This study was
a pilot intended to help clarify the goals of a developing dissertation
study. The authors sought to discover the roles of creativity and flow
in a graduate-level, constructivist-based instructional design and
development learning community. Creativity is understood to be the
generation of ideas that are both novel and useful (Caropreso &
Couch, 1996; Csikszentmihalyi, 1996; Feist, 1999; Root-Bernstein
& Root-Bernstein, 1999; Sternberg, 1999; Sternberg &
Lubart, 1999). Flow is a motivational construct identified by
Csikszentmihalyi (1990); flow is defined as "...the state in which
people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to
matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will do it even at
great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it" (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p.
4). Specific research questions addressed by the study were 1) What are
the characteristics of “flow” experience among
adult learners participating in a constructivist design and development
tools training environment? 2) What are students’ perceptions
of creativity as it relates to design? 3) How does a
learner’s perception of his or her own creativity influence
the learning experience?
This study was
a preliminary phenomenological inquiry into individual learning
experience in an environment shaped by constructivist views of learning
and instruction. Crotty (1998) states that phenomenology
“invites” us to construct fresh meaning from
phenomena, to do what constructivism describes (Crotty, 1998, p.79).
Constructivism may be summarized as the belief that each individual
constructs his or her own knowledge uniquely as a result of interaction
with the environment (Duffy & Cunningham, 1996; Papert, 1991).
psychological literature on creativity presents diverse points of view
regarding how levels of creativity should be categorized. Many authors
(e.g., Csikszentmihalyi, 1996; Policastro & Gardner, 1999;
Simonton, 1999) only study Creativity “with a capital
C,” exemplified by eminently creative persons in the likes of
a Mozart or an Einstein. Entire branches of creativity research,
however, have been devoted to the study of creativity as a relatively
stable aptitude among all individuals, one that can be measured
psychometrically and scored on one or more continua (e.g., Guilford
1987; Torrance, 1974; Albert & Runco, 1999). Tests such as the
Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (Torrance, 1974) have for decades
received widespread use by school psychologists. However, such tests
have been criticized for measuring only a narrow slice of a
multifaceted phenomenon (Plucker & Renzulli, 1999).
It was a
premise of this study that students pursuing a master’s
degree in instructional design and development come into the program
with varying degrees of creative ability. We are interested in student
perceptions of their own creativity, and the role that this perception
of creativity plays in the learning process.
(Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) is described as an “optimal
experience,” a conscious state of intense mental focus on a
task or activity in which the challenges of the activity are
appropriately matched to the skills of the participant. It includes a
sense of productive momentum as well as timelessness and is highly
motivating (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, Csikszentmihalyi, 1996). Flow was
considered by the creators of the original Design and Development Tools
course (Rieber, Orey, & King, 2004) to be a necessary
ingredient in the self-directed learning aspect of the course.
Therefore, a brief discussion of flow theory is normally included in
one of the orientation sessions conducted early in the semester. While
flow and creativity appear to be intimately related, the relationship
between the two is not completely understood. Csikszentmihalyi (1996)
stated that flow is a common denominator among the eminently creative
persons included in his large-scale creativity study. However, flow is
described as being available to all people, not just those who are
famously creative (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Even if the two constructs
are distinct phenomena, the fact that flow is already imbedded in the
philosophy and teaching of the Design and Development Tools course
suggests that one would be remiss to study the role of creativity in
the course without also studying role of flow. Therefore, flow is a
desirable state of consciousness, and creativity is a desirable aspect
of ability, for students doing the challenging design work that is part
and parcel with learning the tools of design and development.
four males and five females, participated in the summer version of the
three semester-hour Design and Development Tools course. Ages ranged
from early twenties to upper thirties. Two of these (two males) were
“second timers” (normally the course is taken
twice). The remaining seven students were taking the course for the
first time. The first and second authors were co-instructor and lead
provided with a detailed course handbook that was adapted for the
summer session. Introductory workshops were given in three Macromedia
tools: Dreamweaver, Fireworks, and Flash. Skills were also introduced
for several additional computer-based tools. Seminar sessions were
conducted regarding the philosophy, procedures, and requirements of the
course as outlined in the handbook, including topics such as principles
of design, constructivism and constructionism (Papert, 1991),
self-directed learning, and flow theory (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Thus
the first half of the course was focused on tool and concept learning.
