1. Challenge kids—but not too much. One of the central conditions for flow, according to Csikszentmihalyi, is that an activity be challenging at a level just above one’s current abilities. If a challenge is too hard, students will become anxious and give up; if it’s too easy, they’ll become bored. It’s important to find the sweet spot, where the activity is difficult enough to challenge students without overwhelming them. Students may require a lesson to be scaffolded—breaking it down into manageable pieces—in order to find the right balance.
2. Make assignments feel relevant to students’ lives. Research has shown that when students understand the relevance of a classroom activity, they are more likely to engage in it. Whenever possible, it can help for teachers to point out how an activity connects to students’ own lives, or encourage students to discover the relevance for themselves. In a 2009 study published in Science, researchers Chris Hulleman and Judith Harackiewicz found that when low-performing high school science students were instructed to write about how a lesson was relevant to their lives, these students showed greater interest in the subject—a fundamental part of flow—and got higher grades than students who didn’t participate in the writing exercise.
3. Encourage choice. When students are given an opportunity to choose their own activities and work with autonomy, they will engage more with the task. In a 2000 study led by Aaron Black of the University of Rochester, students who sensed more teacher support for autonomy felt more competent and less anxious, reported more interest and enjoyment in their work, and produced higher-quality work in their class than students who didn’t believe they had as much autonomy.
4. Set clear goals (and give feedback along the way). Csikszentmihalyi has found that a fundamental condition for flow is that an activity should have clear goals, which provides structure and direction. This has also proven to be true in the classroom, especially when students help define their goals. And as students progress toward these goals, research suggests it’s also important for them to receive ongoing feedback along the way. This doesn’t necessarily mean that teachers must interrupt a students’ process, but it does mean that students must be aware of how (or whether) their efforts are moving toward the goal. By receiving this kind of feedback, students can adjust their efforts in a way that helps them stay in flow.