What can we learn from Direct Instruction & Siegfried Engelmann?

Combining precise example sequences, high-pace questioning, continuous instant feedback, extended practice drills, and rapid corrections of misconceptions, direct instruction is one of the most effective teaching methods.

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Citing an individual study to prove that Direct Instruction isn’t effective

is like citing a rainstorm to prove that the Sahara isn’t a desert.

There is a vast range of empirical, scientific and statistical evidence that shows Direct Instruction works.

Project Follow Through was the largest controlled comparative study of pedagogical techniques in history: from 1967 – 1995, over 700,000 children in 170 disadvantaged communities across the United States participated in this $1 billion study to discover the best practices for teaching disadvantaged students. This was the result:

‘Eighteen school districts, some rural, some urban, applied Direct Instruction (DI). When the testing was over, students in DI classrooms had placed first in reading, first in maths, first in spelling, and first in language. No other model came close. Many of the others underperformed the control groups. DI even defeated the developmental and affective models on their own turf: DI students also placed first in self-esteem. Apparently children who mastered reading, writing, and maths felt better about themselves than those who did not.’

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In 1996, a meta-analysis of 35 empirical studies published from 1972-1996 showed an effect size of 0.87. An effect size of greater than 0.4 is considered effective, and above 0.75 extremely rare. Large-scale studies from 1997-2003, such as the Baltimore Curriculum Project, show that Direct Instruction can help schools that are in the lowest twenty percent steadily improve their academic achievement until they are performing well above average.

In 2009, Visible Learning synthesised over 800 statistical analyses on the effects of teaching techniques on student achievement. For Direct Instruction, across 304 studies including over 42,000 children, the effect size was 0.82, significantly greater than any other curriculum that Hattie studied, and greater than almost any other technique apart from feedback.

All the evidence shows that Direct Instruction works. So the puzzle is this: why haven’t more people heard of Siegfried Engelmann, its pioneering educationalist? And what insights could we learn from him about effective instruction? I’ve tried to distil four of his core insights and summarise five of the key components of Direct Instruction here.

Insight 1. Pupils learn concepts from examples

Specific series of examples lead pupils to understand concepts. Explanation must demonstrate a range of positive examples of a concept, the limits of the concept by negative examples, and minimally different examples to show pupils how to distinguish between what is and what is not categorised as the concept. (For instance, ‘the eagle is a thunderbolt’ is a metaphor; but ‘the eagle is like a thunderbolt’ is minimally different: it is not a metaphor, it is a simile). A whole series of examples must demonstrate the range of variation and the clear boundaries.

 

Insight 2. Pupils have only learned a concept when they can master new examples

Pupils master a concept by making up a rule to apply to new examples to categorise them as either positive or negative examples of the concept. So teachers must test pupils with examples, different from those presented to demonstrate the concept, to check whether mastery has occurred.

 

Insight 3. Pupils require far more practice than we think for mastery

Engelmann says that ‘the amount of practice required is five times what teachers expect’ (1992 p17): ‘pupils use it or lose it; activities must require kids to use all the important skills and concepts they’ve been taught’. Integrating previously learned knowledge and skills in continuous review is essential. The research on the essential importance of practice is corroborated by, amongst others, Carol Dweck, Matthew Syed, Daniel Coyle, Doug Lemov and Daniel Willingham

 

Insight 4. Curriculum design is the difference between failure and success

Engelmann’s own words are the best way to get to the core of this insight:

The field of education still hasn’t learned that poorly designed curricula generate poor performance in both teacher and students’.

‘Instructional sequences have the capacity to make students smart or not…

The curriculum will largely determine the extent to which students are smart.’

‘The curriculum is the difference between failure and success (1992 p7).

‘When the curriculum fails, the teaching will fail’. (1992 p7)

‘If the teaching is not effective, the most direct implication is that the curricular sequences are not well designed’ (1992 p179)

‘The curriculum is the central focus of effective reform, because teachers don’t teach without content, and the content comes from the curriculum’. (1992 p176)

‘Effective reform must start with the understanding that the curriculum is the central focus and the central business of schools. Effective curricula are the sina que non of the system that is capable of delivering a quality education to all kids’. (1992 p179)

Engelmann’s insight that ‘the cause of educational failure is the curriculum’ locates the responsibility right at the centre of schools’ locus of control.

