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In the exams for the course I am taking, all questions are full credit or zero. Specifically, each exam has only 3 questions (approximately 30 points each). The professor only looks at the result. So, if you have a minus sign wrong in your final answer, you get 0 points. Further, any student who does not get 30/100 on the midterm is "banned" from taking the final exam and automatically fails the course (this is a policy the professor invented himself, and only he does it). Due to this, lots of people fail this course every year.

Normally in a year it is expected 100 students take this course (this is an obligatory course), but since many people fail, there are 200+ people taking this course every year (and this is the only course like this. Most of people fail it). And he is the only professor doing this. (I think it is some kind of a mobbing.)

And he seems so much closed to communication. He denies everything and always tells that "you are not studying, this course is not that hard!" But logically it cannot be true. Because there must be "some people" studying the course.

Last year nearly 200+ people took the class, but only 50 people could manage to pass it.

And most of the students "failed" the course because of his 30/100 threshold. They were banned to take the final exam.

So how could I deal with this problem?


Clarifications:

  • As I know he was dismissed to give lessons for a while due his behaviors before. Many people informed his behaviors to central authorities, but nothing changed. (As I know last year some students wrote mails to authorities to inform about the situation.)
  • Students do not have representatives that interface with the university administration. I do not know If it is brought to department council as a big group or not but everybody in the department is "aware" of this situation for years. And some other professors condemn him during their own lectures.
  • I am not blaming my professor. I just explained the situation I am into and asked for suggestions. Now as majority suggested, I will study more to this course. However in my country only top 5% of high school students are admitted to engineering degree. So at least in my country, a "German system" of classes with very high failure rates does not make sense.
  • This is not a subject area where mistakes could have lethal consequences
  • The rector of the university is "friend" of this professor. So he is some sort of "untouchable". And people are scared to get stigmatized by him.
  • The professor is the department chair, so complaining to the department chair is not an option
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    Could you please edit the question to include your country? Does your university use an open admission model (like much of Europe) or a competitive admission model (like most of the US)? Does failing a course create significant monetary cost and/or a permanent F on the transcript, or does it only mean that the student can't progress through the major?
    – JeffE
    Dec 4 '20 at 16:43
  • 1
    Tons of useful information in the comments has been integrated into the post; everything else has been moved to chat. As usual, please use the chat for all purposes other than requesting clarification or suggesting improvements to the question.
    – cag51
    Dec 5 '20 at 4:59
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    "I think it is some kind of a mobbing" Huh? Him being the only professor doing this is some kind of mobbing? Someone going against what everyone else is doing is the opposite of mobbing. And "mobbing" has negative connotations, so if you're saying that all the other professors not doing it is mobbing, that isn't consistent with your complaining about this professor. Dec 6 '20 at 22:12

11 Answers 11

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This may be almost too obvious to be worth mentioning, but one idea you could consider is to study really really hard for this class in order to make sure you do not end up in the group of people who fail it, large though that group may be. It sounds like it’s not impossible to do well in the class, just more difficult than you are used to. A relevant idea to keep in mind is that you have control over the outcome: the belief that you can adapt your behavior to the situation and achieve a successful outcome is what is known as a growth mindset. It’s a powerful idea and very worth thinking about, both in the current context and for anything else you aim to do in the future.

That being said, it’s possible that the professor is unreasonably harsh in his grading methodology. Failing that many students by setting standards that are so high as to be nearly unattainable does not benefit either the students or the university (or future employers of those students), and results in a waste of resources and a drain on the students’ morale. Certainly preventing students from taking the final exam because of poor performance in the midterm is a rather extreme step, and contradicts much of what I know about best practices in education.

So, at the same time that you are working hard to succeed in the class, it’s completely reasonable to try to get the university to see that there is a problem and put pressure on the professor to change these policies. Some avenues that you can explore are to bring the matter up with the dean, the university ombuds person, your student union, or other types of student advocates that may be available. A local student or town newspaper or news website may also take an interest if this is an issue that affects a large number of students. If you are savvy with social media, you could drum up interest through Facebook or other social media, and attract support for your cause.

Good luck!

