Teaching credit classes:

challenges & solutions

 

 

Credit is a very complicated topic that's hard to teach.

When you consider that much of the credit industry is built on the FICO score and the formula to get a FICO score is a secret and is very complicated with what it measures and how, it can be really difficult to teach the topic. The Good Credit Game's "build as you go" process starts the class off with a basic understanding of credit, making the analogy to trustworthiness when loaning money to a friend and whether that friend will pay it back. The successive modules and credit lesson plans walk students through a logical path to understanding what credit is, why it matters, what a credit report and credit score are and how they’re related, how scores and reports are used and how reports and scores can affect how much money you have and what things will cost for you. And it does this all in a spirit of fun.

Students think of financial education classes as dry and boring and don't want to be there. The nature of explaining credit can mean relying on PowerPoint, lectures and worksheets—which don't usually engage students.

It can be a challenge to make financial education classes engaging. Often students are not choosing to be there because they want to be there but are there because they were told to be there, which makes for a difficult atmosphere. In lieu of PowerPoint, lecture and worksheets, The Good Credit Game relies on a series of hands-on group activities to get students active, engaged and entertained. The small-group format and fun nature of the activities creates an atmosphere where students are talking, laughing and learning. And many of the questions and scenarios are purposefully meant to be funny, to make people laugh while they're working. Also, we very consciously designed the credit class so that the very first activity is very energizing and upbeat so it doesn't get bogged down in too much lecture early on.

It's hard to feel like an expert and hard to feel confident teaching a credit class when the topic is so important but so complicated.

If there's one thing we discovered in creating The Good Credit Game, it's that credit is a hard topic to master. Even the credit experts and financial educators with whom we consulted agreed that they get overwhelmed by the information and often don't know what would seem like simple answers to credit questions. To solve this issue, The Good Credit Game is designed to be a "teach out of the box" curriculum that doesn't require a financial educator to be a credit expert. The complete instructor's guide provides easy-to-follow lesson plans (with how to set up activities, what to say, and explanations for common questions that might arise). The activities are also meant to largely run themselves with minimal instruction and insight from a facilitator. And we've simplified difficult topics and terminology to make it easier for teachers and students to learn about credit.

The concept of credit and the idea of a mysterious credit score don't seem relevant in my students' eyes. Many of them have very little money, only use cash, don't own credit cards and aren't planning on making big credit purchases like a house or car soon. As a result, they aren't interested in the class and the material.

In the development of The Good Credit Game, we put the question of "Why am I in this class and why should I care about credit?" at the heart of the credit curriculum. The answer, as we've implemented it, comes in two parts:

  1. Instead of jumping right to looking at a credit report and asserting that having a good score is important, we step back and start at a more basic level. The credit class begins with making the connection between credit (in the sense of the reporting and scoring system used by the financial industry) and the more commonplace idea of being trusted to pay money back to friends and family. Building on these lessons, we start with a lesson that everyone can relate to: asking a friend for money or lending money to a friend; this is applicable to everyone whereas taking out a mortgage is not.

  2. The lessons build in a logical way to answer the question, "Why does it matter what my credit score is? How does that affect my life and how much money I have?" The activities start with the idea of trust and creditworthiness, link that to the mainstream financial credit system, clearly explain what a credit report is what it contains, make the connection between a credit report and credit score and then explain the ways that reports and scores affect one's daily life.

There is a ton of information related to credit—and a lot of it involves numbers and can be confusing and intimidating for students.

As we created materials for The Good Credit Game and tested them with focus groups, we worked really hard to simplify, simplify, simply. We wanted to make sure people understood the basics of credit, understood how to improve their credit, and felt more confident dealing with a variety of credit topics. We also wanted them to have a good, non-threatening experience with credit and be hungry to learn more and want to take another credit class or see a credit counselor to take more personalized steps. Therefore, we minimized the numbers in The Good Credit Game; students aren't required to do any math in any of the lessons. Where the terminology is complicated or full of industry jargon, we used terms that were easier to understand. All of the student materials are written at an easy-to-understand 5th-grade reading level; common credit terms and complicated financial terms are listed in the instructor's guide along with simplified definitions of them. In lieu of having people look at a sample credit report with tons of numbers, nonsensical codes and arcane abbreviations, we created our own simplified credit report which better explains what one will see in a real credit report.

There is a lot of variation in terms of who the students are in a credit class. There may be a lot of variation in a single class and from one class of students to another.

