The Second Year Slump

Much has been said about the difficulties and challenges that both students and teachers face during that first year of college. For some, the increased academic demands weigh heavy on their shoulders, while for others, the culture shock of a new, independent environment away from their comfort zone can be emotionally draining. Last semester, Provisions explored ways in which we can help these students to adapt, on both a personal and an academic level.

However, it appears that, even after those first year teething problems have been treated, educators must brace themselves for a familiar challenge…

In “Disengaged and overwhelmed: why do second year students underperform?” from the The Guardian, Clare Milson explains how students can often experience a slump in their academic progress. Whereas the first year and the last year arguably carry more significance in the minds of the learner, the middle year(s) is awkwardly caught between the two, struggling for identity. Milson, who likens the second year to a middle child, states that this issue is, in fact, “a widely recognized” phenomenon, which is referred to by U.S. academics as “the sophomore slump.” Research undertaken at a U.K. based university found evidence that one in three undergraduate students had been affected by an academic decline.

Milson notes that this phenomenon is far from simple to explain. Many of the students who were found to have experienced the slump reported that they felt “lost, perplexed, and disappointed” with their second year performances. Studies suggest that students were not prepared for the increase of the workload. Whereas students in the first year found their classes to be “cute and fluffy”, the second year represented a significant change in difficulty and volume.

Milson describes how students feel that there is a lack of “support and guidance” given to students entering their second year. Despite this yearning for help, many students do not actively seek it. Very few students took it upon themselves to make use of student services designed to provide the help and support that they clearly felt they needed.

Milson proposes three strategies that institutions of higher education can help students in the second year:

1) Design a second year induction program to reacquaint students with the challenges ahead of them.

2) Ensure that your subject is fresh and appealing. It is important for the student to feel excited about the upcoming semester.

3) Inform the students about the on-campus resources available to them.

While it is true that students may not be aware of the support available to them, there are many that are aware, but harbor feelings of embarrassment about seeking help. In order to provide students with the platform to change, educators must attempt to remove the stigma around it. What other ways can educators prevent students from succumbing to the sophomore slump?

February Provisions Session – Teaching Historical Perspectives

To listen to the podcast from this session, click here

The first provisions session of 2015 kicked off with presentations on “Teaching Historical Perspectives”. An audience of 36 were in attendance to hear presentations from Dr. Carolyn Stefanco, President of the College, Dr. Scott Lemieux, Assistant Professor of Political Science, and Dr. Robert Shane, Assistant Professor of Art History.

Dr. Stefanco was the first to present, and she focused her presentation on her experiences as a History professor both in the United States and in Croatia. Dr. Stefanco explained that she started out as an adjunct professor in New York and Colorado, before then moving on to Wheaton College, MA to take her first tenure-track position. Dr. Stefanco then moved to Cal Poly State University, where a major part of her role comprised of teaching students who were required to take her course as a pre-requisite. In spite of that fact, Dr. Stefanco noted that, although she may have not reached every individual, it was clear that for many of the class, History was something with which they found importance and meaning. A primary objective of Dr. Stefanco’s class was to emphasise the importance of first-hand/primary sources in order to pay recognition to those who played a significant role in history, but were either unacknowledged or cast in a negative light. Such acknowledgement helped to provide a voice for many of Dr. Stefanco’s students, many of whom were from marginalized groups themselves. Activities and assignments were designed to highlight the importance surrounding the analysis of historical sources. Not only did these tasks help the students to learn more about the past, it, as well, enabled them to become historians themselves through their diligent exploration and analysis. Dr. Stefanco later moved to Zagreb, Croatia to join the largest and oldest university in Southeastern Europe. Although the plan was to solely teach an undergraduate course in American Women’s History and Culture, while carrying out her research, Dr. Stefanco was immediately needed to teach a doctoral level class in comparative literature. Seeing as the University was one of very few PHD granting institutions, the class drew in a whole host of middle-aged students from throughout Eastern Europe. Dr. Stefanco soon discovered that her students were desperately lacking in their ability to analyze, interpret, or offer opinions about the work in question. It was soon revealed that, due to their erstwhile educational experiences under communism, independent thoughts had always been suppressed. Dr. Stefanco stated that, what they learned in class was of secondary importance to finding and retaining their own personal voices.

