In The Flow: Designing Meaningful E-learning Experiences

By: Jone Tiffany

Think about a time when you were really engaged in something, the kind of engagement where you lose track of time and experience feelings of joy and satisfaction. You may have felt acutely focused; physically, mentally, and emotionally absorbed in a task. The feelings are pleasant and there are always outcomes: a chapter written, a complicated dilemma solved, an assignment completed. This is what is called flow.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian psychologist, coined this term in 1990. In his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, he writes about his research related to the notion of flow. He describes flow as being ”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 (Csikszentmihályi,1990, p.11).”

Flow theory postulates four conditions that have to be met to achieve a flow state:

  1. There are clear goals and immediate feedback.
  2. There is a balance between the challenge of the activity and the skill level of the individual.
  3. There is a sense of personal control over the outcome of the activity.
  4. There is an activity that requires total concentration so one becomes deeply and involved in it.

Csikszentmihályi, M.; Abuhamdeh, S. & Nakamura, J. (2005), “Flow,” in Elliot, A., Handbook of Competence and Motivation, New York: The Guilford Press, pp. 598–698


In addition, intrinsic motivation is a key element that leads to experiences of flow. We have to want to engage in the challenging task. It is difficult to believe that anyone has experienced flow when listening to a lecture or completing a worksheet. Flow is more likely to occur when activities are on the higher end of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

So, how does this relate to the development of meaningful e-learning experiences in nursing education? As you review your online or hybrid courses/activities, reflect on the following questions:

  • Do your assignments include the parts of flow theory?
  • Are there clear goals for the assignments?
  • Do the students receive feedback fairly quickly?
  • Are the learning activities challenging enough for the skill level of the individuals?
  • Are there activities built into the curricula that require the students to engage in a high level of concentration?
  • How does learning through the use of technology and digital platforms lend itself to students and faculty being in the flow?

Think about some examples from your own experience of teaching and/or learning? What are common elements associated with being in the flow? Is there a sense of extreme focus, joy, feelings of being totally consumed? Contrast that with how you feel when sitting in a two-hour lecture, or watching an hour-long, voice-over PowerPoint. Is there excitement/engagement during these activities? We have been talking for years about making nursing education more contextual, more active, more meaningful: Where are we today?

Faculty who teach in the flow are inquiry based, focus on learning as a process, use instructional techniques that meets different learning styles, use game-like learning with more immediate feedback to foster flow in their students. This is why we must understand what our students know, and what they are capable of. In order to provide the most meaningful learning experiences, we need to match student skill level appropriately challenging tasks that include the appropriate range of formative assessment strategies to assess their level of understanding.

There are obstacles to flow in the current academic environments.  Developing curricula to foster flow takes work and effort. We must offer choices to students, design learning activities with the appropriate level of challenge, and give up some of the teacher-centered instruction.

The value of lecture including voice-over PowerPoints is still open for debate. A blended approach – lectures that provide opportunities for self-directed learning and faculty present as role models and offer exemplars – should protect and encourage students to attend and benefit from the value flow adds to the campus experience.  , then a If there is evidence that some of these experiences are not valuable from a learning perspective, then campus-based education may be in jeopardy. However, since the current evidence still shows effectiveness of online learning is mixed,  the best approach seems to be utilizing technology to enhance the student learning experience by enabling greater flexibility.

It is more work for faculty to design interactive, engaging e-learning activities. We can no longer just put the same content online that is taught in the classroom. The teaching/learning activities need to contain the conditions that foster flow. Remember, “The person doing the work is the one growing the dendrites” (Wolfe, 2001, p.187).

Click here to download the “flow process.”


Csikszentmihályi, M. (1990). Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.

Csikszentmihályi, M., Larson, R., & Prescott, S. (1977). The ecology of adolescent activity and experience. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 6, 281-294.

Wolfe, P. (2001) Brain matters: Translating research into classroom practice. Alexandria, Virginia: Association for supervision and curriculum development.

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