Cognitive Perspective of Flow Theory and Video Games

Icon of game consul

Csikszentmihalyi’s flow theory (1990) is based on several interrelated psychological constructs: ability, attitude, cognition, emotion, motivation, and personality. When perfectly combined in a task, they catapult a person into a state of flow commonly known as being in the zone. Csikszentmilhalyi refers to this as an optimal experience. He found that people around the world had shared descriptions for flow such as the joy it yields, episodes of unfettered concentration, suspension of time, and the spontaneous automaticity during an experience. Flow occurs differently for different people. For example, individuals who aren’t good at playing games, or find the game uninteresting, wouldn’t experience flow during gameplay.

As an instructional designer, I want to create optimal learning experiences. Flow theory has components similar to those used for effective instruction based on cognitivism. For instance, Sweller’s cognitive load theory (1998) recommends reducing distractions (extraneous elements) and delivering germane and intrinsic elements of instruction in manageable chunks. This correlates to the component of enjoyment in flow theory in that a person can only fully enjoy a task if they’re capable of completing it. Flow theory has eight main components that engender enjoyment: manageable tasks, deep concentration, clear goals, immediate feedback, effortless involvement, learner autonomy, metamorphosis of self, and suspension of time. These components parallel best practices for instruction.

To make learning more enjoyable, I’d apply Miller’s seven-plus-or-minus-two principle (1956) regarding the limitations surrounding the amount of input that can be remembered at any given time. Adherence to Miller’s principle will make a task more manageable. Additionally, I’d use Gagne’s (1985) nine events of learning to establish the optimal cognitive conditions for effective learning to occur. Three of Gagne’s events (state objective, provide feedback, and provide practice) closely correlate with the enjoyment phenomena of flow theory (task has clear goals, task provides immediate feedback, and sense of control). Furthermore, the aspects of clear goals and feedback also correlate to self-regulation of learning. Self-regulation processes include rehearsal, selection of important information, and metacognitive strategies. The selection of important information aids deep concentration for possible enjoyment of an optimal experience.

A vehicle for cognitive learning experiences with flow potential would be well-designed educational games. Elements of good game design include goal-oriented, stimulating, active learning that is anchored in instruction (Shute, Reiber, & Van Eck, 2012). While playful (fun) learning has similar elements, the key difference is active learning, as many playful activities passively follow the teacher’s directives. Another difference is the challenge aspect of gaming that adapts to the learners’ abilities, whereas playful learning is freeform. A challenge provides learners with intrinsic motivation and the pathway to achieve learner autonomy to make their own way through the world. This is different from traditional learning activities that are teacher directed. Chatti, Jarke, and Specht (2010) described this as a knowledge push, whereas knowledge-pull is akin to gaming where the learner gravitates toward knowledge.

Videogames, in particular, have similar characteristics for creating a context for flow. According to Csikszentmihalyi, clarity, centering, choice, commitment, and challenge are the characteristics necessary for a unified flow experience. In my opinion, these are the flow characteristics that can be found in gameplay: 1) clarity with explicit gaming context, rules, feedback, and goals, 2) centering with narrative providing storyline, 3) choice with multilevels of play, numerous episodes, variety of characters and actions, and guilds, 4) commitment via resets (do-overs) and new virtual identity, and 5) challenge via incremental task difficulty and reward system. The challenge for instructional designers is to determine how to use the potentiality of videogames to engender flow for educational purposes. Based on the aforementioned research on cognitive learning best practices and flow theory, we have the theoretical basis to move forward.

Sandra Rogers


Chatti, M. A., Jarke, M., & Specht, M. (2010). The 3P learning model. Educational Technology and Society, 13(4), 74-85.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Gagné, R. M. (1985). The Conditions of Learning. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus-or-minus two: Some limits on our capacity
for processing information. Psychological Review, 63, 81-97.

Shute, V. J., Rieber, L. P., & Van Eck, R. (2012).   Games…and…Learning. In R. A. Reiser & J. V. Dempsey   (Eds.), Trends and issues in instructional design and   technology (pp. 321-332). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill   Prentice Hall.

Sweller, J., Van Merriënboer, J., & Paas, F. (1998). Cognitive architecture and instructional design. Educational Psychology Review 10(3), 251–296. doi:10.1023/A:1022193728205

Are you interested in selling educational products on TPT?