 

So, based on these insights, what are the main components of the tried-and-tested direct instruction method?

I have cited Hattie’s summary here, and Nadler neatly sums up Engelmann’s approach: ‘sequences of instruction form the kernel of his curricula: skills communicated with logical precision in discrete chunks; careful measurement of mastery; rapid correction of mistakes; and incessant review to integrate old skills with new’. I break down Direct Instruction into five applications:

 

Precise example sequences

Carefully specified sequences of examples, non-examples and minimally different examples are systematically presented and unambiguously communicated to pupils. Pupils are then tested on whether they have mastered the concept through new, different examples.

 

High-pace questioning

Active responding as a group and individually is cued by the teacher at a high pace of up to 10 learner responses per minute. A fast pace of short explanations plus a series of questions is better than slow-paced, long explanations. Engelmann says: ‘if the teacher talks too much, the pupils will have difficulty identifying what’s important’.

 

Continuous instant feedback

Continuous checking for understanding is embedded so that the teacher gets instant feedback on who understands what and the pupils get instant feedback on whether they’ve mastered what they’re learning.

 

Extended practice drills

In a typical lesson, only 15% of content is new; the rest is either review of content introduced in the preceding lessons or slight expansions that build on what was taught earlier. Lessons build from modelled, through guided, to independent practice. When introducing a new concept, the teacher models the same type of problems the students will be solving; the pupils then apply the same steps to a different but similar problem; the pupils then use the concept in varying contexts and with other skills.

 

Rapid corrections of misconceptions

Planned correction procedures are implemented to prevent errors from becoming learned habits. All errors are corrected as soon as they occur. Teachers make immediate judgments about why errors occur and focus on those aspects when providing corrective feedback.

 

Just as the evidence is crystal-clear that the Sahara is a desert, it’s rock-solid that Direct Instruction is effective. So next time you hear someone in education dismissing teacher-led instruction, knowledge transmission, or practice drills, remind them of the astonishing success of Siegfried Engelmann.

McGraw Hill: What is Direct Instruction?

Nadler, R.: Why Havent You Heard of Siegfried Engelmann?

Engelmann, Siegfried: War on Schools’ Academic Child Abuse

Engelmann, Siegfried: Theory of Instruction: Principles and Applications

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About Joe Kirby

English teacher, education blogger
This entry was posted in System. Bookmark the permalink.

53 Responses to What can we learn from Direct Instruction & Siegfried Engelmann?

  1. RedGreen says:

    Interesting stuff, Joe.

    The importance of continual review is something that struck me. My school’s scheme of work has little emphasis on this. We will teach data handling for 4-6 lessons, then some algebra, then some shape, with no reference to previous learning from topic to topic, week to week. Should I set aside time each lesson for practicing previous topics? If so, how much and when?

    Would be interested to hear your thoughts.

    • Bruno Reddy says:

      Thanks for the introduction Joe.

      Hi Red,

      The first time I had to design a curriculum, I created what I’d seen other schools had done and precisely what you describe – disconnected topics that lasted 1 to 2 weeks. At the end of the year I realised that things could be structured in a very different way. Just because every single maths curricula that I’d seen previously had been designed that way didn’t mean that mine had to be. So the next curriculum, not so much an iteration as an entire re-write, was built on the premise that we need much longer to learn things. We need more time to do the things that Joe descibes – more practice, more examples and more tangability. The structure that we’ve now been using at KSA for the last 4 years (and adopted to a large extent by http://www.mathematicsmastery.org) sees students and teachers spending an entire half term on algebra or on stats or geometry, etc. I suppose the first suggestion I’m making is that you might volunteer to rewrite a long-term plan for your department. Start with the year 7 scheme of work. [Alternatively bring a memory stick to TF’s offices next Saturday and I’ll give you mine.]

