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Teaching and Learning Forum 2008 [ Refereed papers ]
Problem based learning for first year students: Perspectives from students and laboratory demonstrators

Natasha Teakle
School of Plant Biology
The University of Western Australia

Problem based learning (PBL) is a teaching approach developed over 30 years ago and involves students undertaking a less structured 'task' set in a relevant context. Students work in small groups to identify the knowledge or skills that they must attain to approach the task. PBL encourages independent learning, critical thinking and many other skills valued by employers, such as working effectively in teams. Despite the reported benefits of PBL, it has not been widely implemented at universities, particularly at first year level where it is perceived to be too challenging for students. This study assessed the implementation of a PBL format in a first year biology practical class at The University of Western Australia. 135 students and 8 demonstrators were surveyed and their responses to the PBL task analysed. The survey results indicate that students were generally positive about the PBL task, they did not find it too challenging and particularly liked the 'team work' aspect. Some students initially found the lack of direction and defined outcomes difficult, while others found adapting to group dynamics a challenge. The demonstrators' perception of the PBL format was variable. Some found this teaching method successful and beneficial for students. Others were uncomfortable with their role change from 'teacher' to 'facilitator' and did not see benefits in using PBL. The survey results indicate that PBL can be successfully implemented on a small scale and PBL is not too challenging for first year students. The results highlight the need for both students and staff to be well trained in the theory of PBL for its implementation to be successful.


Problem based learning (PBL) is a controversial topic amongst academics and education leaders. Despite the debate about PBL, it is not a new approach to teaching. The concept of PBL has existed for decades, particularly in medical education. In the late 1960s, PBL was first introduced at McMaster University Medical School in Canada (Schwartz et al, 2001). Other institutions soon followed, for example Hawkesbury Agriculture College in New South Wales, Australia (Boud, 1985). Today, PBL has been incorporated in the curricula of a variety of courses such as science, social work, engineering, architecture, business, law, economics, management, education, mathematics, as well as some secondary schools (Boud, 1985; Aldred et al, 1997; Fogarty, 1997; Dahlgren et al, 1998; Davis and Harden, 1999; Schwartz et al, 2001; Anderson and Glew, 2002; Savery, 2006; Evans and Jayasuriya, 2007). Reasons cited by these authors for the adoption of PBL include the need for graduating students to fulfill the demands of industry and community by being able to adapt to change, communicate effectively, manage information and develop skills for lifelong learning.

There are several definitions of PBL in the literature, but its principle involves designing a task for students as the source of learning, and setting it in a context that may be relevant in the 'real world'. The task is often a 'less structured' problem or scenario (often interdisciplinary) that provides a focal point for student learning. The problem should confuse the students just enough to provoke curiosity (Ward and Lee, 2002). Students are encouraged to determine what they do not know, and the resources they need to access, in order to learn for themselves (Shelton and Smith, 1998). PBL involves students working in small groups supported by tutors or laboratory demonstrators, with the emphasis being 'learner centered' rather than 'teacher centered' (Aldred et al., 1997). This approach enables the learners to conduct research, integrate theory and practice, and apply knowledge and skills while developing solutions to the defined problem (Savery, 2006). The intentions of PBL are to change the teacher's role from a 'transmission' perspective to an 'interaction' oriented approach (Dahlgren et al., 1998). The change in the teacher's role has been well described as:

PBL is not merely a teaching method; it is rather a re-orientation in the sense that learning is made the main activity, and teaching is considered as a support activity for learning (Dahlgren, 1993)
These are the general concepts of PBL, and the approach can be used in many different applications. It is likely that even the less 'pure' forms of PBL are likely to confer many of the benefits of true PBL (Schwartz et al, 2001).

The general concepts of PBL distinguish the approach from other teaching methods; however, there is often still confusion about the difference between PBL and problem solving. The key distinction is that problem solving requires students to use prior knowledge to find a solution, where as in PBL the knowledge arises from the problem itself (Davis and Harden, 1999). Thus, the problems in PBL are designed to stimulate learning and so the concepts are uncovered by the problem, rather than the focus on actually solving the problem (Walton and Matthews, 1989; Schwartz et al, 2001). The main difference is that in problem solving, the problems are used as the context for applying previously learned information, whereas in PBL the problems are used to stimulate learning.

