This work was supported by a National Research Foundation of Korea grant (NRF-2011-013-B00072) funded by the South Korean government.
Academic Underachievement and Recovery: Student Perspectives on Effective Career Interventions
Article first published online: 5 MAR 2014
© 2014 by the National Career Development Association. All rights reserved.
The Career Development Quarterly
Volume 62, Issue 1, pages 81–94, March 2014
How to Cite
Hwang, M. H., Lee, D., Lim, H. J., Seon, H. Y., Hutchison, B. and Pope, M. (2014), Academic Underachievement and Recovery: Student Perspectives on Effective Career Interventions. The Career Development Quarterly, 62: 81–94. doi: 10.1002/j.2161-0045.2014.00072.x
- Issue published online: 5 MAR 2014
- Article first published online: 5 MAR 2014
- Manuscript Revised: 24 APR 2013
- Manuscript Accepted: 24 APR 2013
- Manuscript Received: 5 FEB 2013
- college students;
- academic recovery;
- consensual qualitative research
- Top of page
- Limitations and Recommendations for Further Studies
Academic achievement has a significant influence on various career development and decision-making factors. Therefore, it is important for career counselors to understand how past academic underachievement affects students’ current lives and to develop interventions that might ameliorate negative effects. This study examined the experiences of 9 ethnically diverse college students who had experienced and overcome academic failure. Data were collected by individual interviews and analyzed based on the consensual qualitative research method. Four themes emerged in relation to participants’ academic underachievement and recovery: attitude, study strategies, external support, and coping difficulties. The results suggest that underachieving students are better able to cope with and overcome academic difficulties when they set clear career goals, use effective learning strategies, consciously put forth more effort, and receive external support.
Students who have a history of low academic achievement often experience significant problems, including low academic self-concept (Schunk, 1998, November; Whitmore, 1980), negative attitudes toward peers (Mandel & Marcus, 1988) and teachers (McCall, Evahn, & Kratzer, 1992), low interest and engagement in school (Majoribanks, 1992; Mandel & Marcus, 1988), severe emotional distress (Baker, 2004), lower career aspirations than their peers (McCall et al., 1992), and uncertain career pathways (J. S. Peterson, 2000). Students who fail to achieve academically because of these and other similar problems are likely to have difficulties in pursuing career goals (Arbona, 2000; Mau & Bikos, 2000). Research also suggests that students with academic issues are inclined to have vocational problems, both while in school and later in life (Diemer, Wang, & Dunkle, 2009; Draper, Jennings, & Barón, 2003; Rubinshteyn, 2012). Diemer et al. (2009) found that students who sought counseling services at a college counseling center often had academic problems and career decision-making issues. Boyd et al. (1999) also reported that issues related to academic success were the main concern of students in their 1st and 2nd years of college.
An individual's personal experience with academic achievement is proposed as a predictor of career development and career choice by social cognitive career theory (SCCT; Lent, Brown, & Hackett, 1994). SCCT posits that learning experiences and past performance are precursors of career development. Lent (2005) suggested that a person's ability or accomplishments are likely to lead to interests in a particular domain to the extent that they foster a growing sense of self-efficacy in that domain. Therefore, academic failure or academic underachievement would result in low self-efficacy and low outcome expectations, which in turn leads to low interest in certain domains.
Although career-related variables have been reported to be strongly associated with academic achievement, little research has been conducted to establish the relationship between career development interventions and academic outcomes (Collins, 2010). A few empirical investigations have shown positive effects of career intervention on students’ academic achievement. For instance, a yearlong career course that engaged middle school students in 6-week units on various careers made students more likely to be involved in careful academic planning and improved students’ math and science grades (Fouad as cited in Hughes & Karp, 2004). Interventions designed to enhance self-efficacy were also found to be effective at improving career decision-making skills in a sample of students considered at risk who had experienced academic underachievement (O'Brien et al., 2000).
Because academic underachievement circumscribes individual career alternatives (Gottfredson, 1981) and educational attainment constitutes the bedrock of career choice and self-efficacy, underachieving academically is likely to lower students’ career aspirations, limit their career choices, and lead to unsatisfying decision making. Arbona (2000) advocated that career counselors understand the factors that influence academic achievement, particularly in the career counseling and development context. If career counselors help clients with a history of underachievement to understand the genesis and ameliorate the effects of their academic problems, then clients might develop an expanded and more apt list of careers to which they aspire.