Next up to present was Dr. Lemieux. He began his presentation by describing how contemporary political matters can help to understand and shine light on in-class topics and concepts. As an example, Dr. Lemieux cites using the issues of gun control, same-sex marriage, and abortion to help his students to comprehend and show how, in constitutionalism, people with fundamental disagreements share the same environment. However, because these issues are so hotly contested and often divide opinion, Dr. Lemieux believes that they can sometimes work against him, and culminate in taking away from the initial point. This manner of problem is not experienced by using an established historical evil, such as slavery, because fortunately, as Dr. Lemieux pointed out, there is not a debate over whether or not it was anything but evil. His students read passages from two very different historical accounts over the presence/absence of a caste system. Dr. Lemieux gets his students to place themselves in the mind of those at the constitutional debate in 1787, and by doing so, it allows them to gain an insight into the decision making process behind the events that took place at that time. Dr. Lemieux stated that, whereas some students realize that people had to operate with the best information they had at that time, others remained (unrealistically) confident that they would have handled proceedings a lot better. Dr. Lemieux concluded by saying that by using these examples of historical events, his students proved to understand their material better.

Last, but not least was Dr. Shane, whose inspiration for his presentation was in the form of a project, designed for his History of Modern Art class, called the “Scholar’s Debate.” He, however, started by explaining the meaning of Art History. Dr. Shane stated that Art Historians are responsible for analyzing the appearance of artefacts, and thus drawing conclusions about what it reveals about the period and society from which it came. An example that Dr. Shane gave was the Emancipation Memorial from 1876. Although now, from a 21st century perspective, it appears controversial for the wrong reasons, Dr. Shane explains that, at the time, it was a very progressive monument, and one of the first to depict African-Americans as human. Dr. Shane also explained that within Art History, there a lot of different framework and models that Art Historians can identity with and subscribe to.

Dr. Shane proceeded by describing how the Scholar’s Debate project is carried out. He described his process of scaffolding students in his 200 level Art History course as they read peer-reviewed journal articles in the field for the first time and begin to develop their own historical perspective. Dr. Shane provides the students with visual organisers to support them in “reading for argument,” “revising for thesis,” and exchanging constructive feedback with peers. Through this process, students are able to both understand the author’s position and develop their own voice. For more detailed explanation of this process, listen from minutes 27- 37 on our podcast.

After each of the presentations had concluded, the floor was opened up for questions and discussions. These were a few points and observations that arose:

  • Both universal historical and contemporary events can be helpful resources to ameliorate teaching.
  • Classes must be interactive; students need to find their voice and participate rather than just read slides and memorise information.
  • In group projects, it is important to have markers along the way to make sure that each member is pulling their own weight.
  • History is an important component of each program, and is not limited to specific subjects.
  • Too much emphasis is being placed on quantitative data; both qualitative and quantitative methods must be considered to achieve the full picture.

To listen to the podcast from this session, click here

Reflecting on Flipped Library Instruction, Part I

A recently published article develops several design principles that can assist in planning for a flipped classroom:

Kim, M. K., Kim, S. M., Khera, O., & Getman, J. (2014). The experience of three flipped classrooms in an urban university: an exploration of design principles. Internet & Higher Education, 2237-50. doi:10.1016/j.iheduc.2014.04.003  [Read this article]

These nine principles, listed below, though somewhat commonsensical, serve as useful touchstones as I reflect on several months of work in flipping my own library instruction.

  1. Provide an opportunity for students to gain exposure prior to class
  2. Provide an incentive for students to prepare for class
  3. Provide a mechanism to asssess student understanding
  4. Provide clear connections between in-class and out-of-class activities
  5. Provide clearly defined and well-structured guidance
  6. Provide enough time for students to carry out assignments
  7. Provide facilitation for building a learning community
  8. Provide prompt/adaptive feedback on individual or group work
  9. Provide technologies familiar and easy to access

I have had the chance to work with three faculty this year to plan for a flipped library instruction component in four separate classes.  So while my experience in the flipped classroom is not extensive, I have had enough experience to have formed initial opinions and I have begun to generate ideas about how I might improve this model in the future.

