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Course-related Learning Support: Who Benefits?

Janet Burns

Department of Educational Psychology,
Massey University,
Palmerston North,
New Zealand
Paper presented to the British Educational Research Association Conference, Lancaster,
12-15 September, 1996


Course-related learning support, designed to assist students underprepared for first-year mathematics and physical science, is offered though a learning centre at Massey University in New Zealand. This paper discusses longitudinal data, gathered by interview and questionnaire over one academic year, from students enrolled in courses supported in this way. Student decision-making related to uptake of support, perceptions of the support offered, self-esteem, attitudes to study, study approaches and performance are all examined. Who benefits and how are found to be related to the type of support selected and the time in the academic year when the support is taken up. Notions of volition and academic literacy are used to interpret findings.

Keywords: learning support, higher education, volition


Course-related learning support for underprepared students who have already been admitted to higher education programmes has developed in New Zealand from the early 1970s. It includes programmes offered to students immediately before the course or concurrently with the course during the first year. While such "supplemental instruction" is a relatively new phenomenon in New Zealand, it is familiar in the United States where larger proportions of students go on to post-compulsory study.

Expansion of higher education in New Zealand has occurred following changes to school awards in the late 1960s and consequent higher retention to senior secondary school levels. This expansion has been supported by government in recent years through policies for the promotion of lifelong learning. Students from a wider population base, especially with respect to gender, age and to some extent ethnicity, now enter higher education. In the last ten years government, together with industry, has also promoted science and technology, and students now entering science courses are also less likely to have the usual school background in these subjects. The course-related learning support which provides the context for the present study is a response to these developments.

Towards the end of the 1980s government provided funding for programmes to promote equity in higher education. Though shortlived, this funding resulted in the establishment of a number of courses and centres to support learning in universities and polytechnics around the country. The Certech Learning Centre at Massey University was one of these. It provided support for learning in mathematics, physics and chemistry including courses concurrent with papers to which students had already been admitted. With the loss of equity funding, the University was keen to examine the effectiveness of the Centre and, jointly with the New Zealand Ministry of Education, funded the study from which this paper draws (Burns with Little, 1995).

Concurrent courses took the form of group and individual tutorials offered by Centre staff in relation to particular papers, and were over and above any offered as part of the delivery of the paper by mainstream staff. Admission to these tutorials was unrestricted and, over the several years of the life of the Centre, enrolments had increased rapidly as had the number of tutorials and the number of papers in relation to which tutorials were offered. While the Centre had been set up to meet the needs of underprepared students, it appeared that those making greatest use of the Centre included particular subsets of this group, namely those able students who were underprepared through inappropriate subject-choice in their recent secondary schooling, and mature students returning to university who had either not studied the sciences or studied them so long ago that the study was irrelevant, as well as students who would not have been considered by staff to be underprepared. Weaker recent secondary school students appeared less well represented.

These trends were confirmed in the present study, which also gathered a range of quantitative data investigating relationships between tutorial attendance and student attitude to subject-study, self-esteem, approach to study and performance, and qualitative data describing student responses to the availability of learning support. This paper considers especially the question of student decision-making. Why and how do students decide to take up and continue with learning support? It is suggested that the concept of "volition" may assist in providing some coherent interpretation of the variety of data that were found individually to relate to the uptake of support. According to Snow (1989), volition together with motivation, provide a third, conative, aptitude in addition to the more familiar cognitive and affective aptitudes contributing to learning. He suggests that consideration of conative aptitudes may help us explain why some people make better use of their cognitive abilities than others.

Volition as an explanatory concept in psychology has been largely subsumed under motivation until a revival of interest in the early 1980s, outlined by Corno (1993). It has however been of more sustained interest in philosophy, where it is generally accepted as linking intention and action (Mele,1992). Whether it is an extension of "proximal intentions", as Mele would suggest, or an initial part of action (Ginet,1990; McCann,1986) remains a matter of debate, indeed Adams and Mele (1992) go so far as to question whether a distinct construct is necessary when they see the more familiar intending and trying fulfilling the same role. According to Ginet (1990), however, volition is the mental action with which one begins voluntary exertion of the body. "It is simply the willing or trying to make the exertion." (p. 15) Ginet observes that we seldom recognise volition because it is taken for granted. It is the part of action in which we experience control of the action, thus in an unfamiliar action as, in Ginet's example of a new dance step we are aware of volition, while in everyday walking, walking "automatically", we are not - though this must not be confused with the involuntary action of say the heart beating. The other part of action which we experience is the physical feeling of the action itself, the extension of the leg in dancing. Since any action is invariably comprised of a number of voluntary exertions, it is not executed in its entirety following the decision to act, with one act of volitional control. In executing a dance, for example, volition occurs with every action entailed in the dance. Ginet describes volition as a fluid mental action.

