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The structure of a literature review
A literature review should be structured like any other essay: it should have an introduction, a middle or main body, and a conclusion.
The introduction should:
- define your topic and provide an appropriate context for reviewing the literature;
- establish your reasons – i.e. point of view – for
- reviewing the literature;
- explain the organisation – i.e. sequence – of the review;
- state the scope of the review – i.e. what is included and what isn’t included. For example, if you were reviewing the literature on obesity in children you might say something like: There are a large number of studies of obesity trends in the general population. However, since the focus of this research is on obesity in children, these will not be reviewed in detail and will only be referred to as appropriate.
The middle or main body should:
- organise the literature according to common themes;
- provide insight into the relation between your chosen topic and the wider subject area e.g. between obesity in children and obesity in general;
- move from a general, wider view of the literature being reviewed to the specific focus of your research.
The conclusion should:
- summarise the important aspects of the existing body of literature;
- evaluate the current state of the literature reviewed;
- identify significant flaws or gaps in existing knowledge;
- outline areas for future study;
- link your research to existing knowledge.
Literature Review Tips for the Introduction and Discussion Sections
A literature review is a summary of studies related to a particular area of research. It identifies and summarizes all the relevant research conducted on a particular topic. It is important that your literature review is focused . Therefore, you should choose a limited number of studies that are central to your topic rather than trying to collect a wide range of studies that might not be closely connected.
Literature reviews help you accomplish the following:
- Evaluate past research Collecting relevant resources will help you see what research has already been done. This will also help avoid duplication.
- Identify experts It is important to identify credible researchers who have knowledge in a given field, in order to seek their help if you get stuck with certain aspects of your research.
- Identify key questions Your ultimate aim is to bring something new to the conversation. Collecting resources will help you determine the important questions that need to be addressed.
- Determine methodologies used in past studies Knowing how others have approached a particular topic will give you the opportunity to identify problems and find new ways to research and study a topic. If the reported methodology was successful, you can use it and save time that you would otherwise be spending on optimization.
Presenting Literature Review in the Introduction and Discussion Sections
There are many benefits to presenting literature reviews in the introduction and discussion sections of your manuscripts . However, there are differences in how you can present literature reviews in each section.
What Should be Included in the Literature Review of the Introduction Section?
The literature reviewed in the introduction should:
- Introduce the topic
- Establish the significance of the study
- Provide an overview of the relevant literature
- Establish a context for the study using the literature
- Identify knowledge gaps
- Illustrate how the study will advance knowledge on the topic
As you can see, literature review plays a significant role in the introduction section. However, there are some things that you should avoid doing in this section. These include:
- Elaborating on the studies mentioned in the literature review
- Using studies from the literature review to aggressively support your research
- Directly quoting studies from the literature review
It is important to know how to integrate the literature review into the introduction in an effective way. Although you can mention other studies, they should not be the focus. Instead, focus on using the literature review to aid in setting a foundation for the manuscript.
What Goes in the Literature Review of the Discussion Section?
Literature reviews play an important role in the discussion section of a manuscript . In this section, your findings should be the focus, rather than those of other researchers. Therefore, you should only use the studies mentioned in the literature review as support and evidence for your study.
There are three ways in which you can use literature reviews in the discussion section:
- To Provide Context for Your Study Using studies from the literature review helps to set the foundation for how you will reveal your findings and develop your ideas.
- Compare your Findings to Other Studies You can use previous literature as a backdrop to compare your new findings. This helps describe and also advance your ideas.
- State the Contribution of Your Study In addition to developing your ideas, you can use literature reviews to explain how your study contributes to the field of study.
However, there are three common mistakes that researchers make when including literature reviews in the discussion section. First, they mention all sorts of studies, some of which are not even relevant to the topic under investigation. Second, instead of citing the original article, they cite a related article that mentions the original article. Lastly, some authors cite previous work solely based on the abstract, without even going through the entire paper.
We hope this article helps you effectively present your literature review in both the introduction as well as the discussion section of your manuscript. You can also mention any other tips that will add to this article in the comments section below.
This Is a Very Useful Information… thank you. It helped me a lot. It is explained clearfully.
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Writing: Literature Review Basics
- What is Synthesis?
- Organizing Your Research
- Paraphrasing, Summary, or Direct Quotation?
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The Most Important Thing
The best time to write an introduction is AFTER you write the body of your paper.
Well, how do you know what to introduce until after you've figured out what you want to say?
The best time to write an introduction is as one of the last things you do.
Basic Introduction Template
For any other sort of scholarly writing, the following basic structure works well for an introduction:
- What has been said or done on this topic?
- What is the problem with what has been said or done?
- What will you offer to solve the problem? (The answer to this is your thesis statement.)
- How does your solution address necessary change?
Writing an Introduction
The job of an introduction is to preview what you are going to say so the audience knows what is coming. A good introduction starts out generally and works towards a specific statement of what you intend to discuss in your writing.