There are several reasons why PBL may be a more effective teaching method than just teaching problem solving skills. PBL promotes lifelong learning by making knowledge relevant and in context (Aldred et al, 1997). Students develop reasoning and critical thinking more efficiently than by traditional methods of largely rote learning (Walton and Matthews, 1989). This is done by encouraging students to understand different interpretations of problems from various perspectives, which develops a 'deep approach' to learning (Dahlgren and Oberg, 2001). PBL also enables students to develop skills that are highly valued in the professional world; such as negotiation, research and presentation skills, absorption of new ideas, adaptation to change, and working collaboratively (Savin-Baden, 2000; Ward and Lee, 2002). Most importantly, the literature suggests that students clearly prefer this approach (e.g. Norman, 1988; Bridges and Hallinger, 1997; Shelton and Smith, 1998; Anderson and Glew, 2002). PBL integrates learning: knowledge is gained in a relevant context making it more interesting for students, and hence motivating them to learn for themselves.

The benefits of PBL as an effective approach to learning have been well described, yet PBL is still not widely implemented across universities. This has probably been mainly due to a lack of understanding about what PBL involves, and the cultural changes it requires from teachers who are used to traditional lecture based, 'rote learning' approaches to teaching. Some teachers are less willing to change from lecture based instruction where they are in control and the 'expert' that dispenses information and need to be motivated to put in the time to develop PBL (Ward and Lee, 2002). Teachers are often concerned that key content will be missed in PBL courses and they have difficulty in controlling the students' factual knowledge (Dahlgren et al, 1998). Studies have found that PBL students may not perform as well on multiple choice tests as students taught by lecture based instruction, but PBL students will have better long term knowledge retention and better problem solving skills (Ward and Lee, 2002; Savery, 2006). The implementation of PBL is also restricted by institutional constraints, lack of available resources and time costs (Dahlgren, 1993; Aldred et al, 1997; Davis and Harden, 1999; Ward and Lee, 2002). The perception of increased workload was confirmed in a recent study that found staff workload had increased with the implementation of PBL (Evans and Jayasuriya, 2007). However, another study at a medical school found that PBL could be implemented with the same amount of human resources, but utilised in a different way (Anderson and Glew, 2002). Another concern is that first year undergraduate science classes are often extremely large and thus impractical for PBL (Aldred et al, 1997). Most of the factors described above that may adversely affect the implementation of PBL should be considered as challenges, rather than barriers that cannot be overcome (Aldred et al, 1997).

The purpose of this study was to examine the implementation of a PBL exercise in a first year biology practical class. PBL is often perceived to be 'too hard' for first year students who are not used to critical thinking and learning for themselves. This study gathered students' perceptions of PBL and assessed how demonstrators responded to the change in teaching method. In addition, this investigation identified some of the problems affecting the successful implementation of PBL and how these might be overcome.

The case study

To study the implementation of PBL, a practical class was chosen from a first year biology unit in second semester at The University of Western Australia (UWA). The practical involved students identifying different animal phyla from a mussel clump. Previously, the same practical had been taught using a traditional approach where the students were given step by step instructions on how to complete the practical exercise In 2007, the practical class was delivered using a PBL format and was conducted over two weeks (i.e. 2 x 3 h sessions). The objectives of the exercise, and explanation of the PBL approach to teaching and learning, was provided verbally to all students by their demonstrators at the commencement of the first practical session. Although this is a small scale application of PBL, it provided the opportunity to assess student reactions to PBL without the commitment to implementing it across a whole unit or curriculum.

All students in the unit (150) were surveyed after completing the second week of the PBL exercise. 135 surveys were returned. This gave an adequate sample size to assess students' perceptions of PBL as applied in this practical class. The eight demonstrators for the practical were also surveyed to gain their perceptions on how students respond to PBL exercises and to elicit suggestions on how to improve the implementation of PBL. The demonstrators in this survey had been given a brief overview and handouts of what PBL involves.

Do students understand what PBL actually involves?

