Preservice teachers' thinking about classroom events

Preservice teachers' thinking about classroom events

Trurhing & Toucher Printed in Great Edwurion. Vol. 9. No. 2. pp. 127-136. 0742-05 I X/93 56.00 + 0.00 8~’ 1993 Pergamon Press Ltd 1993 Britai...

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& Toucher

Printed in Great



9. No.

2. pp. 127-136.

0742-05 I X/93 56.00 + 0.00 8~’ 1993 Pergamon Press Ltd









East Tennessee State University,


Abstract-Recent inquiry about the role that experience plays in learning to teach is prevalent in a number of expert-novice studies. This study explored variations in preservice teachers’ thinking about classroom events. Comparisons of interview data from 36 preservice teachers revealed differences in the way they recalled, interpreted, and made judgements about classroom events. Results suggest differences and similarities in the way teachers at different stages of a preservice program view the class environment. Results challenge the unitary view of preservice teachers and the way many teachers are currently prepared for the profession.

Recent efforts to reform teacher education have created a landscape dotted with alternative teacher education programs and credentialing practices. Such “improved” programs are often based on existing views of good practice and common-sense reasoning rather than on systematic study of how teachers acquire professional expertise (Calderhead, 1988). The purpose of this study was to examine the possible effect of a preservice teacher education program on the ways prospective teachers processed information and made judgments about classroom events. Both researchers and practitioners have questioned the usefulness of preservice teacher education programs. Many experienced teachers identify informal experiences, like working in schools and talking to fellow teachers, as contributing more to professional knowledge than their formal teacher education programs (Feiman-Nemser, 1983). Researchers also point to the strong influence that pre-training experiences

can have on the future learning of prospective teachers (Feiman-Nemser & Buchmann, 1985; Lortie, 1975; Tabachnick & Zeichner, 1984). Researchers have reported rather mixed results in studies of prospective teachers’ thinking about teaching. While some evidence can be found for changes taking place in student attitudes, knowledge, and concerns, Feiman-Nemser and Buchmann (1985, 1986) report that what students may be learning in their programs is very different from the intent of teacher educators or program goals. Other researchers report desirable growth in preservice teachers’ conceptual understanding (Beyerbach, 1988; MorineDershimer, 1989) and pedagogical knowledge (Grossman & Richert, 1988). The results of these and other studies point to an “unacknowledged” growth in preservice teacher thinking that seems to be related to participation in formal teacher education programs. Many researchers and teachers believe that

The research described in this article received an honorable mention award for Outstanding Dissertation research from the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE). An earlier draft of this article was presented at the 1991 American Educational Research Association annual meeting in Chicago. The author wishes to express his thanks to Greta Morine-Dershimer for providing valuable comments and suggestions on earlier drafts of this work. 127



learning to teach is a developmental process which spans a lifetime (Carter & Richardson, 1989; Griffin, 1986; Koehler 1985). This view implies that pedagogical growth can begin early in a teacher’s career. The recent efforts to further define the developmental continuum of pedagogical expertise within the profession is evidenced by the increasing number of expertnovice studies and the various stage theories (Berliner, 1988) that have been posed on the development of expertise. An underlying assumption of expert-novice research is that teachers with more completely developed classroom schemata are better able to comprehend what is going on and better able to make decisions about what to do next (Carter, Cushing, Sabers, Stein, & Berliner, 1988; Carter & Doyle, 1987; Clark & Peterson, 1986). With experience, schemata or knowledge structures are thought to become more complex and complete, thus enabling a person to assimilate new information from new experiences. No two classroom situations are exactly alike, and schemata are thought to enable a teacher to predict, interpret, and respond to “unique” classroom problems. Researchers pursuing the expert-novice line of research continue to identify distinct differences between the knowledge and skills of teachers with varying amounts of experiences. To date, most of these studies have compared teachers with many years of professional teaching experience to those with minimal amounts ofclassroom experience. Although much has been learned from the expert-novice research, these studies fail to describe the process by which professional expertise is acquired or the particular stages that mark teacher progress toward expert status (Kennedy, 1987; Peterson & Comeaux, 1987). The present study is similar to one conducted by Peterson and Comeaux (1987). They explored the thinking of high school social studies teachers with different amounts of teaching experience. Peterson and Comeaux formulated a script that included several classroom teaching scenes and had a teacher and a class of students act out the script for a video camera. The videotapes were shown to both experienced and novice teachers who were questioned about what they saw. The researchers found that, compared to novices, expert teachers recalled more classroom events and described classroom problems using signifi-