Edit: based on the discussion in the comments, many people seem to think my social media idea is a really bad one. I don’t completely understand their objection (the main reasoning given is the idea that social media are a “cesspit”, so it may simply reflect a dislike of social media in general and a belief that you shouldn’t use it for any purpose), but it’s possible they have a point, so keep that in mind. In any case, my suggestion is not meant to be understood as an endorsement of social media in general, only as a suggestion that social media may be useful as an advocacy/campaigning tool in a specific situation like yours.

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    I agree with most of this answer, except the suggestion to scandalise this using the press or to drag this into the cesspit that is "social" media. This can quickly grow out of control. And yes, I have a somewhat negative view of social media. Dec 3 '20 at 21:42
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    (1) Must point out that the claimed effects of "growth mindset" have failed large-scale replication studies (e.g.: sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0191886917303835). (2) The idea that a news site would take up a "my professor is too hard" story is difficult to believe -- I'd like to see an instance of that ever happening (barring actual breaking of rules or malfeasance). This answer would be improved if those items were edited out. Dec 4 '20 at 2:46
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – cag51
    Dec 6 '20 at 4:20
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    "It sounds like it’s not impossible to do well in the class, just more difficult than you are used to." - since this course is known to be "difficult", and half of the students in it are re-taking it, I'd expect that "study really really hard" would be a very common strategy, along with informal study groups and handing down of notes. ~75% of students still failing suggests that effort might not be the deciding factor. Dec 6 '20 at 12:30
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    Folks: this is very much an "extended discussion." Please take it to the chat (the system doesn't allow us to move comments to chat more than once, so we'll have to start deleting if flags are raised).
    – cag51
    Dec 7 '20 at 0:20
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The honest answer to your question "how to deal with..." is to work hard and study so you will score the required minimum 30/100 on the midterm. And then continue working hard so you learn the material well enough that you can correctly answer many questions on the final. Good luck!

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    Yeah, unless I'm misunderstanding the question, the bar of having to learn 30% sounds quite low.
    – Džuris
    Dec 4 '20 at 8:46
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    @Džuris That depends on how the exam is designed. One can make exams so that an excellent student should score 100% or close to it. One can also make exams where anything above 50% is exceptional and 25% for a pass is reasonable although difficult. As long as the professor clearly communicates what to expect, neither approach is better or worse. If the goal is to filter out the very top students the latter approach works much better.
    – quarague
    Dec 4 '20 at 9:03
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    @Džuris The bar isn't 30% as in "If you know any 30% of the material you will pass". It is 30% as in "if you know 30% of the material with 100% accuracy you will pass". That is a much harder threshold to attain. E.g. in an exam with 10 questions worth 10 marks each, in the former scenario you could score 3/10 in each question and pass. In the latter, you could score 9/10 in each question and still fail.
    – JBentley
    Dec 4 '20 at 14:16
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    @Džuris The OP added some more detail about the scheme. There's three questions on the midterm, all of which are graded all-or-nothing. So making two small computational mistakes in two separate questions could make you fail. This seems unreasonable to me Dec 4 '20 at 15:49
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    I should have maybe stated explicitly that I neither condone nor criticize the professor's marking scheme by suggesting the above response. The above is simply the answer to the actual question asked (regardless of how any of us feel about the marking scheme). Dec 4 '20 at 23:29
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I think that if the university permits this sort of thing that you have little recourse.

You could complain to their superiors, of course. Perhaps you could drop the course.

If I were the department head over this person, or a dean, I'd want to have a talk with them to see how they might justify this. I think, personally, that it would be hard to justify, but it might be possible, depending on the subject matter and field. If you are studying math, for example, I don't see much possibility of a justification. But if your knowledge and behavior in your field might put other people at serious risk in some way, then there might be some argument for a very severe filter.