The introduction explains the focus and establishes the importance of the subject. It discusses what kind of work has been done on the topic and identifies any controversies within the ﬁeld or any recent research which has raised questions about earlier assumptions. It may provide background or history, and it indicates why the topic is important, interesting, problematic, or relevant in some way. It concludes with a purpose or thesis statement. In a stand-alone literature review, this statement will sum up and evaluate the state of the art in this ﬁeld of research; in a review that is an introduction or preparatory to a larger work, such as the Culminating Project, it will suggest how the review ﬁndings will lead to the research the writer proposes to undertake.
In a literature review, an introduction may contain the following:
- A concise definition of a topic under consideration (this may be a descriptive or argumentative thesis, or proposal), as well as the scope of the related literature being investigated. (Example: If the topic under consideration is ‘women’s wartime diaries’, the scope of the review may be limited to published or unpublished works, works in English, works from a particular location, time period, or conflict, etc.)
- The introduction should also note what topics are being included and what are intentional exclusions. (Example: “This review will not explore the diaries of adolescent girls.”)
- A final sentence should signal the list of key topics that will be used to discuss the selected sources.
Many theories have been proposed to explain what motivates human behavior. Although the literature covers a wide variety of such theories, this review will focus on five major themes which emerge repeatedly throughout the literature reviewed. These themes are incorporation of the self-concept into traditional theories of motivation, the influence of rewards on motivation, the increasing importance of internal forces of motivation, autonomy and self-control as sources of motivation, and narcissism as an essential component of motivation. Although the literature presents these themes in a variety of contexts, this paper will primarily focus on their application to self-motivation.
Let's break that apart.
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How To Structure Your Literature Review
3 options to help structure your chapter.
By: Amy Rommelspacher (PhD) | Reviewed By: Dr Eunice Rautenbach | November 2020
Writing the literature review chapter can seem pretty daunting when you’re piecing together your dissertation or thesis. As we’ve discussed before , a good literature review needs to achieve a few very important objectives – it should:
- Demonstrate your knowledge of the research topic
- Identify the gaps in the literature and show how your research links to these
- Provide the foundation for your conceptual framework (if you have one)
- Inform your own methodology and research design
To achieve this, your literature review needs a well-thought-out structure . Get the structure of your literature review chapter wrong and you’ll struggle to achieve these objectives. Don’t worry though – in this post, we’ll look at how to structure your literature review for maximum impact (and marks!).
But wait – is this the right time?
Deciding on the structure of your literature review should come towards the end of the literature review process – after you have collected and digested the literature, but before you start writing the chapter.
In other words, you need to first develop a rich understanding of the literature before you even attempt to map out a structure. There’s no use trying to develop a structure before you’ve fully wrapped your head around the existing research.
Equally importantly, you need to have a structure in place before you start writing , or your literature review will most likely end up a rambling, disjointed mess.
Importantly, don’t feel that once you’ve defined a structure you can’t iterate on it. It’s perfectly natural to adjust as you engage in the writing process. As we’ve discussed before , writing is a way of developing your thinking, so it’s quite common for your thinking to change – and therefore, for your chapter structure to change – as you write.
Need a helping hand?
Like any other chapter in your thesis or dissertation, your literature review needs to have a clear, logical structure. At a minimum, it should have three essential components – an introduction , a body and a conclusion .
Let’s take a closer look at each of these.
1: The Introduction Section
Just like any good introduction, the introduction section of your literature review should introduce the purpose and layout (organisation) of the chapter. In other words, your introduction needs to give the reader a taste of what’s to come, and how you’re going to lay that out. Essentially, you should provide the reader with a high-level roadmap of your chapter to give them a taste of the journey that lies ahead.
Here’s an example of the layout visualised in a literature review introduction:
Your introduction should also outline your topic (including any tricky terminology or jargon) and provide an explanation of the scope of your literature review – in other words, what you will and won’t be covering (the delimitations ). This helps ringfence your review and achieve a clear focus . The clearer and narrower your focus, the deeper you can dive into the topic (which is typically where the magic lies).
Depending on the nature of your project, you could also present your stance or point of view at this stage. In other words, after grappling with the literature you’ll have an opinion about what the trends and concerns are in the field as well as what’s lacking. The introduction section can then present these ideas so that it is clear to examiners that you’re aware of how your research connects with existing knowledge .
2: The Body Section
The body of your literature review is the centre of your work. This is where you’ll present, analyse, evaluate and synthesise the existing research. In other words, this is where you’re going to earn (or lose) the most marks. Therefore, it’s important to carefully think about how you will organise your discussion to present it in a clear way.
The body of your literature review should do just as the description of this chapter suggests. It should “review” the literature – in other words, identify, analyse, and synthesise it. So, when thinking about structuring your literature review, you need to think about which structural approach will provide the best “review” for your specific type of research and objectives (we’ll get to this shortly).