Empirical support for the role played by volition in human action is provided by Kuhl and Beckman (1994) through an extensive series of experimental studies in which the control of action is explained using a new construct action versus state orientation. The construct is measured using a three-part scale, comprising preoccupation, hesitation and volatility (Kuhl, 1994). Action-oriented individuals demonstrate volitional abilities that facilitate the planning, initiation and completion of intended activities, they exhibit high self-efficacy (the belief that one can do what one intends to do) and high self-esteem. In state-oriented individuals these abilities are impaired. Eysenck (1995) has raised doubts about the reliability of the scale and the uniqueness of the construct, but concedes that the contribution made by volatility may well be new and that the work has nevertheless been helpful in understanding behaviour in a number of areas. These areas include academic failure and depression which are particularly relevant to the present discussion.

Kuhl and Goschke (1994) propose an action control theory of decision-making which suggests a self-regulatory mechanism that serves the resolution of conflict between current intentions and emotional preferences or habitual response tendencies. Action oriented individuals have the ability to separate out options and make choices which they can relate to important underlying reasons. State oriented individuals are more likely to focus on past, present and future states and be influenced by unimportant information, such that decision-making is time-consuming. They find it difficult to make commitment and to pass from weighing options to willing action. State oriented individuals not only find it difficult to put intentions into action, having embarked on action they find it difficult to change direction when current goals are no longer appropriate. Beckmann (1995) describes excessive rumination among state oriented individuals that tends to be self oriented rather than task oriented. Further, state oriented individuals exhibit debilitating emotions, and when faced with failure become even more state oriented (Brunstein, 1994). Action oriented people, on the other hand, have more facilitative emotions and in the face of failure maintain their sense of control.

Self-efficacy is an important component of Feather's (1988) theory of human action in which expectations about one's abilities to perform the action (efficacy expectations) as well as expectations about the consequences (outcome expectations) and the subjective value of the consequences guide the action. The latter encompasses needs as well as values in identifying those immediate values that recognise the present cicumstances. Thus, in relation to the present study, learning support becomes more important to someone attempting to be admitted to a restricted course. Feather suggests that in this way the specific features of a situation draw in affect as well as cognition. Recognition of the role of subjective values is useful for understanding action, in spite of Kuhl and Beckman's rejection of the expectancy-value model in light of its perceived inability to explain the paradoxes of behaviour.

The action in the present study, in relation to which volition is considered, is the uptake of learnng support, thus it is suggested that student "academic literacy" is a factor in decision-making particularly in relation to the time and type of support that is taken up. Student academic literacy, as with any literacy may be understood to refer to communicative competence, in this case on matters significant to the student's world in academia. Modelled on scientific literacy, it includes knowledge of goals of academia, how academia operates in society, and metacognitive and cognitive knowledge of learning in higher education and the skills to achieve high quality learning. Students adopt a variety of approaches to studying, some more successful than others (Entwistle and Ramsden (1983). It is probable that knowledge of these approaches and skill in using appropriate approaches will improve outcomes. Entwistle et al. (1994) describe the preparation of programmes for developing such student knowledge and skills.


Students enrolled in the papers supported by the Learning Centre were informed of the tutorial programme in lectures and through notices on campus in the first two weeks of the academic year, and were invited to participate. These students formed the target population for the study, whether they attended the tutorial programme or not. The nature of the tutorials which were established depended on the subject and the tutor. They varied from small weekly tutorials of, ideally, up to 12 students to large pre-test and pre-laboratory tutorials attended by groups of up to 60 students. In mathematics, small weekly tutorials only were offered and, for students attending these tutorials, a programme of seven review tutorials prior to the final examination. Weekly tutorials were offered in physics, together with large pre-test and pre-examination tutorials. In chemistry, small weekly tutorials were offered only in an introductory paper, while a range of tutorials from small occasional review tutorials to large pre-test, pre-laboratory and pre-examination tutorials were offered in other papers.

