Cognitive Flow And Online Learning: 4 Steps For Putting Your Learners In The Zone

In The Zone: Cognitive Flow And Online Learning

Did you ever sit down for a quick video gaming session before bed and then suddenly notice the dawn breaking outside your window? What felt like a half an hour to you was, in reality, a day’s work! You weren’t abducted by aliens, nor did you slip through a crack in the fabric of spacetime – you were simply in a heightened state of engagement.

This is the essence of Cognitive Flow - a term coined by psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in the 1970s. Whenever we approach a task that’s too difficult for us, we get anxious and switch off. Similarly, if the task is much too easy for our skills, we’ll get bored and drift away. However, when the balance is just right, something magical happens.

What Is Cognitive Flow?

Csikszentmihalyi defined 5 things that people experience when they’re in states of Cognitive Flow:

  1. Extreme focus on a task.
  2. A sense of active control.
  3. Merging of action and awareness.
  4. Loss of self-awareness.
  5. Distortion of the experience of time.

Now just imagine if you could harness those outcomes in a training program! Your learners would enjoy their training so much, they’d complete it in no time. Not only that, but they’d be able to mentally link the training material with their roles more easily. What you’d end up with is the holy grail of training: Real behavioral change!

So How Can You Put Your Learners In The Zone?

Csikszentmihalyi outlined 4 criteria that make Flow states possible. Let’s take a look at these and see how you can use your Learning Management System to bewitch your learners!

1. The Task Must Have Concrete Goals With Manageable Rules

If you can cast your mind back to the internet of the mid-90s, you might remember a sense of constant frustration. Many sites were poorly designed, badly laid out, and difficult to navigate. Sadly, some learning platforms haven’t moved much further than this infant web experience, devoid of user-friendly design. If you’re aiming to upskill everyone in your team, it’ll be a tough job if nobody can figure out what they’re supposed to do on your LMS.

You need to make sure that every part of your LMS is geared towards one thing: Giving your learners the knowledge and skills they need to progress in their careers. That means placing their required content front-and-center so they’ll instantly know where to look for more training. Even something as simple as a to-do list will give the learners an idea of where they’re going and what they need to do to get there. With a clear goal in sight, they’ll be more likely to slip into turbo-learning mode!

2. The Task Must Fit Within The Learner's Capabilities

If somebody asked you to reassemble a jet engine, how long do you think you’d last before you broke down in a quivering ball of anxiety? Ten minutes? Fifteen? The chances are you’re not a jet propulsion engineer. In fact, you’re probably several years of training away from ever becoming one. However, if you’re thrown in at the deep end, you’ll probably be put off the idea completely.

If you’re trying to create a jet-propelled training experience, you’ll need to start your learners off at a level that suits their skills. Gamified learning platforms have borrowed the levels feature from the world of video games. With this game mechanic, the fresh-faced learner starts with the basics at level one. Until they’ve mastered these skills, they don’t progress to more difficult concepts that the might not be able to handle. Without even realizing it, they can effortlessly upskill themselves into the stratosphere!

3. The Learners Need To Receive Clear And Immediate Feedback

Feedback is arguably one of the most important elements in creating a Flow state. In the world of video games, when you do the right thing you earn points, and when you put a foot wrong you lose a life. This instant success or instant failure is enough to keep you trying again and again to beat that high score or defeat that boss. Imagine how frustrating it would be to have to wait days or weeks to know how well you did. That’s a recipe for a game you’re not going to play again.

Yet, this is what learners have come to expect from their online learning. Again, our friend gamification comes to the rescue! People might say that virtual badges are silly trinkets without a use, but it’s these same people who’ll spend that extra time on their training just to fill that blank in their badge cabinet. Even the most cynical learner will feel a thrill when they see that badge pop-up congratulating them on a job well done. It’s enough to keep them engaged longer just so they can earn one more… and another… and another. That’s cognitive flow in a nutshell!

4. There Must Be No Distractions From The Training

A state of flow is impossible to maintain if the user keeps getting side-tracked by other things. These distractions might have been created with the best of intentions – maybe you want to give your learners as much information as possible so they’ll have everything they need. But that’s not the way our brains work – especially not now, in the information age. On the other end of the scale, the distractions might be due to systemic problems with the learning platform. These come in all kinds of disgusting flavors, from dead links to incompatibility with mobile devices.

When your learners are finally in the zone, you need to make sure that they can stay there for as long as possible. It’s no good to merely add content to your LMS and check reports every couple of weeks. You need to test the journey for yourself and look out for those speedbumps and roadblocks that are killing the momentum for your learners. These days, nobody has any tolerance for a clunky user experience. If you want to keep your learners switched on and moving forward, then make sure the learning experience is friction-free!

Final Words

Once you’ve mastered the art of creating a state of flow, nothing will hold your learners back from their training goals. They’ll go further, faster than you ever imagined. This is where your challenge really begins, since you’ll need to give them more challenges to keep them engaged. In a way though, that’s the game that you get to play. The only question that remains is whether you can get into your own state of flow and turn into a turbo-charged, rocket-fuelled engagement engineer!

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