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Issues In Educational Research, Vol 16, 2006
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The relationship between bullying and social skills in primary school students

Ian D. Larke and Tanya N. Beran
University of Calgary
In this study we examined the relationship between children's social skills and bullying behaviours. Teachers rated social skills and indirect and direct physical bullying behaviours of 120 students in elementary school. Hierarchical regression analyses indicated that social skills are inversely related to both direct physical bullying (beta = -.61, p < .001) and indirect bullying (beta = -.50, p < .001). According to teachers' perceptions, children who bully their peers, regardless of the form of bullying they use, lack prosocial skills to effectively manage interpersonal relationships.


Bullying is a serious social problem which is receiving increased attention (Smokowski & Kopasz, 2005). Beran and Tutty (2002) reported that one third of upper elementary students admit to bullying others, whereas prevalence rates reported about a decade earlier are lower, in the 10-15% range (eg, Bentley & Li, 1995; Ziegler & Rosenstein-Manner, 1991). Since bullying occurs in the context of a peer group, it is important to understand the social skills of children who target their peers to gain a comprehensive understanding of bullying.

Two primary forms of bullying have been identified, including direct physical bullying and indirect bullying (Crick, Casas, & Nelson, 2002; Olweus, 1991; Rivers & Smith, 1994). Overt acts of physical force constitute direct physical aggression (eg, shoving, kicking). Indirect bullying, in contrast, is described as a covert and circuitous attack carried out through behaviours such as spreading rumours or excluding an individual from a group. Bullying is differentiated from other forms of peer aggression according to its repetition and power differential. Bullying occurs repeatedly and is exerted by a more powerful individual against a less power individual. In the present study, direct physical bullying is used to refer to behaviours such as hitting, kicking, and pushing another student, locking a student indoors, and using physical force to dominate other students. Indirect bullying, in contrast, refers to behaviours such as excluding children from activities and the peer group, ignoring, spreading false rumours, trying to make others dislike the victim, and inciting others to gang up on a victim. Thus, bullying involves interactions with the targeted child that often take place in the presence of peer bystanders (Craig & Pepler, 1997).

Social skills

The ability to interact and facilitate successful relationships with others is arguably one of the most significant developmental achievements throughout childhood (Gresham, Sugai, & Horner, 2001). Children spend a significant amount of time in school, which provides an important socialisation forum in which to develop skills of initiating and maintaining relationships with peers and adults (Gresham, 1988). Social skills have been studied according to three general views: peer-acceptance, behaviour, and social validity (Gresham, 2001). Using the peer-acceptance view, children with prosocial skills are identified according to how liked and accepted they are by their peers. With this approach, however, it is possible that students who exert control and domination over their peers are nominated. These dominant students may seem 'popular' due to their intrepid actions, and may be admired by peers who feel intimidated by them. Alternatively, children's social skills can be examined according to the behaviours they exhibit that tend to be well-received from others and create positive exchanges. An extension of this approach is social validity whereby specific important and adaptive behavioural patterns that predict positive social outcomes are considered good social skills (ie, prosocial skills). These behaviours are judged to be important and adaptive from adults' perspectives (eg, teachers). Since the social validity definition provides a framework for assessing behaviours that teachers find adaptive in the school setting, a teacher-report measure of social skills encompassing this framework was used in the current study to assess how different forms of bullying are related to prosocial skills.

Social skills and bullying

Researchers disagree about the social skills of children who bully (Crick & Dodge, 1994; Sutton, Smith, & Swettenham, 1999a; 1999b). Sutton et al. (1999a) argue that these children are often stereotyped and portrayed as "usually... male, physically powerful yet intellectually simple or backward, resorting to violence and aggression in their interactions almost because they know no other way" (Sutton et al., 1999a, p.118). Indeed, other researchers such as Randall (1997, p.23) focused on deficiencies: "bullies do not process social information accurately and seem unable to make realistic judgments about the intentions of other people ... fail to understand the feelings of others ... [and] have little awareness of what other children actually think of them." Accordingly, a social-information processing theory of aggression provides an explanation for the deficits in social skills of children who bully. Aggression may result from deficits in social-information processing such as attending to and interpreting social cues, and generating responses (Crick & Dodge, 1994). Aggressive children may misinterpret their peers' intentions, not recognise or respect their feelings, and exert harm against them.