cantly more high level schema comments about the classroom problems. They concluded that the experienced teachers appeared to have better developed schemata for classroom events than novice teachers. The challenge to find ways to explicate the changes teachers go through at each stage of their professional development was the initial impetus for this study. Both the design and many of the procedures utilized built on past expertnovice studies. A primary difference between this study and others is the focus on the novice stage of teacher development.

Methods This study was descriptive in nature, using cross-sectional data. Three research questions were used to organize and guide the study. Do prospective teachers at various stages of their education differ in their patterns of: (a) processing information about classroom events?; (b) interpreting classroom events?; (c) judgments made about classroom events? Purticipants

The participants in this study were all preservice teachers enrolled in a 5-year teacher education program at the University of Virginia. This program is based on the model of “teacher as decision maker”, and the students that complete the program receive a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts and a master’s degree in education at the end of 5 years. The study sample included a total of 36 preservice teachers, 12 students from each of the first, fourth, and fifth years in the program. All participants volunteered for the study, and all were enrolled in the elementary certification track. Most of the participants were white females with an average age of 19, 21, and 24 years for the first-, fourth-, and fifth-year groups, respectively. The first-year participants had no formal professional course work or field experience in education. Hence, to some degree, the first-year students acted as a control group. The fourth-year participants had completed 25 credit hours of professional courses and six l-credit hour field experiences. The fifth-year students had completed a total of 34 credit hours of professional course work and eight held

Preservice Teachers’ Thinking About Classroom Events

experiences, including student teaching. The participants had diverse academic majors but psychology was the most prevalent major in each of the three student groups. Instrumentation The participants were shown three short (6-10 minute) high quality videotapes, segments from three lessons in an actual elementary science class. All three lesson topics dealt with various concepts of electricity. The three segments displayed different lessons and represented different content, teaching strategies, and classroom routines. In order to verify that the segments represented “typical” classroom interaction and not atypical events, a panel of experienced fifth-grade teachers judged each lesson segment. Only the segments identified by the panel members as typical were used in this study. An average of 35 events were identified in each of the three episodes by the researcher and by a consultant who reviewed the videotapes independently. A classroom event was defined as the shortest classroom interaction in which some meaning was communicated. Examples of two events follow: Event No. 8 from segment


The teacher walks to the back of the classroom and a student (male) tells the teacher he does not have his homework; the teacher responds that he will have to really listen carefully.

Event No. 7 from segment


Four students (2 white males, I black male, and I white female) have their hands on wires, taking turns conducting an experiment. One student (white male with glasses) suggests move the wires to a different location and another student (white female) tells him that he “aint no conductor or no genius”.

Procedures Each participant (N =36) was asked to view the three videotaped episodes. The sequence in which the tapes were shown to participants was varied to reduce the possibility of order effects. After viewing each classroom episode, participants were asked the following questions:


1. What do you remember seeing and hearing in the episode? 2. What do you think was going on in that episode? 3. What was appropriate or positive about what you observed? What makes you think so? 4. What was inappropriate or negative about what you observed? What makes you think so? 5. What changes would you suggest to modify or improve the episode?

Efforts were made to probe for details by encouraging the participants to recall as much classroom information as possible and to justify their interpretations and judgments about the three episodes. Each interview was audiotaped and transcribed verbatim. In addition, participants completed a demographic information form. Individual verbal SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) scores were obtained and later analyzed by educational level. A combination of qualitative and quantitative methods were utilized to analyze the crosssectional data. Initially, analysis was conducted to address the three research questions. Content analysis procedures (Covert, 1977) were used to code the interview data by categorizing the types of statements made by participants as well as the substance of their comments. The categories included such things as specific event recalled, the content of the events recalled, positive and negative judgments, and alternative decisions. Intra-coder reliability was estimated at 92%. Other efforts to establish methodological rigor included an independent peer review of 10% of the interviews to establish consensus with the definition and application of the coding scheme and a re-checking of all frequency counts. After the data were content analyzed, one-way analysis of variance (Anova) procedures were used to identify differences in responses of the three groups. Post hoc multiple comparison Tukey procedures were used to establish the specific nature of the differences between groups. Verbal SAT scores were also compared across the three groups using the same statistical procedures. 7he Ethnoyraph software program (Seidel, Kjolseth, & Clark, 1985) provided the means to sort and retrieve the qualitative data. Qualitative analysis further explored the similarities and differences in the ways participants