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    Is this a case of having too many students at the entry level and needing to cut down the numbers severely at the beginning because they are unable to provide adequate service in later courses? That sometimes happens and might lead to less-than-fair rules.
    – Buffy
    Dec 3 '20 at 20:28
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    Am I misunderstanding the question? What's hard to justify there? Being at a 30% level seems pretty low. The policy sounds like "if you've learnt nothing in the first half, let's stop wasting our time" to me. Is that not reasonable?
    – Džuris
    Dec 4 '20 at 8:44
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    -1: why would 30% be "hard to justify" in math. I would think the opposite. Dec 4 '20 at 9:33
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    @Džuris A "30%" level is as arbitrary a figure as "turn the volume up to 11" is, since we don't know what material is on his test. The relevant point is that he fails more than half his class, year in and year out, and that strongly suggests the problem is on the teacher. I had a professor like this in grad school, and eventually the department stepped in.
    – Jeff
    Dec 4 '20 at 15:53
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    @MartinArgerami: A friend of mine had such a teacher in math. One exercise was calculation over three pages. Then, in the final line he wrote P=(3,2) instead of P(3,2) (in high school for some reason we had to write points without an equation sign). Everything else was correct. He lost 12 out of 48 exam points out of this. I think this is pretty hard to justify (the teacher's justification was "So I only have to look at the answers and no one can fire me anyway").
    – user111388
    Dec 4 '20 at 15:57
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All of the things you have mentioned are just difficult aspects of the assessment requirements for the course. So long as the assessment rules and standards formulated by this professor are within the scope of university assessment rules, then it is within his academic discretion to do this. (You do not mention your university or even what country you are in so it is hard to offer a view on the likely state of the assessment rules.) Imposing a requirement to pass a midterm exam in order to be able to sit the final exam is an unusual practice, but it is really not so different from imposing prerequisite requirements between separate courses --- in this case he is effectively splitting his course into two parts, and successful completion of the first half of the course is a prerequisite for sitting the assessment in the second half.

Many academics on this site will regard this kind of harsh assessment structure as bad practice; whilst it is not how I would structure my own assessment, I'm more agnostic about this --- I certainly don't think it is the worst thing in the world to have some courses like this impose intermediate "hurdles" which are hard for students to pass. It is desirable to allow some variation in assessment practices to give scope for innovation, so I think it is best not to put professors on too tight a leash. It sounds like this professor is satisfied with his assessment practices, notwithstanding the dissent expressed to him, so I see little value in trying to lobby for change.

Another thing to consider here is that some early courses in degree programs can act as a "filter" to ensure that only high-quality students proceed to the next phase of the program. In programs where early courses are too easy, this often leads to low quality students coming into later courses without the requisite level of knowledge and prowess in the subject. This is extremely frustrating for the lecturers of those later courses, since it is something that makes their own teaching substantially more difficult. As someone who has been in that position, I prefer lecturers of early courses to err on the side of making their courses too hard rather than too easy, so this guy would be welcome to teach courses that feed into mine!

My recommendation would be to accept that this professor has the discretion to set the assessment for his course how he wants (presuming it is within the university rules) and that he has made a decision with knowledge that many students do not like his assessment structure. Concentrate your efforts on studying hard and trying your best to pass the midterm and final exams.

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  • In many universities, there are no clear assessment rules, unfortunately:(
    – user111388
    Dec 4 '20 at 7:01
  • I'm not sure I agree that that is unfortunate. It just means that academics are given wide discretionary scope, which I think they will generally exercise very well (and often better than they would under a list of assessment rules).
    – Ben
    Dec 8 '20 at 20:53
  • I agree here. I meant unfortunately, in the context of this question and your answer.
    – user111388
    Dec 8 '20 at 21:59
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I don't know what the topic of the course is, and making midterm success a necessary prerequisite for the final exam is questionable.

But requiring you to get only 30% of answers right seems quite generous to me. It means that of 10 tasks you are allowed to get 7 of them wrong, and still pass the exam.

In the engineering industry, anyone failing 70% of tasks would long have been fired. And in industry you have to get the final result correct. There typically is no reward for getting it half-correct. So, the all-or-nothing approach is not inherently wrong. It prepares you for "real life" (although in industry, you don't have to solve a lot of small tasks within a few hours, you typically have big, complex tasks and weeks of time).

This type of exam teaches you to double-check your results, to concentrate on quality more than quantity, and that's a very important competence. I can tell you from personal experience that the industry already has too many engineers taking quality lightly.

Having said that, I never experienced a course with a 75% failure rate myself. To me, this is an indicator that the criteria are too harsh. I can't believe that those 75% can't become successful engineers.

P.S. I'm an electrical engineer myself, holding a PhD degree.