Cover page of story titled, A Chance To Grow
I sell children’s stories, activities, and other K-12 educational products online. is a great way for educators to sell their own material.  They’re an open marketplace for educators to buy, sell, and share their self-made educational products.   Here’s my store on TPT I currently have 50 educational products for sale.  Examples include a podcast project, learning center signs, language prompts with photos from American life, and literature studies.  The majority of my products are available in English and Spanish editions.

You have to become a member to make a purchase.  Membership is free. Additionally, you will have access to thousands of free downloads from each teacher—that’s the sharing component of TPT.  If you’re interested in selling products on TPT, then please use my referral link.

Read my WordPress page about being a materials writer for TeachersPayTeachers. I’m selling products on TPT to help pay for graduate school and to get hands-on experience as an instructional designer of educational products. This activity is also helping me learn about the Common Core State Standards, as I try to align my products.  For example, check out the fictional story I wrote about the life cycle of various animals and plants a young chick encounters on a walk around the farm.

Also, some teachers (not me) make a substantial income on TPT. Read about TPT’s number one seller, Deanna Jump. Thank you for visiting my store! If you purchase something, please leave feedback.

Synopsis: Instructional Design in Business and Industry

Acronym: Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, Evaluation

Note: This is part V in a series of summaries on instructional design articles. 

Tracey, M., & Morrison, G. R. (2012). Instructional design in business and industry. In R. A. Reiser & J. V. Dempsey (Eds.) Trends & issues in instructional design & technology (3rd ed.). (pp. 178-186). Columbus, OH: Merrill-Prentice Hall

Tracey and Morrison described the role of instructional design (ID) in business and industry.  They explained the multiple roles instructional designers embrace on the job: instructional design, human performance technology, training, and solving organizational problems.  In the private sector, instructional designers work as the sole designer, team member/leader, or as an external designer/consultant. Since the 1980’s, there has been a steady growth in the area of ID in the business world. The increase reflects the emphasis placed on improving human performance at the workplace.

The authors discussed three different types of constraints that affect the design process: contextual, designer-related, and project management versus instructional design. Potential contextual constraints include lack of time and resources, the locus of control for decision-making, and ineffective tools and techniques. Designer-related constraints include perceived necessity, philosophical beliefs/theoretical perspectives, and expertise.  For example, expertise sometimes is a hindrance if the expert only relies on their mindset for the instructional design process instead of collaborating with others.  Lastly, large projects cause difficulty with the time involved in the systematic instructional design methods; therefore, those facing this type of constraint should consider delegating a specialist or delegate to oversee the process instead of burdening the general project manager.

They mentioned four methods to achieve ID goals more quickly and efficiently:  designer-as-researcher, rapid prototyping, technology-based training delivery, and advanced evaluation techniques.  In my opinion, each method could be used with most ID projects in the analysis, design, development, implementation, and evaluation (ADDIE) phases.  For example, the designer-as-researcher utilizes foundational theory and research-based practices to design the instructional framework, instructional strategies, and learning process. Rapid prototyping is used in the developmental phase to help inform the ID team of any glitches. Technology-based training delivery is used in the implementation phase to cut travel costs, etc. Lastly, the advanced evaluation techniques is used in the  evaluation phase to inform the redesign, as needed.

Synopsis: Knowledge Management and Learning

Organizational development books on a shelf
My Bookshelf


Note: This is part IV in a series on instructional design articles.

Rosenberg, M. J. (2012). Knowledge management and learning: Perfect together. In R.A. Reiser & J.V. Dempsey (Eds.) Trends & issues in instructional design & technology (3rd ed.). (pp. 158-168). Boston: Allyn & Bacon Pearson Education.

According to Rosenberg, knowledge management (KM) is an examination of the boundaries of our practice. It affects everything everywhere. He claimed that KM was revolutionary, but in my humble opinion, I think it deals with being organized, proactive, and thinking outside the box. There are four types of knowledge: explicit (you can explain), tacit (you can access it), common or organizational, and undiscovered. Undiscovered knowledge refers to the hiccups or missteps in information that is not disseminated to the person in need. Also, it refers to knowledge that is not yet known but could greatly benefit an organization. Rosenberg gives the example of the product innovation that goes unnoticed. He stated that undiscovered knowledge is the most critical to an organization, and I strongly agree.

