Using Flow Theory to Create the Engaging Classroom

Using Flow Theory to Create the Engaging Classroom

By: Bill Snyder

"Flow is when we are, as Seligman puts it in his talk, 'one with the music.'"
Bill Snyder
TT Author

Engagement is the E in Martin Seligman’s PERMA model of human flou     rishing. And Seligman is explicit about what engagement is. It is Flow. Flow has been the focus of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s research for around 60 years now in various contexts. Csíkszentmihályi presents Flow as those moments of total engagement and “effortless action” we experience when “what we feel, what we wish, and what we think are in harmony” (1997, p. 28). When we are in a Flow state, our attention is focused and we feel in control of our actions. Self-consciousness, as well as sense of time, disappear. Our choice to continue what we are doing becomes intrinsically motivated; we are doing it, not for any external cause, but because we enjoy it. Flow is when we are, as Seligman puts it in his talk, “one with the music.”

Flow is important to us in education because Flow is a driver of learning. In order to continue to experience Flow in any domain of activity, we have to continually upgrade our skills in order to meet higher levels of challenge. If we don’t, we can’t advance and will become bored. Because of this, achieving Flow gives us a sense of accomplishment because being in flow means that we have met a challenge successfully. And, in doing so, we learn something about ourselves, about what we can accomplish, and what it takes to reach this point.

So, Flow is something we should promote with our students. The question is, how? Csíkszentmihályi points to three pre-conditions for Flow to occur: 1) clear goals; 2) balance of challenge and skill; and 3) immediate feedback on action. If we can design the classroom environment and the activities that we use in class with these in mind, higher levels of engagement are possible for our students.

In the rest of this paper, I will develop each of these conditions further, with some practical suggestions for how to implement them in our classrooms. Paul Nation (2013) has suggested that teachers have three more jobs, in addition to teaching–planning, training students in how to learn, and assessing students and giving feedback. I hope to show how designing the classroom for engagement requires all three of these jobs.

Clear Goals

When an activity has clear goals, students know what they have to achieve and can direct their actions towards the goal. We can also set longer term goals to be accomplished over the course of a semester. And we should encourage students to set personal goals that they want to achieve. The point is that students should be aware of immediate, short-term, and long-term goals, and should be checking their progress against them.

But having goals is not enough. Students also need to know how to achieve those goals, what behaviors or practices will best help them in this process. We need to provide guidance to students in this area. Meeting a goal of learning 20 new vocabulary items per week may only become possible when we teach students how to make and use word cards effectively. One tool that I’ve begun to use to help students with writing assignments is checklists. With each assignment, I prepare a short checklist of four to six important steps in the writing process that I think students should take. I ask them to review the checklist before they begin to write so that they know what they need to do. After they finish, I ask them to complete the checklist, ticking items to show what they did. Some sample checklist items include: “I have read the prompt carefully and figured out what I need to do to answer it” and “I have run my work through a spelling and grammar checker and tried to fix as many problems that were marked as I can.” I hope that students will see how this practice helps them write more easily and effectively, and that they will gradually be able to incorporate these practices more automatically in their writing.

Balance of Challenge and Skill

 The goals that we set for students also have to be achievable. That is, the challenge has to be well-matched to the skill level of the students, whether in an activity or over a term. Both Csíkszentmihályi (1997) and Seligman highlight the importance of a close match between challenge and skills for achieving Flow. Some people have argued that attaining a Flow state requires the development of a threshold level of skill but I don’t think this is the case. Beginners, as well as anyone more skilled, can become engaged when presented with a challenge that requires appropriate actions on their part to meet it and rewards them with a feeling of competence when they have achieved it.

One point I emphasize to teachers I work with is that the balance of challenge and skill has to be designed so failure is safe enough that students can learn from the experience and want to try again. If failure is too painful, students will either not take the risk at all or give up after the first encounter. I use a picture of someone learning to walk on a tightrope to illustrate this point, asking teachers how we know that the person in the picture is a beginner. It usually takes only a few moments for someone to point out that the rope they are practicing on is only about 15 centimeters above the ground. A fall from that height won’t hurt, so the risk involved in learning this skill is worth taking. We should apply this concept with the activities we ask students to do for learning language.

In a classroom with many students all at different levels of ability, balancing challenge and skill for each student becomes a difficult task for the teacher. There are a number of personalization strategies teachers can use to achieve this. Marc Helgesen has promoted providing students with ways to increase or decrease (Level Up or Level Down) the difficulty of a task and letting them adjust the task to match their abilities. Seligman points to the value of making students aware of their signature strengths and encouraging them to apply their strengths to whatever challenges they are working on. As he notes in his talk, playing to one’s strengths may not always succeed, but in the long run is likely to make students less anxious and more satisfied in general.

