Learning Through Immersion and Flow: Using Alternative Instructional Designs for Adult Learners

n      n      n      n      n      n     n      n      n      n      n      n      n      n      n      n     n      n      n      n      n      n      n      n      n      n     n      n      n      n      n      n      n      n

Sue Stoney and Ron Oliver

s.stoney@cowan.edu.au, r.oliver@cowan.edu.au

Edith Cowan University




As tertiary institutions move towards self-paced, resource-based delivery of education, there will be an increasing pressure to produce appropriate instructional multimedia materials capable of supporting student centred learning which addresses the affective as well as the cognitive domain. While instructional designers often give considerable thought and consideration to designing motivating interactive multimedia (IMM) for children, the same cannot be so readily said about the development of these materials for adults. This paper describes the development of a piece of IMM specifically developed to motivate and engage adult learners through the integration of eight learner effects. These effects are; immersion, reflection, flow, learner control, collaboration, curiosity, fantasy and challenge. The paper also describes a study which examined students using the program and gives a summary of some of their comments elicited during post-use interviews. Findings of the study support our contentions and provide interesting insights into how students can learn from IMM.


Employers are now requiring universities to produce students with a different set of skills from those emphasised in early twentieth century pedagogy. The solution to the problem of producing intrinsically motivating instructional materials is to examine the needs of the learners and attempt to fill those needs whilst producing a theoretically sound program. Many adult learners need a flexible and self-paced approach to learning and one of the benefits of resource-based delivery systems is that they provide a mechanism for the flexible delivery of course materials, either in a classroom situation, or via long-distance learning (eg. Duffy, Lowyck, & Jonassen). The advantage of this is that students in remote locations can be receiving the identical instruction as those students on campus. Students can also get the program in their own time and undertake the coursework at their own pace.

This need for independent, self-directed study is well recognised amongst the proponents of adult learning theory (eg. Wlodkowski, 1993). Multimedia can also fulfil the need for lifelong learning which many adults now experience due to the huge strides being taken in technology and the resultant changes to the workplace (eg Fassig, 1994).

Multimedia and Motivation

While multimedia holds the promise of fulfilling many of the motivational needs of the adult learner, the reality to date has been rather different. Many multimedia program developers take the existing information and simply convert it to multimedia thereby creating an electronic “page-turner”. Reigeluth (1993) points out that there may be motivational strategies unique to multimedia, but the motivational effect of teaching strategies such as multimedia and games is only transient, and that the initial motivation that they invoke quickly diminishes.

In order to overcome the problem of over-engineered and demotivating multimedia, there must be some strong educational theoretical frameworks applied which consider not only the cognitive domain of the learner, but the affective domain as well. The literature suggests that the two domains are interdependent with the learning process and that humans have a basic need to feel emotionally engaged (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).

Designing Motivating IMM for Adults

There are many factors which have been found to impact on the motivation of adult learners: the attitude of the learner leading to a predisposition to learn; the learner’s perception of the need for learning; the capacity of the learning environment to stimulate and sustain learning behaviour; the capacity of the learning environment to meet and affect learners’ emotive needs; success and mastery over the learning tasks; and the reinforcement provided to the learner.

When these factors are considered in detail, it is possible to isolate those which can be influenced by appropriate instructional design. A useful framework for describing critical design components for IMM materials design sees a computer-based learning environment as a combination of three main elements; the learning materials; the roles and activities undertaken by learners; and implementation strategies. Each of these three elements can be planned independently in the design process and each plays a significant role in moulding the learning environment. Across each of these elements it is possible to identify discrete entities which have a direct bearing on the motivation and engagement of the learners. We have identified eight elements which we deem as critical for motivating and engaging adult learners. These include such learner roles as collaboration, learner control and reflection; the materials attributes of challenge, curiosity and fantasy; and implementation based on immersion and flow.

Learner Roles

Students need to have freedom and autonomy and the activities have to reflect this. Learner control, collaboration and reflective activity are all elements shown to have a strong impact on motivation  (Stoney & Oliver, 1997). Programs high in learner control are more motivating and engaging because the learner can choose their own path through the program, work at their own pace and select the levels of coaching and scaffolding required (Orey & Nelson, 1994).

