Facilitating Group Cohesion:

Adventure Based Counseling and College Students

 

J. Scott Glass, Elon University

J. Scott Glass, Ph.D., NCC, is an assistant professor in the Department of Human Services at Elon University.

ABSTRACT

This article reports the results of a study which examined the effects of participation in an undergraduate college course on adventure based counseling on college students' perceptions of group cohesion. A pre- and posttest of the Group Cohesion Evaluation Questionnaire and a short 3-question questionnaire was administered to 28 participants. Results suggest that group cohesion developed through the semester-long course and adventure based counseling weekend experience, and that race, gender, and age of participants did not affect their perceptions of group cohesion.

 

Facilitating Group Cohesion:

Adventure Based Counseling and College Students

In recent years, there has been an increase in the use of outdoor therapy programs and activities as interventions in clinical treatment facilities, a treatment approach for young persons with behavioral and social problems (Johnson, 1992), an approach to encourage personal growth (Nassar-McMillan & Cashwell, 1997; Herbert, 1996), and as a method of building teams (Springett, 1987). The term adventure based counseling is a large umbrella which includes a number of programs that vary in terms of length, specific activities implemented, and participant attributes (Hatch & McCarthy, 2003). Although participation in these activities is growing, there has been a lack of research about the effects and effectiveness of these programs (Johnson, 1992). While outdoor challenge course practitioners and participants provide testimony that these experiences bring about positive change, research findings to substantiate these claims are limited (Braverman, Brenner, Fretz, & Desmond, 1990; Johnson, 1992). Thus, there is a need for studies to further investigate the uses of adventure based programs and to examine possible outcomes of their implementation (Davis, Ray, & Sayles, 1995).

One of the potential benefits for participants in adventure based programs is increased perception of group cohesion (Springett, 1987). Cohesiveness is one of the key factors in the development of a group (Griffin & Pennscott, 1991) and an important variable for a variety of groups and various types of group processes (Evans & Jarvis, 1980). In fact, the usefulness of cohesion as a mediator of group formation, maintenance, and productivity (Bollen & Hoyle, 1990) has led some social scientists to proclaim it the most important small group variable (Golembiewski, 1962; Lott & Lott, 1965).

Small group experiences can be critical for college students because of the important role peers play in their lives and the powerful impact of the peer group on adolescent behavior (Ingersol, 1989). Being part of a group is an important step in a college student's search for acceptance and identity, however, these peer groups are not assembled randomly. Instead, they are composed of individuals who share similar values, backgrounds, and interests (Sprinthall & Collins, 1988).

Adventure based counseling programs typically provide structured activities and experiences designed to develop group cohesion by requiring group members to work together to accomplish specific tasks. The impact of structured activities on group development has received considerable attention in the research literature (Stockton, Rohde, & Haughey, 1992). Incorporating structure into a group generally includes presenting the group with a predetermined agenda, task, or exercise that provides a focal point for group participants (Stockton et al., 1992). Bednar, Melnick, and Kaul (1974) suggested that structure facilitates group work in the early stages by shifting responsibility in the group from members to the leader. This allows group members to be “free” to engage in higher risk behaviors, such as self-disclosure and interpersonal feedback (Stockton et al., 1992).

The present study was developed to help address the need for more studies about the impact of participating in adventure based programs on group development (Johnson, 1992) and was based on the assumption that group cohesion is an important factor in adventure based programs as it is in other types of groups and group processes (Evans & Jarvis, 1980). Prior to this study, only one study could be found that has focused on the factor of group cohesion in adventure based programs (Glass & Benshoff, 2002), despite the increased popularity and use of these programs and despite the critical role of group process in these experiences.

The purpose of this article is to build on previous research (Glass & Benshoff, 2002) and to present results of a study that examined the effects of a semester-long adventure based counseling course on the perception of group cohesion among participants, as well as investigating the students' impressions of adventure based counseling as a viable means of working with college age persons within the counseling field. Because there is evidence that the experiences of young adults may differ by gender (e.g., Archer & McDonald, 1990; Shaw, Klieber, & Caldwell, 1995), race (e.g., Philipp, 1998), and age (e.g., Erikson, 1968), this study further examined differences in perception of group cohesion by participant gender, age, and race.

