Flow theory

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1 Definition

  • Flow also called "Optimal experience" is a concept developed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
  • "the holistic experience that people feel when they act with total involvement" (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975: 36)
  • “… 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.” (Csikzentmihalyi, 1991)
  • "A sense of that one’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand in a goal directed, rule bound action system that provides clear clues as to how one is performing. Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted. An activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult or dangerous." (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991:71)

Csikszentmihalyi (1975) originally identified four flow components:

  • control;
  • attention;
  • curiosity;
  • intrinsic interest.

Csikszentmihalyi (1993: 178-9) defined eight dimensions of the flow experience:

The 8 dimensions
Clear goals and immediate feedback
Equilibrium between the level of challenge and personal skill
Merging of action and awareness
Focussed concentration
Sense of potential control
Loss of self-consciousness
Time distortion
Autotelic or self-rewarding experience

Here is an other, similar definition from David Farmer (1999), How does it feel to in "the flow" ?:

  1. Completely involved, focused, concentrating - with this either due to innate curiosity or as the result of training
  2. Sense of ecstasy - of being outside everyday reality
  3. Great inner clarity - knowing what needs to be done and how well it is going
  4. Knowing the activity is doable - that the skills are adequate, and neither anxious or bored
  5. Sense of serenity - no worries about self, feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of ego - afterwards feeling of transcending ego in ways not thought possible
  6. Timeliness - thoroughly focused on present, don't notice time passing
  7. Intrinsic motivation - whatever produces "flow" becomes its own reward

While I think that the original flow definition rather describes compontents of a mental state (including percpetion of a situation), some researchers have attempted to narrow down the flow experience and rather conceptualize the other dimensions as some sort of contextual variables. According to Novak et al. (1997), "in In Hoffman and Novak (1996), flow is defined in terms of the experience of flow (intrinsic enjoyment, loss of self-consciousness), behavioral properties of the flow activity (seamless sequence of responses facilitated by interactivity with the computer and self-reinforcement), and its antecedents (skill/challenge balance, focused attention, and telepresence)." This structure (Novak, 1997: 1) is composed of:

  • The core experience of flow;
  • Close correlates of the flow experience, such as playfulness;
  • Antecedents of flow, including skill, challenge, interactivity, focused attention, arousal, telepresence;
  • Consequences of flow, including positive affect, exploratory behavior, and control.

2 Instruments to measure flow

Most serious flow research uses experience sampling techniques.

Sometimes, e.g. for internet experience research (e.g. Retti), qualitative flow questionnaires are used that will try to elicit user's experiences Here is an example from Retti (2001:105): under construction

Finally, in some literature (e.g. Novak, 1997:12), flow questionnaires can be very "light" and we are not sure if this still can be related to the original very "intense" definition of flow. E.g. skill is measured as with four short items:

  • I am very skilled at using the Web. alpha = .864
  • I consider myself knowledgeable about good search techniques on the Web.
  • I know less about using the Web than most users. (-)
  • I know how to find what I want with a search engine.

3 Introduction: flow in education

  • Flow theory is very much linked to the concept of intrinsic motivation. E.g. according to Chan & Ahern (1999:159) Flow argues that the structure of activity in the context of challenge, goal, feedbak, concentration and control has major influences on intrinsic motivation.
  • Therefore, instructional designers should ask how to create instructional design models that favor intrinsic motivation. Again Chan & Ahern (1999: 152): "At its most basic, flow is simply a description of people enjoying themselves. They are in a state of enjoyment because they have situated themselves in an optimal environment. This should strike a resonate chord for any instructional designer. The goal of any instruction is to help students acquire the requisite knowledge or skill under optimal conditions."
  • Most research (e.g. Chan & Ahern, 1999) just focuses on the quality of design (not as one would expect, learning activities themselves). We believe that one should go one step further (see also: Andersen). From Schneider (2001):

It is very important to us that teaching generates enthusiasm, enhances concentration and favours creativity, which are very distinct but somehow interconnected phenomena.

