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Perceptions of graduate student teachers at a Midwestern university.

Graduate education programs are increasing the number of teaching experiences available to graduate students (Buskist, Beins, & Hevern, 2004). As a result, undergraduate students are encountering graduate students as teaching assistants and instructors of record with greater frequency compared to years past. Wimer, Prieto, and Meyers (2004) reported 70% of social science graduate students have had experiences as teaching assistants, yet approximately 30% of those teaching assistants report having no formal training. Myers and Prieto (2000) found that more than 50% of psychology departments have graduate students teaching as instructors of record. Although some departments provide instruction and support for graduate student teachers, many graduate students report not being aware of or not using these programs. Myers and Prieto (2000) found significant differences between department chairs and graduate students in terms of perceptions of training opportunities. The department chairs reported significantly higher rates of teaching support for graduate students compared to the perceptions of graduate students.

Careers in academia are the most common career choice for graduate students obtaining a PhD in the social sciences (Buskist et al., 2004; Buskist, 2013). Within academic positions, teaching and scholarship are routinely listed as the core responsibilities, and teaching experience and skill have gained in importance as to hiring criteria (Bailey, 2004; Buskist et al., 2004; Clark, 1997). Wimer (2006) detailed the importance of providing structured training and teaching experiences to graduate students to ensure they had the needed skills for early career success. Boice (1992) found that many early career academicians experienced potential career delays because of insufficient teaching experience, which led to teaching and class preparation dominating the first few years in a faculty position. Myers, Reid, and Quina (1998) supported Boice's findings in a survey of graduate students who reported feeling unprepared for the teaching expectations of an academic position. In a qualitative review of graduate student training, Renn and Jessup-Anger (2008) identified the importance of early development of a professional identity as an academic. Additionally, the graduate students cited the importance of graduate training leading to an easy transition from graduate education to early career. Given the importance of teaching, specifically in academic careers, graduate students are well served by seeking out opportunities to teach during their graduate training.

With the increasing focus on providing teaching opportunities and training to graduate students, the need to examine the influence of such changes has also increased. An increase in the number of graduate student instructors teaching courses may have effects on the graduate students, undergraduate students, faculty, administrators, and external perceptions of the unit or institution (Nadler & Cundiff, 2009; Park, 2004). The present study evaluated the effect of an increase in graduate student teaching in the curriculum at a large state university by assessing perceptions of the previously mentioned interest groups.

The researchers conducted a program evaluation using Carol Weiss' (1979) theoretical evaluation perspective of providing enlightenment to all relevant stakeholders with attention paid to the contextual complexity of a potential department-wide policy change. The study intended to accomplish three objectives. The first objective was to examine the assumptions made by various stakeholders (groups affected by the program). The second objective was to further assess the validity of each groups' perceptions. The final objective was to examine how the results of this evaluation were utilized by the department and how the findings could generalize to other departments facing similar demands.

This study consisted of three sections mirroring the three main objectives. The first section of results includes summaries of the qualitative findings gathered through open-ended survey questions, interviews, and focus groups conducted using samples of each stakeholder group. The second section of results describes the quantitative differences between stakeholders' opinions regarding graduate student teaching and different aspects and implementations of such programs, gathered using online surveys. The third section discusses the utilization of the information gathered and contains suggestions for generalizing the results of this evaluation to other departments.

The program under evaluation was an on-going (in its third year) increase in graduate students serving as instructors of record for undergraduate classes at a Midwestern university's psychology department. Questions were asked of stakeholders regarding the current state of graduate students as instructors and their opinions concerning a policy change involving an expansion of the number of graduate students as instructors. Program impact was directly addressed for each stakeholder group. Although the focus of the evaluation was clear for faculty and administration, the program was seen as less clearly defined with graduate students and undergraduate students. These stakeholders were more likely to discuss graduate student teaching in a way that often included graduate students serving as teaching assistants. Although not an original aspect under evaluation, this information was retained in order to highlight how the program was viewed by different stakeholders.


