Active learning is flexible and designed to reach the reticent


I’ve gotten positive feedback about a post in which I explain how it’s not that much work for me to do active learning in the classroom. However, a couple entirely reasonable misgiving seem to crop up, and I’d like to give my take on those causes for reluctance to start up with active learning approaches.

The first concern is that active learning might be too rigid in its methods and doesn’t allow for flexibility. I can see why it might seem that way. The people who research science education encourage us to use it. This encouragement can also repel, because it often sounds prescriptive and difficult, and comes from teaching experts with a classroom mojo that we scientists lack. Active learning sounds like something that requires a set of complex rules and pedagogical acronyms. It might sound like a bad tasting prescription. But it’s not a prescription at all, it’s just a good idea.

Here’s an exercise-related metaphor: If you go to the gym and you are told you need to exercise more, then a trainer might prescribe a regimen of a cardio machines, weightlifting, and zumba. Which might not sound fun if you’re doing on a regular basis without any variety. But here’s the thing: you don’t need cardio machines and zumba to exercise. You just need to exercise. You can go for a hike, a run, a swim, a walk, take a bike ride, go play racquetball, or something else. Whatever sounds fun at a particular moment. I think active learning is the same way. We are often prescribed very specific active learning methods. But in contrast to what a professional development session might advise you, I’m saying that there are so many things you can do when you teach. Just like you can lecture however you want, you can not lecture however you want. Of course you need to plan, but once you get a swing of it, it doesn’t take any more time to plan an active lesson than a lecture; it might even take less time.

The second concern is that active learning activities might be off-putting, uncomfortable or inappropriate for students who are not inclined to jump through hoops imposed by the instructor. The idea was well explained in a comment by JaneB in the last post; here is an excerpt:

Some of them are definitely introverts, socially awkward, people who like to think stuff out in their own heads before they talk about it, so I wrestle with how to help THEM feel safe and included and engaged in the classroom…

Some learners do great with ‘explore, discuss, notice patterns, THEN get the ‘big picture’ (i.e. short intro-activities-guided discussion-short lecture-followup reading type classes) but others do better with ‘big picture, examples, explore and prove it to yourself, relate what you just did back to the big picture’ (lecture, read, practical, recall/review type classes). How do you deal with students who like to do their thinking quietly, or mediated by written/spoken words rather than pitching straight in to the activities?

There are some students who have no problem interacting with others and thinking ideas out loud with their peers. Those aren’t the ones we need to worry about in active learning, except out of concern for the other students that have to work with them. The loudmouth who always raises his hand and asks questions is using the instructor as his active learning partner, selfishly taking the instructor away from the rest of the class.

Most students are not raising their hands. These students may — or may not — be actively thinking about concepts related to class. The research says that those who are actively thinking halfway through a standard science lesson is a small proportion of the class, even in a high quality and engaging lecture. (Of course, those in the class who are future faculty might be in that small proportion.) Let me restate it and underline it, because this is an important point: most quiet students in lecture are not actively engaged in the lesson using critical thinking and problem-solving skills. And it’s unlikely that they’ll be doing it outside the classroom either. That’s apparently just a straight up fact that the education researchers are telling us. The fix, we are told, is to make sure that those silent student aren’t silent. To me, the level of volume in a classroom is correlated with the amount of learning. We need students to interact with their neighbors. Even if they’re uncomfortable about it.

Learning isn’t supposed to be comfortable. We don’t want anxious students, and we don’t want nervous students, and we don’t want disrespected students. Those feelings get in the way of learning. But, I would bet that all want people out of their comfort zone thinking about hard ideas that are difficult to put together. We want to see our students struggling with conceptual discomfort, even if it involves a bit of social discomfort.

But what about those students who have strong feelings that they don’t want to engage with neighbors and that they don’t feel that they need to be told how to learn? These are the exact students who active learning is designed to benefit. Our classes are designed to make students think about certain topics. Making sure that they do it out loud with their peers is just a way of enforcing the requirement for critical thinking rather than giving them an intellectual free pass and sit there without thinking about the topics that you choose.

If there is true medical concern about a student who is not prepared to interact with others, then we need to take that seriously. But if a student doesn’t want to do what a faculty member says is part of a class, because they aren’t comfortable with it? Well, they just need to do it. I think it’s wholly appropriate to treat aversion to active learning just like we’d treat aversion to lab reports or test-taking. It’s a required part of the class.