Most earlier studies defined underachievement “on the basis of the subjective opinion of teachers and others” (Mandel & Marcus, 1988, p. 2). However, in more recent studies, researchers have argued that many definitions of underachievement are based on a discrepancy between expected (e.g., potential) and actual performance in the assessment of academic achievement (Reis & McCoach, 2000; Whitmore, 1980). Still, there is no universal agreement on the precise distinction between typically achieving and underachieving students, partly because of the lack of consensus when assessing and determining the discrepancy between ability and achievement. Underachievers are commonly defined as “student[s] who perform more poorly in school than would be expected based on [their] ability” (McCall et al. as cited in Borkowski & Thorpe, 1994, p. 46). In the clinical setting, underachievement is defined as a symptom caused by various factors such as personality, learning disability, changes of schools, family breakup, illness, and teacher absence (Mandel & Marcus, 1988).
To effectively help underachieving students, career counselors must be knowledgeable about the process of recovery from academic underachievement. Furthermore, counselors should understand that academic underachievement is strongly associated with students’ career development and psychological issues (Baskin, Slaten, Sorenson, Glover-Russell, & Merson, 2010; Richardson, 1996). Until recently, there was relatively little literature available about the reversal or recovery of underachieving students (J. S. Peterson, 2001; Preckel, Holling, & Vock, 2006). A theoretical framework addressing academic recovery has not yet been established. Furthermore, few empirical studies have focused on understanding how underachieving students successfully overcame their difficulties and ultimately achieved academic and career fulfillment. The lack of literature in this area strongly suggests the need for further study focused on effective intervention strategies to help academic underachievers recover from their academic experience and refine or redirect their course through appropriate career interventions (Arbona, 2000; Mandel & Marcus, 1988).
Because little is known about the individual experience of academic recovery, appropriate interventions, and its impact on career decision making, we explored this area using consensual qualitative research (CQR; Hill et al., 2005; Hill, Thompson, & Williams, 1997) methods. We aimed to identify common themes indicative of students’ experiences of academic underachievement and subsequent academic recovery. Furthermore, we wanted to describe processes and activities in which students engage to become academically successful. We expected that this could inform career interventions to support students struggling with academic underachievement.
- Top of page
- Limitations and Recommendations for Further Studies
The participants were nine college students (two men and seven women) from a university in the midwestern United States. Two participants were graduate students, and the other seven were undergraduate students. Their ages ranged from 21 to 59 years, with an average age of 31.89 years (SD = 13.08 years). With regard to race/ethnicity, one of the participants was African American, two were Korean, and six were European American. Six participants were born and raised in the United States, and the other three were foreign born. One of the Korean participants was an international student who had been studying in the United States since her freshman year in college. The other Korean participant and one of the European American participants immigrated to the United States from South Korea and Russia, respectively, when they were young. Five of the participants experienced academic underachievement in college, and two participants had academic difficulties in high school. Additionally, two participants experienced academic underachievement as early as their elementary school years because of learning disabilities.
The first four authors composed the primary research team and included three counseling psychology faculty members and one educational psychology faculty member, all from universities located in South Korea. The first author constructed the interview questions, conducted the interviews, and participated on the data analysis team. The third and fourth authors conducted the data analysis, and the second author served as an auditor for the data analysis. All of the researchers had experience working with underachieving college students.
A semistructured interview protocol (available from the first author upon request) was constructed based on a review of the relevant literature on academic underachievement, academic recovery, and career development and decision making. The protocol included nine general questions. After each response to each general question, the interviewer asked follow-up questions to clarify and enhance the richness of the responses. The interview started with a question about the participant's past experience with academic underachievement. To explore the experience, the interviewer inquired as to when the academic underachievement occurred, how long the participant struggled with underachievement, the level of academic performance when academically underachieving, his or her feelings toward poor academic performance, and his or her reactions from significant others. Then, the interviewer moved to questions about the participant's process of recovery from underachievement, including obstacles and strategies during recovery, assistance from others, and outcome after academic improvement.