in each group interpreted and made judgments about the videotaped classroom episodes. For example, one type of analysis involved identifying higher and lower level schema statements (Peterson & Comeaux, 1987) to explore differences in teacher thinking about classroom events.


and Relationship

to Prior Research

The data analyses revealed similarities and differences among the three groups of prospective teachers. These patterns and relationships are summarized under the following heading: patterns of student information processing, interpretations, and judgments about classroom events. The interpretation of these results should be considered within the limitations of this study. Participants were all from the same university and were not randomly selected: generalizing these findings directly to other teacher education programs is not advised. In addition, due to the constraints of this study, cross-sectional rather than longitudinal data were collected. As a result, the focus was comparing differences among the groups and not in tracking change among individuals as they progressed through a program.


of Information


D#erences in the number of classroom events recalled. The events recalled were specific classroom interactions which renresented distinct events in the lesson. For example, one event was: The teacher walked over to a group of students (working independently to identify materials that conduct electricity) and a black male student said that all the materials conducted electricity except the cardboard. The statistical analysis revealed that fifth-year students recalled a significantly higher number of classroom events than the fourth- and first-year students (F2,33 = 15.60, p < .OOl). The fourth-year students also recalled a significantly higher number of specific events than the first-year students. Previous researchers (Berliner & Carter, 1986; Livingston & Borko, 1989; Peterson & Comeaux, 1987) have reported similar results for

experienced teachers compared to novices, but the present study compared prospective teachers with small differences in professional experience. A second interesting difference between this study and earlier studies was that verbal ability did not appear to be related to the ability to recall more classroom events. In the present study, the groups did not differ significantly in their verbal SAT scores. In the study reported by Peterson and Comeaux (1987) experienced teachers scored higher than novices on verbal ability, so that recall could have been related to verbal ability as well as length of experience. Differences in the types of classroom events recalled. All events in the three episodes were classified, according to the focus of the event, into three categories: instructional process, student interaction, and classroom management. Fifth-year students recalled significantly more specific events related to instructional process (F2,33 = 12.42, p < .Ol) and student interaction (F2,33 = 6.17, p < .Ol) than first-year students. Differences in recall of classroom management events were not statistically significant. Other researchers have shown that teachers with more extensive experience focus more frequently on instructional events and issues than less experienced teachers (Berliner, 1987; Housner & Griffey, 1985). Given the relatively small difference in experience between students in the University of Virginia’s program, it was surprising to find this pattern. Interpretations

of Classroom


[email protected] in the use of alternative explanaAlthough all three student groups were tions. fairly accurate in recalling the classroom events they viewed, the fifth-year students were more articulate when describing the context of the episodes and were more likely to offer more than one possible explanation for the classroom episodes. Many of the first-year and fourth-year students offered one rather than several possible explanations for the events they recalled. An example of an alternative interpretation was given by a fifth-year participant who described an instructional practice used by the videotaped teacher:

Preservice Teachers’








Means and Standard Deviationsfor


First year

First-, Fourth-, and Fifth- Year Preseroice Teachers on Statement Type Categorical

Fourth year

(Ka!r2’ (SD)

Mean (SD)

Fifth year (n= 12) Mean (SD)

13.50 (3.15)

20.66 (6.75)

29.58 (9.69)

(n= 12)



F (2.33)




Note. SER, specific event recalled. < .OOl.


The fact that the teacher left the students alone [to work on a project] doesn’t really ensure that everyone is going to get a chance to participate. Unless you are standing there saying okay now it’s your turn. At the same time, she may be having them work in a group so they are not looking to her [the teacher] all the time for the right answer.