Group Cohesion

Corey (1985) and Yalom (1995) each view cohesiveness as a necessary yet insufficient condition for groups to progress to the working stage. Yalom compared the development of cohesiveness in a group to the development of the relationship between a client and counselor in individual therapy. However, Yalom pointed out that cohesiveness in a group setting is a broader concept than in individual counseling because it encompasses the group member's relationship not only to the group leader but also to the other group members (Griffin & Pennscott, 1991). Several reviews of research (e.g., Evans & Jarvis, 1980) have identified group cohesion as an important variable for a variety of groups (e.g., therapy groups, living units, task groups, sport teams, and exercise groups) and different types of group processes (e.g., influence, conformity, communication, and behavior change). Carron and Brawley (2000) suggested that to understand the nature of groups we must first gain a better understanding of the nature of group cohesion.

The importance of considering group cohesion across various group types and group processes has been examined in a number of reviews (Evans & Jarvis, 1980). Even with the considerable amount of empirical and conceptual work published on cohesion and its correlates, there remains a great deal of controversy among researchers regarding its definition and measurement (Beeber & Schmitt, 1986; Dion & Evans, 1992; Hogg, 1992; Mudrack, 1989).

Currently there are multiple models of cohesion with no single definition or model accepted by the majority of researchers interested in this construct. Central to the debate on defining cohesion is describing its structure (Cota, Dion, & Evans, 1993). Over the past five decades, social psychology researchers have examined the relationship between cohesion and other small group phenomena, ranging from group therapy (Lieberman, Yalom, & Miles, 1973), to interpersonal communication within groups (Festinger, Schachter & Back, 1950), and intragroup pressure for uniformity (Festinger, Gerard, Hyomovitch, Kelley, & Raven, 1952). Piper, Marrache, Lacroix, Richardson , and Jones' (1983) definition of cohesion as “a basic bond or uniting force” (p. 95) seems relevant to a broad range of small groups (Cota, Evans, Dion, Kilik, & Longman, 1995), and therefore is used for the purposes of this paper.

Although cohesion often is described as “one of the pivotal determinants of effective group therapy” (Budman, Soldz, Demby, Feldstein, Springer, & Davis, 1989, p. 340), research on this topic has produced confusing results (Kivlighan, Jr. & Lilly, 1997). Several reasons are given for the problems that occur when attempting to empirically examine cohesion. These reasons include (a) issues of definition and construct validity, (b) differences in how to best measure cohesion and analyze the resulting data, and (c) static versus dynamic conceptions of group cohesion (Kivlighan, Jr. & Lilly, 1997).

Adventure Based Counseling

Participation in adventure programs has become increasingly popular over the past two decades, and such programs are used in a number of settings with various clientele. One reason for such an increase in the usage of such programs is their growing popularity among corporate groups in search of team-building activities (Bronson, Gibson, Kichar, & Priest, 1992). These programs have also been used with, but are not limited to, chemically dependent adolescents, individuals with mental and physical disabilities, and rape victims (Arnold, 1994; Kennedy & Minami, 1993; Luckner, 1989). In addition, these activities have been implemented in programs working with adolescents on life-skills issues such as communication, problem-solving and group cooperation (Moote & Wodarski, 1997). All of these programs, however, are based on using experiential education approaches in an outdoor setting, aimed mainly at increasing participants' self-esteem, trust in others, and risk-taking behaviors (Harris, Mealy, Matthews, Lucas, & Moczygemba, 1993; Rohnke, 1989; Schoel, Prouty, & Radcliffe, 1988). Other benefits of such programs include group development (Bronson, Gibson, Kishar, & Priest, 1992; Doherty, 1995), communication (Bramwell, Forrester, Houle, LaRocque, Villeneuve, & Priest, 1997), risk taking (Goldman & Priest, 1990; Priest & Carpenter, 1993), and self-esteem (McDonald & Howe, 1989). Generally, participants in these experiences are removed from their normal social contexts to engage in a number of physical activities that often are not related directly to the group's primary purpose with the aim of attaining new goals, both as individuals and as a group (Martin & Davids, 1995).

While some elements of a low-element challenge course program focus on leadership abilities and others focus on communication skills, most activities emphasize group cohesion. Engaging in elements that focus on group cohesion typically requires few physical demands and encourages participants to share responsibility and solve problems as a team. Successful solutions to adventure activities depend upon the extent to which group members cooperate, trust, and communicate with one another. In addition, these group exercises impart lessons that participants later can apply to challenges in their personal lives.