I realize that asserting, “Just do what I say” is a horrible way to get buy-in. And for active learning to work, you really need buy-in. Most of my students haven’t had classes without lectures, but it still works out. (Sometimes I have that guy — always a guy — who wants to shout answers out to the whole class instead of to his neighbors. But that’s a story for another time.) So how do I get the too-cool-to-play-with-neighbors kind of student to actually do it without being surly the whole semester? I spend plenty of time in the first class meeting explaining how I teach and why I do it that way. Here’s the gestalt of the speech on metacognition that I give at the start of every new course.

I just tell my students why I’m running the class the way that I do. I tell them that I’d just love to talk about biology for days and days. But I explain that, according to research, that I’d be a better teacher if I shut up and let the students work together to solve problems. “My goal this semester is to teach you nothing. It’s my job to arrange the circumstances in which you can discover information on your own. That sounds silly, I know, but I’m doing my best to be an effective teacher. Which means I’m asking you to participate in group activities. I’m doing this because I have respect for you as a student in class. I’m asking you to take a leap of faith that the activities I’m doing here are designed to make the class work, based on what we know about science education. If you haven’t had a class this way it might feel awkward, but if you just follow instructions, then it’ll work out. If my instructions aren’t adequately clear at any time, just let me know. It’s my job to answer those questions. Life isn’t fair. But I’m committed to making this course and this classroom as fair as possible. If there’s any test question that you think is unfair or that you were not capable of anticipating, then I’ll remove that question from the exam. If there’s anything you think I should be doing to run the class in a more respectful manner, I’d love to hear about it.”

Or something along those lines. I think that soliloquy gets me buy in from everybody.

Hopefully this post helps address some of the reluctance that I’ve seen about attempting new active learning strategies. I’m not a pro either, I’m just an enthusiast. But I’ve been heartened that education people, who presumably do know what they’re talking about, have shared and linked to that last post about active teaching, leading me to think that I’m not entirely flawed or wrong in saying that trying is better than not trying. A far-from-perfect active lesson is probably still worth everybody’s time — as long as you don’t spent too much time prepping it.

18 thoughts on “Active learning is flexible and designed to reach the reticent

  1. What resources do you use to keep up with science education research?

  2. Thank you for this post. I have employed active learning techniques in my biology classrooms for several years now. A couple of things I have learned (1) If you are going to do active learning techniques, you have to do it from the beginning of the course, and make it a daily part of the course. My biggest failure in active learning was when I tried to such an activity at the end of the semester in a class that had been mostly lecture. (2) Putting students in groups that remain in all semester helps students become more comfortable with talking to each other. Yes, it can be awkward at first, but they will become more comfortable with it.

  3. This isn’t really an admission, but I can’t say that I “keep up with” science education research. Like most academics (I suspect) I have trouble keeping up with the literature in my own field. The only time I read articles in the primary literature in education is when I’m updating the sections in my grant proposals about the value of undergraduate research.

    What I know (and what I think I know) comes from a few places. First, I spent a good amount of time interacting with K-12 science teachers, and the faculty that train these teachers. These people are amazing teachers, some of whom really know the literature. And I hear what they have to say. I also have read a few books, that are syntheses of research. The one I’m going through now was recommended a few months ago by a commenter. And it’s a really good book, which I really recommend.

    I don’t think I’m really saying anything new or controversial or surprising about science education. I often just say “research tells us” because well, it’s true, and because I want to be sure that people realize it’s not so much my opinion as it is a fact. But people nowadays often dress up opinions as facts, so my genuine facts about education have to invoke the authority of research for people to realize they’re not just opinions.

    As an analogy, I think what I say about science education is pretty much as obvious to an education person as the statements “Birds are dinosaurs” or “Mitochondria evolved from free-living ancestors” would be to an evolutionary biologist. These are just really straightforward pieces of information. They were revolutionary decades ago, just not anymore with more information.

