June 2003 // Volume 41 // Number 3 // Research in Brief // 3RIB6

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Investing For Your Future: Feedback from and Impact upon Learners

Investing For Your Future is a Cooperative Extension basic investing home study course that is being used nationwide. The article describes a study of characteristics and behaviors of a convenience sample of 195 print and online course participants. Specific topics included are: feedback about the course's level and content, reported savings by participants, knowledge gained, and behavior changes made or planned by users as a result of taking the course. The article concludes with five implications for Extension educators.

Barbara O'Neill
Professor and Family & Consumer Sciences Educator
Interim Extension Specialist in Financial Resource Management
Rutgers Cooperative Extension
Newton, New Jersey
Internet Address: oneill@aesop.rutgers.edu


Investing For Your Future is a Cooperative Extension System basic investing home study course available in both print (contact nraes@cornell.edu to order print copies) and the Internet at <http://www.investing.rutgers.edu/>. It is one of the major outreach methods of the Extension Financial Security in Later Life national initiative. Investing For Your Future includes 11 units, "action steps" at the end of each unit that encourage readers to make behavioral changes, and a comprehensive glossary of investment terms.

The course begins with basic topics such as setting goals, investment principles, and "finding" money to invest. It then discusses specific types of investments, including stocks, fixed-income securities, and mutual funds, as well as tax-deferred investing and investments available for $1,000 or less. The last three units cover investor resources, how to select professional financial advisors, and information about types and warning signs of investment fraud.


The purpose of the study discussed here was to identify characteristics and behaviors of Investing For Your Future course participants, obtain feedback about the course's level and content, and determine knowledge gained and behavior changes made or planned by users as a result of taking the course. The study was funded by a grant from The Foundation For Financial Planning.


A convenience sample of 195 respondents, of which 127 were online home study course users and 68 were readers of the print version, completed a survey instrument. The 127 online users represented 16.9% of the 752 usable surveys (15 more were returned) sent to registered online home study course users as of June 1, 2001. The 68 surveys from print version readers were collected by Cooperative Extension faculty in three states, Arizona, Florida, and New Jersey, who responded to an open call for surveys.

Participants were asked to complete demographic questions, provide an overall rating of Investing For Your Future, and describe their assessment of the level of course content and their prior investment experience. Questions were also asked about the usefulness of each course unit and increased savings, if any, since completing the course. In addition, participants were asked to identify their behavior with respect to 15 investment-related action items recommended in the Investing For Your Future course (e.g., determining federal marginal tax bracket).

For each action, respondents had four options to choose: yes [action taken], no[action not taken], plan to do, and did before course. Finally, participants were asked to identify what they had learned as a result of taking the course and their planned financial changes. Open-ended responses were coded into categories by two independent data coders, and up to three responses were recorded per respondent. Surveys were collected through June and July, 2001.


Readers of the investment home study course were predominantly middle-aged, with 3.1% under 25, 16.7% age 25 to 34, 17.7% age 35 to 44, 29.2% age 45-54, 21.3% age 55 to 64, 8.3% age 65 to 74, and 3.9% age 75 and over. Over half (53.7%) had a 4-year or advanced college degree, and 36.84% had a 2-year degree, some college, or attended a post-secondary trade school. Slightly over half (55.3%) were female, and 85.1% were White. African Americans comprised 9% of the sample.

A quarter of the respondents were single with no dependents, and 5.9% were single with dependents. Another 37.7% and 31.4% were married with no dependents and with dependents, respectively. Household incomes were predominantly middle income, with 22.9% earning $30,001 to $45,000 and 21.9% earning $45,001 to $65,000. Other percentages were 3.8% under $15,000, 11.5% between $15,000 and $30000, 17.5% between $65,001 and $80,000, 11.5% between $80,001 and $100,000, and 10.9% above $100,000. Over half (51.3%) of respondents indicated "some" prior investing experience, versus 10.5%, 28.3%, and 9.9%, who indicated "a lot," "a little," and "none."