There are (broadly speaking) three options for organising your literature review.
Option 1: Chronological (according to date)
Organising the literature chronologically is one of the simplest ways to structure your literature review. You start with what was published first and work your way through the literature until you reach the work published most recently. Pretty straightforward.
The benefit of this option is that it makes it easy to discuss the developments and debates in the field as they emerged over time. Organising your literature chronologically also allows you to highlight how specific articles or pieces of work might have changed the course of the field – in other words, which research has had the most impact . Therefore, this approach is very useful when your research is aimed at understanding how the topic has unfolded over time and is often used by scholars in the field of history. That said, this approach can be utilised by anyone that wants to explore change over time .
For example , if a student of politics is investigating how the understanding of democracy has evolved over time, they could use the chronological approach to provide a narrative that demonstrates how this understanding has changed through the ages.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself to help you structure your literature review chronologically.
- What is the earliest literature published relating to this topic?
- How has the field changed over time? Why?
- What are the most recent discoveries/theories?
In some ways, chronology plays a part whichever way you decide to structure your literature review, because you will always, to a certain extent, be analysing how the literature has developed. However, with the chronological approach, the emphasis is very firmly on how the discussion has evolved over time , as opposed to how all the literature links together (which we’ll discuss next ).
Option 2: Thematic (grouped by theme)
The thematic approach to structuring a literature review means organising your literature by theme or category – for example, by independent variables (i.e. factors that have an impact on a specific outcome).
As you’ve been collecting and synthesising literature, you’ll likely have started seeing some themes or patterns emerging. You can then use these themes or patterns as a structure for your body discussion. The thematic approach is the most common approach and is useful for structuring literature reviews in most fields.
For example, if you were researching which factors contributed towards people trusting an organisation, you might find themes such as consumers’ perceptions of an organisation’s competence, benevolence and integrity. Structuring your literature review thematically would mean structuring your literature review’s body section to discuss each of these themes, one section at a time.
Here are some questions to ask yourself when structuring your literature review by themes:
- Are there any patterns that have come to light in the literature?
- What are the central themes and categories used by the researchers?
- Do I have enough evidence of these themes?
Option 3: Methodological
The methodological option is a way of structuring your literature review by the research methodologies used . In other words, organising your discussion based on the angle from which each piece of research was approached – for example, qualitative , quantitative or mixed methodologies.
Structuring your literature review by methodology can be useful if you are drawing research from a variety of disciplines and are critiquing different methodologies. The point of this approach is to question how existing research has been conducted, as opposed to what the conclusions and/or findings the research were.
For example, a sociologist might centre their research around critiquing specific fieldwork practices. Their literature review will then be a summary of the fieldwork methodologies used by different studies.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself when structuring your literature review according to methodology:
- Which methodologies have been utilised in this field?
- Which methodology is the most popular (and why)?
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of the various methodologies?
- How can the existing methodologies inform my own methodology?
3: The Conclusion Section
Once you’ve completed the body section of your literature review using one of the structural approaches we discussed above, you’ll need to “wrap up” your literature review and pull all the pieces together to set the direction for the rest of your dissertation or thesis.
The conclusion is where you’ll present the key findings of your literature review. In this section, you should emphasise the research that is especially important to your research questions and highlight the gaps that exist in the literature. Based on this, you need to make it clear what you will add to the literature – in other words, justify your own research by showing how it will help fill one or more of the gaps you just identified.
Last but not least, if it’s your intention to develop a theoretical framework for your dissertation or thesis, the conclusion section is a good place to present this.
In this article, we’ve discussed how to structure your literature review for maximum impact. Here’s a quick recap of what you need to keep in mind when deciding on your literature review structure:
- Just like other chapters, your literature review needs a clear introduction , body and conclusion .
- The introduction section should provide an overview of what you will discuss in your literature review.
- The body section of your literature review can be organised by chronology , theme or methodology . The right structural approach depends on what you’re trying to achieve with your research.
- The conclusion section should draw together the key findings of your literature review and link them to your research questions.
If you’re ready to get started, be sure to download our free literature review template to fast-track your chapter outline.
Psst… there’s more (for free)
This post is part of our research writing mini-course, which covers everything you need to get started with your dissertation, thesis or research project.
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Great work. This is exactly what I was looking for and helps a lot together with your previous post on literature review. One last thing is missing: a link to a great literature chapter of an journal article (maybe with comments of the different sections in this review chapter). Do you know any great literature review chapters?
I agree with you Marin… A great piece
I thank you immensely for this wonderful guide
It is indeed thought and supportive work for the futurist researcher and students
Very educative and good time to get guide. Thank you
Great work, very insightful. Thank you.
Thank you very much, very helpful
This is very educative and precise . Thank you very much for dropping this kind of write up .