The second half of the course was devoted to project completion, peer
and instructor feedback, and fulfillment of related course
requirements. The primary deliverable for students at the end of the
course was a multimedia project of their own choosing and creation,
displayed publicly in an advertised showcase event. Students were
encouraged to select an intrinsically motivating project as a vehicle
for tool learning, not necessarily instructional in nature. An online
design journal for this project was also required. The journal was a
public document chronicling a student’s tool learning and
design experience, containing at least eight separate reflections by
the end of the semester. Journal entries were also expected to include
student responses to required readings in software design and learning
theory. A debrief session was conducted following the public showcase.
In addition to customary wrap-up items (including a prompt for students
to complete online course evaluations), a portion of the debrief
session (approximately 15 minutes) was devoted to completion of a
questionnaire. The questionnaire consisted of a section of six
exploratory short answer questions (“write the first thing
that comes readily to mind”), followed by a more conventional
section of five multiple choice and one short-answer question. The
questionnaire, with responses, is provided in Table
questionnaire activity was followed by a 20 minute researcher-led
discussion of creativity and flow as they relate to the
students’ learning experience. Students were not briefed as
to what kinds of responses were looked for in the questionnaire, save
that they should relate the questions to their course experience.
Questionnaire responses were compiled and examined for patterns.
Whiteboard notes from the discussion were also preserved so as to
provide an additional data source for the pilot study. Anonymous course
evaluations were completed online apart from the debrief session.
Students’ design journals were analyzed for themes relating
to the research questions. The analysis procedure consisted of a)
reading of each journal from start to finish; b) online page-by-page
word search of each journal for key terms such as
“creativity,” and “idea” and
color-coded highlighting of all such key words on the printed copy; c)
re-reading each journal and coding in the margins for themes; and d)
compiling theme-related passages into two separated documents (one
containing theme-related passages written prior to the debrief session,
one containing theme-related passages written after the debrief
The Design and
Development Tools course was conducted during a summer session lasting
4 weeks. Student design journals, questionnaire results, whiteboard
notes from the debrief discussion, and anonymous course evaluations
were used as primary data sources. Student projects, the course
handbook, and slides from the seminar on self-directed learning served
as secondary or informal data sources.
section of the questionnaire presented six words or phrases (Design,
Creative, Creative Process, Creative Design, Un-creative design, and
Creative Flow) and asked students to “write one or two other
words or phrases of similar meaning that come readily to your
mind.” Responses were tabulated and evaluated for patterns.
Responses to the “Creative Flow” item were somewhat
problematic because about half of the participants initially
interpreted “flow” as referring to an aspect of the
user’s experience (judging by responses and by comments given
during the debrief session). Presumably the early teaching on flow was
not recalled to mind yet for these students until the second section of
the questionnaire, where questions were more explicit. The second
section of the questionnaire presented five multiple-choice and one
short-answer question. A full tally of questionnaire responses is
provided in Table 1.
from debrief session.
While the brief whiteboard
notes represent a less formal data source, these notes shed additional
light on the questionnaire responses. In particular, the notes confirm
what is suggested by some of the short-answer questionnaire responses
– that some participants initially interpreted the meaning of
the word “flow” as the smooth usability of their
creation rather than an aspect of the creation process. Students
offered responses mainly to one discussion question: What is
flow?” With time running out, a few responses were also
obtained to the question: When important ideas happened, what was the
experience like? In general, students confirmed that they related
easily to the idea of flow in their own experience, even if they had
not pointed described this experience in their design journals. A
complete copy of the whiteboard notes is provided in Appendix A.
identified in the design journals included Flow, Creativity, Ideas,
Special ”Aha!” Moments, Constructivism,
Self-Directed Learning, and Changes Made After Feedback. Further
reflection resulted in consideration of additional themes that could be
coded such as satisfaction/frustration with the day-to-day learning
experience (to compare with the anonymous course evaluations) and
specific design principles. However, it was later concluded that, while
all of these themes relate at least broadly to the research questions,
only the specific themes of Flow and Creativity should be examined in
detail for purposes of this study.