#1 – Provide an opportunity for students to gain exposure prior to class

For library instruction, this is key, and perhaps represents the most radical change from anything I have done before.  Library instruction seldom offers the chance for the librarian to get materials to students before the class.  We are not in position to assign “homework” that can be discussed when we meet.  But in a flipped classroom, this exposure to material before we meet opens up the class to new possibilities.  Most exciting of these new possibilities is the chance to move away from lecture and demo and spend time instead exploring higher level concepts and strategies and serving as “guide by the side” during hands on work in the classroom.

 #2 – Provide an incentive for students to prepare for class

It did not take me long to realize that students do not always complete their homework!  Making my videos available on Youtube allowed me to get data on how many times each was watched.  In four flipped classes, the number of watches was always lower than the number of students in the class.  In an attempt to combat this, most recently, I worked with the classroom teacher to have a list of questions distributed well before the class visit.  These questions essentially restated the goals I had for creating the video.  Students knew these would be addressed at the beginning of the class, and I hoped — as a secondary benefit — they would provide some focus for these students as they watched the video.

Improvement?  Yes.  Perfection?  No.

#3 – Provide a mechanism to asssess student understanding

Assessing what we do in library instruction has always been problematic.  For one-shot instruction, it is difficult to add formal assessment into an already tight class schedule.  However, flipped library instruction did provide a type of informal assessment that had previously been impossible to implement.  While working with students, observing the specific difficulties they might encounter, I was able to see where they were having troubling applying concepts and strategies, covered in the video/s, to their actual searches.  Since the goal of assessment is to improve what we do, I am able to work on materials that help address the more common shortcomings I’ve been able to observe.

 #4 – Provide clear connections between in-class and out-of-class activities

In regard to this principle, flipped library instruction truly has been “flipped.”  In traditional library instruction, we do our best to understand the assignment/s and general needs of the students, plan our instruction around our understanding of these needs, and then hope that this prepares students as they begin to work through their assignments and research.

In the flipped classroom, the out-of-class activities come first and there is the chance to provide direct help and clarification as the in-class work takes place.  As noted above, this model provides a chance for reinforcement and intervention as we work in a hands-on environment with students.

Certainly in both models, strong connections between in- and out-of-class activities is vital to effective instruction, but the flipped model provides me with a better understanding of both desired learning outcomes and a way to really determine if I’ve made the necessary connections with the materials I’ve assigned.

#5 – Provide clearly defined and well-structured guidance

The very act of planning for, recording and editing videos has improved the structure and delivery of content in comparison to the same lessons I had previously presented “live.”  Working and reworking the material serves to better focus the presentation and allows for a more narrow focus (perhaps representing a larger presentation broken into component parts).

However, I came to understand that in the class meeting itself a similar level of planning and structure is necessary.  Simply releasing students to their task at hand and roaming as “guide by the side” is not enough to ensure effective learning.  It is critical to set the context at the beginning of the class through a series of questions and discussion.  Interestingly, I have found that the flipped model is helpful in generating a discussion, as students have an introductory knowledge of the subject.  These first few minutes can be spent clarifying points that arise from the out-of-class activities, developing a broader or more conceptual framework.  This allows students to take greater responsibility for their learning and helps build attitudes (for example, persistence, flexibility, patience, curiosity) that are no small part of successful learning.

In the follow up to this post, I will continue with an examination of the principles suggested by this article, as well as discuss changes I hope to make based on these reflections on my initial experiences with flipped instruction.

Generalization versus transfer in first year composition

As I discuss in one of my first blog posts, questions of transfer are pertinent to first year composition.  The point I am trying to make in that early post is that often times faculty complaints about student writing are less about knowledge and ability and more about lack of transfer:

What I believe is actually happening with student writing that leads to these laments, is that students are struggling to write in a specific context, namely, an academic writing situation in a particular discipline.  What might be a matter of students struggling with content information specific to a discipline or over navigating the conventions of a disciplinary genre is often interpreted as students not being able to write.