    Does this make reduce my authority when it comes to teaching? That’s up for y’all to decide, as blogs like this are non-required reading. I’ve been waiting and wondering when a bona fide science education expert will roll in and let me know what a horrible job I’ve been doing. But it hasn’t arrived yet, and what I’m finding is that people and places I really respect are linking to things I’ve written. Which is thrilling and humbling, and also makes me realize that there’s a huge need for people to talk about science teaching in universities, without the intimidation and barriers that often come from education experts. This is why, I think, everything that Jo Handelsman has written/done has been spectacular, because she’s a scientist who cares about teaching, but you can tell that she doesn’t want to get caught up in the academic education situation that chases away scientists. But scientists are the ones teaching science in universities, and I bet that those who are most able to — even if not the most qualified — to help make change happen are those who are research active and care about their students, but not education researchers, because they just don’t get the culture of university scientists. (Eric Mazur could have made a real difference, but he shifted from focusing on students to profiteering from the educational technology. You can make a lot more money with educational snake oil than you can as a scientist, after all.)

    I don’t purport to have any authority, and I just write a mix of what I do, what I think are obvious facts, and a bunch of my opinions. What I am thinking, or at least hoping, is that scientists might be able to adopt the most overt pieces of information that we get from education research I show how that bridge is spanned. I’m not a good example of a dual-specialist, As I don’t do education research. (I’ve been asked to take educational data and turn it into papers as a collaboration, but I’ve turned it down as that would cut into the time I have to write up my own science, which is a priority for me as a researcher.) But I’m an example of a guy who spends time with education people and has picked up some of the lingo, ideas, priorities, and techniques that are used, with a high degree of skepticism for the acronyms and fads that are pervasive in the field.

    Loriann, I guess that answers your question and then some, right?

  4. Great post Terry. I’d like to add my 2 cents, but first, a quick disclaimer: I am not an educator and I have never taught a class. I am a campus planner looking at classrooms use and allocation, and sometime (when financially possible) renovation and upgrade. If this is a turn-off, stop reading now.
    Over the past 8 years, I saw the evolution of the classroom environment. First, we replaced the chalk and tablet armchair for the whiteboard and the table and chair (“So those kids can put their darn computer machine somewhere” – Oh, the eloquence of the maintenance worker). Then we upgraded the whiteboard with a projector, and a computer near the podium to display webpages right in the classroom. Makes sense. Now, we are told that this “active learning” classroom is the way to help student learn, so they can feel more at ease in the classroom. And that said classroom is adaptable and movable. They can take notes in a corner or sit in a group, depending on their learning style. We’re back to the tablet armchair, but on wheel this time. The walls have power strips and the room has wi-fi. I won’t lie; I am kinda envious when I recall my old classrooms’ amenities: A rack of coat hangers near the entrance.
    What bugs me about these “active learning classrooms” is that they cost a pretty penny. We get a lot of vendors showing off their latest folding table with the 3 types of chairs and their assorted footrest. Oh, and is that a matching ottoman? According to Herman Miller, that’s what the students need:
    I am simply concerned that “Active Learning Classroom” is just an pedagogical experiment, or worse, a fad. I can appreciate a classroom space that is adaptable, and I’m not advocating going back CAL-PIA furniture… It’s just the effort I’ve seen a vendor put in to pushing their products is the same as pharmaceutical companies diagnosing your illness and giving you their cure at the same time.
    I know this is very one-sided. Once again, I have not been in front of a class. But I’ve been in a bunch, and I am vested in student success. I’m still on the fence when it comes to the correlation between cost of furniture and student success, but I can also appreciate empowering teachers in engaging their students, which is why I really appreciate your post.

  5. I just read this post and your post on why students shouldn’t raise their hands, and my comment is in response to both:

    I used to be a total subscriber to the idea of calling on students randomly—I think it incentivizes them to pay attention and remain engaged, it forces them to think on their feet, which is a useful skill, and it helps them grow more comfortable speaking in front of a group (another useful life skill). But at this year’s Teaching Professor Conference this summer, the renowned Dr. Maryellen Weimer said something that upended my attitude: what about the students’ right to remain silent?

    This was something I hadn’t thought of before. As an extrovert, I considered students who eschewed speaking in front of the class as simply needing to overcome their fears, which could only be achieved by being forced to do it. But the idea that students have the right to remain silent comes from a place not of fear, but of ownership. I always preach to students to take ownership of their own education, but what if, for some students, this means doing more listening than speaking? I don’t know that I necessarily agree with your assessment that silence typically equates to a lack of engagement. Yes, we want to “make sure that those silent students aren’t silent,” but perhaps we are being too literal with how we define “silent.”