Experiences that seemed to match Csikszentmihalyi’s (1991)
concept of flow were documented by four students over six journal
entries prior to the debrief session. Discussions of flow were also
included in the final reflections of three students. Journal passages
prior to the debrief session include statements such as:
“As I began to
see results, it became quite fun.”
“The effect of
this was completely outstanding and made me extremely happy that I
could think about what I wanted to do and actually finish it.”
“I tried to go
back to my reading, but that was impossible. I worked until after one
AM in the morning when the keys on my keyboard began to merge
Creativity was discussed by four students over ten passages prior to
the debrief session. Discussions of creativity were also included in
the final reflections of three students. Of note is the fact that
creativity was discussed “unsolicited” in the
journals of three students who made a point of saying they
don’t consider themselves creative persons. Journal passages
prior to the debrief session include statement such as:
attractiveness will be something that I struggle with as I have never
thought of myself as having creative talent.”
“We have some
very creative people in our class. I think one of the reasons that
Flash is not one of my favorite programs is because I am not that
creative. I know how to find items or activities that are creative, but
I am not necessarily good at creating them.”
the process of trial and error with these Macromedia tools has taught
me a great deal about design and creativity.”
noticed that what appears to be an easy process for others in creating
objects or buttons or animations in Flash and Fireworks, often takes
much more time for me to repeat the process. I am not an original
Student responses on the
course evaluations for the summer 2004 EDIT 6190 course were
overwhelmingly positive. The online evaluation form consisted of
demographic questions followed by 20 likert-type rating questions and a
space for additional comments. All students responded to all 20 rating
questions. With 1 as the lowest and 5 as the highest rating, taking the
average student response for each item and averaging the averages
together, the overall composite rating for the various aspects of the
course was 4.6465. The “additional comments” item
received responses from seven of the nine students. All comments were
positive, with three of the responses including a suggestion for
possible improvement. A full tabulation of course evaluation responses
is given in Appendix B.
Student projects were
not rated or compared, but familiarity with individuals’
projects in the minds of the authors forms a backdrop against which
their journal entries and other responses can be put into perspective,
hopefully acting as a safeguard against misinterpreting other data from
a particular student. Likewise, the contents of the course handbook
provide such a backdrop for understanding the students collectively, as
it is one of the unifying pieces in the experience of all the students.
Finally, the seminar session on self-directed learning presented early
in the course, which included the concept of flow and flow theory, was
a contextual element. It is important to keep in mind that students
received this teaching, since any journal entries describing a
“flow” type of experience might be regarded as
having been suggested in the minds of students by the course
instruction rather than arising naturally in the experience of the
student. However, it is noteworthy that the topic of creativity was
virtually or completely absent from this teaching. In-class discussion
of creativity was not initiated or prompted by instructors until the
The clearest confirmation
of the flow experience among students comes from the questionnaire
responses to multiple-choice questions 5 and 6. All nine students in
the constructivist Design and Development Tools course reported at
least some experience of flow, with three reporting over 60%, and
others distributed fairly evenly among the other responses. Likewise,
All students reported experiencing periods of “a sense of
momentum or ‘flow’,” ranging from
“30 minutes at most” to “over four
hours.” Seven of the nine students reported an hour or more
of flow on at least one occasion. Clearly, the phenomenon of flow, as
understood by this group of nine students, was a common denominator in
their learning experience.