Students were initially asked to rate their understanding of what they think PBL involves. As shown in Figure 1, most students thought they had an average, good or excellent understanding of what PBL involves, with only 7% of the students surveyed admitting to a poor or fair understanding of PBL. Interestingly, when the students were then asked to describe PBL, only 21% could accurately explain what PBL involves. Another 56% of the students surveyed had a basic understanding of PBL, with most of the responses mentioning 'problem solving' or 'group work'. So, while the majority of the students had a basic understanding of PBL after completing the exercise, 23% of students were still unsure of what PBL involves and this is likely to have affected their reaction to the PBL exercise. While students were given a brief overview of PBL theory by their demonstrators at the start of the practical, the effectiveness of that introduction is likely to depend on the understanding of PBL by the particular demonstrator.

Figure 1

Figure 1: First year biology students' rating of their understanding of problem
based learning (PBL) after two 3 hour practical sessions using the PBL approach

Does PBL compromise learning objectives?

One of the criticisms of PBL is that the learning objectives are often compromised (e.g. Dahlgren et al, 1998). However, when students were asked to identify the most important thing learned in the practical, 66% responded with reference to the practical content. The most common response related to understanding the diversity of phyla in the mussel clump, which was a key learning outcome. For the students who did not respond in relation to the laboratory content, the majority of responses were associated with 'teamwork' as the most important aspect learnt. To further assess if the learning objectives of the practical were compromised by implementing a PBL exercise, students were asked if the PBL exercise helped them to think more widely about the concepts presented (Figure 2). About 50% of students thought that the exercise helped them understand the concepts presented, while 30% were unsure. This may indicate that the latter students were uncertain about how the PBL approach was helping them understand the practical theory. What the students may not have been aware of is that the skills they were developing through the PBL process are both knowledge based and process based (Savery, 2006).

Figure 2

Figure 2: First year biology students' response to the question 'Did the
PBL exercise help you think more widely about the concepts presented?'

What do the students think about PBL?

The aim of this survey was to collect responses from the students about what they liked about the PBL practical, but also to identify aspects that they did not enjoy. The most common student responses are summarised in Table 1. A common theme throughout the surveys was 'teamwork'. This was the aspect of the PBL exercise that the majority of students enjoyed the most. More importantly, while students enjoyed the teamwork aspect, they were also developing key interpersonal skills in communication, negotiation and collaboration through working in groups. Team work was also the most enjoyable aspect for students when PBL was implemented in an engineering department (Evans and Jayasuriya, 2007). However, while the majority of students enjoyed the team work aspect, for some this was the most challenging part of PBL. Dealing with group dynamics is often a common problem in PBL, but this is also a common problem faced in everyday life and most work places. To assist first year students with teamwork skills, guidelines for working in groups could be supplied and students could be included in the process of group formation (Aldred et al, 1997).

Table 1: Top 10 student likes and dislikes about the PBL practical in first year biology
(Values in parentheses indicate the number of students with that particular response.)

Aspects students like about PBLAspects students dislike about PBL
1.Teamwork (57)Task not clear, lack of structure (24)
2.Observing live animals (24)Relying on others, group work (14)
3.Hands on practical (22)Time consuming (12)
4.Independence, freedom, using initiative(18)Lack of direction initially (11)
5.The learning experience (13)Assessment unclear (8)
6.Learning about classification (8)Not knowing if made mistakes (4)
7.Research (7)No clear objectives, problem vague (4)
8.Meeting new people (5)Not being able to ask questions (3)
9.Fun (2)Bringing the information together (3)
10.Self motivated (2)Groups poorly put together (3)

The survey responses indicated that students enjoyed the freedom that the PBL exercise gave them in being able to use their initiative and be more independent. As PBL is more 'learner based' than 'teacher based', students are treated as 'colleagues' in the learning process, and by giving them freedom they may also be more motivated. Self motivation is essential in the resource finding and other self directed learning that are integral to PBL (Watson and Matthews, 1989). A survey of students in a first year undergraduate science laboratory also found that students enjoy PBL based practicals (Shelton and Smith, 1998). The findings from their survey were similar to the results of this study, in that the students found the task oriented project 'relevant', it gave them the chance to use their 'initiative' and they enjoyed working in teams.

