Transforming a Course ...

... into a succession of immersive learning experiences.

October 21, 2015

If you are like me, many of your most intense and meaningful learning experiences have taken place one-on-one: Not with an instructor, but, rather, engaging with a primary source or a book or an artwork or undertaking a research project.  Conversely, many moments of utter boredom occurred in a classroom, amid the prattling of an instructor or classmates.

I am convinced that future models of education will turn away from the language of the course – with its emphasis on assignments and assessments – toward the notion of education as a series of immersive learning experiences.  Such immersive experiences can take place inside or outside a classroom, and can be solitary or collaborative.  But rarely do these experiences involve the kinds of structured interaction we typically associate with classroom teaching.

Too often, immersive learning suggests a video game-like experience or a virtual reality world such as Second Life.  But I’m referring to learning experiences that involves what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls “flow.”

A learning experience is immersive if it totally engages a student in the challenge and intrinsic pleasure of the activity.  According to Csíkszentmihályi, a person is most likely to experience a sense of flow when an activity is purposeful and entails a clearly defined, difficult, yet attainable challenge.  It requires concentration and focus.

In terms of education, a state of flow is most likely to be achieved through activities that involve a meaningful goal and a mindful challenge, achieved through in-depth inquiry and resulting in an authentic product.

It would be a mistake, however, to equate immersive learning experiences with any form of active learning.  Both, to be sure, involve learning by doing, and both seek to move beyond a conception of learning as knowledge transfer. But many active learning activities are artificial.  A skill-building exercise or a practice set is not an immersive learning experience.

In truly immersive experiences, control lies with the learner and motivation comes from within, not without.  Exploration, creative intensity, and a genuine sense of accomplishment lie at the heart of truly immersive learning experiences.

For a budding academic, writing a research paper or an academic conversation might induce a sense of flow.  But what about those students who do not aspire to become scholars?  How can we design experiences that will induce such a sense of total engagement in them?

One answer, of course, is to give students an internship, a study abroad opportunity, or a chance to work in a laboratory or archive. Another is to involve them in service learning projects that result in a product that genuinely meets a client’s needs.  And many students achieve a sense of flow in extracurricular activities, whether in athletics or the campus newspaper or orchestra.

But how can we induce a state of flow in our classes?  To do so, an activity must:

1.  Be meaningful…to the student
What is meaningful to a mature scholar may seem less than relevant to a student. One of any teacher’s primary tasks is to motivate a student by explaining why an activity is meaningful, or, put this another way, by spelling out an activity’s value proposition.

2.  Present a mindful challenge
Although some students can experience a state of flow through an intense and meaningful classroom conversation or a research paper, they are much more likely to achieve this sense through a project or problem-solving activity.

3.  Cede authority to the student
Asking students to initiate a classroom discussion or to make a classroom presentation is not the same thing as giving them a sense of control.  An alternative is reimagine the classroom as a “solver community” that tackles meaningful challenges.

4.  Pose “wicked” problems
A wicked problem is one that is especially worth solving precisely because it is not susceptible to an easy solution.  A wicked problem’s definition is unclear, relevant information is spotty or contradictory, various parties hold radically different views of the problem’s nature and appropriate responses, and the challenge is interconnected with other problems.  Within a class, the wicked problems might be tackled individually, competitively, or collaboratively.

If we are to transform the classroom into a site for immersive learning experiences, then faculty members must reimagine their role.  They must embrace the principles of design thinking.  They must devote more attention to the fundamental instructional challenge, which is to design varied experiences that:

  • Students will find meaningful, engaging, and challenging.
  • Demand creative problem-solving, critical thinking, and the strategic application of higher-order thinking skills
  •  Must be appropriately sequenced and scaffolded so that they pose progressively greater challenges, yet students feel capable of accomplishing the challenges.
  • Result in specific outcomes that can be evaluated by a rubric with well-defined criteria so that the students can monitor their progress.

Steven Mintz is Executive Director of the University of Texas System's Institute for Transformational Learning and Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin. Harvard University Press just published his latest book, The Prime of Life: A History of Modern Adulthood.


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