities were structured. In the end, I gained sufficient confidence that I will be able to perform at the required level.

2. Concentrating: A high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention (a person engaged in the activity will have the opportunity to focus and to delve deeply into it).

The huge task of building the course, which would have been overwhelming if not properly scaffolded, was broken into smaller, manageable chunks. This allowed an intense amount of concentration to be channeled into building parts of the course. My attention was harnessed and focused only on what was essential at the moment module by module. This was evident in the building of the course documents, which then led into laying out one module, then sketching out course activities for the entire course, etc. which was all done part by part, enabling concentration on just one area at a time.

The progressive and developmental structure of the course also meant that each module allowed me to work and concentrate on one particular aspect of building my own course. My range of focus was deliberately narrowed by the instructor so that I could concentrate on a relevant aspect.

3. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness.

When I came to Module 4, I was on a roll! I had benefited from the initial feedback and I knew that if I trimmed the number of activities, I would be headed in the right direction. I tremendously enjoyed Module 4 because suddenly, all my skills seemed to come together, and I could apply what I had learnt in very concrete ways. It was truly a merging of action and awareness. I think time to work uninterrupted is essential in order to achieve this state. So it was a good idea to prepare a slot where students can be on their own to explore, discover, experiment and apply what they have learnt. Time to work independently is vital for flow to occur. Module 4 provided time and space to work, so that action and awareness, the understanding of theory and practice can be consolidated.

4. Distorted sense of time, one’s subjective experience of time is altered.

More than once, I worked through exhaustion and sleepiness because I was so absorbed in what I was doing. I think it had to do with my perception of the value of my endeavor. I perceived I was doing something worthwhile and imperative for my personal and professional development. I believe a good course provides a student with a sense that what they are learning is going to benefit them and their students. And ultimately, I persisted, and my sense of time was distorted because I was thoroughly enjoying myself!

5. Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed).

At crucial points in the course, I received feedback that enabled me to immediately take action to improve my performance. Initially my discussion posts were lackluster and my overwhelming number of activities was threatening to kill my students. Besides this, my first blog was abysmal. After Alex’s immediate and perceptive feedback, I took serious measures to address these gaps in my performance. As a result of the direct and immediate feedback, I significantly improved in these areas. And of course, I also progressed and felt encouraged because of the positive feedback to my work.

6. Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult).

This course was challenging pedagogically and technologically. It demanded a whole array of skills and knowledge. However, the best thing about the design of the course was that it catered for a whole range of skills and knowledge. If students didn’t want to do techy stuff, they didn’t have to. But if they chose to, they could. The requirement of designing a course also demanded a sophisticated understanding of pedagogical principles. Again, the design of the course was such that, if you wanted to design a blockbuster course, you could. But the option was there to design a very simple course as well. The course was therefore designed to accommodate a range of skills to ensure the balance between ability level and challenge.

7. A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.

This was very evident when students were tasked with designing a course of their choice. This is very much in keeping with the theories of motivation which suggest that people become more invested and engaged when they feel a greater sense of personal control over their own situations and activities

8. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.

I worked hours and hours and hours even when I was not really required to do so. If I worked at half the level of intensity, it would have been sufficient to get me through. So why do I do what I did? No other reason other than the activity of building my own course was intrinsically rewarding. Howard Gardner asserts that ‘You learn at your best when you have something you care about and can get pleasure in being engaged in.’

In conclusion, I believe that this course created the right conditions which facilitated flow.  I hope that I will be able to create a similar environment in my own course to inspire my students to higher levels of learning and achievement.

Joy (4)


Csíkszentmihályi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, New York: Harper and Row.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. New York: BasicBooks.

Wikipedia entry: Flow Psychology at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_%28psychology%29#cite_note-Finding_Flow-4

Finding flow: the psychology of engagement with everyday life