Despite the overall positive responses from students to the PBL practical, there were some aspects they did not enjoy. The main concern was that the task was not clear and that there was a lack of structure to the laboratory class, making them initially unclear on what direction to take. These are common problems associated with PBL, particularly when students are not accustomed to this style of learning. Some of the negative responses, that are more likely due to poor implementation of PBL rather than the concept of PBL itself, include 'assessment unclear' or 'time consuming'. However, as this was the first year the practical had been modified to a PBL format, it is likely that sufficient time might not have been allocated to complete the tasks or to modify the assessment before the class was conducted. Most students rated the implementation of PBL in this practical as average, good or excellent (Figure 3).

Figure 3

Figure 3: The first year biology students' ratings of the implementation
of PBL in an exercise across 2 consecutive, 3 hour practical sessions

Is PBL suitable for first year students?

The implementation of PBL into first year science courses has been slowed by the perception that first year students will find this method of learning too difficult (e.g. Aldred et al, 1997). Yet in this study, only 8% of the students surveyed found the exercise too challenging. This is similar to a survey by Oliver (2005), who found that 90% of the students responded positively to the level of challenge in a PBL exercise for a first year communications unit. First year students are less likely to have preconceived ideas about university learning styles. In later years, when students are used to conventional teaching methods, they might find it harder to adapt to an alternative teaching method. First year students may respond more positively to PBL than students in higher levels, as it provides a more active role for them in the learning process (Bridges and Hallinger, 1997). While most students in this survey did not find the PBL practical too challenging, only 50% of the students surveyed thought PBL would be useful in other laboratory classes, while 33% of students were unsure if it would be useful. These differences in responses are most likely due to individual learning styles.

What did the demonstrators think of PBL?

One of the most surprising outcomes from the surveys was the variability in the responses from the demonstrators. Some do not agree with the concept of PBL, and it is likely that this would have been reflected in their teaching of the laboratory exercise and may have affected the students' response to PBL. Other demonstrators were very positive about the PBL process, thought it was successfully implemented in the practical, and that this method provides many benefits for students.

The demonstrators rated their own understanding of PBL as average or good, and 3 of the 8 demonstrators had previously taught a PBL exercise. When asked what they think PBL involves, two of the demonstrators did not seem to understand the PBL process, and this is likely to have affected their teaching of the practical and hence how the students perceived PBL. Half of the demonstrators had also run the same practical in the previous year when PBL was not yet implemented. Of these, one demonstrator thought the laboratory practical had improved, as it 'made students think and not just ask automatically'. From the demonstrators who responded that the laboratory practical had not improved, one thought it had 'remained more or less the same', while the other demonstrator explained that 'the students didn't get as much out of it because they were not sure exactly what they had to do'. However, the demonstrators all agreed that the implementation of PBL in this practical was average or better.

The demonstrators were further divided on several aspects of the PBL exercise, as summarised in Table 2. While most demonstrators (75%) thought the PBL exercise encouraged critical thinking, they were also unsure if it improved the students understanding of the concepts presented. Two demonstrators thought the PBL exercise was too challenging for the students, while half thought it was appropriate for first year students and should be applied to more practicals at UWA.

Table 2: Demonstrators' perceptions of first year biology student responses to the PBL practical class

QuestionDemonstrator response
Did PBL improve the students' understanding of the concepts presented?116
Were students encouraged to critically think?611
Was the PBL exercise too challenging for the students?242
Is PBL appropriate for first year students?422
Would you prefer more PBL based student labs at UWA?422

Despite some of the differing opinions amongst the demonstrators on PBL, their responses to the question regarding the best parts of the PBL exercise for the students were aligned with the theory of PBL, and this concurred with the student responses. The demonstrators' comments included 'group work', 'more responsibility', 'thinking outside the learning objectives' and, most importantly, students were 'encouraged to think for themselves so more likely to retain information'. The aspects of the PBL exercise that the demonstrators thought were most challenging for the students were similar to other reported challenges of PBL and corresponded to the aspects the students also did not enjoy. Comments from the demonstrators included 'not having a clear idea what to do' and 'unused to defining their own objectives', which are commonly reported challenges associated with PBL. For example, Bridges and Hallinger (1997) found that PBL provides the flexibility for some students to identify their own learning goals, while other students are often frustrated about not knowing if they are learning the right things. This is when the demonstrator's role as 'facilitator' is critical to direct students towards the learning outcomes.

