Flow (Skills-Challenge)

How is it defined?

Skills-challenge, or instructional challenge, refers to the balance between students’ skill levels and the challenge of their school work. Csikszentmihalyi (1991) used the term ‘flow’ to describe the state when a person is deeply engaged in an activity that is intrinsically interesting. He maintained that this occurs when there is a balance between the challenge inherent in a task and the skills required to accomplish it. In the school setting, students are most engaged when they are presented challenging tasks and they feel they have the skills to accomplish them.

The Learning Bar’s framework on student engagement includes measures of social, institutional, and intellectual engagement. Intellectual engagement refers to students having a serious emotional and cognitive investment in their learning (Dunleavy, Milton, & Willms, 2012). Flow is a key component of intellectual engagement, situated alongside effort and interest and motivation.

Why is it important?

  • People learn best when they are trying to do things that are both challenging and of deep interest to them (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991).
  • Students with high skills and low challenge tend to find school boring and of little relevance (Willms, Friesen, & Milton, 2009).
  • Students with low skills and high challenge are almost twice as likely to experience anxiety as their peers with high skills experiencing high levels of challenge (Tramonte & Willms, 2010).
  • Students with low engagement and low academic skills are at an increased risk of dropping out of school (Bagnell, Tramonte, & Willms, 2008).

How do we measure it?

In Tell Them From Me, on the primary school questionnaire, students respond to Likert questions regarding the extent to which they feel challenged at school and whether they feel confident in their skills. On the secondary school questionnaire, students respond to Likert questions regarding the extent to which they feel challenged at school and their skill level is gauged by their self-reported grades in English, Maths and Science.

In both questionnaires, students are classified into four groups: ‘low skills–high challenge’, ‘high skills–high challenge’, ‘low skills–low challenge’, and ‘high skills–low challenge’. The results are reported as a two-by-two table showing the percentage of students in each of the four quadrants.



Bagnell, A., Tramonte, L., & Willms, J. D. (2008). The prevalence of significant mental health problems among Canadian youth and their comorbidity with cognitive and health problems. Ottawa: Human Resources and Skills Development Canada.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Tramonte, L., & Willms, J. D. (2010). The prevalence of anxiety among middle and secondary school students in Canada. Canadian Journal of Public Health, 101(Suppl.3), S19–S22.

Willms, J. D., Friesen, S., & Milton, P. (2009). What did you do in school today? Transforming classrooms through social, academic, and intellectual engagement. (First National Report) Toronto: Canadian Education Association.