Despite their increase popularity, challenge course programs have received little attention in the counseling literature, although goals of these programs parallel those of traditional counseling (George & Christiani, 1995). Still, some positive outcomes have been reported. For example, Wagner and Roland (1992) discovered that overall functioning of adult groups improved with regards to their group process and interaction skills. Lieberman and DeVos (1982) conducted a study involving special-needs students with behavioral and adjustment difficulties, and found that youth who participated in adventure based counseling activities in the school system improved their self-concept, decreased their anxiety, and showed an increase in positive attitudes toward school. Similarly, Sakofs and Schuurman (1991) found positive results in a one-year follow-up of a treatment program for adjudicated youth that integrated adventure therapy with a community-based component.

One possible explanation for the success of challenge course programs is that they may be more effective at stimulating participants' feelings than traditional counseling approaches (Wood & Gillis, 1979), a phenomenon attributed to the activities' combined use of physical, affective, and cognitive domains. While the focus is on the group, Herbert (1996) proposed that the stressful experiences that are likely to occur throughout the program also “serve as an impetus for individual change” (p. 6). The primary hypothesis for this study was that participation in an adventure based counseling course, including a weekend experiential component, would increase the self-reported perception of group cohesion among college age participants.

METHOD

Participants

Participants included 28 college students, between the ages of 18 and 22, who were attending a private university in the Southeast who volunteered to participate in the undergraduate course, the adventure based counseling weekend program, and this research study. There were 6 males (21.4%) and 22 females (78.6%). Twenty-two (78.6%) participants self-identified as being White, and six (21.4%) self-identified as being non-White (5 African-American [17.8%], and 1 Asian-American [3.6%]). The mean age of participants was 20.46 years.

Procedure

The students in this study attended a course titled, “Adventure Based Counseling” twice a week during the Spring semester. During the meeting times, students engaged in a number of assignments and activities. Students were required to read a textbook (Schoel & Maizell, 2002), as well as current literature regarding outdoor therapy. In addition to the readings, each week students participated in a variety of exercises similar to what can be found in low-element adventure based challenge course programs. These activities were aimed at helping the students become familiar with adventure based counseling, as well as starting the process of working as a group. Time was given each class session for processing both the readings and exercises. Over the course of the semester, the activities became more demanding, both physically and emotionally, in an effort to challenge them to work together as well as to begin the process of self-disclosing. After a semester of classroom readings and activities, the students went on a weekend trip (late Friday night to Sunday lunch) to an outdoor facility located in Eastern North Carolina to engage in adventure based programming.

The outdoor facility at which the weekend trip took place consists of a number of adventure based activities. First, the site is equipped with a low-element challenge course consisting of a number of outdoor activities. This challenge course is a typical low-element program consisting of a series of initiative exercises each with clearly defined challenges. Each exercise is designed so that group members must employ cooperation and communication skills and work together to successfully complete the task. In addition to the challenge course, the students also participated in sailing with a partner on a two-man Sunfish sailboat, first learning how to sail from trained staff persons, and then attempting to sail by themselves.

The students were administered the Group Cohesion Evaluation Questionnaire (GCEQ) (Glass & Benshoff, 2002) along with a short questionnaire (see Appendix A) as a pre-test by the principal investigator (PI) on the second day of class. Validity for the instrument was previously established by having 7 expert raters (with an average of 6 years' experience facilitating low-element challenge courses) rank items in terms of perceived importance and ability to measure group cohesion. Furthermore, reliability of the GCEQ was determined to be .9134, using Cronbach's alpha (Glass & Benshoff, 2002). This was done to give ample time for students to drop and add the course, as is typical with college students. Three persons dropped the course after the first day, while two more added it to their schedules (n = 28). Instructions for each administration of the instrument were explained by the PI. The role of the PI was to administer the instrument and questionnaire to the participants and answer any questions they had regarding the process. In addition, students were asked to identify something about themselves that they would like to work on as a part of the course. Responses ranged from self-esteem and self-confidence to improving leadership skills and being comfortable in groups. Following the course and the weekend trip, all participants were administered the GCEQ as a posttest, in an effort to assess participants' perceptions of group cohesion following their adventure based counseling experience.