Participants were recruited from an on-campus learning center and through the suggestions of faculty members. Learning center advisers and faculty were informed about the nature of the study and requested to identify students who had experienced academic recovery after academic failure. In this recruitment process, academic underachievers were defined as students who performed more poorly in school than would be expected based on their ability. The identified students were contacted via e-mail and invited to participate in the study. Eleven students volunteered to participate. These participants met with the first author for the interview at which time appropriate consent was obtained and the interview occurred. Each interview took approximately 1 hour. The research team identified two students’ interviews as invalid because they did not reveal the process of academic recovery. Therefore, nine interviews were selected and analyzed.
The interviews were audiotaped and transcribed verbatim for all of the participants. The Korean students were interviewed in their native language because they felt more comfortable with expressing their thoughts in Korean. Therefore, the interviews were transcribed in their language first and translated into English by a person fluent in both languages and experienced in translating books and articles. All identifying information for participants was removed from the transcripts, and codes were assigned to ensure confidentiality.
The data analysis was conducted using CQR methods (Hill et al., 1997, 2005). CQR requires a specific set of procedures to analyze the data. As the first step of the process, we selected two transcripts and reviewed them to develop domains or broad thematic areas related to the content of the transcripts. This process generated a domain list. We then analyzed the rest of the transcripts, came to a consensus on each list of domains, and then made additional changes to the developed list. Once the domains were set, the transcripts were coded according to the finalized domain list.
Once all transcripts were coded with a list of domains, they were abstracted for core ideas. For this task, three researchers (the first, third, and fourth authors) independently read the transcripts and developed core ideas of the data on the transcripts. Then, the team met to discuss each core idea until they agreed on content and wording. After consensus, core ideas were developed, and then an auditor examined each core idea and judged whether the domain coding and the associated core ideas were adequately developed.
Finally, cross-analysis was completed by clustering the core ideas across the interviews. We independently created categories that would explain the similarities of the core ideas that occurred across cases. We then discussed the independently selected categories and came to a consensus. This process was repeated several more times when uncategorized data were found. After a consensus version of the categories was established, the auditor reviewed it and suggested changes to the cross-analysis results. The team met again, whereupon they arrived at a consensus about the final list of categories.
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- Limitations and Recommendations for Further Studies
Four broad coding domains were identified in relation to the content of the data gathered from the participants who had experienced academic underachievement and recovery: attitude, study strategies, external support, and coping difficulties. These domains each comprised subcategories as described next. Consistent with CQR, a category that was mentioned in all cases or in all but one case (nine or eight cases for our total sample) was considered a general category. Categories represented by at least half of the cases (between five and seven for our sample) were labeled typical, and a variant category was representative of fewer than half of the cases.
The attitude domain refers to individual thoughts and feelings after underachievement that have a positive effect on recovery. The participants indicated that some attitudes influenced their recovery positively in one way or another. Five categories emerged within this domain. Each of these categories differed in regard to classification from general to variant.
Determination. Determination refers to an individual's propensity toward persistence, as indicated by statements such as “I decide to go on studying in spite of underachievement and I will not let anything stop me” (Participant 9). This category was mentioned in all but one case and was therefore classified as general. This category is highlighted by the following participant statement:
I always had an underlying determination to still graduate no matter what. Maybe it's because, watching my older sister and brother do what they need to do, my sister was in college and my mom always worked, so maybe that was instilled in me along the way. But I knew I needed to graduate; I wasn't going to let myself not graduate. I was an average student at best. Maybe nobody's really ever seen my potential because I didn't show, I didn't put in effort to show. (Participant 8)
Value of education. Value of education refers to an individual's thought of finding value in his or her personal educational experience, as indicated in statements such as “Education is the most important thing in my life even if I was poor at it now” (Participant 8). This category was mentioned in seven cases and was therefore classified as typical. This category is highlighted in the following statement:
I didn't want to sit there and practice math problems or whatever, but I had to. It's something that I always knew I had to do. For our family, education is number one. You're going to get your education, you're going to get your degrees, you're going to get a good job … being young, as a kid, that was hard. I couldn't understand that. When you get older you're like, “Okay, yeah. I know this is what I have to do. I have to get all of this done before I go out and do whatever else.” (Participant 7)