Conversely, it has been suggested that the social skills of children who bully have been underestimated (Sutton et al., 1999a). In fact, children who bully often target children using methods in social (eg, group) settings. In consideration of this social framework in which bullying occurs, it is reasonable to expect that to exert power over peers, it may be "highly adaptive to possess good social skills: many bullies may in fact be skilled manipulators, not social inadequates" (Sutton et al., 1999a, p.117-118). Thus, given the social nature of bullying, it may be important to posses a repertoire of socially skilled behaviours to exert control over others. For example, indirect bullying such as excluding another child from the peer group requires both an understanding of exclusion and the ability to convince other students to accept the exclusion. In other words, when social skills are well developed, children may be able to bully their peers using circuitous methods (eg, spreading rumours, systematically excluding) without relying on physical methods to cause harm (Björkqvist & Niemelä, 1992; Lagerspetz, Björkqvist, & Peltonen, 1988). Moreover, bullying using indirect methods may require well-developed social skills to manipulate others (Sutton et al., 1999a). These social skills may also include prosocial behaviours towards peers who agree to support the bullying behaviours. For example, a student who tells a group of peers to ignore a particular student, is more likely to gain compliance if cooperative and friendly behaviours are also shown (eg, "If you ignore her, I'll introduce you to all my friends"). The extent to which children who bully also engage in prosocial skills needs further investigation.

A developmental perspective is useful in understanding how students use prosocial skills with indirect bullying tactics. Björkqvist et al. (1992a) proposed a developmental theory of aggression that explains children's use of various bullying behaviours in a certain developmental sequence. Central to this theory is the assumption that society considers aggressive behaviours as unacceptable, and "... accordingly, one should expect that the learning of this fact will lead to the transformation and change of aggressive strategies to less recognizable forms" (Björkqvist et al., 1992b, p.59).

The first forms of aggression children may exhibit are direct physical acts. Björkqvist and colleagues (1992a) found that levels of direct physical aggression are highest in children at ages 8 and 11 and then decline. Moreover, boys are more likely than girls to exert direct physical aggression. Boys' use of these behaviours may be partly explained by their tendency to be more active and physically stronger than girls, and are, therefore, more likely to develop a greater physical means of aggression. Since subtle forms of aggression (ie, indirect) may require prosocial skills, young children whose skills are relatively immature may tend to resort to the use of physical aggression.

As children mature and gain greater social skills, direct bullying may decrease and indirect bullying may increase. Indeed, Björkqvist and colleagues (1992a) found that indirect aggression occurs least often at age 8, and peaks at about age 11. As children develop expressive language skills, they may also develop new aggressive behaviours that do not require physical force, such as excluding a peer from the group. Since girls are more likely to engage in indirect bullying than are boys, and girls' social skill development precedes boys (Björkqvist et al., 1992a; Maccoby & Jacklin, 1974), it is likely that girls at age 12 use more indirect bullying than do boys. This form of bullying may replace direct bullying because physical aggression may become less socially desirable at older ages. Also, the use of indirect aggression may be less likely to result in physical retaliation than the use of physical aggression (Björkqvist et al., 1992a).

To develop a comprehensive understanding of bullying behaviours, it is important to recognise their heterogeneity. Arsenio and Lemerise (2001) state that "without a clear and accurate picture of the nature of bullying, potentially complex and expensive interventions will either be ineffective, or, at best, less effective than desired" (p.60). Given that children use various forms of bullying behaviours towards their peers, it seems likely that these behaviours are related to their social skill development. Specifically, it is expected that children who indirectly bully their peers will also use prosocial skills to develop a relationship with them, whereas, children who use more direct forms of bullying will exhibit fewer prosocial skills. Moreover, it is possible that as children gain more refined prosocial skills, their bullying behaviours will include more complex indirect methods, which may occur at an earlier age in girls than in boys. Although theoretical and conceptual arguments about the relationship between bullying and social skills have been made, empirical evidence is lacking. Thus, the purpose of this study was to investigate children's bullying and prosocial skills within a primary school setting.



