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Experiential Learning Colloquium Documentary: Helping Members Make Better Decisions through Hands-on Learning

Science firmly supports the notion that learning by doing—experiential learning—helps shape behavior. This documentary of Filene’s colloquium on the topic shows how credit unions can use experiential learning programs to improve their members’ lives.

Executive Summary

Familiar names like John Locke, Maria Montessori, and Outward Bound are all part of the long learning-by-doing tradition. But that doesn’t mean everything tagged as experiential learning is useful. In January 2013, Filene hosted an experiential learning colloquium at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library in Atlanta with a eye toward answering the question: How can credit unions use experiential learning to improve the lives of their members?

What is the research about?

Credit unions have a long history of financial inclusion, helping members make better decisions through education. But often they take as a given that conveying information is sufficient to change behavior. This colloquium probed the possibility of improving financial behavior by helping people inhabit the learning.

In a traditional setting, explained Professor Lou Centini of the University of Virginia, a learner gathers information, organizes it, generalizes a principle, and then tries to apply it. That’s a one-way street. Experiential learning is more like a loop: The learner takes her own experience, reflects on it, generalizes a principle, and then applies it to a new experience. With a little direction, it becomes a powerful continuous loop.

Monopoly, a game you think you know well, is a whole new experience for sixth graders in Tim Vandenberg’s California classroom. Tim has turned the board game into an immersive experience that teaches probability, lightning-fast arithmetic, and social skills. If he can use a classic game to teach middle schoolers, you can find ways to immerse members in reflective experiences that will actually change behavior.

Closer to credit unions, Professor Lance Palmer from the University of Georgia showed how a tax preparation partnership between accounting undergraduates and members of Georgia’s Own Credit Union exemplifies that learning loop. The students, in a valuable service to members, learn by preparing real-world returns.

Lois Kitsch of the National Credit Union Foundation conducted a Life Simulation, a gamified way for credit union staff to learn what it’s like to live in poverty, as some of their members do. Participants were assigned families, jobs, and obligations, and encountered events that blew their plans out of the water. In just over an hour, the simulation provided life-changing learning about the travails of a low-income life. The participants gained empathy for these members’ struggles and learned how they could help make their lives easier. A simple thing like extended hours can enable strapped members to visit the credit union rather than, say, a payday lender next to their workplace.

What are the credit union implications?

Monopoly, John Locke, Aristotle, and tax returns? What do these things have to do with your credit union? Try these:

  • Financial literacy Experiential learning and simulations go further than lectures to push learners into molding judgments instead of passively accepting information.
  • Reality fairs. Hosting an event that forces participants to make judgments, reflect on them, and quickly try again is powerful.
  • Gamification. The research is in on the effectiveness of gamification elements like achievement badges, real-time feedback through text messages or mobile banking, and social competition. Credit unions can use gamification principles to reward saving, encourage prompt payments, and build greater share of wallet among members.

The possibilities are limitless when it comes to creating the right experiential learning opportunities for members. And science supports their effectiveness in shaping behavior. What are you passionate about? How will you send yourself, your employees, or your members to Chile? We hope our documentary of this colloquium helps you get started.

This report is sponsored by the National Credit Union Foundation and CO-OP Financial Services.