A description of this
flow, addressing the first research question, “What are the
characteristics of “flow” experience among adult
learners participating in a constructivist design and development tools
training environment?”, may be composited together from the
above responses along with the debrief notes and the design journal
passages. The experience, when it occurred, lasted from up to 30
minutes to over four hours. It could be described as
“fun” or extremely engaging (“I tried to
go back to my reading but that was impossible”) or something
that “made me extremely happy.” It could also be
considered equivalent to “in the zone,” or
“productivity,” although it may not be directly
related to quantity of output. Flow may be thought of as
“creative flow” in the early stages of a project,
in which the focus is that of design ideas, while later in the project
it may be thought of as “procedural flow,” where
the focus is more on technical and procedural accomplishment. Following
the debrief session, additional observations were made in some
students’ final design journal entry, such as,
“When you are working ‘in the flow,’ time
doesn't exist.” One student provided a lengthy elaboration of
the distinction between “creative flow” and
“ procedural flow” mentioned above.
The second research
question, “What are students’ perceptions of
creativity as it relates to design?” is addressed by the
first section of the questionnaire. Students’
“quick responses” to the short-answer items (giving
“one or two other words or phrases of similar meaning that
come readily to your mind”) are difficult to summarize, but
in general they correspond with the essential definition of creativity
taken from the psychological literature, that is, the generation of
ideas that are both novel and useful (Caropreso & Couch, 1996;
Csikszentmihalyi, 1996; Feist, 1999; Root-Bernstein &
Root-Bernstein, 1999; Sternberg, 1999a; Sternberg & Lubart,
1999). However, notably absent from student responses is any mention of
problem solving. Also, students tended to lean toward the aesthetically
pleasing aspect of “useful.” Both of these points
suggest a frame of reference having to do more with the artistic side,
rather than the scientific side, of creativity.
Regarding the third
research question, “What role does a learner’s
perception of his or her own creativity play in the learning
experience?”, the picture suggested by the data is a bit more
complex. Contrary to the expectations of the first author,
students’ perceptions of their own creativity varied widely
and evenly. These responses suggest that for prospective students
considering enrolling in a master’s-level instructional
design and development degree program (or, specifically, a Design and
Development Tools course), perception of one’s personal
creativity is apparently not a factor. In other words, the prospect of
being engaged in intensive design tasks did not discourage
less-creative persons from enrolling in the course. Moreover, course
evaluations and satisfaction levels expressed about
individuals’ projects suggest that students who regard
themselves as less creative, or even non-creative, remain relatively
undaunted and encouraged by their success in the course. It appears
that the course as taught in the summer of 2004 was fairly successful
in addressing the needs of these students. Nonetheless, students who
identified themselves as less than creative uniformly expressed a sense
of feeling intimidated by what they perceived to be higher levels of
creativity in other students. This thought might be summarized as,
“I would feel more at home in this learning environment if I
were a more creative person.” These students struggled to
keep themselves from comparing their own work too closely with that of
As mentioned previously,
the three students who identified themselves as lacking in creativity
all initiated the topic of creativity in their design journals, whereas
only one of the remaining students did so. This fact would seem to
highlight the discomfort experienced by less creative persons, as
something that “weighed on their minds” enough to
find outward expression in their reflective writing. Among the
remaining six students, all of whom apparently regard themselves as at
least somewhat creative (if not “definitely”
creative), creativity was discussed overtly in the design journal of
only one individual, and not, in this case, as an issue of concern. It
would appear that, prior to the debrief session, creativity was an
assumed aspect of their design work that did not need explicit
Among these nine students
of varied ages and backgrounds, there appeared to be a willingness to
self-report one’s personal level of creativity in a candid
manner. This has important implications for further study if it
represents a normal way of responding to such a question. The
prevailing culture in the U.S. seems to revere creativity
(Csikszentmihalyi, 1996), and thus it would not be too surprising if
self-reporting of such a desirable trait were badly skewed. Moreover,
creativity has proven over the years to be a difficult construct to
quantify or measure in individuals (Albert & Runco, 1999). All
self-reporting must be interpreted carefully, keeping in mind the
inherent subjectivity in such data; however, if the results of this
study suggest self-reporting offers a viable window into perceived
relative levels of personal creativity, this may point to future study
methods that combine psychometric tests with self-reporting.