      The next suggestions are activities that you can drop in to lessons as a way to keep old learning alive. They’re short and therefore allow you to still cover the content you have to cover:
      1. Oral drill – 1 minute high-speed questionning on something they did last week/last term/last year. Has the added benefits of putting energy into the lesson, creating the illusion of pace and a bit of joy factor. If you want help coming up with questions but don’t want to spend time writing them, try to download or purchase Target Boards. You can generate a gazillion questions with no planning time.
      2. Tack on questions relating to previous topics at the end of your Do Now/starter/homework.
      3. Nothing New Just Review – a Friday night homework containing questions on previous topics.
      4. Half-term assessments – even if you’re not writing these, get the person who is to drop in some questions from previous topics.
      5. Only 100% Will Do Tests – Write short quizzes that relate back to something they did earlier in the year that they ALL MUST know before progressing to the next year, e.g. finding the area of a rectangle, identifying a prime number, etc. It should take 10 minutes, it can be marked in class. If they get 100% throw the world at them – merits, praise, a phone call home, stick their sheet to a 100% wall – but if they anything less than 100% they will have to repeat after school. And keep repeating until they get 100%. Obviously build in support for those who will struggle to get 100% by giving them a preview a week in advance of what’s on the quiz and drop questions into an Oral Drill or homework in the days leading up. Run these quizzes once a week for a half-term.
      6. Games like Taboo, Jeopardy, Odd One Out and Family Fortunes are always good.

      In answer to your question, you asked whether to set aside time. The answer is yes but make it part of your lesson routine. Something that always happens after the Do Now for example.

      One more thing, in terms of curriculum design, don’t teach the 3 averages at the same time, don’t teach perimeter within a half-term’s distance of area or multiples and factors in the same week. Before you teach fractions make sure they can find multiples and factors in their sleep.

      Hope that helps,

      Bruno

      • Bruno, it’s really interesting what you say about area/perimeter, and mean/median/mode. A month or two ago our HoF decided that we were going to teach area in the next unit, and only area. She noted that kids are forever confusing area and perimeter in their minds, and she put it down to their always being taught together.

        Engelmenn, Carnine, and Jonathan Solity, all refer to this as ‘the separation of minimally different concepts.’ Solity gives an example from literacy, where kids are often taught the letters ‘b’ and ‘d’ at almost the same time, because they appear close to each other in the alphabet, which is in turn typically taught alphabetically. Same for ‘m’ and ‘n’. Yet he points out that this is a huge error. They look and sound so similar, that it inevitably leads to confusion. He advocates instead that a chunk of time (exactly how long would depend…) be left between teaching one, then the other, allowing the first concept to be firmly embedded, before introducing the second, and allowing students to see clearly now the subtle distinctions between them.

        I find it encouraging that experienced teachers such as yourself and our HoF are coming to conclusions based on your pragmatic experience, that fit the recommendations of these theoretical models.

      • Bruno Reddy says:

        Kris – and by the same token it’s reassuring to me that my own class-based experience must have been repeated elsewhere for Engelmenn et al. to have formed any conclusions.

        Similarly, I was pleased to see research evidence in Joe’s post for another device I use, that of ‘minimally different examples’. I was trying to articulate it to the idea to myself the other day. I tend to start with an example on the board, go through it and then say to them “I’m just going to change one thing.” I go through that and then I change one more thing. It’s that just-changing-one-thing-at-a-time thing that reduces cognitive distractions and allows them to mentally control for all the other variables in front of them.

        Looking forward to this Saturday more and more!

  2. Eric Lott says:

    What are some examples of Direct Instruction curricula in various subjects?

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  4. Joe Kirby says:

    Hi Red, continual review, particularly through ‘interleaving’ simpler problems into more complex ones, strikes me as being crucial. I’m writing a blog post next Saturday on interleaved learning, which is used by the phenomenally successful language teaching of Michel Thomas. Kris Boulton pointed me in the direction of Jonathan Solity’s summary of his interleaving method here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Michel-Thomas-The-Learning-Revolution/dp/0340928336/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1359882187&sr=8-1

    I also really recommend Doug Lemov’s work on how to make practice effective: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Practice-Perfect-Rules-Getting-Better/dp/111821658X/ref=sr_1_sc_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1359882259&sr=1-2-spell

    So I think the answer to your question is incredibly subject- and topic-specific, and I’ve never taught Maths. But Kris has, and I’m sure he’d have more useful insights than I have. I also wonder what Bruno Reddy, head of Maths at King Soloman Academy would say about how much time to set aside for practising previous topics.
    His website is here: http://www.mrreddy.com/

  5. Red – It’s utterly essential. The fact that it’s not a standard part of our practice just shows how completely deficient our nation-wide provision is. Without it, what you will witness is the continual forgetting and persistent reteaching of the same content, while all around you lament at ‘how little they remember.’ But the fact they remember so little is *our* fault! By never revisiting or using what we teach them for such extended periods of time, we literally send a signal to their brain that says ‘Don’t worry, that stuff wasn’t very important in the end, feel free to forget it.’