Primary (elementary) schools within the public school board in a major Canadian city were randomly selected. Of the nine administrators contacted, five declined due to other commitments. Four schools were included to obtain an adequate sample of teachers and students. As it was estimated that two hours would be required to complete the questionnaires, teachers were offered a $30.00 restaurant certificate as compensation. Teachers who agreed to participate received parental/guardian consent forms to distribute to their students. After one week, teachers were asked to remind students to return the consent forms.

Of the 328 students who received consent forms, 150 students returned them with a signature. Thus, the mean response rate across schools was 46% and varied between 37%-57%. From the 150 students, 120 were randomly selected to obtain a similar number of male and female students in each class up to a maximum of 10 students per class. This limit was established to manage the amount of time required from teachers since they were asked to complete two behaviour rating scales for each selected student in their classes.

Fourteen teachers from ten classes (two classes had an extra teacher) provided ratings of bullying and social skills on 120 students in grades 4 to 6. Twelve teachers were female (86%), and two (14%) were male. They completed questionnaires for a total of 61 (51%) girls and 59 (49%) boys, of which 42 (35%) were in grade 4, 42 (35%) in grade 5, and 36 (30%) in grade 6.


To obtain accurate and reliable reports of both direct and indirect bullying, teachers' reports of student bullying were obtained from ten items on the Olweus Bully/Victim Questionnaire (Olweus, 1996) and three items on the Teacher Rating Scale (Dodge & Coie, 1987). Behaviours on the Olweus Bully/Victim Questionnaire are rated on a Likert scale according to the frequency of their occurrence (eg, This student uses physical force to dominate: [1] 'hasn't happened in the past couple of months' to [5] 'several times a week'). This questionnaire has been used by researchers in cross-national comparative studies on bullying. Its internal consistency, measured by Cronbach's alpha, ranges from .80 to .90. Also, evidence of validity is shown from high correlations between self-report items and peer ratings (eg, .40 and .60). Since there were few items measuring both direct and indirect bullying, items from the Teacher Rating Scale (Dodge & Coie, 1987) were also used. The three items measuring bullying are rated according to frequency on a Likert scale from 'never true' to 'almost always true', with higher values indicating more bullying. Internal consistency is high, with a coefficient alpha of .91 (Dodge & Coie, 1987).

Since we combined items from two scales, we conducted a principal components analysis with an oblique rotation to obtain evidence of factorial validity for direct and indirect bullying. From the 13 bullying items, two components with eigenvalues greater than one emerged. Three items loaded on the first component measuring indirect bullying, with factor loadings ranging from .75 to .96. These items include This student kept another student out of things on purpose, excluded him or her from this student's group of friends, or completely ignored him or her; This student spread false rumours about another student and tried to make others dislike him or her; and This student gets other students to gang up on a peer that he or she does not like; appear to exemplify covert and circuitous methods of social manipulation and are consistent with current conceptualisations of indirect bullying (Björkqvist et al., 1992a; Olweus, 1991). Two items loaded on the second factor consisting of direct physical bullying, each loading .94 and .96. These items, This student hit, kicked, pushed and shoved another student around or locked him or her indoors; and This student uses physical force (or threatens to use force) in order to dominate other students; are consistent with current conceptualisations of direct physical bullying (Olweus, 1991; Tapper & Boulton, 2004). These results provide good evidence for the validity for indirect and direct physical bullying. The remaining bullying items consisted of either derogatory racial names or theft and property damage. These items loaded highly on a separate factor (.77 and .81) which appeared to measure more delinquent behaviour and racism. This latter factor was not used as its items were not consistent with indirect and direct physical bullying. Total scores were calculated for each respondent based on the items that loaded highly on each bullying factor, thus forming the scores for indirect and direct bullying. The internal consistency (Cronbach's alpha) of indirect bullying was .89 and for direct bullying was .90.

Social skills

The Social Skills Rating System: Teacher Report Form (SSRS:TR; Gresham & Elliott, 1990) is a 30-item, standardised, norm-referenced rating scale designed to measure teachers' perceptions of students' acquisition of various social skills. The authors define social skills as "socially acceptable learned behaviours that enable a person to interact effectively with others and to avoid socially unacceptable responses" (Gresham & Elliott, 1990). Social skills behaviours include cooperation (eg, putting school materials away), assertion (eg, introducing oneself to peers and adults), and self-control (eg, controlling temper with peers and adults). Responses are recorded according to how often particular behaviours occur using a 3 point response scale ranging from Never (0) to Very Often (2). The sum of the items yields a Total Social Skills scale score, ranging from 0-60. The psychometric properties of the SSRS:TR are good. Test-retest reliability, assessed over a 4-week period, ranges from .75 to .88 (Gresham & Elliott, 1990). Also, content validity is evidenced by the inclusion of teacher feedback throughout the development of the SSRS:TR.