Knowledge can take many forms such as documents, presentations, collaboration, expertise, as well as technology. According to Rosenberg, instructional designers need to know how to identify, organize, and distribute knowledge content.  KM systems need to have these three components to be successful systems: codification (metadata), collaboration (buy-in and sharing of information), and access (user-friendly). These components need a comprehensive organizationwide database.  For example, at the center where I work, we have a shared drive to place our work into various folders of information to provide access to all staff and to store it.

Interestingly, I already held the idea of the critical importance of organizing data for an organization.  This is due in part to having held numerous jobs in different settings.  Each setting represented a new KM system of document storage and retrieval.  Oftentimes, it can be extremely confusing to a new member to find needed information at the right time.  Moreover, I agree that KM should be viewed as a performance support for blended learning.  By bringing in online tools, techniques, and content to the face-to-face (F2F) class, we provide information to supplement the content.  Conversely, we may also offer the option of F2F activities to supplement online courses.  All of this knowledge should be codified accordingly for easy access and management.

Synopsis: Managing Scarce Resources in Training Projects

Presenter at white screen giving a presentation
Professional Development

Note: Part III in a series on instructional design articles. This photo was taken of Sandra at the Juvenile Justice Education Institute during her presentation.

According to Goldsmith and Busby, effective management decisions are based on an understanding of resource scarcity and supply and demand. There are three types of resources: people, time, and money. Scarcity occurs when the demand exceeds the supply. Supply and demand refer to an economic condition. Understanding the economic cycle between supply and demand is important for an instructional designer. For example, they should be aware of the stages of an economic cycle: growth, peak, decline, and trough. They also need to know what solutions organizations will take to address economic changes and how these will affect the overall performance of an organization and each individual.

The authors described the various characteristics of an economic cycle. For example, we are currently in an unstable environment because of the fluctuations in the stock market, the volatile housing market, and high unemployment.  This is the dynamic cycle of our economy that affects every organization.  The cycles are difficult to predict and are unclear until after much time has passed, and the stages have been plotted. Hence, the economic cycle is unsmooth and can cause lag (good lag and bad lag) for a training program, a new products invention, or with the new technology purchases.  An example of a bad lag in the economic cycle would be the economic dissonance of creating a new product when the demand has already waned.

Goldsmith, J. J., & Busby, R. D. (2012). Managing scarce resources in training projects. In R. A. Reiser & J. V. Dempsey (Eds.) Trends & issues in instructional design & technology (3rd ed.). (pp. 126-134). Columbus, OH: Merrill-Prentice Hall.

Synopsis: DOD Handbook on Instructional Systems Development

Note: This is part two in a series of synopsis from articles and documents that I have read regarding instructional design.

Source: DOD; Brad White
Source: DOD; Brad White

Department of Defense (2001, August 31). Instructional systems development/Systems approach to training and education (Part 2 of 5 parts). Washington, DC: Department of Defense.      MIL-HDBK-29612-21.

The Department of Defense (DOD) Handbook serves as a guide for solicitations of evaluations of training or responses to training solicitations. Instructional designers are urged to follow the instructional systems design (ISD) and systems approach to training (SAT) prescribed in the handbook; however, the actual sequence of events can be altered if deemed necessary. ISD and SAT both use the systematic process of analysis, design, development, implementation, and evaluation process for producing an effective and efficient outcome.  The SAT is geared toward the system functions such as management, delivery, and support. Therefore, SAT focuses on mission analysis: collective tasks, job analysis, individual task analysis, and training task analysis. While the ISD generally focuses on the development of instructional programs; it does recognize that instruction is not always the solution. Part of the ISD/SAT process is to determine if noninstructional solutions are possible.

A major component of the ISD/SAT process is continuous improvement. The formative evaluation begins during the analysis phase and continues throughout the design and development. Furthermore, it is carried over into the field trials and into full implementation through a procedure for process improvement. Steps include defining the problem, analyzing the cause, identifying solutions, implementing and monitoring changes, institutionalizing these changes, and repeating the continuous improvement cycle.  A simple way to monitor a process is through the chart it/check it/change it stepwise process. The DOD suggests using the Shewhart Cycle as part of the ISD/SAT for quality assurance. The cycle is very basic with four steps in the process: plan an approach, do the activity, check the results, and act on the results. It is an iterative process.