    The alternative to an interleaved curriculum is Bruner’s spiral curriculum. Many endorse it as is because they see kids forgetting, and so naturally suggest that topics must be revisited. In the ideal, interleaved alternative, kids would rarely forget anything, or at least forget less. ‘Progress’ happens more slowly, because you’re constantly using the same concepts in new contexts, but in the end bags of time is saved by not having to reteach anything. In addition, a well designed, interleaved curriculum would also have ‘memory building and recall’ at its core, using a number of tricks to help learners build the most reliable memories and recall cues they can.

    To answer your practical question… this is where things get tough. It’s nobody’s fault that interleaving isn’t done properly, because it’s extremely difficult to do effectively and almost impossible for a single teacher. It’s something that needs to be done centrally, over years, by a dedicated team, and then disseminated to the masses. I’ve been trying to integrate it into my practice where possible, with some limited success, but an awful lot of work along the way.

    Here are a few barriers:

    – The topics of your school curriculum won’t necessarily be sequenced in the best order to allow interleaving to happen smoothly and naturally

    – There are no set resources out there that already have interleaving built into their sequences of problems (one possible exception is the Singapore Maths curriculum, but I’ve yet to get my hands on a copy of their textbooks). This means you have to create *all* of the problems yourself, which is extremely time consuming even if you can figure out what the best kind of problem would be

    – Because it’s not an embedded part of your curriculum, you are constrained by time to cover certain content, leaving little room for extended practice of interleaved problems

    – Also because it’s not ‘the done thing’ in your school, and you can’t possibly put it into practice yourself the way you might need to, kids *will* forget things, almost by the next week. If you then try to put a complex, multi-step interleaved problem in front of them, what can often happen (depending on the problem) is that all but a few sit their struggling, needing you to reteach everything anyway! What could be a 7 minute revisiting of some earlier concepts, turns instead into 40 minute revision lesson

    For maths, here are a few examples of things I’ve tried:

    – Literacy starters: put together a set of slides that have shapes on them, or questions relating to previous content, to be answered in general terms only, and in full sentences e.g. How do you find the area of a trapezium? How do we calculate probability? A few minutes at the start of each lesson with a random name generator (e.g. Class Dojo) can then help to keep things at least a little in mind

    – Moving from Area to Probability -> If I pick one of these shapes at random, what is the probability that it will have an area greater than 30cm^2 ?

    – Moving from Expressions to Decimals, Fractions and Percentages of Amounts -> 0.5(4x + 8), 1/3(9x – 3) etc.

  6. Eric – Look into the SRA DISTAR programme, which is the one created by Engelmenn I think.

    There are a few sites out there about DI and related curricula e.g.

    http://www.adihome.org/

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  8. I can’t argue with any of this. The fact of the matter is that all the stuff that underpins DI is spot on but it’s maybe become a bit of a toxic brand. Why not repackage? Call it something suitably trendy with the prefix ‘learning’ and we\ll be all over it. You could make a mine. Wait…er…

  9. Rory says:

    Joe — I bet you have this well thought out, but have you considered putting your latest comment at the “top” (first) instead of at the bottom (last)? It’s sort of the way I work.

    I agree that DI has become somewhat a toxic brand – I experienced a lot first hand.

    It is old and tired and should be in the public domain instead of in the hands of textbook publishers. But it isn’t, and won’t be. So we’re stuck.

    There is a reading renaissance going on, exemplified by your efforts. Thanks.

