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Instructional design for flow in online learning

By Sandra C. Ceraulo / May 2003

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This tutorial describes how the instructional design of an online course can facilitate an optimal learning experience for the student. The optimal learning experience is the state termed "flow." Flow, as defined by creativity researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Me-high Chick-zhent-me-high), is the "state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it." During flow experiences, work is pleasure and is rewarding in itself. Csikszentmihalyi has also described flow as "joy, creativity" and " the process of total involvement in life."

For example, many people enjoy hobbies such as woodworking, researching genealogy or gardening. As these people focus their attention on their hobbies and become more skilled at them, the hobbies provide them with the pleasure of a flow experience. Other activities, such as playing sports, reading, or even having a good conversation, can also provide a flow experience. People lose track of time when they are engaged in a flow experience because their minds are keenly focused on the flow activity. In everyday language, the flow experience is often referred to as being "in the zone" or "focused."

Flow and E-learning

From the literature on flow, I have extracted seven elements that make an activity conducive to flow, and I have applied them to the instructional design of an online course. I note that these seven characteristics of a flow experience are not new. As in Stephen Covey's motivational book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, the seven characteristics presented here have been part of the common experiences of creative and successful people throughout history. The novel aspect of this tutorial is the application of the characteristics of a flow experience to the instructional design of an online course. Due to this similarity to Covey's seven habits, I refer to the seven elements that make instructional design conducive to flow as the "Seven Habits of Highly Effective Instructional Design."

In enumerating ways that instructional design can stimulate flow, this tutorial will address how designers of online courses can help students to:

  • Focus their attention on a course
  • Solve problems
  • Develop skills and
  • Enjoy intellectual stimulation
  • Flow Cannot Be Ensured

Though incorporating the seven characteristics of a flow experience in elearning materials can facilitate an enjoyable intellectual experience in a student, these features alone cannot ensure that a student will have a flow experience. As in a face-to-face environment, high quality instruction can facilitate learning, but it cannot guarantee it.

Why Facilitate a Flow Experience?

Flow experiences are worth creating in online learning because they increase quality of life. Csikszentmihalyi's belief, and an assumption of this tutorial, is that "enjoyment depends on increasing complexity" and not on limiting one's activities to easy tasks. Or as he puts it, " Other things being equal, a life filled with complex flow activities is more worth living than one spent consuming passive entertainment."

In his research, Csikszentmihalyi found that only a small percentage of the population has an "autotelic" personality, and is able to create flow experiences in even the most unlikely environment. Other people will be more likely to engage in flow when the activity and their skills are conducive to flow. The seven habits discussed here are ways that instructional designers can facilitate flow in the majority of people who aren't autotelic.

Seven Habits of Highly Effective Instructional Design

The seven ways instructional designers can facilitate flow in elearning are listed below. Each will be explained in its own section of this tutorial.

  1. Focus Goals
  2. Eliminate Distractions
  3. Match Student Skills and Course Level
  4. Create a Supportive Environment
  5. Create Order Through Rules
  6. Let Students Express Themselves
  7. Provide Timely and Consistent Feedback

Habit 1: Focus Goals

Csikszentmihalyi has shown that activities with focused goals are conducive to flow.

Create a Clear Syllabus

In online teaching, as in traditional instruction, there is an infinite potential for obfuscation. The difference is that in online teaching, confusion occurs with poorly written syllabi, lectures, or assignments. When an online instructor gives confusing explanations, students will read for an hour and then think, "What am I supposed to do this week anyway?"

Stating clear and focused goals in the syllabus is the best way to start an online course. Here are some questions whose answers should be obvious when skimming an online course syllabus:

  • How does the course work? Is it synchronous or asynchronous?
  • What are the assignments and readings for the course, and when should they be done?
  • Will class participation be graded? If so, how?
  • Are there exams? If so, when and how will they be administered?
  • Is the grading scheme obvious?

Let Students Check Themselves

In addition to focusing goals for a course in a syllabus, instructional designers can create well-defined objectives for each assignment. For example, a computing instructor can provide sample input and output for a computer program students have been assigned to write. Alternatively, instructors can provide a checklist for what is required in each assignment. While this might be considered "pampering" in the traditional classroom, online students work very independently and often have a stronger need to know that they are on the right track. Providing a method for the students to check themselves is likely to save the instructor time. Many students in online courses email instructors to request confirmation that assignments are acceptable before they are officially submitted.

Format and Write for Usability

Good formatting and clear and concise writing are a critical skills for an online teacher. E-learning students are usually inundated with written material since they must read many pages of writing just to understand the course format, requirements, and assignments.

A simple formatting scheme that is used consistently can greatly increase the usability of a course Web site. Usability refers to the ease with which information on a Web site can be found. For example, assignments could always have a box around them, the reading could always be in bold, and point allocation for each part of an assignment can be clearly specified in that section. Usable course materials allow online students to concentrate on the challenges of the course work rather than on finding course information.

Habit 2: Match Instruction Level and Student Skills

In addition to having clear goals, a second characteristic of a flow experience is "a sense that one's skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand," according to Csikszentmihalyi. When a person's skills are less advanced than those required to meet a challenge, anxiety results. When a person's skills are more advanced than what is needed to meet a challenge, boredom results. Flow usually occurs when a person's skill level matches the level of a challenge.