Course Feedback

Overall ratings of the home study course were positive, with 45.4% and 44.3% of respondents ranking it "very valuable" and "valuable," respectively. Every unit was rated "very helpful" or "extremely helpful" by over half of the course readers. The five units ranked the highest were Unit 8 (Investing With Small Dollar Amounts), Unit 6 (Investing in Mutual Funds), Unit 2 (Investing Basics), Unit 4 (Equity Investing), and Unit 5 (Fixed-Income Investing).

Of the 195 respondents, 128 (70%) reported that they had saved or invested money since completing the course. The median savings amount was $1,800, and the mode (most frequently reported amount) was $1,000.

The level of content of the course was rated as basic by 70.2% of respondents, while 1.7% described it as very basic, 27.5% as somewhat advanced, and .6% as very advanced. Chi-square tests were conducted between the three variables related to: overall rating of the Investing For Your Future course, assessment of the level of course content, and respondents' prior investment experience. Chi-square is a measure of association between categorical variables and is used to test the null hypothesis that two variables are statistically independent. A 5% significance level was used to report these findings.

Chi-square tests found that the overall evaluation of the course and assessment of the content are associated. Respondents who assessed the content as somewhat advanced or very advanced were more likely than others to rate the course as "very valuable" (60% vs. 40%). Tests also showed that investing experience and assessment of course content were associated. For example, 53% of respondents with no investing experience considered the content basic versus 100% of those with a lot of experience.

Chi-square tests were done to test demographic differences in reactions to the course. Females were more likely than males to report that Unit 6 (Investing in Mutual Funds) was extremely helpful (34% vs. 17%). Whites were less likely than non-whites to report that Unit 7 (Tax-Deferred Investments) was extremely helpful (21% vs. 29%). No difference was found between online and print course respondents in terms of their evaluations of the course.

Prior investment experience may be related to respondents' evaluation of course content, however. When evaluating 7 of 11 units, respondents who responded "none" for experience were more likely than those with a lot of experience to indicate that the units were extremely helpful, as shown in the Table 1.

Table 1.
Perceived Helpfulness of Investing For Your Future by Investment Experience

Course Unit

% Respondents with a Lot of Investment Experience

% Respondents with No Investment Experience

Unit 1 is extremely helpful



Unit 2 is extremely helpful



Unit 4 is extremely helpful



Unit 5 is extremely helpful



Unit 6 is extremely helpful



Unit 7 is extremely helpful



Unit 8 is extremely helpful



New Knowledge and Planned Action

The results for participants who responded to the question about knowledge gained ("As a result of this course, I learned") are shown in Table 2 in order of frequency.

Table 2.
Information Learned by Investing For Your Future Participants

Information Learned

Percentage of Sample

Mutual funds


Specific investment products other than mutual funds


Investment basics


Finding money to invest


Basic financial concepts


Tax-deferred/retirement investing


Investment clubs and investor resources


A personal change in attitude/knowledge


Investment fraud


Choosing financial advisors






A personal change in behavior


Other responses


The results for participants who responded to the question about planned action (As a result of this course, I plan to. . .") are shown in Table 3 in order of frequency.

Table 3.
Planned Action by Investing For Your Future Participants

Planned Action

Percentage of Sample

General investment action, such as invest more and invest wisely


Start/improve an IRA


An action already taken


Invest in mutual funds


Start/improve employer retirement plan investments


Review finances and investments


Increase knowledge level/read more


Diversify portfolio


Hire a financial advisor


Research investments


Decrease expenses/budget


Invest in a named product other than mutual funds


Start an investment club


Share IFYF information with others


Other responses


Chi-square tests, using a 5% level of significance, were conducted to explore associations between what respondents said they learned and what they planned to do, in other words, whether respondents' perceived behavioral changes were dependent on their learning experience about investing. There were several direct behavioral associations, which provide evidence to conclude that planned changes can be attributed to the knowledge gained by participating in the investing home study course. For example, respondents who said they learned about choosing financial advisors were more likely than others to hire financial advisors (33% vs. 3%), and respondents who learned about mutual funds were more likely than others to invest in mutual funds (18% vs. 7%).