Working and interacting with peers is important for coaching and scaffolding and is an important component of learning with some cultural groups (eg. Henderson, Patching & Putt, 1994). It is generally agreed that when using multimedia programs, motivation increases when students work collaboratively (Litchfield, 1993).

Reflection, an often neglected component in many learning environments, is essential to learning due to its reliance on decision making and problem solving. Reflection contributes to engagement by changing the way the learner thinks about the subject matter and is the bridge between the content and the action (Clark, 1993).

Learning Materials

The learning materials incorporated within a multimedia program are instrumental in attracting and holding learner interest. The three elements which are most responsible for this are curiosity, fantasy and challenge as identified by Malone (1980).  The program needs to be capable of arousing and satisfying the learners’ curiosity and in order to do this it needs to be optimally complex, novel and incongruous (Malone, 1980). Further, these elements should surprise the learner’s expectations and their existing knowledge (Berlyne, 1968).

A higher percentage of learning goals than performance goals is important to challenge learners. Learning goals encourage the exploration, initiation and pursuit of tasks (Dweck, 1986), and students who seek such goals are motivated to work harder, longer and will attempt to apply new learning to solve problems (Dweck, 1986). Hence, challenging learning goals create more interest and enable students to sustain engagement with the task.


The manner  in which the program is presented to the students will directly affect the levels of absorption and engagement by the students and therefore the degrees of immersion and flow which follow. Immersion requires that the program is based on a first person experience, and provide a realistic environment which is free of all biases allowing the individual to be fully immersed on a psychological and physical level (Laurel, 1991). Immersion is often evident in situations where games are being played, where self-consciousness and time disappear and where the experience is so enjoyable and gratifying that people will undertake it for its own sake (Csikszentmihalyi, 1993).

This lack of self-consciousness and awareness of surroundings is known as “flow”. It is important that a multimedia program be designed to encourage flow and it has been found that games are an ideal context for this state of being (Csikszentmihalyi, 1993). Games are enjoyable, students are encouraged to play which is an important part of learning, both formal and informal (Rieber, 1996). Play and flow eliminate boredom, anxiety and frustration, lead to growth and discovery and constantly challenge the students to new levels of learning (Csikszentmihalyi, 1993).

The Program

To test our contentions that these elements are important characteristics of motivation and engagement, a learning environment in the form of a microworld was planned which involved each of them in some way. The learning area that was chosen to test our contentions was a course in a business degree. A module in an introductory finance unit was targeted by the University as one where significant learning advantage could be achieved through appropriate use of IMM. This module involved teaching students about share valuation and investment. A microworld was chosen as the form of delivery, this enabled the designers to provide an authentic and realistic context  which allowed the students to freely explore and experience some of the elements of a stock market environment. The interface was designed to be simple with cartoon style graphics and simple colours. This had the added advantage of being quick to load and economical on storage.

The microworld consists of an office building called “Investment House”. There is a reception area containing a help desk which can give varying degrees of hints regarding where to start and what paths to follow if the students do not enjoy browsing. Upon entering the building students are asked to register at the desk. This allows the program to be personalised and also enables them to store their data on the main computer server or floppy disk if necessary. There were also a number of what the students termed “props”, such as the telephone in the office which rang presenting ethical dilemmas and giving information, a TV which gave stock market updates and broker information and a portfolio summary on the desk.

As the aim of the program was to maximise motivation and engagement, the interaction style had to support the narrative intention. Clicking on objects, rather than utilising menu items and buttons, achieved this and enabled the students to navigate intuitively.

The Study

This paper will provide some of the data and findings from an in-depth initial study conducted with a small group of students. The purpose of the initial study was to explore the impact of the various design elements built into the program on students’ apparent motivation and engagement. Six students were videotaped using the program and interviewed on completion. The students were asked to give their perceptions of the program as a learning tool and to suggest how the various characteristics of the program influenced their learning.  In particular we were interested in exploring how engaging they found the program to be and what parts of the program contributed to catching their interest and attention and help to maintain it. program  The findings are reported as “thick” description (Patton, 1990) enabling the reader to interpret what has been said.


