Flow, Motivation & Learning

Updated: Aug 10

The concept of flow has garnered increasing attention through research in psychology, neuroscience, and education. Flow is often described as being “in the zone,” when one becomes completely immersed in an activity. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, pronounced Me-High Chick-Sent-Me-High, spent much of his career researching and writing about the concept of flow. According to Csikszentmihalyi (1990), the theory of the optimal experience is based on “the concept of flow—the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” There are three interconnected areas that Csikszentmihalyi brought global attention to through his research: attention, flow, and positive psychology. Terms often associated with the state of flow include, but are not limited to clarity, timelessness, task absorption, serenity, and transcendental.

Research has traditionally explored the flow experience through collecting qualitative data from interviews and quantitative data from self-reported surveys. Factors associated with flow in research with athletes and musicians have typically included motivation, performance preparation, attentional focus, awareness of skills, and confidence among other factors (Bartl & Füller, 2020; Phillipe et al. 2021). Advancements in technology provide new insight on the study of flow states through electrocardiography (ECG), electromyography (EMG), electroencephalography (EEG), and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Research on flow in the workplace provides important insight on engagement and finding ways to foster optimal performance with employees. According to Lee (2020), research reveals that workers spend “typically less than 10% of their workday in a focused flow-like state.” The issue Lee (2020) shares that employers are often “not aware of when workers are in or out of a focused flow-like state and lack an understanding of the contexts in which workers are able to be most productive.” Therefore, there is an incredible opportunity to “unlock this untapped productivity while increasing satisfaction and well-being” as indicated by Lee (2020) by making changes in the workplace, to job tasks, and the employee’s skills to facilitate flow states.

In education, understanding factors that facilitate flow states are just as important in and outside of the classroom as it is in the workplace, athletics centers, and artistic venues. There is much that educators can apply from Csikszentmihalyi’s research on flow. In Flow and Optimal Experience, Biasutti (2011) highlights several points that are key to understanding flow based on Csikszentmihalyi research:

  • It was surprising to discover that enjoyment did not result from relaxing or living without stress, but during these intense activities, in which their attention was fully absorbed. This state was called by Csikszentmihalyi flow, because during the research, people illustrated their intense experiences using the metaphor of being carried by a current like a river flows (p. 1)

  • The flow experience came when the activity was difficult and involved risk. It usually stretched the person's capacity and provided a challenge to his/her skills. (p. 1)

  • Csikszentmihalyi reported that flow occurred more often during work than free time. It was easier to achieve the flow state in activities such as performing music, dance and writing since they had rules and required the learning of skills. (p. 1)

Educators can reflect on research conducted by Csikszentmihalyi to find ways to design educational experiences to engage students through activities that facilitate flow (see Figure 1).

Figure 1.

Finding Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, copyright © 1997, 1998, 2007

Within education, John Spencer has explored strategies to boost student engagement through flow theory as shared in Figure 2. According to Spencer (2021),“flow theory explains what happens when we hit that place of optimal experience, where you are fully engaged, present, and focused" (para. 1).

Figure 2.

Five Ways to Boost Engagement through Flow Theory (Spencer, 2017)

Flow Theory, Spencer 2017

Researchers, like Steven Kotler, bring a dynamic and innovative approach to flow. Kotler discusses how educators can benefit from research in athletics, the arts, and other fields through understanding flow states and the neurochemistry of flow.

According to Kotler (2021):

Flow is defined as an optimal state of consciousness, a state where you feel your best and perform your best. More specifically, the term refers to those moments of rapt attention and total absorption, when you get so focused on the task at hand that everything else disappears. (para. 1)

Kolter provides an overview of flow in the two videos below.

Flow and Ultimate Human Performance | The Rise of Superman (Kotler, 2014, 2:58)

The Neurochemistry of Flow States, with Steven Kotler | Big Think (Kotler, 2015, 4:20)

Kotler (2021) also provides four triggers for that have facilitated flow with artists and adventure sports athletes:

  • High consequences (that is, some kind of risk: physical, mental, social, emotional, etc.)

  • Deep Embodiment (the engagement of multiple sensory streams at once, learning through doing)

  • Rich Environment (lots of novelty, complexity, and unpredictability in the environment)

  • Creativity (specifically, pattern recognition, or the linking together of new ideas) (para. 24)

So where do educators begin? It starts with course design, assessment, feedback, and time. Much of the research on flow focuses on finding that balance between boredom, flow, and overload – much like the Goldilock’s principle. Time must be built into courses to support cognition, metacognition, creativity, and flow. Educators are encouraged to review Csikszentmihalyi’s nine dimensions that facilitate flow as detailed by Biasutti (2011):

  1. "Challenges and skills balance. A good match between challenges and skills is a necessary condition. Flow is controlled by the ability of balancing challenges with skills.

  2. Action and awareness merging. The action must be combined with awareness in order to facilitate concentration and high performance of the task.

  3. Clear goals. There is a clear purpose and a precise idea of what to do next. Although the activity advances towards a higher goal, the activity is driven by the progressive realization of the next small goal.

  4. Unambiguous feedback. Feedback is used for controlling the progression of the activity and the achievement of the goals. It is a process that happens in real time without it being necessary to stop. This allows adjustments to be made in order to meet the objectives.

  5. Concentration on the task. In flow, people are focused on aspects relevant to the task and distractions are excluded from consciousness. All attentional resources are used for the performance of the task which becomes the exclusive content of the working memory buffer.

  6. Sense of control. In flow, people do not worry about failure and possible loss of control, because they are deeply involved in the activity and all the external elements, such as failure, are less relevant.

  7. Loss of self-consciousness. Self-consciousness can be considered a meta-representation involving higher order processes. In a flow state, people are too focused on an activity which requires most of their mental resources to be self-conscious.

  8. Distorted sense of time. In flow the perception of time can be transformed. Time generally flies when people are performing activities in which they are engaged. On the contrary, time seems to slow down when doing tasks in which they are not really involved.

  9. Autotelic experience. Flow is a pleasant experience which is intrinsically rewarding. This gratification is directly connected with the activity. Autotelic is a word used to describe people who are internally driven and have a purpose within themselves.”

As instructional designers and faculty are designing courses, activities, and assessments, it is important to consider how to facilitate flow in and outside of the classroom to support optimal learning and performance.

Author: Dr. Kristen Betts

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