Lloyd P. Rieber (1998) convincingly argues that learning process itself - and not just the result - should be interesting, if one seeks higher motivation among learners. "Serious play" or "hard fun" are intense learning situations where learners engage large amounts of "energy" and time and that do provide equally intensive pleasure at certain moments and which have been identified as "flow" or "optimal experience" by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1990. Flow situations have been mainly noticed and studied in play or artistic creation and are defined as states of happiness and satisfaction that arise when "carried" by an automatic and spontaneous activity. It is interesting for teachers to know that "flow states" go along with the impression of discovery and creation and boost performance in conjunction with important cognitive efforts. "Flow states" are therefore highly desirable, both for the individual student and the teacher. Conditions in which flow happens are characterized in the literature by an optimized level of challenge, a feeling of control adapted to the learner, a touch of fantasy, and feedback of the system.

There are multiple lessons that we could draw for the design of learning environments. An open, active and project-based learning is favorable to trigger challenge, curiosity, leave some control to the student. However, "flow" theory contains principles known from more "behaviorist" instructional designs, like optimizing the level of difficulty and providing fast and appropriate feedback or otherwise appropriate positive reinforcements. While we don't argue, that open and active learning should be "programmed" like an e-learning environment, the teacher has to make sure that at least some tasks are very affordable and lead to quick results and more importantly that quick and informative feedback is provided by the system, co-learners or the teacher (whatever appropriate).

3.1 Important constituent elements of the flow experience



challenge &


  • an activity should trigger curiosity and allow the learner at the same time to formulate goals, while preserving some element of surprise regarding the outcome.


  • levels to play (in gaming), technical difficulties in project, some liberty to select goals strategies & tactics


  • imagination and freedom (make believe + voluntary activity)


  • clear and immediate feedback should be provided if the goal or not has been reached.


  • tasks should be adapted (see above) and encouragement to learn & augment results should be provided.

4 Flow theory in instructional design

under construction !

Chan & Ahern (1999) investigate the effect of activity content, its presentation, and the interactions between the two on flow experience (intrinsic motivation) in instructional activity. Results suggest that the activity content has major influences on motivation, but argue that while Hypermedia presentation adds appeals to instructions that motivate students, complex presentations can be distracting and should be used gradually."

Asakawa (2004) examined whether flow theory's most basic and general hypothesis, that quality of experience is a function of perceived challenges and skills, was applicable to a Japanese sample. Furthermore, whether autotelic and non-autotelic groups' perceptions of challenges and skills affected the quality of these two groups' experiences, and how these two groups balanced their perceived challenges and skills when engaged in daily activities. The results showed that high challenge/high skill situations created an optimal state of mind for the Japanese college students, as flow theory postulates.

Jean Heutte (Université Lille Nord), in his individually motivated collectivity model (MHCIM, Heutte, 2011), that flow is a system with feedback loops and that must be "maintained". "Understanding together is even more pleasant". Important variables in his model are perception of social belonging (Deci & Ryan, 2000), self-efficacy (Bandura, 2003, classic flow theory items (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990 ; Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2009) - in particular cognitive absorption (Agarwal & Karahanna, 2000, Heutte, 2011) and well being (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).

5 Flow theory in interface design for the Internet

under construction  ! See Retti (2001), who investigates more according to the "orginal" strong flow idea. [ To do !]

`` Hoffman and Novak (1996) defined flow as “the state occurring during network navigation which is: (1) characterized by a seamless sequence of responses facilitated by machine interactivity, (2) intrinsically enjoyable, (3) accompanied by a loss of selfconsciousness, and (4) self-reinforcing.” Further, flow is facilitated by the perception of a balance between a consumer’s skills and challenges involved in an online interaction; further, both their skills and challenges must be above a critical threshold. ´´ (Novak, Hoffman & Duhachek, 1991).

