By: Courtney Felton

SCARF is a social neuroscience based model introduced by Dr. David Rock in 2008. It has been widely used in management contexts but also has applications in education. The SCARF model includes 5 domains: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness. Considering each of the five domains when designing a course increases student engagement in an often isolating online environment.

Status refers to how students feel about themselves in relation to their peers. Students feel that they have a high status when they feel that what they say matters, that they are valued by their peers and their instructors, and that they are “seen.” Instructors can increase a student’s perception of status by highlighting good work from students, recognizing growth in students, and encouraging students who are not participating to join in a class discussion.

Certainty is particularly important in online classes where students have few opportunities to clarify information. Uncertainty can increase anxiety among students who are new to online learning and non-traditional students who are uncertain with technology. Two areas that address certainty in online classes is usability and clear guidance. Usability refers to how easily the course’s content can be located; clear guidance includes expectations, objectives, and assignment instructions. In education it is important to tell students what they are going to do, allow them to perform, then tell them how they did. To build certainty into your course, include objectives for each week, provide rubrics or grading criteria for major assignments, and provide feedback. Also, use and orient students to a clear organizational structure (i.e. modules) for each learning unit.

Autonomy in courses empowers students by providing choices and involving them in their own learning. To increase autonomy in classes, allow students to explore possible solutions to problems (without being graded for correctness), provide multiple ways for students to complete an assignment, and include flexibility in accessing module content and assignment information. Flexibility aids in time management and is especially important for non-traditional students and student athletes.

Relatedness involves building community in courses by fostering personal connections early in the semester. When students perceive their peers as competitors, they tend to be less compassionate, which can hinder group activities and team based learning initiatives. Develop an introductory discussion board prompt that allows students to share personal aspects of themselves and identify other students with similarities, thus increasing safe connections among class members. Be sure to concentrate on superficial or course-related personal information so that students feel safe to share information. Relatedness is also connected to how students view their instructor. If they see you as absent from the course, impersonal, or inflexible, they tend to disengage. Announcements, discussion board participation, and weekly wrap-ups are small ways you can relate to students.

The final domain of the SCARF model is fairness, which is a sensitive issue for students. Fairness is aided by transparency and communication. Communicating clear expectations regarding participation, performance, and grading establishes fairness in an online course. Students also view unnecessary activities and expectations through a fairness lens. Ensure that all activities in your course align with the course objectives and clearly help students achieve course expectations.

To successfully use the SCARF model to boost engagement, consider your course design decisions in the context of how your course structure, content, and delivery foster status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness.

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