A big challenge for all financial education classes is that students are not a homogenous group; some people know a lot more than others in a single class—or a credit class on Monday may be a very different group of people with different experiences than a class that's taught on Wednesday. While our credit curriculum won't be a good fit for credit experts, it was designed to be broadly applicable for students with a wide range of credit experience and knowledge. The "learn as you go" approach layers knowledge from one hands-on activity to the next so students with very little knowledge don't have to start swimming in deep water. On the other hand, the collaborative, sharing nature of the series of educational money games means that even students who already know about credit will still be engaged. In Part II, the credit board game, the teacher can customize the questions, material and mini-lessons by choosing to add in or remove certain questions; there are 39 topics to choose from and questions are conveniently labeled as either "basic" material or more advanced. Also, the modular credit lessons let a financial educator spend more time on one section versus another, subtract lessons that aren't relevant or start further in with the material for more credit-savvy audiences.

Students may feel that financial literacy programs are judgmental and they might feel like they aren't "doing it right." The implication with being in a credit class can be, "Why do you have bad credit? Why isn't your credit better?" Even if no one is passing judgment on students, if they feel that way, it can make for a difficult teaching atmosphere for credit classes.

We felt it was very important that The Good Credit Game be done in a positive, fun atmosphere; students should feel comfortable and be willing to share. Much of the thought behind The Good Credit Game was based on a decade of learning and feedback from our Money Habitudes cards. Money Habitudes helps people understand their financial habits, attitudes, values and behaviors. Financial educators laud the learning materials for making financial literacy classes fun and non-threatening; we took many of the concepts from Money Habitudes and applied them to The Good Credit Game. There are lots of subtle but important touches that make The Good Credit Game non-threatening. A few of these include:

  • The very first activity about whether you'd make a loan to a friend with certain traits (age, debt, income, etc.) has no right and wrong answers.

  • Question cards for the board game are designed so that group members can coach other students towards the right answer.

  • None of the activities requires students to share personal information.

  • Many of the credit class activities (including the very first one) are designed as ice breakers to get people to meet each other and talk instead of feeling isolated and uninvolved.

Teaching about credit can be full of philosophical landmines. Do you advocate using credit? Should you tell people to never use credit and only use cash?

Although we are not prescriptive in saying, "You should believe _________ about credit!" we do feel that it's important that you, as a financial educator, understand where we're coming from with respect to teaching credit classes. Therefore, we clearly lay out our credit philosophy at the beginning of the instructor's guide. We think our philosophy is practical, pragmatic and mainstream, but we know that not everyone agrees with how we see credit. For example, we believe that credit can be an important asset and can help people improve their finances. We do not advocate that everyone cut up or cancel all of their credit cards. On the other hand, we don't propose that people strive single-mindedly to get a perfect 850 FICO score. In the credit curriculum, we also call out cases where something might make a lot of financial sense but could hurt your credit score.

It's hard to get people to attend classes on credit reports, credit scores and credit cards.

Admittedly, many of the factors that affect attendance are out of the scope of our credit curriculum. However, in spending years working with educators who teach financial education classes, we do think a lot about how to get more people to attend financial classes. In terms of what we've done with The Good Credit Game to increase attendance, it largely boils down to being able to confidently promote a credit class as being one where people won't just learn a lot but will also have fun and enjoy themselves. Some of the best feedback we got when testing The Good Credit Game in focus groups was that almost everyone enjoyed the class—and many people wanted to stay longer. The longer-term affect of this is that it builds a reputation of fun, engaging classes that have real value—classes that people want to return to and tell their friends about.

 

Outside of the credit curriculum and activities, it's good to think about ways to make it easier for people to want to attend and be able to attend. These include:

  • Location. Are you doing it in a spot that's centrally located? Is it easy to find? What's its reputation? (A "financial center" might sound scary but doing it at a school or church may be very appealing to people.)

  • The space. Does the room feel inviting and comfortable—or does it feel institutional? Are the chairs comfortable? Is there natural light?

  • Day and time. When are people most likely to attend your credit class? Does it make sense to do right after school? Will people come if it's held in conjunction with breakfast, lunch or dinner? Can you break up a two-hour credit class and offer it as two classes of one hour? Should you do it on a weekday or weekend? Will more of your target group come to a credit class during the summer or during the school year?

  • Transportation. How will people get to your credit class? Can you find a location where many people can walk to it? If they drive, is there adequate, safe parking—and do they know where it is? Are you located on a bus route? Can you arrange for transportation for people?

  • Child care. Can you provide child care during the credit class? Or can you do the class when kids will be in school?

  • Partners. What organization can you partner with to increase attendance? Can you do your credit class in conjunction with someone else's event or tie in with a program that someone else is already promoting? Do information clearinghouses like the local United Way, financial literacy office, housing organization, or asset building coalition know about your credit classes?

Financial educators often move from one location to another or from one classroom to another.

Because financial educators are often on the move -- from one classroom to the next or from town to town -- it's hard to use hands on materials. With this in mind, The Good Credit Game is packaged in a convenient, durable carrying bag instead of a bulky box. Also, all of the materials for an entire class fit in the bag -- including the large game boards which fold up in quarters.

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