Independence. Independence refers to an individual's attitude of acquiring independence, as indicated in statements such as “I will study by myself without any other's help” (Participant 4). This category was mentioned in four cases and was therefore classified as variant. This category is highlighted in the following statement:
I don't have a lot of school involvement, I've never [joined] clubs, organizations, nothing. What I usually do is just to stay with myself and do my homework. That's what I care about. (Participant 4)
Interests in study. Interests in study refers to finding an interesting area in study or, in other words, an individual's belief that he or she will find a more interesting academic area to focus on after underachievement. This category was mentioned in four cases and was therefore classified as variant. This category is highlighted in the following statement:
That [lecture] was not what I thought till I started taking those classes. They are very lecture oriented. When I got to the criminal justice classes, it was just discussion. You got to see like the full size of a story, some people are conservative, some people are liberal, and you took the material you got to discuss; it wasn't just regard to take the book, there were lots of discussion, which I prefer much more. (Participant 1)
Ability in study. Ability in study refers to finding out adequate abilities in the near term or, in other words, an individual's attitude that he or she will find even more adequate academic abilities to use for recovery. This category was mentioned in four cases and was therefore classified as variant. This category is highlighted in the following statement:
I found myself fit to the science field more than social studies because science texts were easily read for me. (Participant 5)
Study strategies were defined as an academic plan or a set of academic plans intended to achieve recovery after academic underachievement. The participants indicated that they used positive study strategies for recovery. Six categories emerged within this domain. Each of these categories differed in regard to classification from general to variant.
Study skills. Study skills refer to general study methods that individuals use for recovery from academic underachievement such as mnemonics, effective reading, concentration techniques, and efficient note taking. This category was mentioned in all but one case and was therefore classified as general. This category is highlighted in the following statement:
I always take notes. I type up the notes that I draw, because then it helps me remember whatever. And it helps me put information together better. And then I just study that. And I never skip class, ever. I mean even when I had a fever, I came to class. And then look at the schedule. If you have due dates, put it in your calendar, and your assignment in a book. That way you know how much time you need to put aside to study for something. That helped me. (Participant 4)
Self-regulated study skills. Self-regulated study skills refer to specific study methods for emphasizing autonomy and control by the individual, who monitors, directs, and regulates actions toward the recovery from academic underachievement. This category was mentioned in all but one case and was therefore classified as general. This category is highlighted in the following statement:
Negative thinking doesn't help me because it makes me anxious. I focused on my goal without thinking about fail. (Participant 6)
Studying intensity. Studying intensity refers to putting a great deal of effort into learning and studying after underachievement. This category was mentioned in six cases and was therefore classified as typical. This category is highlighted in the following statement:
After school until I went to bed—and even after I was supposed to go to bed—I would sit there and just practice and practice and practice until literally I couldn't do it anymore; until I was just too tired or my brain had shut down. (Participant 7)
Regulating environment. Regulating environment refers to an individual's use of environmental resources such as music, exercise, and religion for recovery. This category was mentioned in four cases and was therefore classified as variant. This category is highlighted in the following statement:
During my studying, music is helpful and enjoyable. I can study enjoyably without stress. (Participant 6)
Time management. Time management refers to the controlling of an individual's time to study as a study strategy. This category was mentioned in three cases and was therefore classified as variant. This category is highlighted in the following statement:
There's never just enough time. It is management. You have to be able to manage your time. What I did is, I'd go home and do my homework. Then we would eat dinner. Then if I had to study for whatever tests I had to take, a half hour to study, then a 5-minute break. Then go back and do it for another half hour, and then take another 5-minute break, until I felt like I was confident enough to go to bed. (Participant 7)
Help seeking and using resources. Help seeking and using resources refer to an individual's propensity to seek another's help (i.e., parents, professors, friends) for recovery. This category was mentioned in two cases and was therefore classified as variant. This category is highlighted in the following statement:
I always asked professors to explain again when I didn't understand it. And when I asked a lot of questions to professors before exam, they probably told me important/unimportant things for preparing the exam. (Participant 5)
The third domain, external support, refers to outside help that was used to recover from academic underachievement. Two categories emerged within this domain. Each of these categories differed in regard to classification from general to typical.