The same was also true for those who reported learning about "investments other than mutual funds." They were more likely than others to invest in a named investment product other than mutual funds (9% vs. 2%). Respondents who learned "tax-deferred/retirement investing" were more likely to start or improve employer retirement plan investments (57% vs. 4%), and respondents who learned about investment basics and investment clubs and investor resources were more likely than others to increase their knowledge/read more (19% vs. 4%, 30% vs. 5%).

Behavior Change

Respondents were asked to identify their behavior with respect to 15 specific investment practices that were recommended in the action steps at the end of each unit of Investing For Your Future.

Table 4  indicates the percentage of respondents who indicated (yes), or did not indicate (no), that they had performed specific practices as a result of completing the course, as well as those who planned to take action and those that had already taken these actions before the course.

Table 4.
Actions Taken and Planned by Investing For Your Future Participants

Action Item



Plan to Do

Did Before Course

Reduced expenses to "find money" to invest





Established an emergency reserve fund





Calculated personal net worth and/or cash flow





Set specific financial goals (with date & cost)





Determined amount of money needed to achieve goals





Established dollar-cost averaging investment plan





Increased amount of money invested monthly





Investigated specific investments





Purchased one or more new investments





Investigated investments available through employer





Determined federal marginal tax bracket





Used one or more new investor resources (e.g., books, magazines, Web sites)





Joined or started an investment club





Consulted one or more financial professionals





Learned more about investment fraud





The top three actions taken, as a result of completing the course, were using new investor resources (63.4%), learning more about investment fraud (56.1%), and investigating specific investments (48.9%). The top three actions that were planned were determining the amount of money needed to achieve goals (37.0%), setting specific goals with a date and cost (34.5%), and increasing the amount of money invested monthly (30.9%).    

Summary and Implications

Investing for Your Future Is Positively Affecting Participants

Almost 9 of 10 respondents rated the Investing For Your Future course as very valuable or valuable to them personally. Chi-square analyses showed evidence that new information learned by respondents was associated with a corresponding behavior change.

Diversity of Audience Outreach Can Be Improved

Respondents were predominantly middle-aged, well educated, and White, with relatively high household incomes compared to typical Americans. This suggests a strong need to market the home study course to more diverse audiences and have it translated into other languages.

The Level of Course Content Is On Target

A course that was developed and subtitled as "A Cooperative Extension System Basic Investing Home Study Course" was perceived as basic by 7 in 10 respondents. This indicates that it is meeting a need for educating beginning investors and those with small dollar amounts to invest. On the other hand, over a quarter of the sample viewed the course as somewhat or very advanced. Interestingly, however, this perception was associated with a "very valuable," rating as if to indicate that those readers liked having a challenge.

Emphasizing Action Steps Appears to Result in Action

A key component of the Investing For Your Future home study course is "action steps" at the end of each unit. When these same action steps were listed as financial practices for respondents to report behavioral change, it was obvious that many had translated the course information into tangible behavioral changes. Thus "action steps" are recommended for future Extension programs and publications.

Learners Need Help with Planned Behavior Changes

The top five planned behavioral changes, in order of frequency, were:

  • Determining amount of money needed to achieve goals,
  • Setting specific goals with a date and a cost,
  • Increasing the amount of money saved monthly,
  • Purchasing one or more new investments, and
  • Establishing a dollar-cost averaging investment plan.

Programs and educational materials (e.g., online financial calculators) should be developed to address these topics.

Caution should be used about generalizing the results of the study, however. The convenience sample represents only a small fraction of an unknown quantity of Investing For Your Future home study course users. There may be "selection bias" if those readers who are most successful financially completed a survey. Nevertheless, there is ample evidence of financial progress and changed behavior as a result of this national Extension program.