    • I was trained in using the SRA and Distar reading programmes in special school with all their scripted teacher texts and prompts to click fingers. Professor Peter Mittler used to tell an interesting story of how in a Distar lesson in an SLD school, with the pupils responding to his instructions, and finger clicking, a youngster with Down’s syndrome had enough, stood up and told him to ‘fuck off’. From that moment on Mittler started to doubt the appropriateness of this method for all occasions.

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  16. mrsshaffer3 says:

    I do agree with portions of DI, especially the point made that children need continuous repetition to master concepts. However, I teach an undergraduate class about the various models and programs that early childhood students have experienced over the years up to the present day. DI is one that is discussed; however, I feel it is rather militant and too hard core for our earliest children. I see some positives in using it with students with learning difficulties, as there has been research to indicate it helps those that have cognitive delays. However, I do not feel that DI is appropriate for any classroom under 4th grade. Young children need developmentally appropriate instruction and experiences that will cater to their emotional, social, physical, and cognitive development, and this instruction does not appear to target any domain other than the cognitive aspect. Children need time to socialize, explore, observe, and discover things for themselves, with the teacher effectively facilitating the lessons and learning. Without constructivist approaches, how can we possibly prepare our children for the critical thinking and problem solving skills needed for the 21st century?

    • Why does it need to be 100% DI? Can it not be a tool used amongst others? Why does DI use prohibit all social interaction?

      What if the children don’t discover things for themselves? What if they don’t discover what they need to? What if they ‘discover’ something that isn’t correct? Tough luck?

      Are the problem solving skills required in the 21st century really so different from those required in previous centuries?

      http://thewingtoheaven.wordpress.com/2012/01/08/why-21st-century-skills-are-not-that-21st-century/
      “It is quite patronising to suggest that no-one before the year 2000 ever needed to think critically, solve problems, communicate, collaborate, create, innovate or read. Human beings have been doing most of these things for quite a long time.”

      Much of the 21st century skills rhetoric seems to come from the decline of routine industrialised labour which made up the bulk of jobs in the 19th and early 20th century, now replaced by routine service labour…

      But that aside, the skills people refer to are certainly valuable. If constructivism holds that children cannot be ‘taught’ these skills directly, then isn’t there something flawed in the logic of hoping they’ll develop them by asking them to directly ‘mimic’ the things that people with good critical thinking skills do? ‘If we get them to explore, observe and discover things often enough, then they’ll get good at exploring, observing and discovering.’ Do we really believe that’s all there is to it? Act like you’re intelligent and you will be so…

      • mrsshaffer3 says:

        Kristopher,

        I do completely agree with the fact the DI does not have to encompass every aspect of every hour in the classroom. I can see the benefit of using it in some academic areas. Using it in combination with other methods would definitely be best, especially if we are referring to utilizing it within early childhood classrooms.

        However, I still feel that it should kept to a minimum with our youngest children. Additionally, I am not sure by your given response that you understand constructivism fully. It make it seem as though the children are completely on their own when attempting to learn something new. This is definitely not the case. The teacher is always among the children, observing their interactions, listening to their questions to one another, prompting by asking additional questions to lead to correct understanding, etc. It is a method of allowing children to make discoveries that lead to a deeper understanding, where the teacher isn’t a dictator in the learning. If children “don’t discover things for themselves or what they need to”, then the teacher is there to ensure they do. There are ample amounts of discussions that occur, between the teacher and students (rather than the teacher doing the majority of the talking) so that appropriate outcomes happen. And, if “they discover something that is incorrect”, then why is that an issue? We all learn from mistakes….mistakes are what help us to learn. If incorrect learning takes place, then those misconceptions are addressed. The teacher is always actively engaged in the process, ensuring that “correct” learning is taking place. http://www.thirteen.org/edonline/concept2class/constructivism/index.html

        And, I am unsure of how DI encourages social interaction, when the children are not collaborating with one another. If you could shed some light on how this method encourages social development, I would be interested in reading it. Additionally, how does DI provide emotional development for children?

  17. mrsshaffer3 says:

    Kristopher,

    I do completely agree with the fact the DI does not have to encompass every aspect of every hour in the classroom. I can see the benefit of using it in some academic areas. Using it in combination with other methods would definitely be best, especially if we are referring to utilizing it within early childhood classrooms.