In Elizabeth Wardle’s piece, “Understanding ‘Transfer’ from FYC: Preliminary Results of a Longitudinal Study,” she too takes on issues of transfer as they pertain to first year composition.  In it she validates my own quest for more information on this topic, pointing out the dearth of it in our field.  She borrows from David Smit’s book, The End of Composition to make this point:

In The End of Composition Studies, David Smit summarizes what we know as a field about the transfer of writing-related skills from first-year composition (FYC) to other courses and contexts: very little.  Smit’s primary criticism is of the dearth of systematic research attention paid to transfer from first-year writing courses; he makes a valid point.  (65)

Wardle’s long-term study sets out to rectify this problem.  The importance of transfer, argues Wardle, to composition studies is manifest in the expectations from various stakeholders (parents, administrators, other faculty) that we are teaching knowledge and skills that can transfer from our first year class “to writing tasks in other courses and context.”  For this reason, it is imperative that compositionists care about questions of transfer, and yet very little research actually exists in our field.

One of the first moves Wardle makes in her piece is to distance herself from the term “transfer.”  Instead, she prefers the term “generalization” (as described by King Beach).  This can help us better understand the loose/implied connection Michael Carter makes between general knowledge and transfer.  Transfer tends to refer to specific tasks and individual learners in a way that describes “just plain learning” (as Beach puts it).  Generalization, on the other hand,

includes classical interpretations of transfer—carrying and applying knowledge across tasks—but goes beyond them to examine individuals and their social organizations, the ways that individuals construct associations among social organizations, associations that can be continuous and constant or distinctive and contradictory (Beach 41, qtd. in Wardle 68).

Wardle draws on Beach’s work, as well as that of David Guile and Michael Young, to make the case that “the learning of the activity system and the learning of an individual are intertwined, and the individual’s learning is understandable only if we understand the learning of the activity system” (68).  Motivation to learn comes from “the nature of the activity system…” Potential for people to “generalize learning” (preferred term over transfer) is determined by an activity system that encourages collaboration and some risk and opportunities to share and be “inspired by a common motive for undertaking a specific learning task” (Guile and Young 74, qtd. in Wardle 68).  The problem we are faced with according to Wardle is that,

When we confine our attention to individuals, we may be tempted to assign some ‘deficiency’ to students or their previous training….  Therefore, if we look for but do not find direct evidence that students use specific previously-learned skills in new situations, we cannot necessarily assume that students did not learn them, have not used them, or will not use them in the future.  (69)

Here Wardle makes a similar point to the one I open with from my previous post.  We are, as Wardle so aptly puts it, “looking for apples when those apples are now part of an apple pie.”  (69).  This means that the discrete writing skills that faculty might be looking for are actually part of this larger, contextual “activity system” and might not be immediately obvious to either student or teacher.  So what to do?  The idea of transfer, as Pete and I have been learning, is a little like a unicorn — rare and of questionable existence.  Yet, there are those like Gerald Nelms and Ronda Leathers Dively who do admit that while transfer has always been a difficult thing to track and measure, as it “occurs over time and across contextual borders…,” “teaching to transfer is possible” (emphasis mine 215-216). The key to achieving transfer or “generalization” lies in, not surprisingly, how we teach and the types of writing assignments we assign in courses across the curriculum.

If participation in new activity systems fails to motivate students to use those skills, it is possible that impetus for transfer may not be obvious, or readily available, to them….  Consequently, we should attempt to account for the ways in which knowledge and skills are transformed across contexts; otherwise, we risk overlooking manifestations of skills that have been adapted to meet the needs of a new activity system.  (Wardle 69)

Highlights from Wardle’s longtudinal study that give insight into why transfer/generalization might not take place across the curriculum:

  • Students reported having writing assignments that did not require advanced preparation and/and require/allow time for revision (73, 76).
  • Students describe teacher expectations as generally “low” in their first two years (74).
  • Students reported most assignments asked for summary
  • Students reported not being motivated to bring past abilities and experiences to complete “new” writing assignments (75).
  • Students reported that most writing assignments were not “engaging”
    • By engaging students meant things like:  assignment has more than one “right answer,” prompt is “thought provoking,” assignment allows for student “ownership,” assignment does not feel like “busy work”/is more than a regurgitation of facts, assignment relates to students’ interests and future (career), assignment is challenging, assignment relates closely to rest of course content, assignment’s purpose is clear and “goal oriented” (77-78).