Data were gathered by questionnaire, interview and from archival records from samples of students obtained by invitation, following establishment of the tutorial programme. Sixty six percent (N=727) of the population of students enrolled in the identified papers responded to a questionnaire in weeks 4 and 5 and provided the initial sample. From this a small sample of students (N=18) was selected and invited to participate in interviews at three points in the academic year, furnishing a longitudinal study. Four hundred and ninety five students from the initial sample (45% of the population) responded to a further questionnaire at the end of the academic year and provided a larger scale longitudinal study. It is acknowledged that the size of the initial sample and the dependence of subsequent samples on this sample introduces bias toward students with an interest, for whatever reason, in the Centre.

The questionnaires gathered information about participation in the tutorial programme and, using standardised instruments measuring attitude toward subject study (Burns, 1988), approach to studying (Richardson, 1990) and self-esteem (Coopersmith, 1981). Loosely structured interviews investigated student decision-making with respect to uptake of support. They were conducted by two researchers, lasted between 30 and 45 minutes and were audio-taped and transcribed. Archival records of the examination performance of students responding to the final questionnaire were accessed in such a way that only global data were available to the researchers.

Results Longitudinal questionnaire study

Students attending the tutorial programme at the time the initial sample was taken are identified as early attenders, those additional students attending at the time the final sample was taken are identified as late attenders thus providing three groups of students including those who never attended the programme. Participation in relation to academic background, self-esteem, attitude to subject-study, approach to studying and performance are described.

(i) Academic background

For school leavers, the proportions taking up tutorial support early varied little in relation to academic achievement at school, 38% of the most successful school leavers, those with a New Zealand Universities Scholarship or A Bursary, and 37% of those with the minimum school qualification for entry to university, New Zealand University Entrance, had attended the programme by week 6. However, almost 60% of those entering by Special Admission, that is adult students without the usual school qualification, had attended.

When uptake was examine by degree programme, it was found that the highest proportion of students attending early (65%) came from those enrolled in the first (intermediate) year of veterinary science. These students also had the highest school qualifications, 53% had a Scholarship or A Bursary, and at the end of the year would compete on the basis of their university examination performance for a limited number of places in the second year of veterinary study. In contrast, lowest uptake of the tutorial programme came from those enrolled in a science degree (35%), of whom only 18% had a Scholarship or A Bursary, but for these students entry to further study was unrestricted for those with minimum passing grades.

At the end of the academic year these differentials in uptake remained, with uptake by those admitted by Special Admission (91%), and veterinary science students (87%) exceeding uptake by those admitted with New Zealand University Entrance (66%), and science students (71%). However, technology students, who were required to gain minimum grades in specified subjects for entry to second year, had increased their participation to 87%.

(ii) Self-esteem

Coopersmith's (1981) adult (25 item) Self-esteem Inventory (SEI) measured total self-esteem (general, social, family and academic) on a scale from 0, low to 100, high self-esteem. Early attenders had a higher, though non-significant level of self-esteem than late or never attenders, but for both early and late attenders self-esteem increased significantly over the year. This is shown in Table 1.

Table 1

Self-esteem and time of tutorial programme uptake
Self-esteemEarly attenders Late attendersNever attended
Initially69.768.4 68.0
Finally71.671.7** 68.6
N195186 113

Levels of significance (two-tailed t-test) *p<.05, **p<01, **p<.001

Self-esteem is compared initially and finally

(iii) Attitude to subject study

Use of the 10-item semantic differential scale confirmed two factors, evaluation (enjoyment and worth) and certainty (cognitive demand and stress) with regard to the study of mathematics and the physical sciences found in the earlier study (Burns, 1988). Items were scored 1 (negative) to 7 (positive attitude) and are reported as means for each 5-item factor for students studying these subjects and attending the tutorial programme early, late or never. Students taking up the programme early generally had poorer attitudes of evaluation and certainty towards the subject in which they had chosen to seek support than did those who took up support late or never. Attitudes fell over the course of the year except in the small groups of early mathematics and physics attenders where there was generally improvement in attitudes. Attitudes are reported in Table 2.