    However, I still feel that it should kept to a minimum with our youngest children. Additionally, I am not sure by your given response that you understand constructivism fully. It make it seem as though the children are completely on their own when attempting to learn something new. This is definitely not the case. The teacher is always among the children, observing their interactions, listening to their questions to one another, prompting by asking additional questions to lead to correct understanding, etc. It is a method of allowing children to make discoveries that lead to a deeper understanding, where the teacher isn’t a dictator in the learning. If children “don’t discover things for themselves or what they need to”, then the teacher is there to ensure they do. There are ample amounts of discussions that occur, between the teacher and students (rather than the teacher doing the majority of the talking) so that appropriate outcomes happen. And, if “they discover something that is incorrect”, then why is that an issue? We all learn from mistakes….mistakes are what help us to learn. If incorrect learning takes place, then those misconceptions are addressed. The teacher is always actively engaged in the process, ensuring that “correct” learning is taking place. http://www.thirteen.org/edonline/concept2class/constructivism/index.html

    And, I am unsure of how DI encourages social interaction, when the children are not collaborating with one another. If you could shed some light on how this method encourages social development, I would be interested in reading it. Additionally, how does DI provide emotional development for children?

    • I think my last comment, regarding DI, is still awaiting moderation, but in the meantime Mr Shaffer I was wondering whether you’d read the Kirschner, Sweller, Clarke paper on discovery learning?

      • Nope, my last comment has disappeared. I’ll try to remember what I said.

        With regards to encouraging social interaction, I said I’m not aware that it does. At least in no reading that I’ve done is it suggested that ‘encouraging social interaction’ is a part of DI. But it doesn’t need to. Usually when something tries to be all things to all things to all people, it ends up being nothing to anyone. The fallacy is in implying that because DI does not *promote* social interaction, it therefore necessarily *excludes* all social interaction in a child’s life, or in assuming that social interaction must be present at all moments.

        With respect to emotional development, I’ve always found the research results around DI fascinating. The best example comes from Project Follow Through, a ~30 year $1bn research experiment from the US, What I found most interesting, was how DI utterly thrashed other curricula at their own game. For example, some were specifically designed around ‘providing emotional development’, that was their focus, yet DI had more success. Results here:

        ** the link I was trying to include was preventing the comment from being posted for some reason! If you go to Google and type “project follow through” then I was linking the 5th website down, but of course there are many more out that that provide details on the research **

        A brief summary of the conclusion was that kids who succeed, feel good about themselves, and DI provided the greatest success combined with rapid progression.

  18. Nope, my last comment has disappeared. I’ll try to remember what I said.

    With regards to encouraging social interaction, I said I’m not aware that it does. At least in no reading that I’ve done is it suggested that ‘encouraging social interaction’ is a part of DI. But it doesn’t need to. Usually when something tries to be all things to all things to all people, it ends up being nothing to anyone. The fallacy is in implying that because DI does not *promote* social interaction, it therefore necessarily *excludes* all social interaction in a child’s life, or in assuming that social interaction must be present at all moments.

    With respect to emotional development, I’ve always found the research results around DI fascinating. The best example comes from Project Follow Through, a ~30 year $1bn research experiment from the US, What I found most interesting, was how DI utterly thrashed other curricula at their own game. For example, some were specifically designed around ‘providing emotional development’, that was their focus, yet DI had more success. Results here:

    A brief summary of the conclusion was that kids who succeed, feel good about themselves, and DI provided the greatest success combined with rapid progression.

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  25. Sherlock says:

    Where can I get more information about Direct Instruction programs if I would like to learn more? Is there a central organization that I can discuss our organization’s needs? Thank you for the help.

  26. Amazing! This blog looks exactly like my old one!
    It’s on a completely different subject but it has pretty much the same layout and design. Outstanding choice of colors!

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  32. HS says:

    Could you address the “Student Piagetian programs – 1.28 [effect size]” reflected in Hattie’s 2011 study, please?

    Thank you very much.

    http://aschofield.files.wordpress.com/2011/03/list-of-hatties-analyses-by-rank-order.pdf

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  36. Reblogged this on Dr Mike Beverley and commented:
    Nice blog. Excellent summary.

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