Pheeww, so damn helpful, thank you for this informative piece.
I’m doing a research project topic ; stool analysis for parasitic worm (enteric) worm, how do I structure it, thanks.
comprehensive explanation. Help us by pasting the URL of some good “literature review” for better understanding.
great piece. thanks for the awesome explanation. it is really worth sharing. I have a little question, if anyone can help me out, which of the options in the body of literature can be best fit if you are writing an architectural thesis that deals with design?
I am doing a research on nanofluids how can l structure it?
Beautifully clear.nThank you!
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I like how this was so clear with simple language 😊😊 thank you so much 😊 for these information 😊
Insightful. I was struggling to come up with a sensible literature review but this has been really helpful. Thank you!
You have given thought-provoking information about the review of the literature.
Thank you. It has made my own research better and to impart your work to students I teach
I learnt a lot from this teaching. It’s a great piece.
I am doing research on EFL teacher motivation for his/her job. How Can I structure it? Is there any detailed template, additional to this?
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Purdue Online Writing Lab College of Liberal Arts
Writing a Literature Review
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A literature review is a document or section of a document that collects key sources on a topic and discusses those sources in conversation with each other (also called synthesis ). The lit review is an important genre in many disciplines, not just literature (i.e., the study of works of literature such as novels and plays). When we say “literature review” or refer to “the literature,” we are talking about the research ( scholarship ) in a given field. You will often see the terms “the research,” “the scholarship,” and “the literature” used mostly interchangeably.
Where, when, and why would I write a lit review?
There are a number of different situations where you might write a literature review, each with slightly different expectations; different disciplines, too, have field-specific expectations for what a literature review is and does. For instance, in the humanities, authors might include more overt argumentation and interpretation of source material in their literature reviews, whereas in the sciences, authors are more likely to report study designs and results in their literature reviews; these differences reflect these disciplines’ purposes and conventions in scholarship. You should always look at examples from your own discipline and talk to professors or mentors in your field to be sure you understand your discipline’s conventions, for literature reviews as well as for any other genre.
A literature review can be a part of a research paper or scholarly article, usually falling after the introduction and before the research methods sections. In these cases, the lit review just needs to cover scholarship that is important to the issue you are writing about; sometimes it will also cover key sources that informed your research methodology.
Lit reviews can also be standalone pieces, either as assignments in a class or as publications. In a class, a lit review may be assigned to help students familiarize themselves with a topic and with scholarship in their field, get an idea of the other researchers working on the topic they’re interested in, find gaps in existing research in order to propose new projects, and/or develop a theoretical framework and methodology for later research. As a publication, a lit review usually is meant to help make other scholars’ lives easier by collecting and summarizing, synthesizing, and analyzing existing research on a topic. This can be especially helpful for students or scholars getting into a new research area, or for directing an entire community of scholars toward questions that have not yet been answered.
What are the parts of a lit review?
Most lit reviews use a basic introduction-body-conclusion structure; if your lit review is part of a larger paper, the introduction and conclusion pieces may be just a few sentences while you focus most of your attention on the body. If your lit review is a standalone piece, the introduction and conclusion take up more space and give you a place to discuss your goals, research methods, and conclusions separately from where you discuss the literature itself.
- An introductory paragraph that explains what your working topic and thesis is
- A forecast of key topics or texts that will appear in the review
- Potentially, a description of how you found sources and how you analyzed them for inclusion and discussion in the review (more often found in published, standalone literature reviews than in lit review sections in an article or research paper)
- Summarize and synthesize: Give an overview of the main points of each source and combine them into a coherent whole
- Analyze and interpret: Don’t just paraphrase other researchers – add your own interpretations where possible, discussing the significance of findings in relation to the literature as a whole
- Critically Evaluate: Mention the strengths and weaknesses of your sources
- Write in well-structured paragraphs: Use transition words and topic sentence to draw connections, comparisons, and contrasts.
- Summarize the key findings you have taken from the literature and emphasize their significance
- Connect it back to your primary research question
How should I organize my lit review?
Lit reviews can take many different organizational patterns depending on what you are trying to accomplish with the review. Here are some examples:
- Chronological : The simplest approach is to trace the development of the topic over time, which helps familiarize the audience with the topic (for instance if you are introducing something that is not commonly known in your field). If you choose this strategy, be careful to avoid simply listing and summarizing sources in order. Try to analyze the patterns, turning points, and key debates that have shaped the direction of the field. Give your interpretation of how and why certain developments occurred (as mentioned previously, this may not be appropriate in your discipline — check with a teacher or mentor if you’re unsure).
- Thematic : If you have found some recurring central themes that you will continue working with throughout your piece, you can organize your literature review into subsections that address different aspects of the topic. For example, if you are reviewing literature about women and religion, key themes can include the role of women in churches and the religious attitude towards women.