The Department

The department is home to 22 tenured and tenure-track faculty, an undergraduate program with 450-475 majors, and four PhD programs enrolling more than 80 graduate students in the areas of applied psychology, brain and cognitive science, clinical psychology (adult and child), and counseling psychology. The department is the largest department in the College of Liberal Arts and is classified by Carnegie as a research university (high research activity) (Carnegie Classifications, 2014). Master's degrees are earned en route to the doctoral degree; the department does not offer any terminal Master's degree programs. The psychology department has had a long-standing history of maintaining a high proportion (over 90%) of faculty teaching the undergraduate courses and not using graduate students or non-tenure track adjunct professors as instructors.

Recently there has been increased interest within the psychology department administration (Chair and Program Directors) in expanding the number of graduate students serving as instructors of record (primary instructor responsible for a course). In the past, with the exception of a few special cases and classes (most offered during the summer semester), there traditionally had not been many opportunities for graduate students to serve as instructors of record. A number of factors contributed to interest in expanding graduate student teaching, including course reductions for new faculty, grant buyouts, improving teaching experiences for graduate students, expanding the curriculum, and departmental need of instructors beyond the current resources of the faculty. Factors seen as limiting the usefulness or desirability of expanding graduate student teaching included quality of undergraduate education, demands on graduate students' time, departmental reputation, and attractiveness of the psychology program to new undergraduate students.

Evaluation Plan and Procedures

The first step in conducting the study was to contact the department chair and determine what information would most likely be used by the department and to increase the likelihood that results of the study would be implemented locally. Groups of stakeholders were then identified and a sampling plan along with methods to collect information was chosen. Stakeholder information and sampling methods are shown in Table 1.

Administrators and faculty were chosen based on position and program interest and each interview was concluded with the researchers asking the person who else should be interviewed. Faculty included directors of the departmental graduate programs. A subset of graduate students chosen randomly was initially contacted and the same procedure of asking interviewees for suggestions of other graduate students whose views might add further insight was utilized. Web links to the quantitative surveys were sent to all psychology faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students.

Interview and Focus Group Protocols

The researchers conducted interviews using a semi-structured question format addressing experiences with graduate teaching, departmental goals, philosophy toward teaching, views on graduate student teaching, and how an expansion of graduate teaching would affect each stakeholder group. The researchers designed questions for this study and the questions were pilot tested with faculty and graduate students. After the questions were refined, a series of opening general questions, key questions, and closing questions were utilized. Key questions included: "What are the primary goals of the department?," "How do graduate students teaching as instructors of record affect the department's goals?," "How does graduate student teaching affect (faculty/graduate students/ undergraduate students)?," and "What are the (advantages/disadvantages) of graduate students serving as instructors of record?" Additionally, participants were asked how they would set policy for graduate student teaching. The researchers also conducted focus groups using a modified protocol based on the same questions used in the interviews. Focus groups were conducted with undergraduate students and college undergraduate advisors.

Quantitative Web Surveys

Web surveys included questions about experiences with graduate teaching, quality of graduate teaching, and other departmental issues. The researchers designed web survey questions based on the information obtained in the qualitative interviews and focus groups. The quantitative web surveys were administered after qualitative data collection (interviews and focus groups) had concluded. Each question was presented as a statement and was ranked using a 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree) Likert scale format. Web surveys featured different demographic questions and statements dependent on whether the participants were faculty, graduate students, or undergraduate students. The faculty survey had nine items concerning their own experiences as graduate students, their support for a structured program of graduate student teaching, the need for graduate students to gain teaching experiences, and the quality of graduate student teaching. Sample statements included "Graduate teaching experiences are needed for an academic career" and "There should be a structured program of teacher training available in the department." The graduate student survey included nine questions about future intentions to teach, interest in further training and opportunities to teach, and graduate teaching quality. Sample statements included "Teaching experiences are important to my future career plans" and "Being the primary instructor of a course is too much work." Finally, undergraduate students were surveyed with 12 questions addressing the quality of graduate student teaching, how classes were selected, and the reputation of the undergraduate program. Sample questions included "I pick my classes based on the qualifications of the instructor," "The reputation of the psychology program is important to me," and "I prefer to take classes taught by a professor, rather than a graduate student."


Summary of Quantitative Findings

Quantitative information was gathered from faculty (including administrators who were still teaching; N = 28), graduate students (N = 66), and undergraduate students (N = 26). Surveys were web based and all faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students were initially contacted via email and asked to complete the surveys, and were then sent reminder emails one week later. The majority of faculty reported having served as a teaching assistant (75%) and as a class instructor (64%) as graduate students. Assistant professors represented 39% of the sample, 29% were associate professors, and 32% were professors or emeritus professors. All four graduate programs within the department were well represented in the sample, and on average faculty did not view teaching undergraduate classes as too time consuming a task for graduate students (M = 2.39). These faculty also endorsed graduate teaching as worthwhile for those pursuing academic (M = 4.15) or non-academic careers (M = 3.82). Faculty did not find graduate student teachers to be better or worse than regular faculty (M = 3.0).

Graduate students reported high rates of experience as teaching assistants (TAs) for undergraduate classes (91%), or for graduate classes (80%) compared to faculty. However, they reported a low rate of having taught a class (24%) compared to faculty. All four graduate programs, with the exception of counseling psychology, were well represented in the sample. Additionally, each year in graduate school (cohorts) were well represented. Graduate students, on average, disagreed with the statement that teaching was too time consuming (M = 2.35) and disagreed with the statement that graduate teaching was of a lower quality than faculty teaching (M = 2.34). Overall, the majority of students (54%) reported considering an academic career compared to those students that were not considering academia (30%). In general, graduate students were interested in additional teaching and training opportunities (M = 3.70).

All undergraduate students sampled were either psychology majors or dual majors, including psychology, with 10% freshmen, 15% sophomores, 46% juniors, and 29% seniors. Most undergraduates (92%) had taken a lab taught by a graduate student and were in general satisfied with the instruction (M = 4.00). Additionally, most undergraduates (85%) had taken a class taught by a graduate student and on average were neither satisfied nor dissatisfied (M = 3.00). There was variance around the midpoint of satisfaction with graduate student teaching, with 38% reporting some level of dissatisfaction and 42% reporting some level of satisfaction. Although undergraduates disagreed that graduate student teachers were not as high quality as faculty (M = 3.00), they generally preferred faculty instruction. Class requirements were rated as the main reason for selection of their classes (M = 4.27).

Summary of Qualitative Findings

The researchers obtained qualitative information from administration, faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students. Each interview and focus group was recorded and responses transcribed into a database, and then coded for general themes. Themes were separately coded by two teams of two trained research assistants. Once each team had finished coding themes, the two teams met and discussed any disagreements until consensus was obtained. General trends and unique viewpoints will be briefly reviewed within each stakeholder group.

Administrators. "The interest in quality teaching in the psychology department is striking and unusual for a school with strong research and doctoral programs."

Administrators sampled included the department chair, undergraduate director, associate dean and the acting dean of the college. In general, the higher level the administrator the more concern they expressed with potentially negative effects associated with increasing graduate students teaching. There was agreement about the importance of faculty teaching within a balance of teaching, research, and service. One administrator noted that teaching often takes a back seat that can be seen even in the college's terminology, "research opportunities versus teaching loads."

Administrators perceived the goals of the psychology department to include teaching, research, and service, as well as improving the ranking and reputation of the department. Overall, there was variance as to what the primary focus of the department should be, varying between administrators, between reputation, scholarship, or undergraduate education. Generally, graduate student teaching was viewed cautiously. Themes included appropriate supervision and more regimented training, while openly acknowledging greater access to teaching would enhance the educational opportunities of the graduate students. Multiple administrators worried that a reduction in the proportion of faculty teaching undergraduate classes would have potential negative ramification for the department's and the university's reputation. Administrators also mentioned the advantages of being able to offer more course reductions and grant buyouts as a positive effect of increasing graduate student teaching. Thus, indirectly, administrators viewed graduate students teaching as having the potential to increase the university's ability to be competitive in hiring highly qualified faculty.

Graduate teaching was viewed as cheaper and as more convenient to schedule than faculty instructors. The possibility that graduate students can more easily relate to undergraduates and may be more enthusiastic teachers was recognized. Desirable policies suggested by all administrators for graduate teaching included mentoring and a graduated experience starting with shadowing, teaching assistantships, guest lectures, and finally full responsibility for teaching a course. The need for a "sustainable structure" including established classes (slides, tests, syllabi, and other materials pre-prepared) being made available for graduate students to teach, and graduate classes on teaching, were also mentioned.