The fifth-year students in this study were more likely to offer alternative interpretations which suggests they had more insight into the context and possible goals of the lessons than the students at earlier stages in the program. D$erences

An understanding of the role that context and teacher goals play in pedagogical decision-making has been reported to be more characteristic of teachers with more experience (Berliner, 1987).

in the content

The content which their interpretations three groups. The significantly more

of interpretations.

students chose to focus on in of events differed across the fourth-year students made (F2,33 = 5.40, p < .Ol)

Table 2 Means and Standard Deviations for First- Fourth-, and Ffth- Year Preservice Teachers on Content Variables: Descriptive, and Interpretive Events


First year



Specific. General



Mean (SD)

Fifth year (n= 12) Mean (SD)

5.66 (2.46) (3.83 (I .46) 4.33 (I .96)

9.92 (4.58) 4.00 (2.34) 6.33 (2.83)

15.33 (6.40) 6.58 (2.50) 6.83 (1.85)





1.66 (1.23) 2.33 (1.23) 1.75 (1.71)

4.00 (2.60) 0.92 (1.24) 0.92 (0.79)

2.75 (0.97) 1.75 (1.36) 0.42 (0.67)

(n= 12)

(Ka’,” (SD) Specific events recalled IP SI CM

Interpretive IP SI CM




Note. IP = instructional *p < .ot. **p < .OOl.


Sl = student


CM = classroom

5.40; 3.73 4.08






statements about instructional events in the episode than first- or fifth-year students. The fifth-year students also had more interpretive statements relating to instructional processes than the first-year students, but these differences were not statistically significant. Two primary characteristics of “novice” teachers are thought to be a preoccupation with controlling the class and an uncertainty about their own abilities. The fourth- and fifth-year students in this study did not seem to focus so much on issues of control, but focused instead on instructional aspects of the lessons. [email protected] in number of salient events discussed. A “salient event” was any event that the student mentioned two or more times while responding to the five general questions about interpretations and judgments of each classroom episode. For example, a salient event cited by a fifth-year student is exemplified below by question topic.


Rrcded: “She [the classroom teacher] reminded them that they were supposed to be recording their information.” /ntrrprrrior Srurernenr:“l surmised that she had given them instructions with her little data recording sheet, that they [the students] were supposed to try different materials and write down whether they [various objects] were conductors or insulators.” Nryutiw Judymenh: ” _. as the group does the experiment and everybody writes down copper ~ conductor, rubber band -~ insulator, it doesn’t really show that they really do know it.. Either they didn’t understand it or it wasn’t really stressed that part of the process was recording what you found.” Alternutirv Drc~isions: “From the start of the school year I would start making some of the changes I think I would try to stress a little more exactly what they were supposed to do [in a group] and maybe suggest ways to systematically go through [an experiment] ”

The fourth- and fifth-year students were the only two groups included in the analysis of salient events because the first-year students did not describe any events that could be considered salient. All salient events (n= 11) focused on teacher actions and were associated with instructional activities or management of the social and academic environment of the classroom. Of the 11 events that were identified as salient by either the fourth- or fifth-year students, 7 events were common to both groups. This pattern is very

similar to the finding reported by Carter et al. (1988) that experienced teachers recalled and discussed many of the same classroom management and instructional issues. The fourth- and fifth-year students who participated in this study exhibited more commonality in the events they recalled and described than the first-year students. Similarity in interpretive focus on classroom events. In addition to differences among students at different levels in the program, similarities were also noted. One of the major similarities was in the area of interpretive focus. Regardless of the events students recalled and discussed, three underlying themes continued to surface. These themes were evident in many of the statements made about the episodes by a majority of students at all three levels in the program. The three themes that continued to surface in the interviews were the opportunity for classroom students to participate and learn, the teacher’s ability to maintain student attention and interest, and the degree to which the classroom had a positive learning climate. Examples are given below. Opportunily to purricipure PI09 “She [teacher] came up with a way in which the whole classroom could be involved, I guess without her having to pick people.” P506 “It was active and participatory for students; they weren’t just sitting there watching something going on.” Maintaining studenr uttmtion P502 “She started the lesson before they were on task she did not wait as long as she should have.” P509 “I would have changed it, just because I would have felt uncomfortable that they weren’t all paying attention.” P41 I ‘* put them in a semi-circle.. that also might deal with their not paying attention.” Cltrssroom climute PI09 “I think it also is a more relaxed atmosphere that way instead of all having of all having to sit quietly and raise their hands.” P503 “1 think she had a real positive atmosphere.” P504 “It was a comfortable thing which makes kids who feel uncertain feel less threatened.”