Measures

Participants' perceptions of group cohesion, the dependent variable in the study, were measured by the Group Cohesion Evaluation Questionnaire (GCEQ), an instrument created specifically for use with adventure based challenge programs (Glass & Benshoff, 2002). The GCEQ was designed to assess group members' evaluations of how well their group was able to work together on the activities and whether the experiences helped to foster a sense of group cohesion. The instrument consists of 9 items, whose answers are scored on a Likert-type scale ranging from 1 (Not at all like me/my group) to 4 (Exactly like me/my group). Other variables used in this study (age, gender, and race) were obtained from responses to demographic data questionnaires administered to each participant. In addition to the GCEQ, a short questionnaire was administered to gather more information regarding participants' anxieties, attitudes towards adventure based counseling, and opinions of their experiences, both as an individual and a member of the group.

Treatment

The participants drove themselves to the outdoor facility (approximately a 4 hour drive), and did not arrive until late Friday evening. They were shown their accommodations and given some free time to explore the site before going to sleep. The next morning the group, having already participated in warm-up exercises during class time, was taken onto the low-element challenge course to begin the program.

The students participated in a series of low-element challenge course activities for approximately 5 hours on Saturday morning and afternoon. While the group was larger (28 persons) than what is preferred for such a program (10-15 persons), the PI determined that it was important to keep the students together during the activities in order to get a better gauge of group cohesion among the class as a whole. Each challenge was introduced to the group by the group facilitator. The directions were explained and safety issues were discussed for all elements. Safety issues included spotting and potential dangers. After each element was completed, the group facilitator took time to process what had taken place, helping members find meaning through the previous activity and encouraging them to share appropriate personal information in an effort to develop group cohesion. Activities (e.g., Shipwreck, Zig Zag, Hot Peanut Butter) used during the course of the program were developed according to the Project Adventure model (Rohnke, 1984; Rohnke, 1989; Rohnke & Butler, 1995).

In the afternoon, the students participated in sailing for approximately 3 hours. They spent 30 minutes getting instructions from the facility's sailing staff, and then attempted to sail the boats in pairs. Some students expressed fear of the water and anxiety regarding being in a small boat with another partner. Due to this fear, four students chose to only sail in larger boats (holding 8 persons) that were operated by trained staff persons. While all of the students did sail on a boat during the trip, only 24 of them chose to try and sail a boat with a partner. Following the afternoon sailing session, time was taken again to process the experience and allow the students an opportunity to discuss their impressions of what took place.

The next morning (Sunday), the students chose to sail for the remaining time at the facility (approximately 3 hours). Immediately following sailing, the class got together as a whole and spent approximately 45 minutes processing the entire weekend experience. They shared what the experience meant to them, and how it could apply to their daily lives. After this processing session, the students packed up and returned to the university.

A week later the group met as a whole one more time for the final class session. It was during this time that the students processed the course, the weekend trip, and their impressions of adventure based counseling. Finally, it was during this class meeting that the students were given the GCEQ and a short questionnaire as a posttest (see Appendix B). The reasons for giving the posttest a week after the trip was completed was to give time for the students to have some distance from the trip and perhaps get a better gauge of the impact it had on them. There was some obvious enthusiasm at the end of the trip, and it was thought that this might bias their answers. It was believed that waiting a week might allow the students to more effectively and honestly fill out the GCEQ and questionnaire about their experiences.

RESULTS

Data Analysis

The primary hypothesis for this study was that participation in an adventure based counseling course and programming would increase the self-reported perception of group cohesion among college age participants. To test this hypothesis, a matched-sample t-test was used to determine whether there was a significant change in participants' pre-posttest mean scores on the GCEQ (indicating change in perception of group cohesion). For this study, 28 participants completed both pre- and posttests. The results are displayed in Table 1. A statistically significant increase in mean scores from pre- to posttests (+9.50) was found (see Table 1), suggesting that participants did perceive increased group cohesion as a result of participation in the adventure based counseling course.

Stepwise linear regression was used to test the effects of these independent variables on group cohesion. Results did not reveal significant differences in the posttest scores by age, gender, or race. Therefore, age, race, and gender of participants were not found to significantly affect how they perceived the development of group cohesion in the adventure based course.

