Flow theory was proposed by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi to describe the experiences of intrinsically motivated people, those who were engaged in an activity chosen for its own sake (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975, 1997). Such activities were viewed as worth doing just for the sake of doing them rather than as means to another end. While other research on intrinsic motivation focused on behavioral outcomes, Csikszentmihalyi attempted to describe the quality of subjective experience, or how intrinsic motivation felt. Further, he sought to explain the characteristics of activities that people were intrinsically motivated to pursue, and why such activities were rewarding.
Under certain conditions, people's experiences are optimal. Csikszentmihalyi (1975, 1997) and his colleagues, Rathunde, Whalen and Nakamura, defined optimal experiences as those that were accompanied by a merging of action and awareness, strong concentration on the task at hand, and a loss of awareness of time. At such times, people concentrate so hard on the current task that they forget about time and the world around them: They are thoroughly engrossed. Further, these activities are accompanied by positive emotions. They termed this quality of experience “flow.”
The experience of flow is possible under certain circumstances: when individuals find the activities challenging and also believe they have the skills to accomplish them. Optimal experience, or flow, occurs when a person perceives the challenges in a certain situation and the skills brought to it as both balanced and above average. In contrast, when challenges and skills are unbalanced, such as when challenges outpace skills, an activity could evoke anxiety. The various ratios of challenges and skills are predicted to be associated with different qualities of experience: flow with high challenges and skills, apathy with low challenges and low skills, anxiety with high challenges and low skills, and boredom or relaxation with low challenges and high skills. The original classification scheme based on level of challenge and skill, described above (flow, relaxation, anxiety, and apathy) has been further refined into an eight-category scheme, and a twenty-four-category scheme. All schemes are based on the tenet that levels of challenge and skill interact to affect the quality of experience.
The idea of optimal challenge is not new to the field of education. Indeed, both Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist (1896–1934), and Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist (1896–1980), contended that learning best occurs when people engage in activities that are at the peak of their abilities, when they have to work to their full potential to accomplish a task. However, the study of the experience of optimally challenging activities and the method of study are unique to flow theory.
Flow theorists not only study those who are intrinsically motivated to participate in an activity, but also individuals engaged in everyday activities. Csikszentmihalyi developed the Experience Sampling Method (ESM) to explore how individuals experience activities throughout their daily lives. The ESM involves randomly alerting individuals to answer questions about what they are currently doing, as well as their emotions, motivation, concentration, and thoughts associated with the task. Alerting methods have included beepers, watches, or PDAs set to randomly alert throughout a given time period. In this way, researchers can gain access to the thoughts and feelings during an activity as individuals are engaged in it. Other methods require individuals to recall how they felt or what they were thinking during prior activities, relying on memory.
The standard use of the Experience Sampling Method is to electronically beep students randomly during the day and ask that they complete a questionnaire (the Experience Sampling Form, ESF, validated by Csikszentmihalyi and Larson). The first items on the ESF ask individuals to describe the activity in which they are currently engaged, followed by a series of questions to assess levels of motivation, cognition, and affect associated with the activity. These are Likert-type items (in which responses can range from 1 = not at all to 9 = very much) that resemble, for example: “Was this activity important to you?” “How hard were you concentrating?” “How do you feel about the challenges of the activity?” “How did you feel about your skills in the activity?” An additional thirteen semantic-differential items measure emotion during the activity (e.g., happy-sad, excited-bored, and sociable-lonely). Each activity can then be classified into the flow categories as determined by the level of perceived challenge and skill— above or below average.
With such a method, researchers are able to determine (a) the amount of time spent in different types of activities throughout a day, week, or month, (b) which individuals spent more or less time in certain activities, (c) how different activities were experienced (both cognitively and emotionally) and which were most or least enjoyed, (d) characteristics of the environment or context that best contribute to optimal experiences and (e) which individuals were more likely to enjoy different activities.
While this method is often used to gain an understanding across all the activities in everyday life, some researchers have specified the types of activities they want to study. For example, some researchers, such as Schweinle and colleagues and Shernoff and Hoogstra, have limited the random alerts to times when participants are in school or completing homework. In this way, they gain information about the experience of different school and homework activities, such as whole-class instruction, group projects, watching videos, taking tests or quizzes, etc.