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    By the comments, the prof does not ask 10 questions, but only 3. If they have length as "usual exam questions", this makes a big difference. Having three reasonably-long questions and not to allow a single mistake seems totally unreasonable for me in learning situation.
    – user111388
    Dec 4 '20 at 16:02
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    And it least in the software industry, it is totally acceptes that no one on their own gets everything right -- it is common practise that things are checked by a different person! That this does not seem to be the case in electrical engineering seems very concerning to me.
    – user111388
    Dec 4 '20 at 16:04
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    The problem isn't the 30% required. The problem is the all-or-nothing grading policy with 3 questions on the midterm. Boo!
    – Joshua
    Dec 6 '20 at 0:30
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    And more broadly, the problem is that only 50/200 students managed to pass the class. While that could be conceivably justified if courses with such low pass rates are considered a feature in the local educational system and the department has intentionally designed the course that way, it appears that's not the case here. This is a failure by administrators to take action to ensure students are treated fairly—they have allowed this professor to unilaterally evade any responsibility as an instructor for student success. Dec 6 '20 at 4:06
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    Or to put it another way, if a student who doesn't achieve 30/100 on the midterm is banned from the final, why should a professor who fails to teach 75% of students to a passing level not similarly face some repercussions? Dec 6 '20 at 4:08
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This is a frame challenge because it seems to me, from reading the comments, that the problem is the marking scheme, not that you are not allowed to take the final due to poor marks in the mid term.

Comments indicate that a small number of questions are asked and only the final result of the answer counts. I assume this means calculation or math based questions. So if you are given three questions and make a minor mistake in each one you get 0. Getting the correct answer gives you 33%. The only way to get above 30% if to answer at least one question perfectly, although in fact it seems that you just need to get the answer correct so errors like taking an overly complex approach wouldn't matter.

Under that grading scheme if you can't pass the midterm you are unlikely to pass the final. The solution isn't to persuade your professor to allow you to attempt the final even though you failed the midterm but to have a more reasonable marking scheme, in which a good student won't care if they are required to pass the midterm because so long as they know the material sufficiently well to pass the final they will pass it anyway.

Pointing out that this grading scheme gives the exact same grade to someone who never even cracked a book and someone who knows the fundamentals but still makes minor mistakes stands a better chance of getting something changed. Complaining that you have to get 30% in the midterm to be allowed take the final isn't because that is going to sound pretty reasonable to a lot of people.

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    Actually as you indicated too my main problem was all or nothing grading. The %30 problem is part of it but the main problem for studends is getting 0 eventhough you have solved so many parts of the problem.
    – Nabla
    Dec 4 '20 at 17:59
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Check what the stated teaching goals in the course description are. If "doing flawless mental arithmetic" isn't in there, even if there are no strong guidelines on how exams are to be designed, this practice should be hard to defend.

Eric Nolan wrote in his answer that you can "[point] out that this grading scheme gives the exact same grade to someone who never even cracked a book and someone who knows the fundamentals but still makes minor mistakes", but this can be strengthened further: Even if you perfectly know all course materials, if you have a non-negligible chance of introducing general arithmetic errors in the calculation, you are effectively bound to fail. The exam as designed therefore fails to test the actual course contents, but instead tests something else. If that something else isn't relevant or unfairly disadvantages some people, you have your point of attack. (At least if you local laws support that - you're not stating where you are.)

So check if there's a student with something like dyscalculia or other documented disadvantages. You should be able to make a case that this method of grading unfairly discriminates against them - especially since this is a required course, they'd effectively be unable to finish that degree. Then, for just about any alternate grading method that's proposed, you can argue that it gives them an unfair advantage since everyone else also occasionally makes arithmetic mistakes. And then (assuming there's at least some reasonable people involved) you should (hopefully) be able to reach the point where everyone gets the same altered grading scheme.

(This worked to improve a similarly harsh grading scheme of a prof at our university. I don't know how much of a threat you'd need to build up in your case - from mentioning that this is discriminatory, over mentioning that someone could lawyer up, to actually hitting them with a lawyer - in our case, talking to & working with the disability advisor and letting them talk to the exam board and prof was enough. Give it a few months though - don't expect a quick result in just a few weeks.)

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The posted answers address the professors habits, but not how the student should deal with them (aside from study hard.) It seems like the more appropriate response would be for the student to approach the tests differently based on the grading criteria.

Since the requirement appears to be that at least one of the midterm questions must be 100% correct, it would appear that the best strategy would be to read through the three questions to determine which one the student was most confident in answering correctly, and then spend as much time as necessary to answer that question without any errors. Carefully checking each answer may not leave enough time to answer all of the questions, but should provide the best chance of getting credit for whichever questions the student has time to answer and check.