Attitudes: the unknown variable affecting the successful implementation of PBL

Students are individuals

No matter what teaching strategies are employed, it will always be a challenge to cater for all learning styles. Students are individuals; some prefer the independence of 'self learning', while others prefer to be 'spoon fed' the knowledge they need to acquire. PBL can be challenging for students who prefer to work alone (Schwartz et al, 2001). While these students were found to be the minority in the present study, their needs must still be taken into consideration. Participants should be prompted to recognise that the quiet student may be an asset to the group, while the demonstrator should encourage these students to participate and contribute in discussions, and thus attempt to avoid silence being taken as assent (Walton and Matthews, 1989). Other studies have also found large variability among students in how well they adapt to the PBL approach (Shelton and Smith, 1998; Oliver, 2005). Often PBL relies on group dynamics to help the less able students. However, it is also critical for demonstrators to identify struggling students early through observing group interactions, and encourage their participation.

Differences in age and life experience will also occur in student classes. In the present study, some mature age students did not enjoy the group aspect of the PBL practical. One of the comments made was that they were 'thinking for and motivating the 'kids''. In another study, it was found that mature students can take too much control and allocate more simple tasks to younger group members (Schwartz et al, 2001). In contrast, a study by Aldred et al (1997) found mature aged students actually benefited more from a PBL approach compared with traditional learning. They found that mature aged students were able to draw on their greater life experiences and apply it to the PBL situation. Monitoring of the group dynamics by the demonstrators should again assist with balancing the contributions from all participants.

Demonstrators are also individuals!

As much as academic staff would like all tutors to teach the material uniformly, tutors are of course individuals. The demonstrator may be the 'unplanned variable' that will influence group processes during a PBL exercise (Aldred et al, 1997). Their perceptions of PBL are likely to be influenced by their previous experiences and how well they are trained in the theory and teaching of PBL. In this study, some demonstrators commented that the PBL exercise made their teaching of the laboratory 'easier' and that it was a 'good experience'. Others seemed frustrated by their 'reduced input to students' and having to adapt to their role of a 'facilitator instead of just a source of information'. As most of the demonstrators in this unit have had none to very little experience in teaching PBL, it is not surprising that some found it difficult to adapt to such a different teaching method.

In large classes where a number of demonstrators are employed, there are often problems associated with the consistency of demonstrators in how the student groups are managed (Aldred et al, 1997). However, all demonstrators should be encouraged to enhance the students' self motivation and independence. This is one of the aspects the students most enjoyed about PBL in the current study. In PBL, the student needs to identify what skills they require to solve the problem. The demonstrator should then be available to help them with the method, as often specific training is needed, for example in laboratory techniques.

The true aim of the teacher is to impart an appreciation of method rather than knowledge of facts, for method is remembered when facts have been forgotten, and method can be used when there are too few facts (Walton and Matthews, 1989)
It is a mistake for demonstrators to think their role will be reduced in PBL, rather that it will be a different role. Instead of just being a 'transmitter of knowledge', the demonstrator should be kept busy asking leading and open ended questions, pushing for explanations, identifying knowledge gaps, helping to generate and evaluate hypotheses, monitoring progress and encouraging reflection (Aldred et al., 1997; Hmelo-Silver and Barrows, 2006). The demonstrator should not be a passive observer, rather they should be active and directive about the learning process. Most importantly, the demonstrators need to encourage a positive attitude amongst the students, and this can only be done if they also approach the task as a positive learning experience for themselves.

Training is essential for staff involved in PBL, particularly the demonstrators who will be directly facilitating the process for the students. Demonstrators need to have a thorough understanding of the PBL process, good facilitation skills and knowledge of the course (Davis and Harden, 1999). The demonstrators in this survey had been given a brief overview and a handout of what PBL involves, which may have been sufficient for one practical. However, if PBL were to be implemented into more practical classes in this unit, then more extensive training for the demonstrators would be recommended to ensure students receive the full benefits of PBL. When PBL was implemented at the University of Queensland, it was recognised the need for ongoing professional development of academics and tutors in PBL (Aldred et al, 1997). Similarly, when PBL was recently implemented in the engineering curriculum at Victoria University, it was highlighted that staff need to be trained adequately in managing group dynamics, but also that training is essential for a cultural change in their thinking about teaching and learning (Evans and Jayasuriya, 2007). However, as is often the case, the cost and time involved in training staff may be seen by some university departments as a limiting factor to the implementation of PBL.