Table 2

Attitudes towards the study of mathematics, physics and chemistry, and time of tutorial uptake
Attitude Early attenders Late attendersNever attended
initial final initial
finalinitial final
evaluation4.594.65 4.85
4.664.93 4.60
certainty2.92***3.41* 3.70**
3.57**4.17 3.98
N27158 131
evaluation4.40***4.14** 5.15
4.835.15 4.89
certainty2.59***2.71*** 3.60
3.29*3.80 3.59
N59121 108
evaluation5.585.46** 5.37
5.195.31 5.01
certainty3.833.78 4.19
3.914.06 3.92
N130123 55

Levels of significance (two-tailed t-test) *p<.05, **p<01, **p<.001

Early and late attenders are compared with those who never attended

Other significant differences:

Early attenders compared with late attenders -physics evaluation initially***; physics evaluation finally**; physics certainty initially***; physics certainty finally***; chemistry evaluation finally*; chemistry certainty initially**

Initial attitude compared with final attitude -mathematics evaluation attended late*; mathematics evaluation never attended***; mathematics certainty attended early**; mathematics certainty never attended*;physics evaluation attended late ***; physics evaluation never attended**; physics certainty attended late ***; chemistry evaluation never attended *; chemistry certainty attended late**

(iii) Approaches to subject study

Use of Richardson's (1990) shortened form of Ramsden and Entwistle's (1981) tertiary student Approaches to Studying Questionnaire gave the two factors, meaning orientation (deep approach, interrelating ideas, use of evidence and comprehension learning) and reproducing orientation (surface approach, syllabus boundness, fear of failure and improvidence), identified by Richardson. Individual items were scored 0, low to 4, high and scores on orientations to study were the computed sums of the 16 component items of each orientation. Thus scores on orientations range from 0, low to 64, high. In mathematics and physics, initial meaning orientation was higher for early attenders than for other students of these subjects. The only tutorials available for early attenders in these subjects were small group tutorials, suggesting that students motivated to attend these tutorials were more likely to be oriented toward seeking meaning than were other students of these subjects. Reproducing orientation, on the other hand, was generally higher for all students attending the programme than for non-attenders. Over the course of the year meaning orientation fell slightly or did not change, regardless of uptake of support, while reproducing orientation tended to increase, especially for those attending the programme. Students choosing to attend the programme were more concerned than non-attenders to reproduce the information given and this trait was encouraged by the programme. Early attenders with high meaning and reproducing orientations may be especially active learners, keen to do well. These results are shown in Table 3.

Table 3

Approaches to the study of mathematics, physics and chemistry, and time of tutorial uptake
Attitude Early attenders Late attendersNever attended
initial final initial
finalinitial final
meaning41.039.7 38.8
37.538.5 37.5
reproducing39.140.3 38.7*
39.6*37.0 37.9
N27158 131
meaning40.438.5 38.0
38.038.9 37.9
reproducing39.6*40.2 37.9
39.537.3 38.0
N59121 108
meaning38.638.5 38.9
38.738.8 38.3
reproducing38.5*39.4* 38.2
39.7*36.4 36.7
N130123 55

Levels of significance (two-tailed t-test) *p<.05, **p<01, **p<.001

Early and late attenders are compared with those who never attended

Other significant differences:

Early attenders compared with late attenders - initial physics meaning*

Initial approach compared with final approach - late attenders mathematics meaning**; never attended mathematics meaning*; early attenders physics meaning*; never attended physics meaning*; late attenders physics reproducing**; late attenders chemistry reproducing**.

Since early uptake of small group tutorials indicate different orientations to studying to those of students in general, correlations between uptake and approaches to studying were investigated for particular tutorials. Those for a range of tutorials in chemistry are shown in Table 4.

Table 4

Correlation between frequency of uptake of chemistry tutorials and end-of year approaches to study
TutorialNMeaning orientation Reproducing orientation
Introductory chemistry: 39
weekly0.22 0.16
Chemistry 1ab284
review0.05 0.11
Pre-test0.03 0.17**
laboratory0.03 0.21**
Pre-examination0.00 0.11

Pearson Product Moment Correlation Coefficient: Levels of significance *p<.05, **p<01, **p<.001

Although absolute values of correlation coefficients are small, where numbers enrolled in papers are large, significant correlations exist, for example, between frequency of uptake of large tutorials and reproducing orientation. Comparison with the results reported in Table 3 suggest that this approach may have been fostered through the tutorials. Similarly the slightly larger nonsignificant correlation between meaning orientation and frequency of uptake of the weekly tutorials than between reproducing orientation and frequency of uptake may have been fostered by the type of interaction occurring in these small regular tutorials.