To avoid having anxious students, virtual instructors can clearly state the prerequisite knowledge for their courses. To prevent boring knowledgeable students, instructors can specify the skills and material that will be learned in the course so that students who have already mastered them can choose a higher-level course. Since instruction and student skills should be at the same level for a course to be conducive to flow, learning material must get more complex as a course progresses to prevent students from becoming bored. Instructors will have a guide to increasing the complexity of their course material if they carefully choose a textbook whose chapters become more complex in reasonable increments. Frequent and graded assignments are recommended whenever possible since they require students to master course material before moving on to new material at a higher level.

Online instructors must also make sure students have the prerequisite computer skills for the course. A required orientation to the course software is often helpful.

Habit 3: Eliminate Distractions

An environment that is free of distractions facilitates flow. Csikszentmihaly has also described flow as a time when "Concentration is so intense that there is no time left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems." It is well known that athletes do best when they concentrate on their sport and not on their audience or the possible ramifications of their performance. One might speculate that the same is true of students.

Students can take advantage of the flexibility inherent in asynchronous online learning to eliminate distractions. Within time limits, students in virtual classrooms are better able to work when alert, fed, and in an inspiring environment. However, e-learners may be distracted by the Web sites of interest to them. To keep students' attention on their course, instructors can: o Limit use of outside Web sites to only a few emphasizing quality over quantity. o Emphasize the purpose of each visit to an outside Web site. o Give students the exact URLs and links to the outside sites and avoid "needle in the haystack" searches.

Habit 4: Create a Supportive Environment

Since friendly environments encourage students to focus on their work without being distracted by self-consciousness or fear of mockery, non-threatening learning environments are conducive to flow. Though Habit 4 follows Habit 3, I refer to "Creating a Supportive Learning Environment" as a separate habit to underscore its importance.

Some ways that instructors can create a friendly atmosphere for learning are:

  • Beginning the course by asking students to post brief biographies of themselves—a standard "icebreaker" in e-learning.
  • Stating the goals common to all students in the course.
  • In written critiques of student work, emphasize positive aspects and state what was done well and how the work could be improved.
  • Providing a qualitative acknowledgement of improvement (e.g. when a student with no previous programming experience writes a complex program correctly).

Habit 5: Create Order through Rules

Of all the seven habits, creating order through rules may be the most important in encouraging a flow experience. Flow experiences are nearly always associated with activities governed by rules. Having a set of rules in mind allows a person to independently create mental order from a new experience.

Csikszentmihalyi explains that "A person who becomes familiar with the conventions of poetry or the rules of calculus can subsequently grow independent of external stimulation." Playing a sport, a common flow activity, is always subject to the rules of the game. Rules provide a crucial, supportive framework for optimal experiences.

Creating Structured Courses

By default, asynchronous online courses are unstructured and unordered. Unlike face-to-face courses, they do not meet at the same time in the same place on the same days of the week. Order must be consciously created in most online courses. However, there are many ways instructional designers can create similar periodicity in asynchronous online courses.

Instructors can add order to Web-based learning by:

  • Uploading all assignments to the same part of the course Web site.
  • Using the same formatting for all assignments. This also helps students focus goals as discussed in habit one.
  • Making all assignments due on the same day of the week at the same time (e.g. Every course assignment is due on a Monday at midnight EST).
  • Using a simple grading scheme with periodicity (e.g. 100 points for each of three assignments and 200 points for the final exam).

Order in Virtual Classrooms

In addition to having order in course materials, orderly conduct in the virtual classroom facilitates flow. Rules for conduct in the virtual classroom can be given at the start of a course. The anonymity inherent in online education encourages some students to be unruly. It is not uncommon for online students to insult their peers or even their instructor even when they would be polite in a traditional classroom. Instructors at all levels may need to "train" some students in the etiquette of online discussions. As in a face-to-face setting, students learn best when an instructor can control the class.

Habit 6: Let Students Express Themselves

Work that is a form of self-expression or that is "personal and psychologically comfortable" is conducive to flow, writes Csikszentmihalyi. Students can be asked to express themselves within the framework of requirements for an assignment. For example, students could be asked to write a computer program to solve a problem but could be given the freedom to create their own problem-solving strategy.

Habit 7: Provide Timely and Helpful Feedback

When compared to other forms of distance education, the major advantage of online learning is the ease with which students can interact with the instructor and among themselves. Rapid feedback encourages flow since students can quickly learn from their errors. Csikszentmihalyi states "What makes this information valuable is the symbolic message it contains: that I have succeeded in my goal."

While rapid feedback helps students, the online instructor is not a 24/7 slave and cannot always be available to provide rapid feedback. Instructors can encourage students to get feedback from other sources, such as other students in the class, compilation errors of a computer program, self-tests in a study guide, or through creation of other test situations. These additional sources of feedback will encourage flow experiences while promoting independence, a characteristic of professionals.


Csikszentmihalyi has summarized his research by stating, "When the job provides clear goals, unambiguous feedback, a sense of control, challenges that match the worker's skills, and no distractions, the feeling it provides are not that different from what one experiences in a sport or artistic performance." By incorporating the characteristics of a flow experience into a course, any instructional designer can set the stage for an optimal learning experience that leaves students feeling like intellectual virtuosos.

For further reading, consult Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, and Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life, both by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.


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