The results of this survey identified a positive attitude overall towards PBL from the students in a first year biology practical class. Some students were initially confused about the concept of PBL and how to approach the task. Most students enjoyed the teamwork aspect of the task and relished the independent learning that PBL offers. The exercise was not too challenging for them, yet many were unsure if they were achieving the learning outcomes. The results of the student surveys agreed with the literature, that in general students perceive PBL in a positive light but they, like their demonstrators, need training in the process of problem analysis and group management (Shelton and Smith, 1998).

This study identified training of the academic staff and demonstrators as a major factor affecting the success of PBL. The surveys from the demonstrators for this practical showed obvious differences in their understanding of what PBL involves and also conflicting attitudes towards PBL. This is a common problem, particularly when PBL is introduced to staff who are used to more conventional teaching methods.

I don't understand this problem based curriculum, but I know it won't work. (Unidentified department chairman quoted by Abrahmson, 1997, cited in Schwartz et al 2001)
As mentioned previously, extensive training of staff is often not financially viable in university departments. A solution could be to develop a staff mentoring and support role; for example to assist with problem design (c.f. Aldred et al, 1997). Academic staff who decide to implement PBL need to ensure their demonstrators are supported and encourage a positive approach to PBL for both the students and staff involved. One of the challenges is that the title 'problem based learning' is itself not positive! I think the connotation of the word 'problem' is negative and would prefer the 'problems' to be referred to as 'tasks' or 'scenarios'. Walton and Matthews (1989) proposed an alternative title to PBL of 'learning in a functional context'. I feel that this is a better alternative and more representative of the outcomes that PBL aims to achieve. Although the term PBL is now too widely used for any name change to be successful, when explaining this method to students they are more likely to relate to the term 'learning in a functional context' and respond more positively to the set tasks.

This study has found that PBL can be successfully implemented on a small scale. Students are likely to benefit from a wider application of PBL, however factors such as institutional restrictions, unit outcomes, staff motivation and training, availability of resources and the learning context are likely to impact on the implementation of PBL (Davis and Harden, 1999). The perceived disadvantage of large numbers in first year undergraduate classes should also not be seen as a deterrent to the implementation of PBL. For example, Oliver (2005) successfully introduced PBL into a first year communications course with large numbers by using a combination of web based PBL exercises, workshops and lectures. The recommendations made by Aldred et al (1997) for implementing PBL were all underpinned by 'a continuing need to promote a culture of learning and teaching and reflection on educational processes'. Even by considering PBL, teachers will be motivated to reflect on their own teaching methods and how well they motivate students to learn and prepare for their future careers. Despite the reported benefits of PBL, it does require teachers, students and administrators to change from 'traditional' teaching methods. More importantly, it is likely to require a change in attitude, which is probably the greatest challenge of all in the implementation of PBL.


I would like to acknowledge CATL at UWA for allowing me to participate in the postgraduate teaching internship program and in particular thank Tama Leaver. Thanks to Sue Miller and Tim Colmer for comments on the draft of this manuscript and to Coral Pepper for help on PBL. I would also like to thank all the students and demonstrators from the marine invertebrates practical class for completing the surveys and the unit coordinator Jane Prince. Special thanks to Hai Ngo for collecting the surveys and assistance in the practicals.


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Author: Natasha Teakle is a PhD student in the School of Plant Biology and CRC Salinity. Her research is focusing on the physiological and molecular mechanisms of salt tolerance in a perennial pasture legume. In 2007 she was awarded a UWA teaching internship. In Semester 1 she lectured in a pastures unit and in Semester 2 she has been involved in improving the practical classes for a first year biology unit. Email: teakln01@student.uwa.edu.au

Please cite as: Teakle, N. (2008). Problem based learning for first year students: Perspectives from students and laboratory demonstrators. In Preparing for the graduate of 2015. Proceedings of the 17th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 30-31 January 2008. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://otl.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2008/refereed/teakle.html

Copyright 2008 Natasha Teakle. The author assigns to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.

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