The opportunity for student participation and a focus on classroom climate are similar to themes reported by Weinstein (1989) who also found that preservice teachers tend to focus on climate and affective teacher characteristics. Weinstein notes, however. that experienced


Preservice Teachers’ Thinking About Classroom Events

Table 3

Meansand Standard Deviationsfor


Fourth year (n= 12) Mean

Fifth year (n= 12) Mean




4.16 (2.25)

5.75 (2.09)

6.38 (2.89)

First year



Note. AD = alternative * p < .05.

same affective variIn this case, it may teaching experience way teachers view

of Judgments

Dlxerence in the number ofalternative decisions ofired. The fifth-year students suggested significantly more alternative decisions that the teacher could have made than did first-year students (F2,33 = 3.64, p < .05). The fifth-year students seemed to be able to draw on their field experiences to offer alternative ways to organize and conduct the lessons. Many of the first-year students used examples of their own experiences as students when asked to justify their reasons for the changes that they would make to the lessons. DifSerences in schema level of statements about classroom problems. When students identified and posed solutions to classroom problems, fifth-year students offered significantly more higher level (schema level 2) statements when identifying classroom problems (F2,33 = 9.31, p < .OOl) and suggesting alternative solutions (F2,33 = 26.01, p < .OOl) than the fourth- or first-year students. First-year students identified significantly more classroom problems (F2,33 = 4.33, p < .05) and offered solutions to problems (F2,33 = 6.03 p i .Ol) using lower level (schema level 1) descriptions than fourth- and fifth-year students. Level 1 statements included surface detail while level 2 schema statements showed some understanding of the theory or principle behind a narticular action. 1

Type Categorical







teachers also emphasize the ables as preservice teachers. be that larger amounts of do not alter or change the classrooms. Patterns

First-, Fourth, and Fyth- Year Preservice Teachers on Statement

These schema level distinctions were first proposed by Anderson (1984) and later applied in an expert-novice study reported by Peterson and Comeaux (1987). They found that experienced teachers made significantly more schema level 2 type statements than novices, but did not find significant differences between the two groups on frequency of schema level 1 type statements. In the present study, those prospective teachers with more field experiences and education classes had significantly more higher schema level statements. One difference in the results of this study was that the less experienced first-year students had significantly more lower level schema statements than did more experienced fifth-year students. DifSerences in types of judgments made. Qualitative analysis of the data showed that the first-year students made fewer negative and more positive statements about the episodes than the fourth- and fifth-year students. The fourth- and fifth-year students offered a mix of both positive and negative statements about the classroom episodes, and even identified both positive and negative features of a given event. This pattern was not evident among the first-year students. For example, a fifth-year student stated: I really liked the idea of having them work on this activity and having the activity instead ofjust having her [the teacher] demonstrate it. I would not have told them that they had to have things written down. 1 didn’t think that was important at that point.

Not only were the fourth- and fifth-year students more discriminating in making judgments . . . .^ about the episodes than the first-year students,



Table 4 Meuns umi Stundurd Deviutions for First-, Fourth-. und Fifik- Year Preservice Teachers on Schemu Level I and 2 Statements Variable


First year (n= 12) Mean

Fourth (n=12) Mean





2.08 (1.98) 5.08 (3.42) 1.75 (1.48) 5.08 (2.07)

5.58 (4.34) 1.16 (1.85) 4.08 (1.97) 0.17 (0.39)


(I .66) 1.66 (1.56) 3.16 (I .46) 2.08 (2.02)

Fifth year (n= 12) Mean

Note. PlSl = problem identification schema level I; PIS2 = problem solution schema level I; PSS2 = problem solution schema level 2. ‘p < .05. **p < .OI. ***/I < 001.

they were also able to discuss both the positive and negative aspects of a particular set of events. These prospective teachers were beginning to look at classrooms in ways similar to their more experienced counterparts.