One drawback to the ESM is that it can be expensive and time consuming. Further, it requires using a large number of participants to get a broad range of experiences. It is also difficult in educational settings where teachers may not be amenable to some students randomly stopping their activity to complete questionnaires. Some researchers have adapted the ESM to assess the experience of specific activities without random beeps. For example, Schweinle and colleagues were interested in elementary students' experience of mathematics classes. Rather than beeping students randomly throughout their math classes, they asked students to complete ESFs at the end of twelve different math classes across a school year. This type of method provided information specific to activities during math class rather than a cross-section of activities in everyday life. One drawback, though, was that it required students to recall their math class and respond with a general sense of how they experienced the whole class rather than specific points throughout the math class. Using the traditional ESM or modified versions, researchers have learned about how students experience school and academic activities and the environments that contribute to the most optimal academic experiences.
One benefit of flow theory is that it presumes that motivation, cognition, and affect are situational. Whereas much research in motivation has focused on relatively decontex-tualized individual psychological processes, flow theory presumes that these psychological processes are made meaningful by the environment. The ESM allows for study of both the environment and the persons within the setting. For example, researchers have used the ESM to determine how students spend their days and how they experience those activities. In one study, Shernoff, Knauth, and Makris found that high school students spend most of their classroom time paying attention to the teacher lecture (23%) or performing individual tasks such as writing notes or completing homework assignments (23%). Only about 8% of students' time was spent in interactive activities, including classroom discussion (5%) and group tasks or laboratory experiments (3%). In short, students were engaged in intellectually challenging tasks for more than half of the day; however, roughly one-third of their time was spent passively listening to the teacher lecture or observing a video.
Using the ESM, Shernoff and colleagues were also able to determine the quality of the students' experiences while engaged in each of these activities. Specifically, while students enjoyed watching videos and TV in class, they viewed these activities as the least challenging. Students also enjoyed individual work, which they reported most positively in terms of academic challenge, affect, control, and motivation. Lecture was viewed as unchallenging and was met with negative affect and lower levels of control. Considering that students spend approximately one-third of their time in the classroom passively listening to teachers or video, students may not be adequately challenged or motivated to learn.
Further, researchers have examined the quality of the experience as it relates to the balance of the challenge and skill of the activities. Researchers have for years extolled the benefits of high challenge matched with skill level, or optimal challenge. Vygotsky explained that the highest levels of learning occur when students are pushed to perform just beyond their current ability levels. As their skill levels increase, so must the level of challenge, maintaining an optimal balance that encourages continuous learning.
Flow theory further contends that, not only do activities with high challenge matched with high skill offer the best opportunities for learning, but they also provide an optimal environment for positive affect and intrinsic motivation. (It should be mentioned that not all activities with high challenge and high skill elicit flow states. However, flow states can only occur when high challenge is coupled with high skill.) If students believe that they have the skills to produce the desired results, positive affect is more likely to be experienced. When challenges and skills are optimal and balanced, students can experience higher levels engagement, attention, concentration and interest, according to Shernoff and his colleagues, as well as higher levels of positive affect, interaction with the class, efficacy, and value of the material, according to Schweinle and her colleagues (2006).
Interestingly, it is still possible to have positive affect if skill exceeds challenge. In fact, Schweinle and colleagues (in press) found that a student's skill level, rather than the perceived challenge of the activity, was the most significant factor in predicting positive affect and efficacy. While students may feel more positive if they believe they can succeed whether or not the challenge is high, only activities with high levels of challenge will also provide opportunities to learn. Phrased another way, students must have high to moderate levels of efficacy to demonstrate a preference for challenge. Teachers can use these tenets of flow theory to provide for optimal learning as well as positive affect and motivation to learn.
Teachers encourage flow and intrinsic motivation by creating an environment that fosters enjoyable learning experiences. Ideally, to encourage optimal experiences, teachers must provide optimal challenge and support for competence (or skill). Schweinle and colleagues also found that, in classrooms where students reported high positive affect, efficacy and value of the material, teachers balanced levels of challenge and skill as well as (a) provided immediate, constructive feedback, (b) encouraged students to persist, (c) encouraged cooperation rather than competition, (d) supported student autonomy, (e) ensured that new challenges were tempered with support to match students' skill, (f) emphasized the importance of the material, and (g) pressed students to understand the principles rather than memorize algorithms.