- Qualitative versus quantitative research
- Empirical versus theoretical scholarship
- Divide the research by sociological, historical, or cultural sources
- Theoretical : In many humanities articles, the literature review is the foundation for the theoretical framework. You can use it to discuss various theories, models, and definitions of key concepts. You can argue for the relevance of a specific theoretical approach or combine various theorical concepts to create a framework for your research.
What are some strategies or tips I can use while writing my lit review?
Any lit review is only as good as the research it discusses; make sure your sources are well-chosen and your research is thorough. Don’t be afraid to do more research if you discover a new thread as you’re writing. More info on the research process is available in our "Conducting Research" resources .
As you’re doing your research, create an annotated bibliography ( see our page on the this type of document ). Much of the information used in an annotated bibliography can be used also in a literature review, so you’ll be not only partially drafting your lit review as you research, but also developing your sense of the larger conversation going on among scholars, professionals, and any other stakeholders in your topic.
Usually you will need to synthesize research rather than just summarizing it. This means drawing connections between sources to create a picture of the scholarly conversation on a topic over time. Many student writers struggle to synthesize because they feel they don’t have anything to add to the scholars they are citing; here are some strategies to help you:
- It often helps to remember that the point of these kinds of syntheses is to show your readers how you understand your research, to help them read the rest of your paper.
- Writing teachers often say synthesis is like hosting a dinner party: imagine all your sources are together in a room, discussing your topic. What are they saying to each other?
- Look at the in-text citations in each paragraph. Are you citing just one source for each paragraph? This usually indicates summary only. When you have multiple sources cited in a paragraph, you are more likely to be synthesizing them (not always, but often
- Read more about synthesis here.
The most interesting literature reviews are often written as arguments (again, as mentioned at the beginning of the page, this is discipline-specific and doesn’t work for all situations). Often, the literature review is where you can establish your research as filling a particular gap or as relevant in a particular way. You have some chance to do this in your introduction in an article, but the literature review section gives a more extended opportunity to establish the conversation in the way you would like your readers to see it. You can choose the intellectual lineage you would like to be part of and whose definitions matter most to your thinking (mostly humanities-specific, but this goes for sciences as well). In addressing these points, you argue for your place in the conversation, which tends to make the lit review more compelling than a simple reporting of other sources.
Introduction to Literature Reviews
At the conclusion of this chapter, you will be able to:
- Identify the purpose of the literature review in the research process;
- Distinguish between different types of literature reviews.
What is a Literature Review?
Pick up nearly any book on research methods and you will find a description of a literature review. At a basic level, the term implies a survey of factual or nonfiction books, articles, and other documents published on a particular subject. Definitions may be similar across the disciplines, with new types and definitions continuing to emerge. Generally speaking, a literature review is a:
- “comprehensive background of the literature within the interested topic area…” ( O’Gorman & MacIntosh, 2015, p. 31 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
- “critical component of the research process that provides an in-depth analysis of recently published research findings in specifically identified areas of interest.” ( House, 2018, p. 109 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
- “written document that presents a logically argued case founded on a comprehensive understanding of the current state of knowledge about a topic of study” ( Machi & McEvoy, 2012, p. 4 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
As a foundation for knowledge advancement in every discipline, it is an important element of any research project. At the graduate or doctoral level, the literature review is an essential feature of thesis and dissertation, as well as grant proposal writing. That is to say, “A substantive, thorough, sophisticated literature review is a precondition for doing substantive, thorough, sophisticated research…A researcher cannot perform significant research without first understanding the literature in the field.” ( Boote & Beile, 2005, p. 3 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ). It is by this means, that a researcher demonstrates familiarity with a body of knowledge and thereby establishes credibility with a reader. An advanced-level literature review shows how prior research is linked to a new project, summarizing and synthesizing what is known while identifying gaps in the knowledge base, facilitating theory development, closing areas where enough research already exists, and uncovering areas where more research is needed. ( Webster & Watson, 2002, p. xiii [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] )
A graduate-level literature review is a compilation of the most significant previously published research on your topic. Unlike an annotated bibliography or a research paper you may have written as an undergraduate, your literature review will outline, evaluate and synthesize relevant research and relate those sources to your own thesis or research question. It is much more than a summary of all the related literature.
It is a type of writing that demonstrate the importance of your research by defining the main ideas and the relationship between them. A good literature review lays the foundation for the importance of your stated problem and research question.
Literature reviews do the following:
- define a concept
- map the research terrain or scope
- systemize relationships between concepts
- identify gaps in the literature ( Rocco & Plathotnik, 2009, p. 128 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] )
In the context of a research study, the purpose of a literature review is to demonstrate that your research question is meaningful. Additionally, you may review the literature of different disciplines to find deeper meaning and understanding of your topic. It is especially important to consider other disciplines when you do not find much on your topic in one discipline. You will need to search the cognate literature before claiming there is “little previous research” on your topic.
Well developed literature reviews involve numerous steps and activities. The literature review is an iterative process because you will do at least two of them: a preliminary search to learn what has been published in your area and whether there is sufficient support in the literature for moving ahead with your subject. After this first exploration, you will conduct a deeper dive into the literature to learn everything you can about the topic and its related issues.
Literature Review Tutorial
Literature Review Basics
An effective literature review must:
- Methodologically analyze and synthesize quality literature on a topic
- Provide a firm foundation to a topic or research area
- Provide a firm foundation for the selection of a research methodology
- Demonstrate that the proposed research contributes something new to the overall body of knowledge of advances the research field’s knowledge base. ( Levy & Ellis, 2006 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
All literature reviews, whether they are qualitative, quantitative or both, will at some point:
- Introduce the topic and define its key terms
- Establish the importance of the topic
- Provide an overview of the amount of available literature and its types (for example: theoretical, statistical, speculative)
- Identify gaps in the literature
- Point out consistent finding across studies
- Arrive at a synthesis that organizes what is known about a topic
- Discusses possible implications and directions for future research
Types of Literature Reviews
There are many different types of literature reviews, however there are some shared characteristics or features that all share. Remember a comprehensive literature review is, at its most fundamental level, an original work based on an extensive critical examination and synthesis of the relevant literature on a topic. As a study of the research on a particular topic, it is arranged by key themes or findings, which may lead up to or link to the research question. In some cases, the research question will drive the type of literature review that is undertaken.
The following section includes brief descriptions of the terms used to describe different literature review types with examples of each. The included citations are open access, Creative Commons licensed or copyright-restricted.
Guided by an understanding of basic issues rather than a research methodology, the writer of a conceptual literature review is looking for key factors, concepts or variables and the presumed relationship between them. The goal of the conceptual literature review is to categorize and describe concepts relevant to the study or topic and outline a relationship between them, including relevant theory and empirical research.
Examples of a Conceptual Review:
- The formality of learning science in everyday life: A conceptual literature review ( Dohn, 2010 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
- Are we asking the right questions? A conceptual review of the educational development literature in higher education ( Amundsen & Wilson, 2012 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
An empirical literature review collects, creates, arranges, and analyzes numeric data reflecting the frequency of themes, topics, authors and/or methods found in existing literature. Empirical literature reviews present their summaries in quantifiable terms using descriptive and inferential statistics.
Examples of an Empirical Review:
- Impediments of e-learning adoption in higher learning institutions of Tanzania: An empirical review ( Mwakyusa & Mwalyagile, 2016 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
The purpose of an exploratory review is to provide a broad approach to the topic area. The aim is breadth rather than depth and to get a general feel for the size of the topic area. A graduate student might do an exploratory review of the literature before beginning a more comprehensive one (e.g., synoptic).
Examples of an Exploratory Review:
- University research management: An exploratory literature review ( Schuetzenmeister, 2010 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
- An exploratory review of design principles in constructivist gaming learning environments ( Rosario & Widmeyer, 2009 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
This type of literature review is limited to a single aspect of previous research, such as methodology. A focused literature review generally will describe the implications of choosing a particular element of past research, such as methodology in terms of data collection, analysis, and interpretation.
Examples of a Focused Review:
- Language awareness: Genre awareness-a focused review of the literature ( Stainton, 1992 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
An integrative review critiques past research and draws overall conclusions from the body of literature at a specified point in time. As such, it reviews, critiques, and synthesizes representative literature on a topic in an integrated way. Most integrative reviews may require the author to adopt a guiding theory, a set of competing models, or a point of view about a topic. For more description of integrative reviews, see Whittemore & Knafl (2005) [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] .
Examples of an Integrative Review:
- Exploring the gap between teacher certification and permanent employment in Ontario: An integrative literature review ( Brock & Ryan, 2016 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
A subset of a systematic review, a meta-analysis takes findings from several studies on the same subject and analyzes them using standardized statistical procedures to pool together data. As such, it integrates findings from a large body of quantitative findings to enhance understanding, draw conclusions, and detect patterns and relationships. By gathering data from many different, independent studies that look at the same research question and assess similar outcome measures, data can be combined and re-analyzed, providing greater statistical power than any single study alone. It’s important to note that not every systematic review includes a meta-analysis but a meta-analysis can’t exist without a systematic review of the literature.
Examples of a Meta-Analysis:
- Efficacy of the cooperative learning method on mathematics achievement and attitude: A meta-analysis research ( Capar & Tarim, 2015 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
- Gender differences in student attitudes toward science: A meta-analysis of the literature from 1970 to 1991 ( Weinburgh, 1995 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
A narrative or traditional review provides an overview of research on a particular topic that critiques and summarizes a body of literature. Typically broad in focus, these reviews select and synthesize relevant past research into a coherent discussion. Methodologies, findings and limits of the existing body of knowledge are discussed in narrative form. This requires a sufficiently focused research question, and the process may be subject to bias that supports the researcher’s own work.
Examples of a Narrative/Traditional Review:
- Adventure education and Outward Bound: Out-of-class experiences that make a lasting difference ( Hattie, Marsh, Neill, & Richards, 1997 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
- Good quality discussion is necessary but not sufficient in asynchronous tuition: A brief narrative review of the literature ( Fear & Erikson-Brown, 2014 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
This specific type of literature review is theory-driven and interpretative and is intended to explain the outcomes of a complex intervention program(s).
Examples of a Realist Review:
- Unravelling quality culture in higher education: A realist review ( Bendermacher, Egbrink, Wolfhagen, & Dolmans, 2017 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
This type of review tends to be a non-systematic approach that focuses on breadth of coverage rather than depth. It utilizes a wide range of materials and may not evaluate the quality of the studies as much as count the number. Thus, it aims to identify the nature and extent of research in an area by providing a preliminary assessment of size and scope of available research and may also include research in progress.
Examples of a Scoping Review:
- Interdisciplinary doctoral research supervision: A scoping review ( Vanstone, Hibbert, Kinsella, McKenzie, Pitman, & Lingard, 2013 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
In contrast to an exploratory review, the purpose of a synoptic review is to provide a concise but accurate overview of all material that appears to be relevant to a chosen topic. Both content and methodological material is included. The review should aim to be both descriptive and evaluative as it summarizes previous studies while also showing how the body of literature could be extended and improved in terms of content and method by identifying gaps.
Examples of a Synoptic Review:
- Theoretical framework for educational assessment: A synoptic review ( Ghaicha, 2016 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
- School effects research: A synoptic review of past efforts and some suggestions for the future ( Cuttance, 1981 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
A rigorous review that follows a strict methodology designed with a presupposed selection of literature reviewed, systematic reviews are undertaken to clarify the state of existing research, evidence, and possible implications that can be drawn. Using comprehensive and exhaustive searching of the published and unpublished literature, searching various databases, reports, and grey literature, these reviews seek to produce transparent and reproducible results that report details of time frame and methods to minimize bias. Generally, these reviews must include teams of at least 2-3 to allow for the critical appraisal of the literature. For more description of systematic reviews, including links to protocols, checklists, workflow processes, and structure see “ A Young Researcher’s Guide to a Systematic Review [https://edtechbooks.org/-oF] “.
Examples of a Systematic Review:
- The potentials of using cloud computing in schools: A systematic literature review ( Hartmann, Braae, Pedersen, & Khalid, 2017 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
- The use of research to improve professional practice: a systematic review of the literature ( Hemsley-Brown & Sharp, 2003 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
Umbrella/Overview of Reviews
An umbrella review compiles evidence from multiple systematic reviews into one document. It therefore focuses on broad conditions or problems for which there are competing interventions and highlights reviews that address those interventions and their effects, thereby allowing for recommendations for practice. For a brief discussion see “ Not all literature reviews are the same [https://edtechbooks.org/-xZ] ” (Thomson, 2013).
Examples of an Umbrella/Overview Review:
- Reflective practice in healthcare education: An umbrella review ( Fragknos, 2016 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
Why do a Literature Review?
The purpose of the literature review is the same regardless of the topic or research method. It tests your own research question against what is already known about the subject.
First – It’s part of the whole.
Omission of a literature review chapter or section in a graduate-level project represents a serious void or absence of a critical element in the research process.
The outcome of your review is expected to demonstrate that you:
- can systematically explore the research in your topic area
- can read and critically analyze the literature in your discipline and then use it appropriately to advance your own work
- have sufficient knowledge in the topic to undertake further investigation
Second – It’s good for you!
- You improve your skills as a researcher
- You become familiar with the discourse of your discipline and learn how to be a scholar in your field
- You learn through writing your ideas and finding your voice in your subject area
- You define, redefine and clarify your research question for yourself in the process
Third – It’s good for your reader.
Your reader expects you to have done the hard work of gathering, evaluating, and synthesizing the literature. When you do a literature review you:
- Set the context for the topic and present its significance
- Identify what’s important to know about your topic – including individual material, prior research, publications, organizations and authors.
- Demonstrate relationships among prior research
- Establish limitations of existing knowledge
- Analyze trends in the topic’s treatment and gaps in the literature
So, why should you do a literature review?
- To locate gaps in the literature of your discipline
- To avoid reinventing the wheel
- To carry on where others have already been
- To identify other people working in the same field
- To increase your breadth of knowledge in your subject area
- To find the seminal works in your field
- To provide intellectual context for your own work
- To acknowledge opposing viewpoints
- To put your work in perspective
- To demonstrate you can discover and retrieve previous work in the area
Common Literature Review Errors
Graduate-level literature reviews are more than a summary of the publications you find on a topic. As you have seen in this brief introduction, literature reviews are a very specific type of research, analysis, and writing. We will explore these topics more in the next chapters. Some things to keep in mind as you begin your own research and writing are ways to avoid the most common errors seen in the first attempt at a literature review. For a quick review of some of the pitfalls and challenges a new researcher faces when he/she begins work, see “ Get Ready: Academic Writing, General Pitfalls and (oh yes) Getting Started! [https://edtechbooks.org/-GUc] ”.
As you begin your own graduate-level literature review, try to avoid these common mistakes:
- Accepting another researcher’s finding as valid without evaluating methodology and data
- Ignoring contrary findings and alternative interpretations
- Providing findings that are not clearly related to one’s own study or that are too general
- Allowing insufficient time to defining best search strategies and writing
- Reporting rather than synthesizing isolated statistical results
- Choosing problematic or irrelevant keywords, subject headings and descriptors
- Relying too heavily on secondary sources
- Failing to transparently report search methods
- Summarizing rather than synthesizing articles
In conclusion, the purpose of a literature review is three-fold:
- to survey the current state of knowledge or evidence in the area of inquiry,
- to identify key authors, articles, theories, and findings in that area, and
- to identify gaps in knowledge in that research area.
A literature review is commonly done today using computerized keyword searches in online databases, often working with a trained librarian or information expert. Keywords can be combined using the Boolean operators, “and”, “or” and sometimes “not” to narrow down or expand the search results. Once a list of articles is generated from the keyword and subject heading search, the researcher must then manually browse through each title and abstract, to determine the suitability of that article before a full-text article is obtained for the research question.
Literature reviews should be reasonably complete and not restricted to a few journals, a few years, or a specific methodology or research design. Reviewed articles may be summarized in the form of tables and can be further structured using organizing frameworks such as a concept matrix.
A well-conducted literature review should indicate whether the initial research questions have already been addressed in the literature, whether there are newer or more interesting research questions available, and whether the original research questions should be modified or changed in light of findings of the literature review.
The review can also provide some intuitions or potential answers to the questions of interest and/or help identify theories that have previously been used to address similar questions and may provide evidence to inform policy or decision-making ( Bhattacherjee, 2012 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
The purpose of a graduate-level literature review is to summarize in as many words as possible everything that is known about my topic.
A literature review is significant because in the process of doing one, the researcher learns to read and critically assess the literature of a discipline and then uses it appropriately to advance his/her own research.
Read the following abstract and choose the correct type of literature review it represents.
The focus of this paper centers around timing associated with early childhood education programs and interventions using meta-analytic methods. At any given assessment age, a child’s current age equals starting age, plus duration of program, plus years since program ended. Variability in assessment ages across the studies should enable everyone to identify the separate effects of all three time-related components. The project is a meta-analysis of evaluation studies of early childhood education programs conducted in the United States and its territories between 1960 and 2007. The population of interest is children enrolled in early childhood education programs between the ages of 0 and 5 and their control-group counterparts. Since the data come from a meta-analysis, the population for this study is drawn from many different studies with diverse samples. Given the preliminary nature of their analysis, the authors cannot offer conclusions at this point. ( Duncan, Leak, Li, Magnuson, Schindler, & Yoshikawa, 2011 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
In this review, Mary Vorsino writes that she is interested in keeping the potential influences of women pragmatists of Dewey’s day in mind while presenting modern feminist re readings of Dewey. She wishes to construct a narrowly-focused and succinct literature review of thinkers who have donned a feminist lens to analyze Dewey’s approaches to education, learning, and democracy and to employ Dewey’s works in theorizing on gender and education and on gender in society. This article first explores Dewey as both an ally and a problematic figure in feminist literature and then investigates the broader sphere of feminist pragmatism and two central themes within it: (1) valuing diversity, and diverse experiences; and (2) problematizing fixed truths. ( Vorsino, 2015 [https://edtechbooks.org/-EaoJ] ).
CC BY : This work is released under a CC BY license, which means that you are free to do with it as you please as long as you properly attribute it.
Linda Frederiksen is the Head of Access Services at Washington State University Vancouver. She has a Master of Library Science degree from Emporia State University in Kansas. Linda is active in local, regional and national organizations, projects and initiatives advancing open educational resources and equitable access to information.
Sue F. Phelps
Sue F. Phelps is the Health Sciences and Outreach Services Librarian at Washington State University Vancouver. Her research interests include information literacy, accessibility of learning materials for students who use adaptive technology, diversity and equity in higher education, and evidence based practice in the health sciences
Royce Kimmons is an Associate Professor of Instructional Psychology and Technology at Brigham Young University where he studies digital participation divides specifically in the realms of social media, open education, and classroom technology use. He is also the founder of EdTechBooks.org . More information about his work may be found at http://roycekimmons.com , and you may also dialogue with him on Twitter @roycekimmons .
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