What both of these approaches do is move language education away from a perspective that sees students as defective speakers of the language they are learning. Instead, they are competent individuals facing a learning challenge, who can make decisions about how to approach the challenge and are able to use the positive abilities and skills that they have in the process. I would say that this change in perspective is the essence of applying Positive Psychology to the classroom.

Immediate Feedback

 Finally, in order to make progress on goals, students need to be able to tell how well they are doing as they progress. Timely feedback can help students see their own progress and also help them revise their plans when something doesn’t go the way they expected. In classroom activities, if students can see that they are making progress towards meeting the goal of the activity, they will be more likely to persist, even if completing the activity is difficult. Clear instructions, examples of how to proceed, and checklists for procedures can all help students know where they are in an activity and what they have to do.

Part of the assessment process will include quizzes and tests prepared by the teacher. We should use the shared goals to prepare both the assessment materials and the students. Reminding students to focus on shared goals when they study, and then testing students only on their progress towards those goals, makes for a transparent and fair assessment system. The purpose of our assessments should always be to allow our students to show us what they can do, not for us to show them what they can’t. For a more inclusive approach to assessment that promotes engagement and learning, asking students to help in preparing quizzes and tests by writing items will show us what they think they should have learned and also provide them with an opportunity to review.

Finally, promoting self- and peer-assessment is an important part of helping students gain control over their own learning. Students can be guided into self- and peer-assessment through the use of checklists and rubrics. We can help students gain a greater sense of how we are evaluating them by going over a rubric with them, then asking them to evaluate some performance samples, and finally comparing their evaluations with our own checklists and rubrics which clarify the goals of the activity students are doing. This process will help us build better relationships with students because they will understand better how we are giving them feedback. It will also help students perform better because they can use what they’ve learned from this process in attempting the task.


I have tried here to make a case for using principles from Flow Theory (Clear Goals; Balance of Challenge and Skill; Immediate Feedback) to design classroom experiences that are more likely to engage students and support greater learning in the long run. What I’ve presented here is just the tip of the iceberg for ideas to create a more engaging classroom. What is important is understanding the conditions that support Flow, and using them in the ways that work best for you and your students.

We should be prepared for the fact that our best preparations will not always succeed. A student of mine, Selin Alperer-Tatlı, measured student engagement in classroom activities over six weeks in an English class at a Turkish university (Alperer, 2005). Among her many findings were the facts that no activity engaged all students at a high level and no student was engaged at a high level in all activities. There will always be variation in engagement. So many things in the language classroom work against Flow–the competing interests of many students, limited time, language anxiety, among others. There won’t likely be any day where everything works for everyone. But by designing for engagement, we can ensure that more engagement is more likely for everyone.

Finally, my focus here has been on designing to engage students. But the engagement of teachers in the classroom is also essential to students’ success in learning. As Prabhu (1990) argued, the difference between good teaching and poor teaching is not method, but teachers’ involvement in their lessons. I believe what I’ve presented above makes it clear that this involvement must extend beyond just delivering lessons and, as Nation (2013) suggested, includes planning, training learners to learn, and providing assessment and feedback on their progress. I’ve also argued elsewhere (Tardy & Snyder, 2004) that, for teachers, reflecting on their moments of Flow in teaching can provide the basis for improving their own practice. I hope that teachers see the challenge of designing an engaging classroom as one that engages them, stimulates them to learn more about teaching, and helps them feel successful and competent in their profession.


  • Alperer, S. (2005). The impact of choice provision on students’ affective engagement in tasks. Unpublished master’s thesis, Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey.

  • Csíkszentmihályi, M. (1997). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. New York, NY: Basic Books.

  • Nation, P. (2013). What should every EFL teacher know? Seoul, South Korea: Compass.

  • Prabhu, N. S. (1990). There is no best method–Why? TESOL Quarterly, 24(2), 161-176.

  • Tardy, C. M. & Snyder, B. (2004) “That’s why I do it”: Flow and EFL teachers’ practices. ELT Journal, 58(2), 118-128. 

Bill Snyder teaches in the Graduate Program in International Language Education and in the World Language Center at Soka University. His research interests focus on language teacher development and well-being, and teacher and student engagement in language classrooms, using reflective inquiry, Flow theory, and self-determination theory as frameworks. mail: [email protected]

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