When we conceive of assignments and activities for courses, we often think in terms of what students will produce — the essay, the lab report, the presentation, the finished problem set. Research suggests, however, that giving some thought to students’ experiences while they work through their assignments can increase student performance and enjoyment.
Ideally, students find their assignments both challenging and engaging. Psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi calls this optimal experience of positive engagement “flow.” A student experiencing flow is intrinsically motivated, finding enjoyment and reward in the performance of the task itself. Accordingly, people experiencing flow — whether artists, athletes, or students — want to do what they’re doing when they’re doing it, which means they tend to sustain intense concentration longer, reach higher levels of accomplishment, and perform better overall.
According to Csíkszentmihályi, flow results from a proper balance between a person’s skills and a particular challenge. Assigning tasks that challenge students beyond their current skill levels leads to anxiety; providing challenges that require relatively low skills to complete leads to boredom. Instructors — and students themselves — should strive for the “flow channel” where skills properly meet challenges.
Read on after the jump for some ways that you can encourage flow both inside and beyond your classroom: