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Issues In Educational Research, Vol 13, 2003
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From postgraduate student to professional: Work-based learning in psychology

Lauren Breen, Lisbeth T. Pike & Lucius Arco
Edith Cowan University
Professional courses in higher education are a suitable domain for investigating the link between coursework and the applied setting via work-based learning (WBL). However, standardised evaluation procedures for WBL are rare. In this study, seventy-four psychologists involved in work-based supervision of psychology postgraduates in Perth, Western Australia, completed a questionnaire. They rated 59 skills according to the level of student competency expected for practica they supervise. Ten of these participants were interviewed to ascertain their views regarding skills training in psychology at the postgraduate level. Results indicate professional conduct skills were most important, followed (in order) by generic skills, intervention skills, assessment skills, and research skills. The supervisors expected students to be competent in administering, scoring, and interpreting a small number of widely used psychological tests. Professional relationships between the student, the WBL supervisor, and the university were important. Recommendations for WBL in postgraduate psychology training are discussed. The research provides a model that ascertains an understanding of the baseline level of skills sought by agencies and organisations where students are placed, informs skills training throughout applied programmes, and form the basis for ongoing evaluation of the teaching of skills within higher education.


Introduction

Higher education is increasingly examining the role of university education in preparing graduates for the demands of the workplace (Davies, 1988; Rickard, 2002; Rowland, 1996). This is evident in the growing emphasis on graduate attributes in higher education settings. It is therefore increasingly assumed that knowledge and skills gained while at tertiary institutions will readily translate to the professional setting. Work-based learning (WBL) aims to develop students into professionals.

WBL transfers theory to practice (Johnson, 2001) and assists in developing the student into a practitioner (Stedman, Hatch, & Schoenfeld, 2000; Stedman et al., 2001). In WBL, the student completes a set of tasks and develops skills that have been negotiated by the student, the university supervisor, and the work-based supervisor (Rose, McKee, Temple, Harrison, & Kirkwood, 2001). The relationship is mutually beneficial because the student assists the workplace in achieving some of its aims and the student receives credit towards a degree (Blanchard et al., 2002; Rose et al., 2001).

WBL is standard practice in many university courses, particularly those in health areas (Rickard, 2002). University courses that incorporate WBL include (but are not restricted to) medicine, social work, nursing, education, and psychology (Early & Winton, 2001; Rickard, 2002). In psychology, WBL does not occur until the postgraduate level of education.

An unresolved issue arising from WBL concerns explicating the link between coursework curriculum and the applied setting. Although evaluation of the skills learned on practicum is essential (Stedman, 1997), standardised evaluation procedures are rare. Psychology is an ideal domain for such research as all postgraduate professional psychology courses include a significant component of WBL (roughly between 25 to 50 percent of the course load). This paper explores the context of psychology training in Australia, reports in detail the findings of a study on work-based supervisors of students enrolled in postgraduate psychology courses in Perth, and concludes with recommendations for psychology educators.

Psychology training in Australia

Recently, questions have been raised concerning whether or not current training systems adequately prepare trainee psychologists (e.g., Humphries, 2000; Spruill & Pruitt, 2000). Postgraduate courses in psychology generally consist of a combination of three components: coursework, a research project, and practical placements. This applied training aims to develop the skills and competencies required to be a psychologist and assists the transition from student to professional (Netherton & Mullins, 1997; Stedman et al., 2000; Stedman et al., 2001; Tipton, Watkins, & Ritz, 1991). These skills and competencies are outlined by the Australian Psychological Society (APS) in the general competencies and by the specialist Colleges (e.g., College of Clinical Psychologists) and are taught via the practicum. The APS requires Master of Psychology students to complete 1000 hours and Doctor of Psychology students 1500 hours of practica and students may complete anywhere between two and five practica. Training occurs throughout the professional postgraduate courses. Students may be placed in a university training facility or in a number of community and government agencies. Psychologists working in these settings supervise the students. Neither the student nor the work-based supervisor is paid for their involvement.

The student, WBL supervisor, and university supervisor usually meet at the commencement and completion of the practicum, and may meet more often as required. As a result, psychological training is the domain of the external accreditation body and the psychological profession as well as that of universities.

Despite this, no research could be found investigating Australian work-based supervisors' expectations of psychology students they supervise. We therefore deemed it prudent to summarise North American research on this topic. Although the Australian system is substantially different to the system in North America (as outlined in Albin, Adams, Walker, & Elwood, 2000; Lejuez, Read, Gollan, & Zvolensky, 2001; Stewart, Stewart, & Vogel, 2000), the research may inform the training locally.

Supervisors' expectations for practical training in psychology

Previous research indicates that WBL supervisors believe that the ideal practicum training is characterised by a wide range of topics, clients, environments, and experiences (Freedheim & Overholser, 1997; Matarazzo, 1987). Such breadth in training is the foundation for developing a focus on specialist interests after this generic training (Freedheim & Overholser, 1997).

Knowledge, generic and specific skills, and professional judgment contribute to professional competence (Overholser & Fine, 1990). Work-based practicum supervisors expect a wide range of knowledge, skills, and experience. Overall, practicum supervisors value technical experience above all other qualities (Gloria, Castillo, Choi-Pearson, & Rangel, 1997; Lopez, Oehlert, & Moberly, 1996; Lopez et al., 1997). More specifically, supervisors are also likely to expect: strong test-based intelligence and personality assessment skills (Durand, Blanchard, & Mindell, 1988; Lopez et al., 1996; Piatrowski, 1984; Stedman et al. 2000; Stedman et al., 2001); experience in psychotherapy, especially with adults (Gloria et al.; Malouf, Hass, & Farah, 1983; Shemberg & Leventhal, 1981); and intake assessment and diagnostic skills (Gloria et al.). Cognitive-behaviour therapy was the most valued type of intervention (Stedman et al., 2000; Stedman et al., 2001). However, ratings differ according to the work-based setting and client group. For example, knowledge of and competence in family and child therapies are regarded as more important in child centres than in university counselling facilities (Stedman et al., 2000). Skills that differentiated outstanding students included clinical experience with specific client groups (e.g., children, ethnic minorities), knowledge of specific therapies (e.g., group, family), and projective and objective assessment experiences (Gloria et al., 1997). Deficiencies in training include the ability to market skills and products, to assess the needs of the users and potential users of services, and to provide suggestions to improve intern training (Spruill & Pruitt, 2000). As a result, there is a move to expand the repertoire of experiences involved in WBL to: designing, implementing, and evaluating prevention programmes, public policy, and community-based action (Humphries, 2000).

Because the American and Australian systems of training psychologists are different, it is difficult to ascertain the extent to which the above research is relevant to the Australian context. With a view to meeting the needs of the profession here in Australia, a study was conducted to ascertain work-based supervisors' views and expectations regarding WBL in psychology.

Method

Participants
One hundred and twenty-one psychologists who act as work-based supervisors of postgraduate psychology students in Perth, Western Australia, were invited to complete a questionnaire. Seventy-four completed questionnaires were returned, achieving a response rate of 61 percent. The supervisors represented the variety of practicum experiences available in the Perth area. From this larger group, a sample representing diverse areas of psychology and levels of supervisory experience was invited to participate in a follow-up interview to identify practicum supervisors' views on the value of WBL in psychology. Ten consented to be interviewed.

Materials
A list of skills for the questionnaire was derived from a scoping exercise involving consultation with psychology lecturers, postgraduate students, practitioners, and WBL supervisors as well as examining College competencies. The resulting questionnaire (see Appendix A) lists 58 skills under five headings - Research, Professional conduct, Assessment, Intervention, and Generic. There are 4 skills relating to research; 5 relating to professional conduct; 27 assessment skills; 14 intervention skills; and 8 generic skills. The questionnaire requires participants to rate the necessity of each skill before commencing the practicum from 1 to 5, with 1 indicating the skill is not necessary and 5 is extremely necessary. Two open-ended questions were also included.

The interview schedule (see Appendix B) focused on the training of postgraduate psychology students on practicum. The questions were designed to elucidate the common concourse regarding skills training in psychology at the postgraduate level.

Procedure
The information document and questionnaire were 'pilot tested' with seven practitioners of psychology, including the director of a university training clinic in Perth. The questionnaire and two follow-ups were sent to maximise response rates (de Vaus, 1995). After gaining consent, the interviews were audiotaped and lasted approximately 30 minutes and were later transcribed verbatim for analysis. The interviews and the two qualitative questions on the questionnaire were analysed using thematic content analysis (Miles & Huberman, 1994) to identify the underlying themes and dimensions relating to WBL in psychology.

Results

Supervisor expectations
Mean ratings were calculated for the 5 skill types (see Figure 1). As the figure indicates, the professional conduct skills were deemed most important (M = 4.21), followed (in order) by generic skills (M = 3.05), intervention skills (M = 2.96), assessment skills (M = 2.36), and research skills (M = 2.10).

Figure 1

Figure 1: Supervisors' mean ratings of baseline importance of five groups of technical skill

Professional conduct skills before commencing a placement were rated most important, ranging from 4.79 to 3.50. Of these skills, behaving in accordance with ethical and legal regulations was rated highest, followed by communicating effectively and appropriately with clients and colleagues (4.58). These were the highest ratings not only in this category but overall. Awareness and sensitivity to cultural diversity issues (3.79) was also deemed important.

Generic skills were also rated as important, ranging from 1.32 to 4.14. The most important skills within this category were a high level of written communication skill (4.14), record keeping (4.11), time management (3.89), working independently (3.75), and computer literacy (3.21). Less important skills included project management (1.74) and drafting a funding request (1.32).

Intervention skills were rated from 1.85 to 3.81. The most highly rated skills in this bracket were counselling strategies (3.81), cognitive-behaviour therapy (CBT) (3.80), and behaviour therapy (3.38). The least rated interventions were mediation (2.28), community education (2.00), and community development (1.85). Individual therapy (3.19) was rated as more important than family (3.05) and self-help approaches (2.68). Therefore, the supervisors valued individual and clinical interventions over systemic interventions.

The ratings of assessment skills ranged from 3.96 to 1.28. The most important skills could be separated into two types - general and clinical. The general assessment skills included identification of appropriate assessment methods (3.96), ability to become familiar with any test or method (3.68), and planning and organising systematic psychological assessment (3.32). The clinical skills included interviewing for personal/psychiatric history (3.94) and diagnostic classification (3.37). Self-report personality inventories (3.00), individual assessments of intelligence for adults (2.75), functional assessment (2.51), neuropsychological tests (2.47) and the mini-mental state examination (2.46) were of medium importance. Less important assessment skills included intelligence testing with children (1.87), achievement tests, (1.52), group tests (1.46), and career guidance tests (1.28).

Ratings of skills in the research category were medium low and demonstrated minor variability (between 1.92 and 2.35). The skills here included identification of research problems (2.01), qualitative and quantitative methods and analysis (2.10), and development of research applications (2.35).

According to the supervisors, there were six qualities that separate above-average students from others. These were a high level of technical skill, critical analysis ability, knowing when to act independently and when to ask for assistance, life experience, communication skills, and personality characteristics such as enthusiasm and initiative. It is interesting to note that most of these are learned through experience rather than in the classroom.

The supervisors also expect students to be competent in administering, scoring, and interpreting a small number of widely used psychological tests. These were the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence, Wechsler Memory Scale, Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, Beck Depression Inventory, Beck Anxiety Inventory, Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory, and the Child Behaviour Checklist. In regard to other tests, the supervisors ex pected knowledge of and exposure to the tests rather than a high level of technical competency. Rather, they wanted a preparedness to develop such competency.

The following results were derived from the subsequent interviews.

The role of WBL in psychology
The supervisors interviewed thought that in vivo experience is necessary to develop, consolidate, and refine skills. They thought that completing each practicum gave students 'real world' experience: "We've had students do... grant applications processes... and [a student's] comments were 'this is great... you actually find out whether or not you're going to get the money'." Practica helped students understand the reality and complexity of working as a psychologist: "This could be the first time that students have seen a lot of mental illness." In vivo experience also helped students gain an understanding of the areas they may want to work in after graduation: "It's the only time you really get a chance to work out which direction you want to go after your training. They... see how it works for real, because it's very different... than... at the university." Therefore, the supervisors view WBL as an invaluable tool in teaching the professional skills required of a psychologist.

Student performance
The supervisors highlighted the importance of generic skills: "If they've got those good base skills ...you can give them projects to run with without having to worry about whether they are going to cope with them." However, the supervisors thought that the baseline skill level of students on practicum was highly variable, with a number of students not meeting basic standards. Examples of this concerned generic skills such as the quality of written work and interpersonal skills. Students with a low skill level generated extra work for the supervisors: "I had many, many hours of work personally to remedy poor written work or partly completed work"; and this left the supervisors feeling unsatisfied with being a work-based teacher: "It leaves a certain reluctance to have another go." The supervisors also thought that some students required more interpersonal skills. They thought that these generic skills should be taught in a university-based clinic rather than on an external practicum: "If they've had that supervision already, then it's just a matter of fine-tuning to apply those skills to this context and to find out the other parts of the process they aren't likely to learn at the university clinic." Thus, a certain level of generic skill is required before psychology students embark on a work-based learning experience.

Despite wanting skilled trainees, the supervisors also recognised that the students on practicum needed to develop and refine skills in order to maximise their development. Thus, the supervisors were concerned with tailoring each practicum to deliver the skills and competencies students had not developed via their employment and coursework: "So normally, when setting up the placement we talk about where these gaps are and how I can help them with those gaps." The supervisors also thought that practica should be based on the level of skill displayed by students. This depended on their level of prior experience and the number of practica completed, as basic skills are required before more complex skills could be developed: "It depends on where they are in their placements, whether they're in their first placement, in which case they might be developing other skills that are required, or towards the end of their placements and they are refining their skills, in which case we'd look more at them taking on some of the easier interventions rather than purely assessment."

In addition to setting up the parameters and goals of the practicum, the supervisors thought it was their role to introduce the students to the organisational culture of the workplace, including roles, politics, hierarchies, and working in multidisciplinary teams: "One of the objectives... would be to look at their role in comparison to other's roles in relation to the organisational culture." Thus, the supervisors required a level of competence from the students but were more than willing to develop and expand on the students' existing skills.

Professional relationships
Any higher education WBL programme requires commitment from three groups: students, WBL supervisors, and the university. The supervisors thought the relationship between them and their students was extremely important and determined the success of each practicum. They thought a positive relationship could best be achieved via three mechanisms. Firstly, by developing the practicum contract and objectives at the beginning of the practicum: "I think doing a good contract and good objectives are an important part of developing that relationship and where that hasn't happened we have come to difficulties with students not knowing what their obligations to us are." Secondly, by facilitating a relationship where students can acknowledge their strengths and weaknesses: "Because the students ought to be carrying with them relatively different skill levels ... there needs to be openness about strengths and weaknesses." And thirdly, by creating an environment whereby the students feel comfortable in giving feedback to the supervisor: "If you don't have a good relationship with your supervisor, you're not going to feel confident about putting your hand up and saying, 'look, I want to do something else', or, 'I'm nor getting the type of experience I want', or 'I'm feeling overwhelmed by this', ...and that should just be a part of the placement." According to the WBL supervisors, these three characteristics ensure that students get the most out of the supervisors and their practicum.

The relationship between the WBL supervisors and the university is equally important. On the whole, the work-based supervisors interviewed were very happy with the process and outcomes of WBL and their relationship with the university supervisors. They thought it necessary for the university to have an understanding of what is occurring at each practicum so that the liaison and student evaluation are meaningful. Thus, positive working relationships between the student, the WBL supervisor, and the university were thought to be essential to successful WBL in psychology.

However, the WBL supervisors articulated aspects of the WBL process that they would liked to be improved. They wanted the university supervisors to contact them, rather than them having to contact the university supervisor. They felt it would be beneficial to know more about the students' backgrounds: "I now request a copy of their CV or an outline of their experience in psychological work, so I can make a better decision about whether their placement will be a good one here"; and about what the students have been taught: "Some students say, 'well I know about those tests but I've never actually applied it'." Thus the supervisors' knowledge of the level of student skill was regarded as important because the students may have an understanding of a technical skill but may not be able to apply that skill in a WBL environment. Lastly, the WBL supervisors thought that the reciprocal relationship between themselves and the university could be improved by having access to university resources, professional development, and accredited training for field supervisors: "Having access to that sort of updating would be really good and there wouldn't be a better place to get it from than universities."

Logistics of WBL in psychology
The issue of visiting the practicum location was the main aspect of the WBL relationship that the work-based supervisors were not satisfied with. Almost all of the work-based supervisors felt that the university supervisor should visit at least once during the practicum: "I'm happy with the university supervisor to visit the workplace at the end of the placement, if the placement is going smoothly." The work-based supervisor was likely to want two or three meetings only if an issue arose in the practicum: "I think the superv isor should be able to assist in sorting that out if that occurred at any time in the placement." A smaller issue was the perceived lack of liaison that sometimes occurred between university supervisors and work-based supervisors: "My current experience has been that a student lobs in here and I get bits of paper that I'm supposed to fill out, most of which are totally meaningless to the student's experiences."

Discussion

The field supervisors viewed WBL as a medium to successfully aid the transition from postgraduate student to professional. The results indicate that skills relating to professional conduct and generic skills were rated as more important base level skills than research, assessment, and intervention skills. This contradicts research conducted in the United States (Durand et al., 1988; Gloria et al., 1997; Lopez et al., 1996; 1997; Malouf et al., 1983, Petzel & Berndt, 1980; Piatrowksi, 1984; Shemberg & Leventhal, 1981; Tipton et al., 1991), which suggests that clinical skills (e.g., assessment of intelligence) are considered the most important baseline skills. The work-based supervisors wanted postgraduate psychology students to be competent in administering, scoring, and interpreting common psychological tests. However, they expected knowledge of and exposure to other tests rather than competency in their use. The skill areas they identified that could be further developed before commencing an external practicum included interpersonal and communication skills. Although some of the preferred skills cannot be taught (e.g., life experience), these were skills that separated above-average students from others, and, therefore, were sought after but not necessary.

The supervisors believed that students and supervisors should negotiate a learning agreement (Rickard, 2002) to maximise the match between the skills required by the student and the skills on offer in the practicum (Wozencraft, 1997). The supervisors also believed that practica are the vehicle whereby students gain the understanding and experience of working in a 'real life' psychological setting. Consistent with the idea of stage-based learning, it was thought that the students' first practicum should occur in a university clinic to allow external supervisors to build on student competencies.

The relationships between the student, WBL supervisor, and university supervisor were seen as crucial to the success of the practicum. The WBL supervisors interviewed offered ways in which the relationship between themselves and university supervisors may be improved, such as at least one workplace visit (and more when required). A responsive framework was deemed necessary because not all student placements require the same number of workplace visits and the number of visits is not ascertainable beforehand. Furthermore, having more information on each student's background and experience was deemed useful by WBL supervisors. Another issue for the WBL supervisors was having students who were less competent than the supervisor originally thought (or was led to believe) or who contributed little (Rickard, 2002). Finally, meaningful evaluation forms for supervisors to comment on students' competence made the process smoother.

Recommendations for work-based learning in psychology
The following recommendations for preparing psychology postgraduates for WBL emerged from the research:

Future research
It is necessary to take the views of the profession into account as the relationship between university and workplace supervisors is important in WBL. The majority of research into WBL in psychology has focussed on the skills required by practicum supervisors. Future research could incorporate a study of the skills required by employers and the skills sought by students. Future research could also investigate students' perspectives of the WBL experience in Australia and investigate the reasons for unsuccessful practicum placements.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the results of this study provide an understanding of the baseline level of skills sought by agencies and organisations where postgraduate psychology students are placed, inform skills training provided throughout postgraduate programmes in psychology, and informs the ongoing evaluation of the teaching of psychological skills within university and work-based contexts. Standardised evaluation of the skills learned on practicum is essential (Stedman, 1997). Most commonly, supervisors provide written evaluations of their trainees (Miller, 1977; Norcross, Stevenson, & Nash, 1986). The Minnesota Supervisory Inventory was designed specifically for measuring psychology practicum outcomes (Robiner, Fuhrman, Ristvedt, Bobbit, & Schirvar, 1994). It would be worth while to develop such an instrument for the Australian practicum context. Furthermore, the research described in this paper may inform the curriculum development and evaluation of student skills in other professional higher education courses.

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Appendix A

Competencies for Psychologists

Please rate the baseline level of competency (i.e., before placement) you expect of postgraduate psychology students on placement in your agency for each of the following skills, where
1 = not necessary for the placements you offer
2 = somewhat necessary for the placements you offer
3 = moderately necessary for the placements you offer
4 = highly necessary for the placements you offer
5 = extremely necessary for the placements you offer.
SkillsRating
Generic
Computer literacy_____
Thorough record keeping_____
Time management_____
Working independently_____
Writing a literature review_____
Written communication_____
Project management_____
Drafting a funding request_____


Research
Identification of research problems_____
_____
Designing and conducting research investigations_____
Quantitative and qualitative methods and analysis_____
Development of applications of psychological research_____


Professional Conduct
Exploration of the nature of services required_____
Negotiation of the service contract_____
Behaving in accordance with ethical and legal regulations_____
Communicating effectively and appropriately with clients and colleagues_____
Awareness and sensitivity to cultural diversity issues_____


Assessment
Test design and construction_____
Psychometrics_____
Ability to become familiar with any test or method_____
Identification of appropriate assessment methods_____
Planning and organising systematic psychological assessment_____
Interviewing for personal/psychiatric history_____
Individual intelligence tests for adults_____
Individual intelligence tests for children_____
Individual assessment_____
Group tests_____
Aptitude batteries_____
Tests of creativity and reasoning_____
Achievement tests_____
Occupational tests_____
Career counselling and guidance tests_____
Neuropsychological tests_____
Self-report personality inventories_____
Diagnostic classification_____
Assessment of risk/suicide_____
Biofeedback and physiological measures_____
Functional assessment_____
Assessment of deception_____
Mini-mental State Examination_____
Community mapping and history taking_____
Social impact assessment_____
Social policy analysis_____
Community-based needs assessment_____


Interventions
Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT)_____
Behaviour therapy_____
Applied behaviour analysis_____
Family and systemic approaches_____
Individual therapy_____
Family therapy_____
Counselling strategies_____
Crisis intervention_____
Brief therapy_____
Self-help/group facilitation_____
Mediation_____
Community development_____
Community education_____
Planning, designing, and evaluating psychological services_____


1   What assessment tools do you expect placement students to be competent in administering, scoring, and interpreting before beginning a placement?







2 In your opinion, what skills separate above average students from others?






Appendix B

  1. Please tell me about the placements your organisation offers.

  2. Are you familiar with the general and core competencies set out by the Australian Psychological Society?

  3. How appropriate are these for the placements you offer?

  4. How important are generic skills to the successful completion of a placement?

  5. Do you think practicum placements are an effective way of teaching practical skills? Why/why not?

  6. How important is the relationship between the students and his or her supervisor? Why?

  7. How important is it for trainees to adapt to the organisational culture of each placement?

  8. How can the link between the university and the field supervision be improved?

Acknowledgment

We would like to acknowledge Dr Susan Hall and Dr John Hall for their helpful comments on drafts of this paper. We would also like to acknowledge Mr Greg Dear, Ms Julie Ann Pooley, and Associate Professor Neil Drew for their assistance in identifying potential participants.

Authors: Lauren Breen is a psychologist and a lecturer at Edith Cowan University. Lauren is currently completing her PhD examining the influence of contextual factors on the experience of grief. Other areas of her research include community psychology and teaching and learning in higher education. Email: l.breen@ecu.edu.au

Associate Professor Lisbeth Pike is a community, clinical, and educational and developmental psychologist. Lisbeth has published in areas such as single parent families, the effect of separation and divorce on children, and higher education issues. Lisbeth teaches in the postgraduate clinical and community psychology programmes and is the coordinator of the community psychology programme at Edith Cowan University.

Dr Lucius Arco is a clinical psychologist and lecturer at Edith Cowan University. His areas of interest include developmental disabilities, behavioural rehabilitation, and applied behaviour analysis. Lu teaches in the undergraduate and postgraduate programmes and is the practicum coordinator for the clinical psychology programme.

Please cite as: Breen, L., Pike, L. T. and Arco, L. (2003). From postgraduate student to professional: Work-based learning in psychology. Issues In Educational Research, 13(1), 13-30. http://www.iier.org.au/iier13/breen.html


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