    Dr. Weimer’s suggestion was to build in multiple modalities for participation so that students have an alternative to speaking in front of the (large) class. The ones I’ve chosen to employ are an online discussion forum and having students submit questions on paper at the beginning, break, or end of class. I use these non-verbal forms of contribution, as well as traditional hand raising in class, for extra credit. They are voluntary, equal opportunity, and are weighted equally to actually speaking in class.

    I still think there is much to be gained from speaking in front of the class, especially for those who find it the most uncomfortable. (To this end, I do still call on students randomly, but I have told them they always have the right to pass, and I have tried to do less cold calling and more “cool calling.”) But we should recognize that our opinions on this are heavily influenced by our own personalities, and that there are other ways to break the “silence.”

  6. Nice posts on active learning. I really enjoy reading your blog. I generally agree with your claim that active learning is a good thing, and it’s nice to know the claim is backed up by educational research. I’m a young faculty member and started with a traditional lecturing approach, but I’ve been incorporating more and more active exercises in my classes. However, I’m skeptical of the argument that folks should go from one end of the spectrum to the other (i.e., all lecturing to all active learning) for two reasons.

    First, I’m not aware of research on “how much” active learning is best. Maybe an even mix of active learning and traditional lecture is better than an all or none approach. Do you know of any research on that question? I imagine the answer will vary tremendously depending on the teacher, course topic, learning goals, student composition, etc.

    Second, I worry that educational research doesn’t consider the conditionality of teaching approaches. By that I mean that there may be an interaction effect between teaching approaches and instructor on student learning. Active learning might work really well for a teacher who is really jazzed about active learning (and who frankly has a personality for hands-on, thinking on the fly activities), but not so well for someone who is uncomfortable with that approach. On the flip side, lecturing might work better for some than others because of their comfort and ability to connect with students during a lecture. I don’t see much about how teaching approaches are conditional on teacher personalities, but I would guess it matters.


  7. Hi Terry,
    Thanks for the thoughtful response to my question. I have enjoyed your blog for a long time and appreciate the efforts you go share your experiences in academia from all angles. Your “source” is what I suspected. However, I asked because I wanted a gauge as to whether that’s the norm or if I if I’m not “in the know” about some resource that is easy to access and absorb as someone on the science side of science education. I am in the process of trying to bridge my own gap and move my career towards “duel-specialty”. But it is still a little bit mysterious to me as to how to actually do that. I have had quite of bit of interaction with instructional consultants on my campus and am still trying to decipher old news, from fads, from game-changing contributions. Sometimes I wonder if being a “duel-specialist” is even a productive goal, because it seems daunting to stay literate to in two fields. How can I assert that I instruct with “evidence based techniques” etc. if I’m not well versed in the evidence (darn you, imposter syndrome!)?

    But I would like to contribute a resource I found today brainstorming about potential post-doctoral research proposal, so if you ever feel up to citing your claims … :-)

    Freeman S,Eddy SL, McDonough M, Smith MK, Okoroafor N, Jordt H, Wenderoth MP. Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 2014;111:8410-8415.

    Side note, I wonder if the life sciences will ever become more open to education research as part of graduate work. Other fields on my campus(e.g, geosciences, engineering) seem to incorporate it pretty regularly. Some Entomology inspiration if their happens to be anyone else out their wondering the same thing:
    “Combining Education with Science in Graduate Student Work”

  8. A wonderful set of comments, my gosh. Yes and yes and yes to all of it.

    Nate: Is active teaching a fad now? Well, based on how fads are measured, yes. I can only imagine that a classroom that’s built with fixed tables equipped with all kinds of screens and electronics will get stale very quickly and look both outmoded and serve little use to instructors and students. But, will a classroom that has a bunch of simple tables and chairs continue to have as much (or more) use as a classroom with traditional desks? I would imagine. I think people would teach in that classroom as willingly as any other.

    Leslie: dude, turn that into a post! (I usually call arbitrarily on groups to have them report back, and I’m fine with the extroverted dude doing the sharing-out from the group.)