Discussion The patterns summarized here suggest that there were more similarities between the information processing and judgments of the fourthand fifth-year students than there were between those groups and the first-year students. Some differences, however, were also identified between the fourth- and fifth-year students. Although there were differences within groups, many of the patterns identified appear to be related to educational level in the program, with students at higher levels exhibiting more advanced processing skills and better developed knowledge structures for classrooms than students at earlier levels in the program. Many of the results of previous expert-novice studies were confirmed here in the sense that prospective teachers with more experience rcmembered more classroom events and were able to discuss classroom problems in ways that illustrated a knowledge of the complexity of classrooms. This suggests that the development ofpedagogical expertise begins during the preservice phase of teacher education. Even though







5 >





schema level 2; PSSI





prospective teachers’ schemata for classroom events may be less developed and organized than the schemata of expert teachers, they still seem to exhibit growth in these areas. These results point to a limitation inherent within expert-novice research which explores differences in teacher thinking about classrooms. In the present study, the students nearing the end of their program appeared to view classroom events in more sophisticated ways than students at the beginning of their program. If they were to be compared to teachers with several years of teaching experience, would they still appear to exhibit the same level of complexity in their thinking about classrooms‘? The rather broad categories that exist at present for describing differences in teacher thinking lack the specificity that is necessary for studying preservice teachers. Most references in the literature still imply that “novice” teachers comprise a unitary phase in the development of pedagogical expertise. The results of this study challenge this view and highlight the need to define further the developmental continuum within teacher education. Although many would agree that experience can contribute to the growth of a teacher’s pedagogical knowledge, there is little agreement about what experiences are most valuable to prospective teachers. One of the key elements of the University of Virginia teacher education program is the developmental sequencing of field experiences and education classes that encourngc

Preservice Teachers’


prospective teachers to be reflective and to take responsibility for making pedagogical decisions. To some extent, the program goals of reflection on practice and pedagogical decision-making were exhibited by fourth- and fifth-year students in this study. Although it was not possible to identify the specific experiences that may have contributed to the fourth- and fifth-year students’ more advanced thinking about classrooms, many of these students referred to their experiences in student teaching or in earlier field placements when justifying their interpretations of events. The first-year students referred to their experiences as elementary school pupils to justify their comments. Also of interest were the similarities identified among all three student groups. When looking beyond the recall of classroom events, common issues were brought to light as students interpreted and made judgments about the classroom lessons. As noted earlier, some of these issues or concerns have been reported by experienced teachers as well. The role that teacher goals and concerns play in perceiving classroom problems and making judgments remains an important aspect to incorporate in future studies on teacher cognition. Implications

Although this study was descriptive in nature, and limited to cross-sectional data, some of the findings highlight relevant issues to policy makers, curriculum planners, and teacher educators. Policy makers considering the implementation of alternative teacher education programs may benefit by recognizing the positive outcomes from participation in a teacher education program. As new programs are designed, mechanisms to ease teachers slowly into the classroom seem warranted. Teachers, like other professionals, need the opportunity to practise their craft and to be involved in reflecting on past experience before assuming full responsibility for the classroom. If teacher educators are to encourage preservice teachers’ growth in pedagogical knowledge and decision-making, they may first need to know the ways in which preservice teachers think about classrooms and students. Prospective teachers who are already beginning to organize information and use context to interpret class-





room events will need different learning experiences than those who are still attending to random events focusing primarily on issues of classroom control, and drawing on their experiences as elementary pupils to solve classroom problems. Teacher education programs that are structured in ways that encourage prospective teachers to take responsibility for instructional decisions may be more successful in helping novice teachers begin to develop pedagogical skills and knowledge. The opportunity for prospective teachers to assume responsibility for classroom decisions has been identified as a variable that may contribute to a teacher’s ability to make judgments about instruction and management of the classroom (Carter & Richardson, 1989). Field experiences that give students responsibility for tutoring and working with small groups may be more effective than sending students out into the schools for the mere purpose of general observation. The findings from this study may also contribute to forthcoming preservice research and evaluation by illustrating one possible way to study novice teachers as they progress through a program. At present, a vocabulary that describes these prospective teachers and the process by which they develop pedagogical expertise has yet to be articulated. Subtle changes in preservice teachers’ thinking about classrooms may only be discovered by detailed examination of the impact that preservice experiences have on prospective teachers’ views of the classroom environment.

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C. S. (1989). Teacher of teaching. Journal



of Teacher Education,



Submitted 28 March 1992 Accepted 14 July 1992