6 Flow and experience in virtual environments

under construction

A lot of research concerns social presence. Gaggioli et al. (2003:12) argue that "Studies on the quality ofexperience associated with new technologies are especially necessary in that they can help detect experience fluctuations based both on structural characteristics and on content differences. This would allow researchers, technology designers, clinicians and educators to develop VR-based projects and intervention programs taking into account the users' opportunity to report rewarding and challenging experiences, and the quality and complexity of information thereby conveyed, in terms of its relevance for individual and cultural development."

6.1 Flow in gaming

The following table made by Hinske et al. (2007) summarizes Jeger's Pervasive Gameflow model.

Pervasive Computing and Gamescaption
Aspect Support through Pervasive Computing
Concentration Pervasive games should support the players in the process of switching between in-game tasks and surrounding factors of importance.
Challenge Pervasive games should stimulate and support the players in their own creation of game scenarios and pacing. Pervasive games should help the

players in keeping a balance in the creation of paths and developments in the game world, but not put too much control or constraints on the pacing and challenge evolving.

Player Skills Pervasive games should be very flexible and enable the players' skills to be developed in a pace set by the players.
Control Pervasive games should enable the players to easily pick up game play in a constantly ongoing game and quickly get a picture of the current status

in the game world (in order to assess how the state of the game has evolved since the player last visited the game world).

Clear Goals Pervasive games should support the players in forming and communicating their own intermediate goals.
Immersion Pervasive games should support a seamless transition between different everyday contexts, and not only imply or require player actions that might

result in a violation of normal social norms in everyday contexts. Pervasive games should enable the player to shift focus between the virtual and physical parts of the game without losing too much of the feeling of immersion.

Social Interaction Pervasive games should support and enable possibilities for game oriented, meaningful and purposeful social interaction within the gaming system. Pervasive games should incorporate triggers and structures (e.g., quests and events, factions, guilds, or gangs) that motivate the players to communicate and interact socialy

7 References

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  • Andersen, Frans, O. Optimal learning environments - at Danish primary schools, LEGO Learning Institute, [1]
  • Andersen, Kristine & Claus WitfeltEducational design: bridging the gap between computer-based learning and experimental learning environments, International Journal of Continuing Engineering Education and Lifelong Learning 2005 - Vol. 15, No.1/2 pp. 5 - 18. [2]
  • Asakawa Kiyoshi, Flow Experience and Autotelic Personality in Japanese College Students: How do they Experience Challenges in Daily Life? Journal of Happiness Studies 5 (2): 123-154, 2004. [3]
  • Chan Tom. S and Terence C. Ahern, (1999). Targeting Motivation--Adapting Flow Theory to Instructional Design, Journal of Educational Computing Research, Vol. 21, Number 2, 151-163 [4].
  • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Thoughts About Education, [5]
  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975), Beyond Boredom and Anxiety, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA.
  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow : The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Harper and Row, New York.
  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1993), The Evolving Self: A Psychology for the Third Millennium, New York: HarperCollins.
  • Gaggioli Andrea, Marta Bassi, Antonella Delle Fave, Quality of Experience in Virtual Environments, in G. Riva, F. Davide, W.A IJsselsteijn (Eds.), Being There: Concepts, effects and measurement of user presence in synthetic environments, Ios Press, 2003, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
  • Heutte J. (2011) Piloter l’innovation de l’intérieur : pour la promotion d’une science de conception orientée vers la production collégiale de connaissances, Actes du 23e colloque de l’association pour le développement des méthodes d’évaluation en éducation (ADMEE) Europe "Évaluation et enseignement supérieur", Paris (France), 12-14 janvier 2011, PDF
  • Hinske, S., Lampe, M., Magerkurth, C., & Rocker, C. (2007). Classifying pervasive games: On pervasive computing and mixed reality. In C. Magerkurth & C. Rocker (Eds.), Concepts and technologies for pervasive games: A reader for pervasive gaming research (Vol. 1, pp. 11-38). Available from http://www.vs.inf.ethz.ch/res/papers/hinske-pg07-pervasivegames.pdf External
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