The process of being immersed requires that the learner be totally absorbed and involved in the learning environment. This requires that they feel as though they have plunged into a stock market environment where they have a first-person experience (as is often not the case with many simulated environments) and where the interface is intuitive and realistic. They should have an enjoyable and meaningful learning experience whilst they are moving around in the environment. The interviews highlighted the fact that students did find the learning environment immersive:

I was unaware of events happening around me, completely absorbed (Bill interview)

Figure 1. Viewing room of Stock Exchange showing current quarterly share prices; and portfolio summary from the student’s office desk.

Once Mike and Selvini began their session, they displayed no signs of distraction and all discussion was centred on the program. They spent time reading out loud to each other, and their attention was focused on the screen or their calculator as they valued the shares. They displayed signs of immersion by pointing at the screen, writing, using the calculator, talking, reading aloud.

Ned did not hesitate when confronted with the program, he intuitively knew immediately what to do and set about exploring the various areas.

When asked what they thought about the context of the program the students separately agreed that the program context was motivating and immersive,

Some people say [in lectures], what the hell am I doing, I’m not sure what I’m going to use the information for in the future, but actually this has got to be real. You become more motivated because you know this is going to happen to you like this in real life. (Mike interview)

Very practical, everyone’s going to deal with shares and you have to know the system. (Ned interview)

The system was considered to be immersive, because the students naturally behaved as though they were truly in a share trading environment, moving freely through the system, understanding the goals without them being explained, and knowing the outcome of their investment decisions.

I can’t see how in real life it would be a great deal different, you’re given information and you buy and sell, no-one was pointing the finger saying that you haven’t used the knowledge you’ve gained , it was left to you. I thought it was a reasonable assessment of what it would be like if you were going out and doing it in the work place (Ian interview)

…but with this you go into the office and you know what to do … because I don’t normally like computer games, you need something you can understand. My brother plays a lot of those strategy games and they just completely lose me, but this was intuitive. I think it was realistic, but it went further than reality and that made it more enjoyable (Kelly interview)

and when asked how aware of their surrounding environment they were, they responded that they were generally unaware of what was happening around them

We don’t really care about that (Mike Interview). No not at all, the camera didn’t worry me, the sound when you click from one warp to another caught me out, strange sound anyway (Ned interview). No fully immersed in the system. We enjoyed it, buried (Selvini interview).

When asked what parts of the program led them to believe they were in an investment environment, Mark said:

The whole thing was really well put together because you’ve got all the important bits like GDP and then the interest rates and inflation, plus all the share listings, plus you had background information, that’s the first thing you do when you buy and sell shares is look at past events which was all there.

Both Mary and Mark L believed that it was the profit and loss component which helped to make it real:

The update of share prices and working out how much money I’d made or lost (Mark L interview)

I think the broker where you make a decision to sell or buy and eventually you go to the office and move to the next quarter and have a look to see what the results of your decisions were, the profit and loss part makes it real (Mary interview).

The students have already demonstrated that they were absorbed by and in the program, but they also found the program to be entertaining and enjoyable:

Very exciting, when the phone rang, we went oh! let’s find out what this person’s saying, but when first the TV came up we couldn’t be bothered, but then later we said oh this might be good, some news, and then me and Selvini were talking, like is this real or not real and we made the decisions, is this fellow laughing or what?
Entertaining, I mean maybe it’s more, not just learning itself, but a bit of a joke in there (Mike interview)

Flow incorporates many of the other elements of motivation, but is included here to highlight the need for an enjoyable, fun experience which is done for its own sake. Students should not experience any negative emotions such as boredom, frustration or anxiety if they are to achieve a “flow state”(Csikszentmihalyi, 1992).

The students all seemed to find the program enjoyable and entertaining, but for fairly different reasons. A few of the students actually thought about the educational elements of the program:

I always think applying learning is fun, and this program certainly made me apply my learning. I enjoyed the characters, the little extra elements such as the phone and the thrill of wondering whether I’d made or lost money (Bill interview)

 Apart from the learning aspects, the students were also attracted by the “extra” elements to which interactive multimedia lends itself:

I found this very enjoyable. The ones [programs] I’ve used in the past have been very stringent, you’re told what to do, and then kick out of that and then do a spreadsheet or a task. This was more enjoyable the way it was set up, it was more interactive, you were given more freedom to go where you like and when you like and I just found some of the things that were put in there like the TV screen, the phones ringing and the fact that you could go where you liked, I found those things quite amusing (Ian interview).