In my opinion, I appreciated the simple language and the various definitions provided by the DOD Handbook. I felt like I could follow these guidelines to respond to a solicitation for training by a military branch. I noticed that the military used the acronym of ADDIE (analysis, design, development, implementation, and evaluation) to describe the ISD/SAT components but did not use the term, as ADDIE is not an ISD model. I plan to use some of their clear definitions for my course work. Moreover, I am interested in obtaining the rest of the parts of this manual for future reference, especially their media specification requirements.

Synopsis: Performance, Instruction, and Technology in Health Care Education

Note: Now that I’m in graduate school again, I do a lot less blogging due to all my homework. Therefore, I decided to share my homework on instructional design.  Plus, I thought it’d be a great way to review for comprehensive exams.

Cartoon image of health care professionals in a maze.
Source: John Hersey of Inc Magazine

Locatis, C., (2012). Performance, instruction, and technology in health care education. In R. A. Reiser & J. V. Dempsey (Eds.) Trends & issues in instructional design & technology (3rd ed.). (pp. 178-186). Columbus, OH: Merrill-Prentice Hall.

Performance in the health care field  is critical. It differs from other fields that allow for marginal errors and second chances. Therefore, learning health science education is paramount in life or death matters for those whose lives are touched by health care professionals. Locatis described historical and current trends in health care instruction and use of emergent technologies as they affect performance.  The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) and researchers have been influential in changing teaching methodologies from laboratory and hospital-based to that of problem-based learning (PBL) and evidence-based medicine (EBM). Moreover, the AAMC called for the inclusion of informatics in medical curriculum.  Informatics refers to the use of information management systems such as databases, expert systems, educational simulations, robotics (programmed mannequins), and virtual reality environments.

Locatis described the history of medical education in three phases: prescientific, scientific, and post-Flexner.  The prescientific phase for the U.S. refers to the time prior to the 20th century.  The author stated that the anatomically structured drawings by Andreas Vesalius and Leonardo da Vinci are considered the beginnings of educational technology since they are based on direct observations and not speculation. A report written by Abraham Flexner published in 1910 by the Carnegie Foundation moved the field of medical teaching into the scientific phase.  For instance, Flexner called for a more formal education of medical practitioners to include an academic setting and affiliations with local hospitals. This provided academic rigor to the study of medicine, whereas before the graduates from commercial programs and independent schools were only accountable for memorization of symptoms and remedies.

In my opinion, the health care system is at a critical juncture with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (2010), which will provide more citizens with health care than ever before.  A secondary goal of this act is to streamline the delivery of said health care.  The use of educational and informational applications (informatics) is necessary to address this influx of customers and streamlining of information properly.  First, it should inform the health care provider of the latest findings for a symptom or illness. Secondly, it should inform the patient of his rights to the side effects or alternatives to prescribed procedures and medicines. Thirdly, it should aid the health care providers with a smart system for collecting the appropriate information on their patients/customers. I appreciated how Locatis illustrated the rationale for instructional technology by describing the sensory nature of raw data. For example, the use of multimedia in health care systems can help students and practitioners learn about the data collected by including the sounds, images, and real time events.

Transitioning from Educator to Instructional Designer

Concept map of 52 skills involved in uploading a podcast
Hierarchical Skills Analysis of How to Upload a Podcast

ID encompasses a wide array of research-based or innovative activities to improve human performance and learning, products, processes, and overall return on investments.  Moreover, ID includes the use of research and theory, common sense as practice, which is sometimes better provided from an outside source unfamiliar with the situation.  Instructional designers work closely with organizations and subject matter experts to solve problems, determine needs, improve outcomes, and/or find opportunities through systematic analysis and a model-based approach.

I’ll have to transition from the mindset of education and training as the solution to organizational problems.  It will be a major shift to let go of Teacherrogers.  I’ve already started posting ID graduate student projects onto my blog and included a category.  However, my online moniker as Teacherrogers will have to change.  Otherwise, companies will still look at me as an educator and not a instructional designer, that is of course, if I take a job outside of the educational arena.