Since 14 teachers provided ratings on 120 students (creating dependence in the observations), dummy variables were created for teachers and used as covariates in the analyses. Descriptive information about bullying and social skills is shown in Table 1. This table also consists of first order correlations of bullying and social skills after using the dummy variables as covariates. Moderate coefficients were found among the variables.

Table 1: Correlations of indirect and direct physical bullying scores

Indirect bullying4.63 2.58--

Direct bullying2.84 1.73.40*--
Social skills40.8512.05-.43*-.52*--
Note. * p < .001

Also, considering that social skills may develop sooner in girls than in boys and that younger children presumably have fewer social skills than older children, univariate analyses of variance were conducted to determine main and interaction effects of gender and grade for social skills and bullying (See Table 2). There is a main effect for gender whereby boys reportedly use more direct bullying (M = 3.46, SD = 0.22) than girls (M = 2.27, SD = 0.22). Indirect bullying did not differ between boys and girls. For social skills, girls (M = 45.02, SD = 1.42) were given significantly higher ratings than boys (M = 36.20, SD = 1.43). Regarding grade, there is a main effect for indirect bullying. Tukey's post hoc results show that students in grades 4 (M = 4.19, SD = 0.38) and 5 (M = 4.13, SD = 0.39) reportedly use less indirect bullying than students in grade 6 (M = 5.76, SD = 0.42). Direct bullying did not differ across the grades. Also, teachers reported greater social skills for students in grade 4 (M = 44.83, SD = 1.70) than for students in grade 5 (M = 38.81, SD = 1.70) or 6 (M = 38.19, SD = 1.84). No significant interaction effects were found.

To determine the relationship between bullying and social skills, a hierarchical regression analysis was conducted using the total social skills score as the criterion variable. The dummy variables were entered first into the regression analysis to reduce multicollinearity. Second, gender was coded (0 = female, 1 = male) and entered with grade along with their interaction. Third, indirect and direct bullying scores were entered. This order allowed us to determine whether each type of bullying is related to prosocial skills, while holding grade and gender constant.

Table 2: Summary of main and interaction effects for gender and grade

GenderIndirect bullying12.70
Direct physical bullying122.63**
Social skills119.14***
GradeIndirect bullying25.21**
Direct physical bullying20.64
Social skills23.82*
Gender by
Indirect bullying20.51
Direct physical bullying20.21
Social skills20.25
Note. ***p < .001 ** p < .01 *p < .05

After accounting for the intercorrelation of teachers' reports, gender and grade did not predict much variance in social skills (see Table 3). After controlling for grade and gender, both indirect and direct bullying behaviours were inversely related to social skills. Thus, children who use either indirect or indirect bullying are likely to have few prosocial skills.

Table 3: Hierarchical regression results of bullying and social
skills, controlling for demographic characteristics (N = 120)

Social skills
BSE Bbetap
Step 1*
Step 2Grade1.
Gender x grade2.
Step 3Direct bullying-2.13.58-.31.000
Indirect bullying-1.95.39-.42.000
Note. *Dummy variables.
R2 = .26 for Step 1; deltaR2 = .08 for Step 2 (p < .01); R2 = .34 for Step 2; deltaR2 = .28 for Step 3 (p < .001); R2 = .62 for Step 3.


We expected that children who use direct bullying would exhibit few prosocial skills, whereas children who use indirect bullying would exhibit high levels of prosocial skills. Rather, we found that students who engage in either type of bullying are rated by their teachers as exhibiting poor prosocial skills. Grade and gender differences also emerged. Students in the earlier grade were given the highest ratings in social skills, and were reported to engage in less indirect bullying than students in the older grades. Also, boys reportedly use more direct bullying and exhibit fewer prosocial skills than girls.