Emotional support. Emotional support refers to support given by those closest to the participants, as indicated by statements such as “My husband and mom are supportive and they help me with housework when I ask” (Participant 1); “After I came back to university, Mom and Dad took care of me and they were very supportive so that I could concentrate” (Participant 9); and “Supportive interaction with one teacher made a difference in my life, and it started a long process to feel like I can achieve academically and it made me decide to be a counselor” (Participant 2). This category was mentioned in all but one case and was therefore classified as general.
Informative support. Informative support refers to one-on-one feedback from a professional concerning academic underachievement, as indicated by some of the participants’ statements: “One of the professors sparked me by helping me improve my essay and telling me what I had to do” (Participant 9); “Academic counseling helped me to get off my academic probation” (Participant 1); and “I got a tutor for my chemistry class, and learned how to organize and utilize my resources” (Participant 8). This category was mentioned in six cases and was therefore classified as typical.
Coping difficulties were defined as an individual's overcoming of obstacles during the recovery process. The participants indicated that they coped with various difficulties. Three categories emerged within this domain. Each of these categories differed in regard to classification from typical to variant.
Coping through efforts. Coping through efforts refers to participants making every effort to cope with various difficulties. This category was mentioned in five cases and was therefore classified as typical. This category is highlighted in the following statement:
I observed other severe mental disorder patients for 3 days of hospitalization and it made me decide to fight against my depression instead of accepting it as a fate… . I'm fighting depression with constant activities like working as a waiter or gardening and quitting drinking and smoking. (Participant 3)
Coping through changes of situation. Coping through changes of situation refers to a participant's difficulties lessening naturally because of changes in a situation. This category was mentioned in four cases and was therefore classified as variant. It is highlighted in the following statement:
Same in high school, not so much in college. Because in college, my teachers didn't know my sister. She was in the business program. I was in the political science program. So, to them, they didn't know I had a twin sister. They didn't know her grades compared to my grades. So that was really nice. I got to gain my independence in college away from just being compared to “other twins.” (Participant 7)
Coping through hardship itself. Coping through hardship itself refers to participants regarding difficulties in their lives as a turning point. This category was mentioned in three cases and was therefore classified as variant. This category is highlighted in the following statement:
I mean there were times when I look in my life, there's some frustration and little disappointment that I am not what I would have been if I made better choices. But it's very encouraging to me. (Participant 8)
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- Limitations and Recommendations for Further Studies
The aim of our study was to investigate the academic recovery process of college students who had previously failed but were currently succeeding academically. In particular, the study examined college students’ experiences of coping with underachievement, and our results indicated four themes that emerged in relation to participants’ academic underachievement and recovery.
One theme that was associated with successful academic recovery was the attitudes expressed by participants. One of the attitudes reported by study participants was determination. They reported a strong motivation to graduate or improve their grade point average (GPA). Therefore, they had pushed themselves to keep studying no matter what kinds of difficulties they were faced with. Staying determined is related to self-discipline or the delay of gratification, and recently, these psychological variables have been shown by various scholars to be critical in determining academic success (Duckworth & Seligman, 2006; Mischel, Shoda, & Rodriguez, 1989). Deci and Chandler (1986) indicated that students who are determined in their learning tend to have intrinsic motivation, show interests in academic tasks, and master higher level knowledge and skills independently. Another attitude reported by participants was their value of education. This implies that the participants exerted significant effort on learning because they believed that learning was critical for their future. This also indicates that students need to find importance or meaning from their learning experience to overcome underachievement. This finding is related to previous research findings indicating that academic achievement and academic motivation are positively related to career maturity (Benshoff, Kroeger, & Scalia, 1990; Hwang & Lim, 2004).
The next theme that was related to successful academic recovery was study strategies. Among various strategies reported by participants, study skills, studying intensity, and self-regulated study skills were generally reported. These results reveal that academic success might be closely related to strategic academic skills (i.e., Borkowski & Thorpe, 1994; Preckel et al., 2006). In Stoeger and Ziegler's (2005) study, students participated in a self-regulation training program and showed significant improvements related to their achievement, which suggests that developing study strategies results in the improvement of academic performance. Carr and Borkowski (1989) also emphasized students’ attribution toward learning on top of study strategies. They observed that knowing the strategies was not enough to improve underachievement; putting effort into using the strategies was what actually induced academic success. This perspective is supported by our findings. Participants typically reported that they had persevered with regard to their learning, and they believed that studying with intensity generated positive outcomes in overcoming failure. It should be noted that Carr and Borkowski found that a strategy-plus-attribution training was found to be the most successful strategy in terms of combating underachievement.