(iv) End-of-year performance

Frequency of uptake of tutorial support and end-of-year performance in the University final examinations, after controlling for students' university entry qualifications and subject background, provided significant correlations (Pearson Product Moment, as above). For the chemistry papers described above, a correlation coefficient of 0.68** was found for the introductory chemistry weekly tutorials, and correlation coefficients of 0.17**, 0.09, 0.11*, and 0.09 for the chemistry 1a review, pre-test, pre-laboratory and pre-examination tutorials, respectively.

Even when particular tutorials were not distinguished, and no account was taken of entry qualifications or subject background, mostly significant positive correlations were found between meaning orientation and performance (0.25** to -0.04) and mostly significant negative correlations between reproducing orientation and performance (-0.23** to 0.06). No account is taken of differences between the types of examinations set in different papers and the effect they would have had on student preparation and performance.

Results: Longitudinal interview study

Random selection after stratification by tutorial programme uptake (attenders and non-attenders), degree programme (science, veterinary science, technology, and agriculture/horticulture) and gender provided 16 students for interview, subsequently increased to 18 by boosting the number of students enrolled in introductory papers. All students selected agreed to participate. However, by the time the first interviews were conducted, in the last two weeks of term 1, three of the non-attenders had already become attenders. This was the pattern for the year, with more students taking up attendance as the year progressed. One non-attender dropped out of university, and the study, before the end of the year and two further students remained as non-attenders.

Students taking up learning support in a given subject early in the year, described having done so because they had not taken the subject at senior secondary level, or had done so and had unsuccessful experiences of the study. They may have gained poor grades, or lacked understanding or interest, or even opted out early. Their evaluation of this experience, however, was a matter of perception and related particularly to their goals for achievement at university, for example, to get into second year veterinary science, they saw as requiring a B+ average. They expressed anxiety about studying the subject, typically saying this was "not my favourite subject". These students tended to enrol in the small group weekly or review tutorials, however most tutorials available early in the year were of this type. The students welcomed the opportunity to "go back to basics", to raise issues of specific concern to themselves, to receive assistance in approaching problem-solving and to participate in discussion "talking about things...arguing about ideas". They generally showed commitment in regular attendance until such point at which they had gained what they needed from the tutorial, as for example, with the student who said that having learned problem solving techniques these were simply put into practice, "I nutted it out for myself".

These students also described study, more generally, as involving the pursuit of things they did not understand, by consulting textbooks, attending tutorials and asking friends and even the lecturer although this was rather too intimidating for most. Besides this desire to "clear up queries", to obtain "ease of mind, know it inside out, relate it to other things...see where it fits in the grand scheme of things", these students also prepared notes that would be useful to them for study at the end of the year and did "heaps and heaps' of examples. They liked to come to lectures fresh and alert, "questioning what he is writing in my mind", "to think about it on the spot and get as much out of it as possible". Studying in this way was also tiring and these students tried to achieve "balance" in their lives by organising time for social as well as academic activities. Life in halls meant friends were available, but "ground rules' needed to be set so that there was time for undisturbed study. These learners were likely to reject attendance at the large pre-assessment tutorials because of the constraints on time and topic, preferring to use their own notes, textbooks and previous years' examinations for revision.

It was common for non-attenders to express confidence and to give satisfaction with their ability to handle the work as the reason for not attending; but as with attenders, their perceptions of their experiences related to the goals they set for themselves, often simply to pass the course. These students also frequently professed to "being a lazy person", for some an 8.30am start to a tutorial was too early, or the tutorial time interrupted an otherwise free afternoon. For non-attenders and irregular attenders, priority was sometimes given to other activities, for example, training for sports, or a lack of preparation in the subject, maybe through failure to attempt set problems, meant that they thought attendance would not have been worthwhile. Some students said that they understood that the tutorials were for weak students and that it would be inappropriate for them to attend, or that if they did attend they would be labelled in this way. Prompting some of these students to take up tutorial attendance as the year progressed was the receipt of poor marks in tests, and the influence of friends who had already attended and told them it was "good" or "brilliant". Where these students subsequently attended tutorials, it was likely to be the large pre-test and pre-examination tutorials where tutors went over examples from previous years' assessments. Frequently students said they went "to get the answers' or "to get the inside information". In spite of their earlier expressions of confidence, many found the large numbers provided protection and they valued the opportunity to sit and listen to the questions raised by others.