Csikszentmihalyi (1997) argues that when teachers provide immediate, informational feedback regarding student performance, students become more interested and persistent with goal setting. Additionally, intrinsic motivation and self-efficacy increases in students. If a student receives non-constructive feedback, such as evaluating an individual's trait, motivation will decrease and negative affect may occur.
Flow Theory In addition to providing effective feedback, teachers can also increase intrinsic motivation and classroom experience by supporting student autonomy. Students become more involved when instructional activities are perceived as important and when students perceive themselves as autonomous and in control over their environment, according to Shernoff, Schneider, and Csikszentmihalyi. Schools can promote autonomy by minimizing external controls to facilitate conceptual understanding, allowing students to set goals and choose their own activities. In such a way, students are more likely to feel in control of their goals. However, if teachers provide a controlling environment by inflicting deadlines, stressing grades and performance, and demanding specific solutions rather than creativity, a decrease in affect, interest, and motivation could occur.
Positive affect may be one of the most powerful predictors of intrinsic motivation. Humor, expressions of enjoyment towards the subject matter, and utilizing kindness and sensitivity can produce a positive atmosphere in the classroom. In contrast, if teachers use threats, sarcasm, and directives, students may become less motivated and may experience negative affect. In addition to providing a positive atmosphere, teachers should also encourage social relationships. Schweinle's research suggests that teachers who allow students to work with their peers will help build cooperation in the classroom and an increased commitment and interest in the subject matter.
Challenge and feeling competent are important for optimal experiences. Teachers support this when they use students' errors as learning opportunities and provide chances for students to show their skill levels. The students' skill levels should match the challenge of class activities to encourage flow experiences. The difficulty level of tasks should increase as student skills increase. If a student maintains low skills and perceives the task as highly challenging, then the student may become anxious and experience negative feelings. To provide an ideal level of challenge, teachers can scaffold tasks, provide adequate time for students to complete tasks, and reduce long-term goals into smaller units, which follows Vygotsky's principles. This could increase the enjoyment of math, lessen anxiety, increase feelings of success, and ultimately create an environment conducive to optimal experiences.
Optimal experience in classrooms is important for students' learning and motivation at the present and also for their future educational plans. Shernoff and Hoogstra found that when students experience cognitive and emotional engagement with a specific topic, the resulting feelings may guide post-high school plans, such as college courses or majors. Further, interest and enjoyment with certain topics were essential factors for highly engaged students when making career decisions.
In sum, flow theory addresses how students experience educational contexts and how this experience influences learning and motivation. Activities that challenge students, but are still within their ability to accomplish, set the stage for optimal emotional and motivational experiences as well as optimal learning. Within the context of balanced challenge and skill, teachers can also improve the chances of positive experience by supporting autonomy; providing immediate, constructive feedback; encouraging cooperation among students; supporting positive affect; and pressing understanding rather than rote learning.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Beyond boredom and anxiety. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
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Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Larson, R. (1987). Validity and reliability of the experience-sampling method. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 175, 526–536.
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Massimini, F., & Carli, M. (1988). The systematic assessment of flow in daily experience. In M. Csikszentmihalyi & I. S. Csikszentmihalyi (Eds.), Optimal experience: Psychological studies of flow in consciousness (pp. 166–287). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Piaget, J. (1952). The origins of intelligence in children. New York: Norton.
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Shernoff, D. J., Csikszentmihalyi, M., Schneider, B., & Shernoff, E. S. (2003). Student engagement in high school classrooms from the perspective of flow theory. School Psychology Quarterly, 18(2), 158–176.
Shernoff, D. J., & Hoogstra, L. (2001). Continuing motivation beyond the high school classroom. In M. Michaelson & J. Nakamura (Eds.), Supportive frameworks for youth engagement (pp. 73–87). New York: Jossey Bass.
Shernoff, D., Knauth, S., & Makris, E. (2000). The quality of classroom experience. In M. Csikszentmihalyi & B. Schneider (Eds.), Becoming adults: How teenagers prepare for the world of work (pp. 141–164). New York: Basic Books.
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