Researchers suggest that the social skills of children who bully have been underestimated (Sutton et al., 1999a). Moreover, covert and less identifiable forms of bullying that include indirect methods of targeting peers (eg, exclusion, ignoring, trying to get other children to dislike a child) may require prosocial skills to befriend peers to continue to exert control over them. Researchers studying similar constructs (ie, indirect aggression) have also emphasised the importance of social skills in the development of social strategies to harm their victims (Björkqvist et al., 1992a; Lagerspetz et al., 1988). While these theoretical and conceptual arguments seem plausible, our study shows that children who bully their peers, either directly or indirectly, exhibit few prosocial skills. Conversely, children who display high levels of prosocial skills tend not to bully others. This result is consistent with the extant research on social skills and general aggression (Crick & Dodge, 1994; Quiggle, Garber, Panak & Dodge, 1992).

This study raises the question of why children who bully do not exhibit prosocial skills. It may be that bullying serves a functional purpose for students as it gives them a means of gaining affiliation with the peer group. In fact, these students may have tried to use prosocial skills and perceived rejection from their peers. So, in an attempt to gain access to the peer group, they may have resorted to forceful actions to create compliant acceptance from peers. In this way, children who bully may gain a sense of affiliation with their peers. Perhaps the need to exert physical or psychological harm over children through the abuse of power is mitigated when children have the social skills needed to foster positive reciprocal relations with other children, and are "equipped to handle participation and responsibility for their own welfare and the welfare of others" (Gresham, 1988, p.525).

The reporting source for this study provides another explanation for the inverse relationship between prosocial skills and both forms of bullying. Teachers may hold a negative view of students who are disruptive towards others, and give them poor ratings for all behaviours including their social interactions. Moreover, students' interactions may be subtle and not easily detected by teachers. The construct of social skills must also be considered. These skills include both prosocial (positive) as well as manipulative (controlling) interpersonal behaviours. In our study prosocial initiations with peers were measured. Thus, we concluded that children who bully do not appear to have supportive, respectful, friendly peer exchanges. However, Sutton et al. (1999a) include socially manipulative behaviours in the conceptualisation of social skills, and these were not specifically measured in our study. It is possible that children who bully indeed show a high degree of intelligence in understanding their peers' thoughts and feelings and are able to use this information for social maleficence rather than beneficence. It is recommended that future research include individuals' specific interpersonal behaviours to determine children's level of skill in social situations that involve various types of bullying. This future research is particularly important considering that children who bully may have both social status and power, and, thus, be seen as 'popular'. Teachers contribute substantially to the maintenance of such social roles in the peer hierarchy, and their own role in maintaining this hierarchy also needs investigation.

Another unexpected finding was that students in the younger grade received higher ratings for prosocial skills than did students in the older grades. It is possible that higher ratings were given because fewer indirect bullying behaviours are exhibited by students in that grade, creating a more positive general impression of student behaviour. However, other studies have indicated that older in comparison to younger children exhibit few prosocial skills (O'Connell et. al., 1997; Rigby & Slee, 1991). It has been suggested that older students learn to develop a more independent and indifferent response to bullying perhaps as a means of appearing resilient to harm (Rigby & Slee, 1991).

Gender differences in bullying and social skills also emerged. Specifically, boys were more likely than girls to engage in direct physical bullying, a finding that is well substantiated (Beran & Tutty, 2002; Björkqvist et al., 1992a; Green, Richardson, & Lago, 1996; Lagerspetz et al., 1988; Olweus, 1991; Tapper & Boulton, 2004). Thus, it appears that direct bullying remains largely a 'male' phenomenon (Björkqvist & Niemelä, 1992). It has been suggested that friendship groups play a facilitative role in the expression or inhibition of the direct physical and indirect subtypes, and this supposition was confirmed empirically (eg, Björkqvist et al., 1992a; Green et al., 1996; Lagerspetz et al., 1988). Boys have been observed to form looser friendship associations, which may prevent indirect aggressive methods from having an impact, thus causing boys to rely more on direct physical bullying methods compared to girls. Social skillfulness may be another important factor related to friendship groups (Green et al., 1996). Indeed, the present study found that prosocial skills were higher for girls than for boys. Perhaps the lower levels of prosocial skills found amongst boys negatively affects their ability to develop positive peer-relations and thus heightens their risk for using direct physical methods to bully others.