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Your professor is being decidedly unreasonable. It is (from your description) neither a life threatening course nor a doctors position where you have to perform these mental gymnastics. I too have experienced an unreasonable professor- first exam, class average 13.5. 9 and below an F. 65% of the class failed. The final was 3 hours- at the 1.5 hour mark he stood up and told everyone to turn their tests in because if they didn't know the material/solved it they weren't going to finish. All you can do is organize and file complaints with the uni, with the other students, and lobby for the removal. But if he's an untouchable it's going to take a lot more work. Your best bet is to pass it and realize there are complete and utter unreasonable people in positions of power. Learning to navigate that will help you in life. Sadly. Unless there is a mass threatening of refusal to take the class with severe financial repercussions for the university nothing will change for that professor.

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I had a professor that did the same thing (in the 80ies), and when asked, his explanation was:
"If you become an engineer, and design a bridge, a single error in a long calculation might result in the bridge crashing, killing lots of people. Are you going to tell them 'it was just a small error'?"
His point is that in real life, a small error is often still a full fail, and you get trained for real life.

You might not agree with him, but he is not completely wrong either. Many students nowadays have forgotten that university is supposed to teach you for your work life, and a degree is supposed to confirm that you can handle its challenges, not that you can game your way through its system. It is not always easy to find the line between unfair, realistic, and useful education.

Update: for reference, you needed 25% correct to pass his exam, which had typically four to six questions, in four hours. If you knew your stuff, you could be done in one hour with 75 - 100%. So it wasn't unfeasible.

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    The professor’s explanation is BS. The correctness of the design of something as safety-critical as a bridge cannot rely on the assumption that a single person completed a long calculation without any errors. In reality the calculation would be broken up into many small parts, each being reviewed by multiple people, with the high-level correctness of the entire setup also being reviewed by more than one person. Basically, if the professor’s scenario were to actually happen, whoever authorized this approach to bridge design would be guilty of criminal negligence.
    – Dan Romik
    Dec 5 '20 at 6:34
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    I would hope noone designs bridges in exam-like situation: let someone, who is new to the subject, design the bridge in 2 hours without outside help or talking to other people, checked by nobody.
    – user111388
    Dec 5 '20 at 8:51
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    More realistically, the "all or nothing" does not really teach you something useful. Yes, students should lose an appropriate number of points if they are not careful, but not all for a simple mistake. And I cannot believe that people who had this professor is class will never make mistakes in the real world (everybody makes mistake).
    – user111388
    Dec 5 '20 at 8:53
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    Real life example: Coworker (accomplished chemical engineer) did some calculations for the air volume required to perform an operation. Came up with a 2.5" line at some ungodly PSI and CFM. Had another engineer check it. Confirmed. So they rented a dedicated compressor, put filters, drilled a hole in the wall, ran the line in, fired it up. It blew up all over the lab and exploded material everywhere. Calculations were wrong and no one double checked that part. Just a fun thought.
    – J.Hirsch
    Dec 6 '20 at 15:21
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    @DaveLRenfro Teachers in the 1980s: "When you graduate from school, you won't constantly have a calculator with you." People now: "I don't leave the house without a device with more computing power than the Apollo mission." Dec 6 '20 at 23:20
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You're being cagey about the topic of this course. I can think of plenty of real-life scenarios where 'You need to be 100% on these basics or we can't allow you to carry on' is acceptable, necessary even. Like learning to fly an aircraft. 99% on safety basics isn't good enough. 'But I got most of the working right!' is no excuse when you make the wrong decision and the plane crashes. You need to be 100%, in stress-free exam conditions. Circumstances beyond your control will add the errors in the field.

OK, no-one dies over a college course. But the principle may still be valid. Being required to get one out of three questions completely right isn't a high barrier. There's no points for 'nearly' in real life.

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    But there are also no exam conditions in life..
    – user111388
    Dec 6 '20 at 14:56
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    By the way, most people (even with experience) don't get car driving 100% right. Yet there is points for 'nearly': nothing bad happens. Don't know how it is for airplane drivers. But I would really be scared if '99% correct' always means 'airplane crashes' as I cannot imagine anyone being always 100% correct.
    – user111388
    Dec 6 '20 at 15:00

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