Many educational organizations have created financial wellness programs for their students, but, according to a 2017 report, few programs focus on how their tools can really achieve the desired end result - driving positive behavior change.

Although the report studied employer-based financial wellness programs, the findings are germane to financial wellness programs provided by education institutions.

The findings show that a majority of financial wellness programs focus only on literacy, which does not drive change because these programs do not take into account that money is more than a factual matter.

Money, for most students, is also an emotional issue.

A 2018 report, Wellness is Wellness by Russell Investments1, found that when teaching about emotionally-charged money issues, financial wellness programs have to help users connect the dots from knowing what to do to knowing how to do it to actually doing what is necessary.

If a program only focuses on the first dot, then students are not likely to make any behavioral changes, much those suffering from “Freshman 15” never shed the weight despite knowing they should.

In designing financial wellness programs, the authors of Wellness is Wellness believe that organizations should draw on behavior-change theories rooted in psychology, including social cognitive theory, positive psychology, stages of change, and gamification.

Social Cognitive Theory

Social Cognitive Theory2 suggests that learning happens best not through direct experience, but by observing other people’s behavior and the consequences of that behavior.

The process involved includes:

  1. Attention: The observation of others to get information.
  2. Retention: Turning those observations into rules and concepts and then storing it in memory
  3. Reproduction: Taking the stored information and repeating the observed behaviors.
  4. Motivation: The propels the individual to do all of these steps and continue to practice the new behavior

Since social cognitive theory suggests that social interaction improves a person’s ability to change, iGrad has included a peer-to-peer community section in our financial wellness platform.

This section encourages students to ask and answer questions posed by other students in areas such as obtaining a credit card, finding the best student loans, and learning how to use a budget. 

When looking at data usage over the past 12 months, iGrad found that users who engaged with the Community peer-to-peer section of our financial wellness platform were:

  • Coming back to iGrad more often: 400% higher than the average user
  • Using more content: 800% higher than the average user
  • Scoring higher on assessments: 3-6% higher in a variety of financial wellness courses

Positive Psychology

Renowned psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D., founded Positive Psychology after using scientific methods to learn how the most satisfied, fulfilled people approached life.

He concluded that happiness has three dimensions that can be cultivated: the Pleasant Life (savor/appreciate basic pleasures), the Good Life (discover/use virtues and strengths) and the Meaningful Life (find fulfillment by using virtues/strengths for greater purpose).

Positive Psychology approaches change not from the perspective of difficulty, but rather from using strengths to create positive experiences.

At iGrad, we have integrated a Rewards API into our platform, which allows colleges and universities to reward students for completing exercises and scoring high on assessments.

Stages of Change

Stages of Change3, also known as the Transtheoretical Model, came about when studying those who tried to quit smoking in the late 1970s.

They determined that people could quit only when they were ready, bringing about a model that focuses on the decision-making process for intentional change. 

The six stages of change are:

  1. Precontemplation - Individuals do not plan on making changes in the next six months because they do not see their current behavior as an issue and do not see the benefits of change.
  2. Contemplation – People plan to make changes within the next six months, though they fear change because of any cons associated with the change.
  3. Preparation (Determination) – Here, individuals begin to take small steps toward a behavior change, believing that doing so can make them healthier and/or happier.
  4. Action – People have made changes and wish to continue either modifying behaviors or acquiring new ones.
  5. Maintenance – Individuals sustain their actions for more than six months and want to continue maintaining these behaviors. They work to keep from relapsing.
  6. Termination – In the final stage, people do not wish to return to old behaviors and believe they will not relapse. 

iGrad capitalizes on helping students take small steps that allow them to transition from contemplation to action.

Each course results in a personalized action plan, detailing specific steps the student can take to improve their situation in the area of the course topic.


Gamification4 is simply the use of game elements in non-game environments.

Put another way, it is a way of making non-game activities, such as learning about student loan debt, more fun by adding gaming activities. 

According to a study conducted by the University of Colorado6, individuals learning new skills had better results when the training included gamification:

  • Skills – 14% higher
  • Knowledge – 11% higher
  • Retention – 9% increase

Gamification hones in on a student’s desire for mastery, achievement, competition, learning, and play.

Strategies include such things as point rewards, achievement levels, badges, leaderboards, progress bar, certificates, cash, and more.

The iGrad financial wellness platform includes actual games as well as many gamification strategies.

Some include monthly challenges where students can win a $250 gift card, points given for actions taken, achievement levels, and rewards.

Students want help learning about financial topics. It makes sense for educational institutions to provide this service, but only if the program actually helps students make changes.

Platforms like iGrad will not only help students learn about financial topics but encourage them to make the needed changes using well-known and proven behavior-change theories.



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