Faculty. "It's a question of philosophy, what are the goals of teaching, how do you establishing teaching content, and most important, how do you pass knowledge on to others?" "Cost versus benefit; benefits outweigh costs, we need to do it, it's a disservice to graduate students not to."

Faculty sampled included the four graduate program directors, and faculty members known for having a diverse set of viewpoints on the program (expanding graduate teaching). General trends in these interviews were an openness to additional teaching opportunities for graduate students, though motivation ranged from graduate development, to faculty flexibility (both additional classes and more research), to possible improvement of undergraduate education. Newer faculty members were generally more enthusiastic about increased graduate teaching and established faculty were often more cautious regarding increased graduate student teaching.

Themes concerning the mission of teaching within the department included educating graduate students and undergraduate students as well as a general feeling that teaching is valued within the department. Faculty mentioned that the emphasis on teaching was one of the reasons they came to the institution. However, there were sentiments expressed concerning more flexibility for faculty to pursue a more diverse graduate curriculum, more advanced undergraduate courses, and more research.

Faculty, all of whom had experiences teaching as graduate students, reported similar experiences as graduate teachers to those reported by administrators, "I was thrown in to teach," "here's a book, go forth and teach," and "sink or swim." Faculty unanimously reported their graduate teaching as a good experience that helped them in academia; however, most reported wishing there had been more support and structure. Generally, faculty only saw departmental goals in terms of teaching, research, and service, with fewer references to service or reputation, compared to administrators' views. Faculty listed goals that tended to focus more on graduate training compared to administrators' views, and more than once when discussing undergraduates the goal mentioned was preparing them for graduate school.

Generally, graduate student teaching was seen as a positive element contributing to the overall goals of the department as long as there is a sustainable support system in place to train graduate students in teaching, not just using them to cover classes. A ratio of 25% graduate-taught to 75% faculty-taught undergraduate curriculum (or very similar numbers, +/- 5%) was mentioned multiple times. Advantages to more graduates as instructors included better chances at faculty getting grants, allowing for faculty buyouts by giving faculty "more times at bat" in competition for grants while maintaining quality of undergraduate instruction. Although graduate students may be seen as inexperienced, this was balanced with a perception that graduate students had greater enthusiasm and better student interactions. Suggestions for policy included limiting teaching opportunities to advanced graduate students or those with previous teaching experience, instituting structured processes, and ensuring faculty mentoring. Some faculty suggested only students who had completed their Master's degree and preliminary exams be allowed to teach.

Graduate students. "I have a strong interest in keeping an academic position open in my future. I like teaching." "I was testing the waters, keeping open career possibilities; my main interest was testing whether I wanted to teach."

Graduate students sampled included those who have taught and those who have not. Graduate students saw the primary goal for the department as education. Generally most of the departmental issues of balancing research and service were not seen in graduate student responses. Graduate students reported more positive experiences with graduate students teaching them as undergraduates and teaching as graduate students compared to reports from faculty and administrators. Additionally, most graduate students felt well supported and mentored by the department in their teaching. Although in general satisfied with the level of training, some felt that faculty members were "doing things for the wrong reasons" or "out for themselves." Graduate students commonly reported wanting additional breadth to the curriculum offered at the graduate level, along with the opinion that graduate students teaching undergraduate classes would allow professors to teach more graduate classes as a solution to this problem.

Graduate students saw teaching as an advantage, but that was tempered with the realization that it is more time intensive and carries more responsibility than other training assignments. Undergraduates' reactions were more important to graduate students, possibly supporting the earlier assertion from faculty members that graduate students related better to the undergraduates. "The biggest issue is the sense of the undergrads, what would they prefer, they should have a say in who instructs them. It is important to remember that they are paying" for educational services. Regarding policy for graduate student teaching, the graduate students mirrored previous suggestions in focusing on support, previous training, and level of experience (year in program).

Undergraduate students and college advisors. "Graduates are more in touch with us students, they are more like us. Professors are harder to relate to, they tend to get mad."

The researchers asked undergraduate psychology majors to participate in focus groups through announcements in classes and e-mails to the department's undergraduate list-serve (sent to over 400 undergraduates). A total of seven undergraduates participated in two focus groups. Numerous efforts were made to obtain a larger student sample; however, the small sample size makes generalization difficult. To further assess undergraduate opinions a focus group with the eight psychology department undergraduate advisors (university staff) was also conducted specifically asking advisors to relate undergraduate opinions expressed to them during the advisement process.

