Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Student Engagement in High School Classrooms from the Perspective of Flow Theory

Shernoff, D. J, and M. Csikzentmihalyi, and B. Schneider, and E. Shernoff. (2003). Student Engagement in High School Classrooms from the Perspective of Flow Theory. School Psychology Quarterly, 18 (2), pp. 158-176.

Topic: This article explores how students spend their time in high school and the conditions under which they reported engagement with their schoolwork. The study explores relationships between (and student perceptions of) challenge, skill, control, and relevance, and how these affect levels of student engagement. The researchers approached the topic with the framework of ‘flow theory’ as a guiding principle and an ideal internal state for student experiences to be measured against.

Methods: The data used for this study came from a larger study, called the Sloan Study of Youth and Social Development (SSYSD) on student views of their lives in the future. The study was done in three one-year waves during the early to mid 1990s and took place at twelve research sites across the United States. The sites were diverse and differed in many ways, including a range racial and ethnic backgrounds as well as the level of economic stability. The sample size was large: 526 students in grades six, eight, ten, and twelve were used. For this study, only high school students were included in the sample.

The researchers used the Experience Sampling Method (ESM), which was in fact developed by one of the researchers (Csikzentmihalyi). The ESM is known to be reliable and valid, and is a method for recording the subjective experiences of people in their enviroments. The Experience Sampling Form (ESF) is a forty-five question survey that explores everything from the participant’s location to their self-reported moods across emotional continuua such as happy-sad and strong-weak. Many questions used the Likert scale for respondents to rank their reactions, thoughts, and feelings. Since the focus was on the factors that lead to engagement, the researchers included questions that focused on concentration, interest, and enjoyment of the activity at hand. The researchers also asked questions about how respondents felt about the level of challenge and skill.

Findings/Conclusions: The reseachers identified four sets of challenge/skill combinations (from low to high in both factors) ranging from apathy (low challenge, low skill) to flow (high challenge, high skill). The middle two were relaxation and anxiety.

The perception of high challenge was associated with higher engagement than lower-challenge situations. Also, when students self-reported their skill level as high, their level of engagement was also reported as higher. The researchers found the same patterns in terms of attention. Overall, the student’s quality of experience was higher in situations where skill and challenge were both high.

Similar findings were found in terms of levels of control and relevance, so that high levels of control and relevance increased student measures of engagement, self-esteem, and mood. Interestingly, students reported higher levels of engagement during individual & group work than they did during exams, playing video games, watching television, or listening to lectures. The associated factors (interest, concentration, enjoyment) were higher as well during situations with these conditions. Individual & group work correlated to higher levels of engagement and motivation when compared with watching television or videos.

While the researchers found that high levels of concentration, enjoyment, and interest were not often seen together, flow theory would suggest that those three factors should be present together in flow states. This implies that finding situations were all three factors are present would be key to increasing student self-reported levels of engagement. The researchers identified that activities which support student choice, are connected to student’s personal goals, and offer opportunities for success would lead to more engagement and motivation.

The researchers also clearly identified a zone of optimal engagement, which happens where there is a manageable difference between the skill level of a student and the challenge of a situation. These are also correlated with the “intensity,” or combination of challenge/relevance, of an academic situation. The reseachers found a increase in student mood, enjoyment, self-esteem, and intrinsic motivation when students perceived high levels of competence and had a sense of autonomy.

The authors conclude that curricula that incorporate high levels of challenge and skill contribute most optimally to student enjoyment, self-esteem, motivation, and engagement. They admit that this is challenging but note its importance.


This study is fascinating, because it confirms many of the ideas and assumptions that are central to project-based learning. While it does not necessarily provide new ideas for teaching and learning for those who already have these goals as educators, it provides rigorous and empirical data supporting the HTH design principles and the fundamentals of PBL. In fact, it might be interesting to determine if the founders of HTH knew of this study. It seems likely, and if not it is a bit of happy coincidence that many of their ideas and practices could be related to those in this study’s findings.

For teachers unaccustomed to PBL and the HTH principles, this study might provide some new ways of thinking about instruction. Either way, whatever our focus, the findings offered by the researchers make our charge as educators clear: provide rigorous, challenging classroom environments where students have been properly supported and experience high levels of autonomy and control over their time and the outcomes of their work. If teachers can create environments where these elements are in place, we can reliably expect high(er) levels of student engagement, motivation, enjoyment, and concentration.

While these implications might seem obvious to teachers in the HTH network or other skilled educators, they are not necessarily intuitive for teachers trained in other instructional methods and with different pedagogical philosophies. Furthermore, having empirical confirmation of what those who aim for these classroom traits already know is deeply reassuring.

Since my topic of interest is starting to develop around flow and the connections between process and product, I found this study to be quite interesting. It confirms that many of the ideas about how I’m structuring my classroom are already working and are empirically validated. That is exciting and motivating for me. This study makes me think that my interest in the structures/systems that support engagement and motivation being sustained over time (over the life of a project, for example, versus one class period) could be fruitful and relevant. It’s exciting that I can extend my thinking thanks to this study.

1 comment:

Stacey Caillier said...

Dang! I want this one too! Can you just e-mail me all of the articles you found<;

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