Of course, some skills will transfer.  For example, all of the solutions that I created to  make my job easier to teach or share my instruction with other educators are called job aids.  Job aids are used by instructional designers to make employees’ jobs, organizational processes, or outcomes (sells, outreach, training) easier.  Examples are checklists, arrays, FAQs, and integrated smart systems that are available in time of need (or error) like the Microsoft Paperclip guy in MSWord.

Instructional designers work in all types of environments, not just education. Fortunately, I have experience working in the business and nonprofit arenas; therefore, the transition is not too difficult.  I enjoy problem-solving and generally have been the go-to-girl for solutions since my earlier work in the Peace Corps.  Employers have often considered my PC experience as an ability to make  something out of nothing, fire from sticks.  My other strength is in learning the language and culture , and I’m not referring to a foreign one.  I’ve been diligently acquiring the new language and systematic processes that come with ID: problem analysis, needs assessments, human performance technology/improvement, ID theories and models, and job aids.

Instructional Design Defined

Formal Definition:

Instructional design (ID) encompasses a wide array of activities to improve human performance, learning, products, processes, and overall return on investments.  ID includes the use of research, theory, and common sense.  Instructional designers work closely with organizations and subject matter experts to solve problems, determine needs, improve outcomes, and/or find opportunities through systematic analysis and model-based approaches. For example, to produce a learning object, designers will systematically breakdown the skills, subskills, and entry level skills of learning goals and objectives for analysis to inform subsequent design decisions.

Informal Definition:

Instructional design utilizes critical thinking, expert knowledge, best practices, and technologies to improve an organization either system-wide or in discrete work units.  Technology refers to any tool, software or hardware, or process.  For example, simple writing tasks can be improved with an ergo-dynamic fountain pen, desk, and workstation.  From this example, even a pen is considered technology.  It’s the role of the instructional designer to take all matters, including potentially insignificant ones like a writing tool, into consideration when developing a plan of action.

Sandra Rogers

Graduate Student

Instructional Design & Development

University of South Alabama

Blog Challenge: How can counter-conditioning be used to reduce test anxiety?

Dear Readers,
This is my first blog challenge! Your ideas can be formal or informal, for online or face-to-face instruction, for a real testing situation or an imaginary one.  Think like an entrepreneur for the educational market.  For example, I love Wired magazine’s competition, “Found”, where they ask what the world will look like in the future.  (See to see the future of wrist watches.)
You can 1) add your ideas as comments below, 2) email me with a complete blog post as,  or 3) write a post addressing the challenge on your own blog, as is protocol for such challenges.  With your permission, I’ll then link your blog posts to this one.  Anyone can participate—students, teachers, parents, entrepreneurs, etc.
I’m currently taking an educational psychology graduate course and learned about behaviorism.  In my idea below I used the idea of counter-conditioning and setting events to imagine a nonthreatening test center.  I’ve provided my ideas on providing counter-conditioning to extinguish learners’ test anxiety.
Challenge: Provide your ideas on how counter-conditioning could be used to reduce test anxiety.

Sandra Rogers: I’d like to set up simulated math tests in a computer lab to lessen math anxiety.  For example, we could use low-stakes, color-coded, leveled tests akin to SRA Reading Kit for pen and paper tests. (Some of you are too young to have used these leveled readers with self-testing but something about it was extrinsically motivating).   Perhaps Pearson’s MyMathLab computer testing software that adjusts to the individual’s abilities and challenges them at the i+1 level.  The lab could allow eating and drinking during the testing situations…maybe even a smoking test room for students who believe this could benefit their outcomes!  The lab décor could be more inviting with art on the wall.  The test-taking situation would have options beyond the normal desk & chair formality: the ability to stand while testing, or comfortable sofas for lounging, and space to allow for movement (perhaps some exercise bikes formatted with computer screens)!  Of course, we wouldn’t want too much as to be distracting.  This lab would allow for math test practice in a positive climate with threshold activities in an environment incompatible to a stressful situation.  I’d like an university to set up a research study with this idea in mind  to see if it’d be beneficial to students with test-anxiety.


Thanks in advance for your participation in this blog challenge.