Undergraduates were especially interested in the quality of teaching. It should be noted there was some confusion apparent during the focus groups, with several undergraduates focusing the discussion on lab teaching assistants (not instructors) and referring to graduate student lecturers as professors. In other words, four of the five participants were in classes taught by graduate students and did not realize it. To the focus group members instructors of record were always faculty and the only graduate students they had were teaching assistants. Undergraduate students reported liking graduate student teachers. Undergraduate students reported some concerns from their parents but most did not think their parents even considered who was teaching the classes. Class content (29%) and previous experience with the instructor (29%) were the most reported factors in choosing a class.

College-level advisors did not report any cases of undergraduate students complaining about, or asking about, whether graduate students taught classes. Advisors reported time or availability of classes along with class size as the primary concerns of undergraduate students. The experience of the advisors was that the students expected graduate student teaching and were aware that they would on occasion be taught by graduate students. "I didn't know [the institution] had a reputation as a teaching school, my experience is that we are a big school with graduates in the classrooms." Advisors saw graduate student teachers as a means to allow the psychology department to offer more classes at more diverse times and as potentially a better fit for introductory classes.

Reaction to the Findings

An initial report based on the findings was shared with all of the participants via a mass e-mail. Participants were asked to comment regarding the findings if they did not agree or thought the report did not capture their responses. Although the overall reactions of stakeholders upon reading the initial report were positive, there was some disagreement with the report's findings and conclusions. Below is a representational quote from a Professor Emeritus of the psychology program that summed up the negative reactions.

"I and most of my colleagues (from the 70s and 80s) would never want a graduate student to teach a class unless in his/her last term and under strict supervision. We prided ourselves that, as compared to [a Big 10 university], faculty taught 95% of all our undergraduate classes. It boggles my mind that a graduate student could have anything like the grasp of the subject matter that a faculty member has. Only the former's enthusiasm and the latter's laziness or disdain for students could equate them. So, I appreciate your work and am surprised at the findings but reject the recommendation (for more graduate student teaching) almost by definition."


The researchers examined graduate students teaching as instructors of record to answer three main questions: (1) what was each group's perspective on graduate student teaching and in what ways did the groups differ in views?, (2) what would be the effect or impact of expanding graduate teaching in the department?, and (3) in what ways was this information used and could these findings be generalized to other programs? The findings of this evaluation were that graduate student teaching should be increased in a systematic way ensuring proper mentoring, training, and oversight while still ensuring that the majority of classes would be taught by faculty allowing undergraduates opportunities to have access to all faculty members within the department.

How the Evaluation Influenced Department Policy

Given the general positive reactions across stakeholders regarding increased graduate student teaching, as well as the desire to provide additional support for instructors, the department developed a set of procedures for selecting, training, and supervising graduate students who wished to teach. The procedures included three components, and endeavored to provide a set of steps toward teaching with increasing autonomy.

First, a graduate student would ideally start as a teaching assistant in any departmental course. The department already had a strong training and supervision framework in place for the Introduction to Psychology course, with an average of 20 TAs per semester in a course enrolling 1,000 students, so a large proportion of graduate students were already receiving early structured training. This framework included a 1-week training period prior to beginning of fall semester, weekly TA seminars, and observation of small-group classroom teaching. Second, the department developed a teaching practicum seminar that was required for students currently teaching, and students selected to instruct one semester prior to their teaching. Third, graduate instructors were assigned a faculty supervisor, an individual who recently taught the course or otherwise had expertise in the course content. The faculty supervisor was responsible for observing classroom performance at least once per semester providing written and oral feedback, and was available for content-oriented consultation.