    Brad: I really try to avoid using the word “should,” as well as the ideas connected to the word. Do I think it’d be great if people just started doing mostly active teaching? Yeah! But that is a big leap, and there are a variety of lessons that I’m not sure could be done that way in the classroom. A little is better than none, and more than a little is only better as long as the instructor is happy with it. So, in short, if someone doesn’t want to do active learning, that’s fine! The great thing about academic freedom in universities is that we can teach the way we want to. What I’m trying to do is to make people to want to use active learning. After all, none of us take directions that well, and who wants that from a blog? You gotta find what works for you and your students. That’s a highly individualized path. I think being critical of what really does work (for both yourself and your students) is a good thing.

    Loriann, I have no idea about how to jump into education research. (My university doesn’t have any active science education researchers at the moment.) I think just going ahead and doing it would be good. The one thing that I’m not directly familiar with, that you’d need to get sorted out, is the IRB approval. This shouldn’t be a big deal, but it’s a hoop to jump before doing anything else. I would hope that if you just contacted someone whose work you appreciate, they’d be encouraging and helpful. Can you do both? Sure, yeah, go for it! Would it be as productive? I don’t know. But if it’s something that’s important to you, and it would be fun, then I think it’d be great. I have a beef with a lot of the science education literature that’s similar to my beef with a lot of ecology: it’s overloaded with people wanting to establish new theories, and the way that people work the theory vs. empiricism divide is designed not for communal progress in the field. I think science education could use a lot more research scientists that dabble productively. But my opinion and a three bucks will just get you a cup of coffee, as they say.

  9. Terry: Haha, that had been my original intention after hearing the idea back in May, but then you wrote this and I just couldn’t help myself…I can expand on it for a post, though, and will at some point.

    Brad: I agree, and I think your point about the topic can’t be understated. I think I’m generally pretty good at incorporating active learning strategies, but there are some topics (such as all of behavioral ecology) that just lend themselves to this type of teaching a WHOLE lot better than other topics (action potentials, I’m looking at you). For the latter, I try to just make the lesson as interactive as possible by asking the students questions throughout, and using iClicker questions (e.g., setting up the cell’s state at resting potential, explaining electrical/concentration gradients, then asking “Which way is the electrical gradient pushing the Na+ ions? Which way is the concentration gradient pushing them?”). Come to think of it, iClickers ARE active learning, as long as the questions are application and not regurgitation. But I think your point stands—it’s not always realistic to have all active learning, nor do I think it’s productive, as a little lecturing can be very useful, and can provide the essential building blocks upon which the active learning strategies lean.

    • Agreed!

      That said, I think an action potential is ripe for an active approach.

      You spend a couple minutes showing/drawing/explaning the anatomy of an axon. Explain that you can stick an electrode inside and see that there is a difference in charge, with more positive ions on one side and more negative ones on the other side of the membrane.

      Then you show them an action potential. Ask them, what’s going on in the membrane that could generate this pattern? What does the membrane have to do, or allow, to let this happen? And you give the groups 5-15 minutes to talk about it. You mill around, ask leading questions to each group. Then you stop, and say, “On one side of the membrane you’ve got more Cl, and the other side you have more K. Like a lot of your surmised, the membrane can actively move these around. To get a quick pulse, how would they be pumped and diffuse on a long-term and immediate basis?” And you give ’em 5 minutes.

      Then you then can draw a cross-section of the membrane with the channels and pumps and whatever other necessary detail….

      I’ve never taught this, don’t know if it’d work, just thinking in print here.

      • Haha, I knew if I gave a specific example of something I find hard to do actively that someone would tell me how to do it…love your idea! I will now commence making a list of all the topics I find hard to teach actively in hopes that other people can give me ideas for all of them. :)

        • I think a site dedicated to interesting/active/discussion/inquiry based approaches to common topics in biology would be super-duper useful. Any time someone does a lesson that works, they could just put it in and hopefully it’d be useful to others. It would take someone actively running/managing it. Which would take $$. Hmmm.

        • I’m pretty sure ESA runs something like that—I don’t think it’s devoted specifically to active learning ideas, but I would wager that the majority of the stuff people post on there is anyway. The Animal Behavior Society is in the process of trying to replicate that model but it’s in the very early stages.

