Holistic vs. Atomistic Design of Learning: two types of learning design

By: Mark Philp

Holistic vs. Atomistic Design of Learning

How detailed does a document need to be to get the best result for the end user? Can the user skim the document and understand the concepts effectively enough? Or does the training require a more in-depth understanding? There are two schools of thought on document design regarding these questions: holistic and atomistic. Holistic learning design is creating a document that examines a whole idea by looking at the sum of all parts rather than the individual details. Atomistic design, by contrast, looks at an issue on a granular level by examining every element in detail.

Both methods can be useful when explaining a new topic to someone. However, the context surrounding how the information is delivered and interpreted differs significantly.

The Water Cycle: Atomistically and Holistically

We will use the example of the water cycle to compare the differences between a holistic and an atomistic approach.

Level of Detail

First, a training document must assess the level of detail needed in the document by understanding the needs of the end user. Who is going to use this information? Is it a training document for a grade 12 science instructor, or is it a pamphlet given out to boy scouts who are attempting to get their science badge? The information may be the same in both cases, but how the information should be delivered differs significantly. Both parties have very different levels of comprehension, so that must be addressed in the document design. A teacher must be able to field questions regarding this topic, so a deeper understanding of all the items must be included to ensure there are no gaps in the transmission of information. On the other side, when designing a document for a 10-year-old who will most likely use it outside and look at it for a total of three minutes, the document must show the big picture, be easy to read and, most importantly, be accessible to that particular user.


Secondly, context is important. We briefly brushed on that in the previous paragraph by saying a 10-year-old boy scout may read their document outside. This is an important part of document design. Where will the intended user access the information and under what circumstances will they absorb the information? A teacher will most likely access the document while sitting down at a desk and with proper lighting. The document will most likely be a part of a larger document in a science curriculum. The audience reading the document will already have a background of knowledge regarding the topic. On the other hand, the document for the boy scout will most likely be read outside, perhaps in low light conditions. Most likely, the boy scout will have a very limited background knowledge of the subject. Maybe he will read the document while it’s raining. Does the document need to fit in the user's pocket? These are all items to consider when designing the material because designing for context will allow the documents to be successfully utilized.


Lastly, what is the desired outcome of the document? The technical communicator should ask a few questions:

  • What is the goal of the training?
  • What is the importance of it?
  • How accurately does the information need to be delivered?

In the case of the science teacher, the desired outcome is to facilitate a lesson for grade 12 science students on the water cycle and to comprehensively examine each stage. The goal is for the students to pass their science test and to have a better understanding of the material. The information needs to be delivered accurately for it’s a senior level high school course. As for the boy scout, the desired outcome is to understand the fundamentals of the water cycle. The goal is for the scout to show he has a basic understanding so that he can receive a badge. The knowledge is most likely tested in a verbal interview by a scout leader to assess their understanding of the basic concepts, so the level of accuracy needed will be much less.

Even these simplified situations demonstrate how both of these learning designs have a purpose and can be applied.
Technical writers should ask themselves a series of simple questions, such as:

  • Who is the end user?
  • What does the end user need to know?
  • In what setting will the end user be reading the document?
  • How should it be delivered?
  • What is the goal of the information?
  • How accurately does the information need to be delivered?

By asking these simple questions, one can determine the granularity of the information and decide whether they should move forward with either a holistically or atomistically designed document.

About the author

Mark Philp is a student in the Technical Communications program at Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology in Toronto, Canada. He has an undergrad degree in Urban Planning from the University of Waterloo. Mark enjoys writing, pub trivia, Chinese food, break dancing, baseball, home improvement projects, and Christmas.

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