What all of this suggests:

[S]tudents did not often generalize from FYC—but not because they are unable to or because they did not learn anything in FYC. Rather, students did not perceive a need to adopt or adapt most of the writing behaviors they used in FYC for other courses….  In other words, neither the writing tasks in other courses nor the structures of the larger activity system of the university provided the necessary affordances for generalization.  (Wardle 76)

This means that the burden for getting transfer/generalization to occur “seems to rest on assignments given in classes beyond FYC. Those writing assignments must be engaging and challenging, explicitly designed to help students use all the tools in their writing toolboxes—as necessary for achieving the learning goals of the specific classroom activity system” (82).

Two more take-aways (context and meta-awareness — aka metacognition):

  1. Over and over Wardle’s findings indicate that students need “context-specific support” in order to be successful in writing tasks for their courses beyond FYC.  Teacher feedback, interaction with peers, and reading/writing in the same field (80).  “[P]revious experiences alone were not enough to ensure student success on new and difficult writing tasks” (82).
  2. “Transfer research from other fields, and well as the findings of this study, suggest that meta-awareness about writing, language, and rhetorical strategies in FYC may be the most important ability our courses can cultivate” (82).

Should Professors Take a Backseat?

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In Professors’ Place in the Classroom Is Shifting to the Side from The Chronicle of Higher Education, the role of the professor in the classroom is brought into question. History suggests that it has long been established that the professor takes center stage and guides the learning experience for the students. However, more recently, we are seeing a shift in the paradigm towards a more student driven experience.

Kevin Eagan, both an assistant professor at the University of California and interim director of the Higher Education Research Institute, has seen evidence of this change documented in a recent survey produced by the institute. According to the results, faculty members have reported an increase in student-centered teaching methods. Class discussions, group projects, student selected topics, and cooperative learning have all become more prominent facets of the modern day classroom. Among explanations for this shift, Eagan states that older, more experienced professors were more likely to engage in traditional lecturing in their teaching, while the opposite was true for younger professors, who reported employing more student-centered approaches. These findings suggest that “a true paradigm shift might not hit until 2020″

On the other hand, Maryellen Weimer, a professor emerita of teaching and learning at Pennsylvania State University, is not convinced that one can take the professors’ self-reports as gospel. She believes that, in such surveys, professors are prone to “report what they should be doing rather than what they’re actually doing”. Weimer, who prefers the term “learner-centered”, sees a change in the classroom power dynamic as being key to a real evolution. In such a dynamic, the students would have an increased say in what they learn, and most significantly, they would be working equally as hard as the teachers. Weimer has noticed that, despite the best of intentions, professors are often working harder than the students, and thus remaining the focal point of the classroom

Catharine H. Beyer, a research scientist for the assessment of student learning at the University of Washington, has observed that professors are most likely to initiate change based off of their students’ feedback. Beyer insists that faculty must view students as “partners in the process of learning”, in order to possess the requisite awareness and need for adjustment that is vital to achieving positive learning outcomes. Instead of seeing their students as being “passive recipients of knowledge”, Beyer remarked that professors began to describe their students as “traveling along a learning path”.

Is such a development inevitable or exaggerated?

November Provisions Session – Teaching the Visual

To listen to the podcast from this session, click here.

27 faculty members were in attendance for our 3rd and final Provisions session of 2014. The three presenters, who shared their experiences of ‘Teaching the Visual’, were Liz Richards, Visiting Instructor of Communications, Susan Meyer, Assistant Professor of Art Foundation, and Dr. Joanne Powers, an Associate Professor of Mathematics.

Proceedings began a little differently to usual, with Liz Richards and Susan Meyer collaborating to co-present their story about another collaboration that took place back in the spring semester. Richards, who teaches Multimedia Storytelling, a communications class, and Meyer, who teaches 3-D concepts, an art class, decided to merge their group of students together in the hope of creating a unique project centered on a type of installation art dubbed “inflatables”. Due to the common divide of city and country students, an urban vs. rural theme was established. For the art class, the task was to physically construct the inflatable installations using plastic sheeting material and a fan, while the communications students provided both visual and audio media that was projected onto them. In addition, the communications class combined their talents to document the collaboration, report on it, and form marketing and public relations departments.

Another notable difference between the two classes was that the 3-D concepts students were in their 1st year, while the Multimedia Storytelling were comprised of juniors and seniors. Richards and Meyer explained that, in spite of the gap, the two sets of students learned a lot from each other. Although they were only able to align their schedules to meet three times in person, the use of technology acted as a vital resource in maintaining and facilitating that contact.