Although girls were not rated as using more indirect bullying than boys, they were rated as having higher prosocial skills. Due to the covert nature of indirect bullying, teachers may not have detected these behaviours as easily as they reported direct bullying behaviours. Researchers have found that girls form fewer but closer friendships than boys (Björkqvist et al., 1992a; Lagerspetz et al., 1988), which may strengthen the impact of indirect bullying. The smaller social structure found among girls may emphasise the emotional importance on the relationships among group members. Future research should include the severity, in addition to the frequency, of this form of bullying among girls to better understand gender differences in bullying. The difference between boys' and girls' experiences of bullying was also shown in an evaluation of a social skills training program whereby girls reported improved communication and affiliation among friends while boys reported improved self-control (Taylor, Liang, Tracy, Williams, & Seigle, 2002). This study and previous research have demonstrated that girls may be more relational-oriented and boys more instrumental-oriented, which may explain why girls have more well-developed social skills than do boys (Ohbuchi & Yamamoto, 1990; Osterman et al., 1997). These social skills, moreover, are instrumental for girls in developing relationships with other girls. Girls who bully may lack the skills to develop friendships based on mutual respect with their female peers. These girls may use bullying to create a controlling relationship with other girls. In this way, girls who bully compromise the relationships among other girls, leaving them vulnerable and perhaps more willing to enter into a friendship that is based on fear and control.

Although the present study helps elucidate the relationship between bullying and prosocial skills, several limitations must be noted. Verbal forms of direct bullying were not specifically measured in the study and are likely to be related to social skills. Also, the response rate was low, thus our results require replication. Another limitation concerns the method of the study. Only teachers' reports of students' social skills and bullying were examined. Since teachers mainly interact with students in a classroom setting, their reports of students' bullying behaviours may not accurately indicate the extent of bullying in other settings such as in locker rooms or on the school grounds where bullying most often occurs (Pellegrini & Bartini, 2000). It is also possible that teachers are not fully aware of bullying and may not differentiate it from other forms of peer aggression (Craig & Pepler, 1997). Just as teachers may have trouble identifying bullying behaviours, it is possible that they are not adequately trained to assess social skills, when their primary goal is education, rather than social development per se. Further, an array of student characteristics may systematically influence teacher ratings, such as physical attractiveness, athletic ability, language skill, family background, and sex of child (Gresham & Elliott, 1990). Also, the frequency categories 'never' and 'sometimes' used in this study are prone to rater biases of attention and recall of behaviours, leading to possible better recall of perceived gender-consistent behaviours and distorted reporting of perceived gender-inconsistent behaviour. Thus, future research should include observational methods to help circumvent the problems associated with teacher reports. Peer perceptions have been generally disregarded in the research on bullying. Their views of bullying and social behaviours are likely to differ from those of teachers.


In summary, this study addresses the uncertainty regarding the relationship between bullying and social skills. Sutton et al. (1999a) suggested that the social skills of children who bully (especially those who use indirect methods) have been underestimated. According to teachers, children who bully lack prosocial skills needed to facilitate positive relationships with their peers, regardless of whether they use direct or social methods such as systematic exclusion, rumour spreading, and encouraging peers to dislike another child to cause harm to their targeted victims. Children with prosocial skills tend not to bully others and avoid inflicting systematic harm on others. Although more research is needed to replicate these findings, the current study provides preliminary support for helping students who bully develop appropriate skills to enjoy more positive relationships with their peers.


This research was supported by a grant from University of Calgary Research Services. We thank the school administrators and teachers within the Calgary Board of Education for their participation in this research.


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Author: Ian Larke obtained his MSc from the University of Calgary, Educational Psychology program. He is working as a school psychologist in the Calgary Board of Education.

After working in schools for several years, Dr Beran obtained a PhD in School Psychology in the Division of Applied Psychology at the University of Calgary in September 2002, and also became registered as a Chartered Psychologist. She is now an assistant professor of School Psychology at the University of Calgary, teaching courses on research, assessment, and intervention. Her research focuses on the nature of school bullying that includes examining the problem of obtaining accurate and reliable measures of bullying. Email: tnaberan@ucalgary.ca

Please cite as: Larke, I. (2006). The relationship between bullying and social skills in primary school students. Issues In Educational Research, 16(1), 38-51. http://www.iier.org.au/iier16/larke.html

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