The results of the initial study have been very supportive of our expectations concerning the various multimedia design factors likely to influence the engagement and motivation of adult learners. Our findings with this sample of students showed that the program appealed to the students’ affective domain and that they felt that the software was efficient and communicated with them in a helpful way (Porteous, Kirakowski & Corbett, 1993 in Preece, 1994).

The program appeared to provide an immersive environment for all learners who responded favourably to questions concerning the way in which the program gained and held their interest. The program provided access to quite large amounts of information which in traditional is difficult to present in interesting ways. The students were willing recipients of this information and despite its difficulty and complexity, none of the students exhibited signs of frustration or concern. Evidence that the program was able to sustain interest and engagement came from a number of students who expressed surprise at how quickly the time on the computer had passed. Observations indicated that all the students exhibited signs of “optimal flow” on various occasions. It is obvious that the program appealed to the students’ affective domains and created an enjoyable and fun learning environment.

There is no question that the student’s attitude towards the content improved as a result of the program, which is aim of the motivational factors incorporated into the program as attitudes towards learning may be as significant as the learning skills themselves (Kinzie, 1990). The use of a microworld as an alternative to the traditional lecture seminar is beneficial, not only for enhancing student attitudes towards the content method, but also for encouraging them to explore and reflect on the way in which the content is used in a global perspective. The next phase in our inquiry is to explore the impact of the other design attributes on motivation and engagement and to investigate the relative strength of these on learners.


Berlyne, D. E. (1968). Curiosity and Exploration. Science, 153, 25-33.

Clark, M. C. (1993). Transformational learning. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 57, 47-56.

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

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1993). Flow: The Psychology of Happiness. London: Rider.

Duffy, T. M., Lowyck, J., & Jonassen, D. H. (Eds.). (1991). Designing Environments for Constructive Learning. New York:   Springer-Verlag.

Dweck, C. S. (1986). Motivational Processes affecting Learning. American Psychologist, 41, 1040-1048.

Fassig, S. M. (1994). Putting "essence" into veterinary continuing education: Characteristics of the adult learner and adult learning principles. Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association, 204(8), 1137-1140.

Henderson, L., Patching, W., & Putt, I. (1994). The impact of metacognitive interactive strategies and prompts embedded in interactive multimedia in a cross-cultural context: An exploratory study. In Q. O. L. Network (Ed.), Open Learning '94,  . Brisbane: Queensland Open Learning Network.

Litchfield, B. C. (1993). Design factors in multimedia environments: Research findings and implications for instructional design. In Annual Meetings of the American Educational Research Association,  . Atlanta, GA:

Malone, T. W. (1980). What makes things fun to learn? A study of intrinsically motivating computer games. Technical Report CIS-7, Xerox Parc.

Orey, M., & Nelson, W. (1994). Situated Learning and the limits of applying the results of these data to the theories of cognitive apprenticeships. In 1994 National Convention of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology,  (pp. 619-628). Nashville, TN:

Patton, M. Q. (1990). Qualitative Evaluation and Research Methods (2nd Ed.). Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Reigeluth, C. M. (1993). Functions of an automated instructional design system. In J. M. Spector, M. C. Polson, & D. J. Muraida (Eds.), Automating Instructional Design: Concepts and Issues Englewood Cliffs, N J: Educational Technology Publications.

Rieber, L. (1996). Seriously considering play: designing interactive learning environments based on the blending of microworlds, simulations and games. Educational Technology Research & Development, 44(2) 43-58

Stoney, S., & Oliver, R. (1997). Making interactive multimedia appealing to adult learners. In T. Muldner & T. Reeves (Eds.), ED-MEDIA97 and ED-TELECOM 97,  . Calgary Alberta, Canada: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education.

Wlodkowski, R. J. (1993). Enhancing Adult Motivation to Learn. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc.