Course: Postgraduate Certificate - Tertiary Level Teaching
Module: How Students Learn - A Review of Some of the Main Theories
Page: 5b - Serialists and Holists

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Serialists and holists

Another way in which students can differ in their approach to learning is in terms of the serialist approach versus the holistic approach.

Students who adopt a serialistic approach tend to work in a systematic, essentially linear way, and tend to approach a complicated task by breaking it down into a series of sub-tasks, mastering each of these separately, and then combining them in order to master the task as a whole. They tend to work according to the following general pattern:

  • working systematically, one step at a time
  • focussing narrowly on the specific material being studied
  • looking first at details and evidence
  • finding too many examples and illustrations distracting
  • being cautious about accepting the explanation offered
  • enjoying tightly-structured coaching and teaching.

Students who adopt a holistic approach, on the other hand, tend to work best by tackling a task as an integrated whole right from the start. They tend to work according to the following general pattern:

  • working impulsively according to mood and interest
  • looking first at the overall picture
  • focussing broadly on a task in the context of the overall programme
  • thriving on a rich supply of analogies and anecdotes
  • imposing a personal interpretation on all evidence
  • preferring 'free-wheeling' coaching and teaching.

Clearly, both approaches have their applications, and students should be encouraged to cultivate both styles, choosing the approach that is most appropriate for any given situation. When examining a specific area in great depth, for example, a serialist approach is probably best; when examining a topic in its overall context, on the other hand, a holistic approach would probably be more effective. Problem-solving calls for a combination of the approaches.

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