One tempting conclusion
from this study is that those students who experienced more flow in
their design projects are those who were more creative. However, though
the data do not conflict with this notion, neither do the data confirm
it, because student responses that address the amount of flow
experience are on the questionnaires that were filled out anonymously.
creativity and flow both played an important role in the learning
experience of adult participants in a constructivist-based Design and
Development Tools course. All students experienced flow to at least
some degree, with some reporting lengthy episodes. Several students
specifically described occasions of flow that occurred during their
design experience. Personal creativity was an inner resource identified
by all students, most having confidence of its presence in their work,
and some quite concerned about not having this confidence.
Conclusion - Importance of the Study
environments are being implemented far and wide today in business and
industry settings, public school settings, and higher education
settings. The goal of this university’s instructional design
and development master’s program is to prepare students for
the field, and investigations such as this one may help further this
goal by illuminating possible improvements in the program. Moreover,
the presence of psychological discomfort on the part of less creative
students suggests either that this discomfort be addressed or,
alternatively, it raises the awkward question of whether the program is
a good match for the goals and aptitudes of these individuals. The fact
that some less creative students, self-identified, were merely
“somewhat satisfied” with their design and
development projects certainly leaves room for improvement in regard to
how these students are served.
Finally, debates in
educational technology literature about the role of creativity in
instructional design and development also help build a case for the
need for research on creativity and flow. In response to “the
critics,” who were finding fault with the field of
instructional design for leading to unimaginative learning products,
Dick (Dick, 1995a, 1995b), argued for the proper use
of instructional design as the solution. However, other
writers have contended that instructional design models tend to leave
creativity out of the picture (Caropreso & Couch, 1996;
Rowland, 1995), or that creativity needs to be fostered among
instructional designers apart from the instructional design models
themselves (Caropreso & Couch, 1996). Creativity is a desirable
aspect of ability, and flow is a desirable state of consciousness, for
students engaged in design work, for these qualities appear to be quite
important for professionals in the field of instructional design and
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A: Whiteboard Notes from Debrief Session
[Notes in brackets,
preceded by “OF,” indicate out-of-field notes added
after the event.]
What is Flow? (group
discussion with white board; notes from whiteboard)
1) Could describe navigation/color
… seamless, cohesiveness, usability [OF: Some students
indicated that at first they interpreted the word
“flow” this way on the questionnaire.]
2) Not directly related to quantity accomplished
3) Earlier [OF: in the project] – creative work
Later [OF: in the project] – design work
[OF: Flow can happen in both]
4) Definitely there were at least some times of flow and other times of
5) Flow ≅ “the zone”
6) Flow ≅ “productivity”
7) Flow ≅ “focus” [OF: contributed by Dr.
B: Tally of Course Evaluations
1. The Studio concept used for this class
suited my learning style very well. I was able to accomplish my goals,
and I found that I put more effort into learning the tools that I might
otherwise have done with a more rigid format. Because the project
choices were mine, they were more meaningful. This encouraged me to
continuously strive to improve upon the project work.
2. Although this course is tough to get everything done it is very
satisfying when done.
3. a great class, a great teacher, and a great TA
4. This was a wonderful course. Dr. Rieber and Mr. Clinton did a
wonderful job with the entire class. I thoroughly enjoyed it all!
5. Dr. Rieber covered everything needed in this class for work on our
individual projects and was always willing to re-explain things when
needed. The only concept I would have liked to have been addressed in
this class was dealing with problems when inserting images and
exporting and importing data from one tool to another.
6. Loved the whole process. During the summer, you may want to give
students more reading options. Thank you for your hospitality.
7. Excellent course.