The Conditions Required for 'Learner Flow'

How do we design learning experiences that our students will want to participate in? How do we maximise engagement and participation in the courses we design?

A presentation on attendance rates for university students sparked these questions. It shared the results of an ongoing research project that is seeking to understand factors influencing attendance rates. One particular finding stood out. During one of the two semesters each year, attendance rates were seen to decline earlier in one semester than the other. This was attributed to the timing of examinations and the reality that students would miss lectures and tutorials to do independent exam prep. It revealed that the clear intent for the students was to achieve high examination marks rather than engage fully with the learning opportunities that the course offered. The students were there to achieve marks rather than learning. Further was the realisation that success in the examination was achieved best by means other than attending the course, but perhaps that raises questions about the nature of the assessment.

What might it take to change this scenario? What might it take to ensure students choose to be in our courses because the value of the learning achieved through mindful attendance is such that they would not want to be anywhere else?

Making the learning fun was offered as one solution. We have probably found ourselves in a class or professional development programme where the presenter has made an effort to make the learning fun. In the moment, sometimes reluctantly, sometimes against our natures, we are swept up in the momentum of the singing, the dancing, the humour. The presenter may be highly engaging and does a great job of lifting the energy levels in the room. As the course continues, participation in the activities increases and the learning concludes with a rousing round of applause before everyone spills out of the room buzzing with excitement.

It is not until the next day or week that you begin to question the outcomes achieved. Despite all of the fun, it seems there wasn’t a great deal of learning. You are left wondering what was the purpose of it all, what was the core message, what were you supposed to do with it all? Was it that you missed something? Did others leave with great ideas that they are now putting into practice or did the fun hide a lack of substance?

Making the learning fun seems to miss the point. If we want genuinely engaging learning, we need to take a closer look at why we might want to engage in learning in the first place.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes the peak experience of engagement in a project as ‘flow’. Might we begin with this idea and consider what it would require to design learning experiences which create the necessary conditions for our learners to enter a state of flow. Such thinking should uncover the conditions required for truly engaging experiences, which by design result in learning.

“Flow is being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.” (Csikszentmihalyi. 1997)

I propose that we aim for something a little more specific to our goal as educators than is achieved by a direct reading of Csikszentmihalyi’s description of flow. I suggest we seek to understand ‘learner flow’, the state where learning achieves a level of meaning, purpose and relevance that the learner becomes completely immersed in the experience. As educators, we want to ensure that the result of all this engagement and thinking is learning. We want to be focused on creating an environment in which the participant’s actions, thoughts and movements lead them towards a meaningful learning goal. This requires becoming comfortable with the discomfort experienced when we step beyond the limits of our existing capabilities, it demands an openness to exploring new ideas from fresh perspectives, and it results in us achieving new capacities.

There are conditions which overlap between those broadly required for flow and those that might be referenced in ‘learner flow’ while some are unique. The following are my initial and early thoughts on this.

Agency is perhaps most important. Learning is best achieved when it is driven by the learner. When the learner owns the process and when their success in the learning endeavour results from the strategic actions that they take ‘learner flow’ becomes possible. When the key decisions are made for the learner, when the learning requires that they merely follow directions, when learning happens to you rather than because of you, engagement declines. The worse scenario is where the learning environment merely requires the learner’s attendance. In this instance, learning is assumed to occur because you were present for the allocated number of hours even if during this time, your mind was elsewhere.

Purpose and relevance seem to come next. The learner must be aware of why the learning matters to them either because of the direct benefits that result from the learning or because of the significant place of the learning in a more extensive learning arc. In response to calls for learning with relevance and purpose, it is frequently argued that there are some things which we just have to learn. The implication is that these things are requisites for later learning that is full of relevance and purpose. When you speak to advocates of this ‘foundational model’ it becomes clear that they are able to see and understand the relevance or purpose of what they are describing. Our role as educators is to reveal this to our learners. When we are clear on why the learning matters, we are more likely to present this content in ways that make this clear. Creating experiences for our learners that require their use of these foundational skills is one way to enhance the visibility of its relevance and purpose. Spending large blocks of time drilling students on foundational knowledge in isolation from experiences which reveal its purpose has the opposite effect. A simple analogy helps us to understand such an approach. In sport, it is our desire to play the game well that encourages us to engage in training drills. Flip this pattern and introduce a potential player only to drills they are unlikely to ever discover a passion for the game.

Extrinsic motivators serve to limit the possibility of learner flow. When grades or certificates motivate us, we will do what is required to achieve a satisfactory grade, and nothing more. Learner flow requires that the learning opportunity engages the learner. Feedback must be delivered in ways that reveal to the learner where they are with their learning and how they might proceed. When positive feedback becomes the goal, learning is limited. If the goal is a high mark the likelihood of the learner choosing to engage with learning that is challenging is bound to decline; why risk a poor score when you can choose an easier path and be assured of success.

An achievable level of challenge is a must. If the learning is easily achieved, we will master it quickly and move on; learner flow is never achieved as it is not required. If the challenge is far beyond our capability, we are just as likely to give up or find alternate strategies to protect our ego. When there is sufficient challenge, when we are challenged in ways that encourage us to try and persist and when we can see ourselves succeeding, we are much more likely to achieve a state of learner flow. In this process, the teacher, mentor or coach has a vital role to play and how we approach this will shift the learner either towards flow or away from it. When we see our learners struggling with learning, our first response can be to rescue them. Rescuing blocks flow and removes learner agency. Sometimes doing nothing is a better response. The skilled teacher or mentor will know when their learner needs a great listener who provides them with time and space to reflect on where they are, why they are stuck and what they might do to resolve the issue. Asking the right question, providing the required nudge, suggesting an alternate perspective on the problem are all ways that the learner can be supported without having to surrender agency. Knowing when to offer advice, guidance or scaffolding is an art.

Each element described above seems to play an equally important role in establishing the conditions for learner flow. Each can and should become a part of our learning environment and considering these as we design learning experiences should support our goal of increasing learner flow.

By Nigel Coutts