Although the findings of this evaluation were specific to a department at a Midwestern research university with a robust PhD graduate program, many of the themes and perceptions of the stakeholders potentially generalize to other settings. For example, administrators reported greater concern with undergraduate education and perceptions of the institution's and the department's reputation that could be potentially impacted by the amount of graduate teaching. Administration perceptions differed from faculty, who were most focused on advantages for graduate students, greater flexibility in their own workload, and downplayed any potential impact to reputation. In contrast, graduate students desired more teaching opportunities but also wanted more supervision and support. Finally, undergraduate students were often unaware of the difference between graduate students serving as instructors and faculty members. Knowledge of these differences in focus between the stakeholders who potentially would be affected by changes in the availability of graduate student teaching in any program provides valuable tools toward identifying potential problems and concerns.

Limitations and Future Studies

The researchers advertised an online survey to parents of potential university students as a link on a university family association web site and through flyers at new student orientations. However, only five parents responded to the quantitative survey. Future studies should examine ways to survey parent perceptions regarding graduate students teaching in the classroom.

Although faculty, administrators, and graduate students were all well represented in this evaluation (all with response rates exceeding 60%), undergraduates did not respond in a similar proportion. Multiple attempts were made to garner greater undergraduate participation in both the focus groups and the online surveys; however, the response rates were poor. The results concerning undergraduate perceptions should be considered with caution. Future studies should focus on ways to increase undergraduate participation.

The order of questions in the interviews may have influenced their overall responses. For example, in the faculty interviews the question asking about their philosophy of teaching may have primed faculty members to think in terms that heightened their awareness of potential differences between themselves and graduate students. As there was some disagreement between the various stakeholders regarding the division of teaching, service, and research, future studies may want to randomly select the order of questions asking about each of these domains for each interview.

Data comparing graduate students to faculty in terms of undergraduate grade distributions were not available and teacher satisfaction ratings data were limited. Grade distributions were not available for this study. The satisfaction data available were not sufficient for statistical analysis, but overall teaching effectiveness means were similar between faculty (3.7-4.8 on a 5 point scale) and graduate students (3.8-4.3 on the same scale). Future studies should aim to add objective performance (class grades) and student ratings to the measures comparing faculty and graduate teachers.

Conclusions and Recommendations

To summarize, faculty generally wanted to see more options for graduate students to teach within a structured program with adequate supervision. Graduate student teaching was seen as advantageous for faculty, graduate students, and at worst neither a gain nor a loss for undergraduates. Graduate students were positively disposed to more graduate student teaching but not at the same level as faculty, and were also concerned with systematic supervision and training. Undergraduates did indicate that they did not think graduate student teaching was of lower quality. Administrators were aware of the advantages to faculty and graduate students in additional teaching opportunities, and for the most part agreed that the program should be expanded. However, administrators were far more concerned with the potential effects on undergraduates, parents, departmental reputation, and possible unforeseen side effects on faculty commitment to teaching.

The data collected by this evaluation indicated an overall across-groups perception that graduate students can teach well, and as a group can be as effective as faculty instructors if properly supported. Additionally, graduate student teaching was seen as having a positive impact on faculty goals; these included additional time for research, greater quality of graduate students training and preparation for future careers, and providing greater range of undergraduate classes. In order to maintain positive perceptions when increasing graduate teaching, a department would need to formulate a policy of structured supervision, applicant review, and in-class monitoring utilizing formative feedback. There would also need to be limits on how many graduate students teach, and in what classes, that a department would not want to exceed. Limits need to include deciding the maximum number of classes in the curriculum taught each semester by graduate students as instructors of record and deciding what classes are appropriate for graduate students to teach. Finally, the differing perceptions of each major stakeholder group should be considered in setting policy.


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Joel T. Nadler

Southern Illinois University Edwardsville

Jane L. Swanson

Southern Illinois University Carbondale

Author info: Correspondence should be sent to: Dr. Joel Nadler, Mail Code 1121, Dept. of Psychology, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Edwardsville, IL 62026
TABLE 1 Stakeholder Sampling Methods

Stakeholder        Sampling Method         Collection Method   N

Administrators     Purposeful, Snowball    Interviews          5

Faculty            Purposeful, Snowball    Interviews          8

                   E-mail                  Online Survey       28

Graduates          Random, Snowball        Interviews          5

                   E-mail                  Online Survey       66

Undergraduates     Class Credit            Focus Groups        7

                   E-mail                  Online Survey       26

Advisors           Purposeful              Focus Group         7
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Author:Nadler, Joel T.; Swanson, Jane L.
Publication:North American Journal of Psychology
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2014
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