Richards and Meyer added that, for the students who were used to last-minute cramming and starting and finishing work the night before due date, a project of this nature required a time of acclimation. By the end of the experience, Richards and Meyer learned that their collaboration acted as a great platform for their students to learn from each other, gain confidence, and that the project provided a visual example of their accomplishments.To see the collaborating duo’s PowerPoint, click on the link – Inflatables-4.

Dr. Joanne Powers was next up to present; she demonstrated how mathematical visualizations impact her teaching and, thus, the learning of her students. In Dr. Powers’ class, games can be used to help understand complex concepts. The chaos game allows students to see how a seemingly random process can result in familiar patterns; the Sierpinski triangle being one of them.  The students’ learning is further enhanced through the medium of an interactive geometry software program called “The Geometer’s Sketchpad”where students are able to visually explore a multitude of different mathematical areas. Dr. Powers showed the audience, with the Geometer’s Sketchpad, examples of how shapes can be constructed and, in turn, manipulated to provide visual representations of the changes that can take place in the figures. The students are able to see for themselves the answer to “what would happen if….?”  Dr. Powers stated that her students’ understanding of mathematical equations was made easier thanks to the visual model. Due to the visual nature of the world these days, a visual approach could surely enhance learning in any academic discipline.

As always, at the end of the presentations, the floor was opened up for discussions. These were a few of the points that arose:

  • There is a need for integration between courses in liberal education.
  • Having interdisciplinary students in the same classroom helps to provide welcomed diversity and different insights to a subject.
  • Creativity is not merely confined to traditionally creative classes such as music and art.
  • Students should be encouraged to take risks; the process of potentially making a mistake can lead to a greater eventual understanding.
  • It could be beneficial to spread out liberal arts courses so that students can take them when they are older and have developed their sense of critical thinking.

To listen to the podcast from this session, click here.

Further Reflections on the Novice-Expert Continuum

This week, Jenn and I dug a little deeper into our examination of the processes that underlie the transition from novice to expert through our reading and discussion of the following articles:

Laird, T. F. N., Seifert, T. A., Pascarella, E. T., Mayhew, M. J., & Blaich, C. F. (2014). Deeply Affecting First-Year Students’ Thinking: Deep Approaches to Learning and Three Dimensions of Cognitive Development. Journal of Higher Education, 85(3), 402–432. [Read here]
Perkins, D. N., & Salomon, G. (1989). Are Cognitive Skills Context-Bound? Educational Researcher, (1), 16. [Read here]
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Salomon, G., & Perkins, D. N. (1987). Transfer of cognitive skills from programming: When and how? Journal of Educational Computing Research, 3(2), 149–169. doi:10.2190/6F4Q-7861-QWA5-8PL1
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Implicit in our recent readings on composition theory, and explicit here in the Laird article, is a special concern for the needs of first-year (and even moreso, first-semester) students as they begin to travel along the continuum toward expertise.  Indeed I still am working to make the translation from theories concerning disciplinary expertise and studies about human cognition to the more personal task of improving my own efforts to assist first-year students.  While I still have a long way to go before I feel competent to draw conclusions, here are some of my intial takeaways:
  • A depth of general knowledge is useful in creating local or disciplinary knowledge.  But not in all cases!
  • We must plan lessons carefully if we hope to optimize the chances that students will tranfer knowledge into other domains (and be explicit about the idea of transfer).
  • Repetition of tasks prepares a student for “low road transfer” of knowledge into similar situations (e.g., driving a car allows transfer of knowledge about driving when you sit behind the wheel of a truck), and this will happen without a great deal of deliberate thought about this transfer.
  • The affect or emotional response a student brings to the learning process can be a critical factor in helping her move along the continuum from novice to expert successfully.

 

Perhaps this quote from Perkins and Salomon (1989) best sums up the role and importance of both general and discipline-specific knowledge within the context of transfer and expertise:

To the extent that transfer does take place, it is highly specific and must be cued, primed, and guided; it seldom occurs spontaneously.  The case for generalized, context-independent skills and strategies that can be trained in one context and transferred to other domains has proven to be more a matter of wishful thinking than hard empirical evidence…Local knowledge, more than general problem-solving heuristics, appeared to be the bottleneck.

 

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