These students were less likely to report interacting intellectually with others. They saw the lecturer as making the subject unnecessarily difficult by using "technical terms' and using complicated methods when problem-solving. They frequently resorted to using methods they had used at school, which they perceived could be used equally successfully in the present course. Lectures they were likely to see as boring because they involved "just writing", "lectures aren't a learning experience for me they are a copying experience". Study was structured by lectures, laboratory sessions and assessments - assignments and tests. These students readily became overwhelmed with the amount of work. They found themselves cutting lectures often because they had assignment deadlines to meet, as well as other priorities. They described full timetables, but all saw themselves as poor organisers. Where these students attended pre-assessment tutorials, they appreciated the tutors' selection, organisation and analysis of question from previous years, something they felt they did not have the time or knowledge to do.


Quantitative data showed high and early uptake of learning support to be found among students with high school achievement, a factor which may be seen to be associated with efficient volitional functioning. Kuhl (1994) identifies high self-efficacy as affecting the motivational basis of self-initiated action and it is likely that those who have already experienced success at school would demonstrate belief in their abilities to benefit from learning support. These high achieving students were even more likely to take up support if they were enrolled in courses in which circumstances required high performance. In Feather's (1988) terms, expectations of positive outcomes would be enhanced by the value placed on success. High self-esteem was also related to early uptake of learning support, and Kuhl recognises the facilitative effect of positive emotions such as self esteem for the initiation and maintenance of intentions. These factors enabled students to initiate action, in spite of low levels of evaluation and certainty of study of the subject concerned, evident also in expressions of anxiety in students interviewed. These students demonstrated attributes of action oriented students. They had clear intentions framed in relation to evaluations of their own subject preparation, which they deemed to be inadequate, and they maintained action until such time as they had fulfilled their goal or completed the activity.

Further these early attenders selected the tutorials they would attend in terms of sound reasoning based on past experience of successful learning (Ramsden amd Entwistle, 1983). They recognised that high quality learning was aimed at achieving understanding and that to achieve this they needed to be able to articulate ideas and come to grips with fundamental concepts. Quantitative data confirmed this showing higher meaning orientation among students attending small group tutorials early in the year. This facility with decision-making and the ability to make decisions in terms of reasons that are important are further volitional abilities and characteristics of action oriented individuals.

Academically weak students who did not take up learning support or who did so irregularly or late in the year often failed to recognise the need to do so, or allowed other activities, such as sport or socialising to take priority. They demonstrated the behaviours of state oriented persons who characteristically take a long time to make decisions and allow emotional preferences or habits to interfere. These students' continuation in the use of school-based methods of problem solving is further evidence of this behaviour. They were also likely to feel self conscious about their need to take up learning support, aligning the need to make an effort with low ability. Such people see ability as fixed and are ego- rather than task-oriented (Nicholls, 1983)). In consequence they were vulnerable to helplessness and became overwhelmed with work such that uptake of any form of support appeared impossible. According to (Brunstein, 1994)) this is typical of state oriented people who lose control over outcomes. Even in attendance at pre-examination tutorials these people gave control to the tutors who selected and analysed questions for them. They failed to make appropriate choices of tutorials to attend partly because they lacked knowledge of successful learning strategies.

Frequent attendance at small group, interactive tutorials correlated positively with a meaning orientation to study, which in turn correlated positively with performance in university end-of-year examinations. Attendance at large pre-assessment tutorials, on the other hand, correlated positively and significantly with reproducing orientation to study and reproducing orientation provided significant negative correlations with university end-of-year performance.

Thus, in summary, the provision of learning support provided benefit to students with high volitional abilities and high levels of academic literacy who took up support early and who were able to make wise choices with respect to the type of tutorial they chose to attend. Small interactive tutorials allowed the development of understanding and enhanced performance. Uptake of learning support related to enhanced self-esteem and confidence, but benefits in relation to the quality of learning were tempered by the type of tutorial attended.


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