Means and standard deviations for each independent variable are provided in Tables 2a, 2b, and 2c. These data reveal how participants with each independent variable scored on the GCEQ. The age of participants was not found to have a statistically significant effect on the posttest results. Likewise, results based on gender did not show a significant difference in scores on the GCEQ. In addition, race did not have a statistically significant effect on the posttest results.

Some of the most interesting data comes from the short questionnaire participants were asked to fill out both as a pre- and posttest. The comments suggested that, while some participants were familiar with aspects of adventure based counseling, many did not know much beyond the fact that such programs use outdoor activities. The second question, dealing with student anxieties, suggested that the majority of participants were nervous about various aspects of the course and trip. Such apprehension included, “Not knowing what I am getting myself into,” “Learning to deal with others' differences and personalities,” “Not wanting to be the first person to talk,” “I am most apprehensive about having to be a leader,” and “I am very nervous about having to sail.” In addition, one common theme was found in these responses, and that dealt with the size of the class. Several students commented that the number of persons in the course was intimidating.

In addition, there were several themes found in question three, regarding the potential effects on participants. Students' comments included, “It will help me to interact with people better in the future,” and, “I hope I will become more comfortable as a leader, and learn to be an effective helper.” Others commented they hoped the experience would help them to be more at ease in the outdoors, as well as more comfortable in a group setting.

Upon examining the posttest comments on the questionnaire, it became obvious that the participants had a much greater understanding of, and an appreciation for, adventure based counseling. Student responses to question one and two for the posttest showed much more detailed and lengthy statements. It was clear that they understood and were able to verbalize what adventure based counseling was, and how it could be used effectively with a variety of groups. Many participants commented on the usefulness and adaptability of such programs, and that they would recommend participation in them for all students who are planning on entering a helping profession.

Similarly, the third question revealed interesting responses. Students commented on what they had learned from adventure based counseling, and it ranged from learning to be more outgoing, to being more confident about themselves in group settings. Some comments included, “It has given me a great appreciation for counseling,” “It allowed me to get to know different types of people and see how much in common we have,” This past year and a half I have been working on my self-esteem and I didn't expect this class to make much of a difference in that area, but it did,” and, “I felt so empowered when I pushed myself to learn how to sail.”

Another important theme found in the posttest comments was regarding the feeling of being a part of a group. A number of class members stated that, while they had doubts at the beginning of the course, they did end up caring for and feeling a part of, the group. Several persons stated that they felt a real sense of inclusion, and wished that the group did not have to end at the completion of the semester, even though prior to the course they would not have “hung out” with many of the other class members.

DISCUSSION

The results of this study replicate finding of a previous study conducted with adolescents, ranging in ages from 11 to 14 years old (Glass & Benshoff, 2002). These results suggest that participation in an adventure based counseling course combined with an adventure based experience can facilitate group cohesion among college age participants. These results may be due to the nature of the adventure based programming used in this study, which offers participants structured group experiences in which the leader provides direction and instructions but also shifts responsibility to group members for successful completion of activities.

Another possible explanation for the increase in group cohesion may be the focus of group discussions on the members themselves and how adventure based activities may relate to their everyday lives. Budman, Soldz, Demby, Davis , and Merry (1993) found that cohesive interaction during the earliest stages of group development is characterized by group members sharing information with one another about their lives outside of the group. Adventure based programs encourage interaction and self-disclosure among participants in the beginning stages of group process, which carries over into the remainder of the group's time together. In addition, the sense of accomplishment among participants could be a contributing factor in the perception of group cohesion. Most of the students felt pride in having pushed themselves into doing something that, prior to the weekend trip, caused them anxiety (e.g., sailing).

Although other studies (e.g., Lee, 1972) have found race to be an important variable in leisure preferences, results of this study suggest that participation in adventure based programs may offer various methods for increasing group cohesion among participants from different racial backgrounds. The activities used in this study (low-element challenge course and sailing) require participants from different racial and ethnic backgrounds to work together to help their groups succeed. Processes used in these activities may help to less race-based discrimination and help each member of the small group feel connected to and a part of the group. Similarly, the finding of no significant differences in perception of group cohesion by age or gender suggests that adventure based programs can cross barriers and help to develop group cohesion with a variety of people who tend to respond similarly to the process.

