This study explores the factors that elicit and sustain the optimal academic experience. Flow operationalizes this experience and is studied in relation to motivation. More self-determined types of motivation are expected to have higher correlations with the flow experience, with autonomy acting as a moderator. Results are theoretically underpinned by self-determination theory and cognitive evaluation theory. Congruent with engagement research this study has implications for successful educational outcomes such as learning, achievement, continued motivation, commitment, performance, increased skills and maximal chances for school completion. Flow has often been studied in special populations such as dancers, athletes and scientists. This study investigates how flow is experienced and supported in the higher education environment.
“How optimism and hope affect life, what constitutes wisdom, and how talent and creativity come to fruition (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000, p. 5),” are just a few of the questions that Positive Psychology tries to answer. Studying these positive individual traits goes toward building a strength-based model of flourishing. Human strengths are important for an individual to thrive, but so are the ways in which they are supported. Positive Psychology also extends to studying the optimal working environment, communities and education. Besides individual traits, valued subjective experiences are also of interest (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). Engagement and flow are subjective experiences which outline academic strengths in the educational domain.
Engagement has been defined as a behavior in which a person brings in their personal self during the performance of a task (Kahn, 1990). Student engagement has been linked to important educational outcomes such as learning and achievement, successful school completion, continued motivation, commitment and performance (Shernoff et al, 2003).
The flow experience is engaging in that it is described as total involvement in an activity that one is completely absorbed in. Engagement and flow are also related in other ways. Interestingly both Kahn (1990), and Csikszentmihalyi cite alienation as the opposite to engagement and flow respectively. Flow and engagement have been used as examples of self-directed behavior (Kahn, 1990), flow has also been used as an example of engagement (Steele & Fullagar, 2009), and flow has even been studied as an operationalization of engagement (Mills & Fullagar, 2008). Concentration, interest and enjoyment are measures of engagement and these constructs experienced together are typical of the flow experience (Shernoff et al. 2003). Engagement is affected by the challenge and skill of the activity which correlates with the flow experience where high challenge is matched to the skills of the individual. The relevance of an activity is also important for the experience of engagement to occur. Clear goals are important for the flow experience and intuitively the relevance of an activity would be a key determinant in goal setting. (Ryan & Deci, 2000, Csikszentmihalyi, 1999).