Our study participants also reported that they have received emotional and information support from family, friends, and teachers. This result implies that emotional support and adequate information are required to improve academic performance. Baum, Renzulli, and Hébert (1995) also proposed that emotional support from teachers resulted in a positive outcome of learning intervention. In addition, Hébert and Olenchak (2000) showed evidence that mentors’ supports can increase learners’ strengths and interests in study, which positively related with improved motivation, self-regulation, and academic efforts.
Another theme was that most participants experienced difficulties (e.g., depression, being compared to a smarter sibling, and lack of resources) while they went through the recovery process. They finally overcame the obstacles by coping through efforts, through the hardship itself, and through changes of situation. This indicates that underachievers cannot avoid obstacles during academic recovery and that the process of overcoming obstacles requires personal contributions, including effort, motivation, and specific actions. This result also seems to explain why many underachievers have failed in improving their academic performance. Underachievers may need to realize that the academic recovery process is difficult and demands persistent effort to overcome barriers.
The aforementioned results imply that improving academic performance is not solely a matter of developing study skills or acquiring knowledge of study. To achieve success in academic life, students must realize the relationship between learning and their future, build strong motivation for excellence, develop a specific action plan for learning, and receive social and emotional support.
Career counselors should be aware that some of their clients are academic underachievers. As shown in the results, study participants had clear career goals. Those career goals encouraged them to keep studying with intensity and enabled them to overcome various hardships in a recovery process. Therefore, career counselors can help underachievers to set clear career goals for their future and to find meaning in learning in terms of their career, which will help students to value education for their future and to enhance their motivation for learning. Balcombe (1995) found that students who have career goals for their adult life are inclined to give serious consideration to their educational preparation. Daniel and Slate (2001) found that students with negative views of their career have lower GPAs than students with positive views. These studies indicate that career development is strongly related to academic performance. Thus, if career counselors can work with underachievers to develop their career identity, students would likely change their attitudes toward schoolwork and thus improve their academic performance (Borders & Drury, 1992). Additionally, career counselors can provide underachievers with emotional support so that they can successfully navigate hardships. Our results revealed that most study participants received emotional support from significant others or teachers and that this support enabled them to be persistent in their recovery process. Just as important, emotional support from career counselors can encourage the personal self-worth of underachieving students (Daniel & Slate, 2001), who have low self-esteem or negative self-concept because of constant failure (Bandura, 1977; Schunk, 1981).
Career guidance services will also increase the clarity of underachievers’ study plans. G. W. Peterson, Long, and Billups (1999) found that students who received career guidance services made a clearer and more appropriate academic plan for their future. This implies that career guidance services not only help students to develop better ideas of their future career, but also lead students to design a clearer plan of study. Formulating clear and appropriate career aspirations serves a critical point for educational decision making (Van Fossen & Beck, 1991). Thus, if underachievers receive career guidance services, they will build a more strategic study plan to fully develop their academic potential. Furthermore, underachievers who develop specific action plans for their career will increase their effort and improve their ability to overcome various difficulties in the recovery process.
Limitations and Recommendations for Further Studies
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- Limitations and Recommendations for Further Studies
Although this study provided insight on the academic recovery process of underachievers, the study also has some limitations. First, our study did not compare different ethnic groups in terms of the academic recovery process. Underachievers who belong to different ethnic groups may reveal different patterns of process and experiences. Therefore, future studies should examine if there is any variance between ethnic groups in the academic recovery process. Second, although the study results provide career counselors with practical implications, the effectiveness of career counseling for academic underachievers was not empirically validated. Thus, it is recommended that future studies examine the effectiveness of career counseling in helping academic underachievers. Finally, future studies need to examine whether the recovery experience of academic underachievers results in career goal attainment. Our study showed that setting a clear career goal is an important factor that influences the recovery process of underachievers. However, our study did not examine whether the career goal is achieved by overcoming underachievement. If future studies can find the relationship between recovery from underachievement and career goal attainment, underachievers will have stronger motivation to be persistent in their efforts to overcome underachievement.
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- Limitations and Recommendations for Further Studies
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