Effective Elearning Content Development Gets Players in the Zone

Designing Digitally


eLearning content development

Most people know the feeling of being so immersed in an activity that they aren’t even aware what’s happening around them. They have lost all track of time and may not even remember where they are!

This level of engagement in an activity is often called being “in the zone,” though psychologists have a different name for it. They refer to it as “cognitive flow,” and it’s something that elearning content development companies should pay attention to. The implications of cognitive flow can shape future development choices.

The psychology

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studied cognitive flow in the 1970’s. His experimentation resulted in the theory that when a person attempts a task that is too difficult for their skill level, they will become frustrated and anxious. If the person’s skill level is too high and the task is too easy, they will lose interest. When the difficulty of the task is relatively proportionate to the skill of the person, they enter the zone, or a state of flow.

The aim of elearning content development is to get learners to enter that state of cognitive flow during a learning activity. Achieving this will greatly increase their chances of retaining information and being able to apply it.

Csikszentmihalyi states there are four characteristics that content developers should consider when creating elearning activities to allow learners to reach that cognitive flow. 

Achieving flow

Taking a look at Csikszentmihalyi’s components can prove useful for elearning game developers.

  • Definite learning objectives and reasonable parameters. The human brain cannot process all the stimuli that it is exposed to, even in the context of a single game. The best way to ensure the main goals are being met is to streamline those goals as much as possible. Don’t ask the learner to divide their attention between too many different activities.

  • Don’t expect learners to perform tasks they aren’t capable of completing. Challenging a player is a good thing, although frustration interrupts flow. Asking them to attempt something they will not be able to accomplish will only result in them throwing in the towel. When that happens, obviously learning doesn’t. The goal is never to frustrate the learner, but rather to motivate them with challenges they can overcome. 

  • Straightforward, immediate feedback. The brain makes the strongest connections between cause and effect when the time between the action and the feedback is short. The response, positive or negative, drives the player to continue on to further success, or to remediate what went wrong.

  • Simplify, simplify, simplify. Graphics should be high-quality but not too distracting. Again, the brain can only process a certain amount of information. The amount of information the learner can retain will decrease as the amount of superfluous information they have to sort through increases. The activity should be streamlined enough to focus on the defined learning objectives.

The success of elearning content development hinges on its interactivity and engagement. Activities or programs that get learners into the zone facilitate the greatest amount of learning.