Limitations

It is important to acknowledge several limitations of this study. First, because the sample was drawn from one university in the Southeast, generalizability of findings to other students and geographic regions may be limited. Second, the adventure based programming implemented for this study represents only a couple of types of outdoor adventure programs; thus, reactions of participants in other kinds of programs may differ. There were also limitations related to distribution of participants in the study by age, since the majority (42.8%) of participants were 20 years old, while only 3 (10.7%) were 19 and 3 (10.7%) were 22 years old. A number of developmental changes occur between this age range, and a greater number of participants from each age would have been helpful. The lack of a control group limits conclusions that the increases in perceived group cohesion was attributed to the adventure based course experience. It is possible that such increases in group cohesion could be found in other courses lasting for a similar duration. Finally, while students commented that the experience was “life changing”, there is no indication that increases in group cohesion generalized back to participants' university setting or their daily lives.

CONCLUSION

This study found that participation in an adventure based counseling course, along with an experiential weekend trip, increased the perception of group cohesion among college students between the ages of 19 and 22. In addition, finding from this study suggest that the student participants perceived an increase in group cohesion through the experience regardless of their age, race, and gender. Results of this study lend support to the use of adventure based counseling experiences to foster group cohesion, and suggest that more studies would be helpful.

It is important to note that the author is not suggesting that adventure based counseling programs alone should be used as treatment. For example, participation in such programs by substance abuses will most likely not lead persons to recovery alone. Instead, the author views these programs as a means of facilitating group cohesion, which, when combined with effective processing, enables individuals to transfer learning to their personal lives. This is where learning takes place, and meaning is applied to the activities used. Without effective processing, participation in adventure based counseling can be rendered useless.

This study illustrates the potential impact of adventure based counseling programs on group cohesion. When individuals feel connected to the other group members, it aids in the facilitation of self-disclosure, which can make group development and the progression through group stages much smoother than would be otherwise. It will be necessary for additional studies to be conducted to further investigate adventure based counseling programs and the their impact on the field of groups. This type of research will be important if adventure based counseling is ever to be fully accepted into the counseling profession.

 

 

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Appendix A

Pretest Questionnaire for Adventure Based Counseling

 

  1. What do you know about Adventure Based Counseling?
  2. What are you most apprehensive about in terms of participating in the Adventure Based Counseling experience?
  3. What, if any, effect do you believe participation in adventure based counseling will have on you personally?

 

Appendix B

Posttest Questionnaire for Adventure Based Counseling

 

  1. How, if at all, has your understanding of adventure based counseling and its concepts improved as a result of your participation in the experience?
  2. What role do you believe adventure based counseling can play in helping professions? Do you believe these experiences are appropriate for therapeutic purposes?
  3. What, if any, effect did participation in the adventure based counseling experience have on your personally?

 

Table 1

Results of T-tests for Matched Samples (n = 28)

_________________________________________________

 

Variable Mean Std. Dev. T-test Sig.

_________________________________________________

PRETEST 25.04 3.83

-12.92 .000

POSTEST 34.54 1.92

 

 

Table 2a

Means and Standard Deviations of Age

_________________________________________________

 

AGE Prestest Posttest

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19 N 3 3

Mean 25.00 36.00

Std. Dev. 1.000 .000

_________________________________________________

 

20 N 12 12

Mean 25.08 34.58

Std. Dev. 5.125 1.832

_________________________________________________

 

21 N 10 10

Mean 24.90 33.90

Std. Dev. 3.107 2.331

_________________________________________________

 

22 N 3 3

Mean 25.33 35.00

Std. Dev. 3.055 1.000

_________________________________________________

 

 

 

Table 2b

Means and Standard Deviations of Gender

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GENDER Prestest Posttest

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Male N 6 6

Mean 25.83 34.83

Std. Dev. 5.037 1.329

_________________________________________________

 

Female N 22 22

Mean 24.82 34.45

Std. Dev. 3.554 2.064

_________________________________________________

 

 

Table 2c

Means and Standard Deviations of Race

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RACE Prestest Posttest

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White N 22 22

Mean 25.00 34.36

Std. Dev. 3.599 2.036

_________________________________________________

 

Female N 6 6

Mean 25.17 35.17

Std. Dev. 4.997 1.915

_________________________________________________