  10. I should also mention that one semester I went whole-hog into active learning, and at the end of the semester, the students reported that they wished we had done a bit LESS of this and that I had done MORE lecturing. I had included student teaching whereby each student would present one small concept for 20 minutes (including some interactive activity and an assessment). I still love this idea and think it has a lot to offer, but the students reported that these student-led lessons often left them confused, and they wished I had taught that material instead. So that was a lesson in how active learning strategies can be detrimental if implemented poorly by the instructor. A lesson that I actively learned. :)

  11. I found some of the active learning exercises implemented in my courses useful, but as an introvert, active learning heavy courses left me physically and emotionally exhausted in a way that lectures didn’t. I was jealous of my extroverted peers who seemed to get more amped up as the class went on while my energy was depleted. I often really struggled to pay attention and participate by the end of the class. I liked classes that only had a little bit of active learning exercises.

  12. Sarcozona. I get you. I’m concerned about happiness/health of the class, but at the same time, I’d be a little tempted to take the exhaustion as kind of complement that the teaching is working. Just like some teaching a zumba or spin class would think “wow that class kicked my butt!” is a compliment, being exhausted just from thinking and processing information collaboratively could be seen as one too. But if any student had a real anxiety issue – which is what this sounds like – then it’s only reasonable and humane to think of the best approaches that facilitate learning for the whole class. Accommodations for physical concerns are paramount.

    Relevant to this discussion is this, by the way:

    based on this paper in PNAS:

  13. Thanks for the interesting and thoughtful response – and I’m glad to hear from Sarcozona that I’m not just projecting when I assume some students do NOT find this kind of class energising. I’m sufficiently intraverted that being in a room full of people for a few hours is hard work – try explaining to an extravert that going to a party is not relaxing! Some of the tiredness people like Sarcozona and I feel isn’t just from stretching unfamiliar ‘muscles’, it’s from doing something which is alien to our natural way of working. We’re dogs taking a tree-climbing class with cats, to extend the analogy, not just cats who’ve never had access to trees before.

    I actually do quite a lot of active learning in my classrooms, but as elements within a structured class rather than the whole thing – partly because my department is actively cutting direct contact hours per instructor to “increase research excellence” whilst “improving student choice”, which means that where I once taught a class like “intro to the living world” as a whole module with c. 40 contact hours, which led into an ecology type sequence, I now have 10 hours to cover the ground as part of a module called something like “intro to our planet”, along with maybe a climate/atmosphere person, a geologist and an oceanographer/hydrologist – and it still has to lead into the same sequence. Content-slashing time! Also team-teaching, which is a challenging environment for introducing variations in how one teaches without confusing the students too much – actually, if you’ve ever done any of that, I’d love to hear what you think about team-teaching.

    Given that context, I’m very interested in trying to maximise what the students get from their time with me – and that means not just active learning in the classroom but trying to help them get the most out of their independent study time as well. (we’re only “allowed” 2-3 pieces of assessment per module, so in “intro to our planet” for example students might write up two out of four practical exercises in a standard format, which means I have to include a suitable practical in my 10 hours, and then do four questions in an exam, one from each of the elements – so overt and immediate use of assessment to drive independent study isn’t really an option).

    I’m also seeing a marked increase in the last few years of students with declared anxiety issues – this may just be part of the trend of pathologising normal teenage and maturation issues, or show an increased willingness in students to disclose issues and universtities to accomodate them, but it means that in just about every classroom there are students who need some extra support. The calling on GROUPS rather than on individuals method is something I’ve always done – at the very least, when I ask a question in a lecture, I ask students to talk to the person next to them for 3 minutes FIRST before I call on people – saying “we think…” is much, much less daunting than saying “I think…” Also, I find ensuring preparation opportunities helps the anxious student or the student who is a slower thinker, who likes to mull things over in their head before they actually talk to others, get more out of the activities.

  14. Great post. Wow that’s a lot of comments. First, I am an introvert so was quiet in lectures. I sympathize with other introverts. These students need support before they are called on, e.g. think-pair-share plus an instructor overhearing and praising them or making sure they have a good answer to say in public. Second, active learning must be planned – you have to know exactly what you want students to learn so what is discovered / said in class is what you would have said if you were lecturing. Not knowing what students are going to say will definitely confuse the class and be detrimental to learning. Third, students may ask for more lectures because they are passive/easy not because they are productive. Fourth, you don’t want to try education research – it’s hard :)

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