Critical literature review techniques
In order to qualify as a ‘critical’ review you must go beyond the simple description of the sources you read. If you are writing a review with reference to specific research questions or objectives then you might consider:
• the breadth of different pieces of work - how wide a range of the possible subject matter defined by your question(s) or objective(s) do different pieces of work cover? • the depth of the different pieces of work - how detailed is the analysis of the subject matter in each piece of work? • the relevance of each piece of work to your specific question(s) or objective(s) - how much of the subject matter you are focusing on do different pieces of work cover? Are subject(s) missed out in different sources? Are the research methods adopted in one source more useful in answering your question(s) than those adopted in another? - and so on. • gaps in the form of relevant questions that do not appear to have been tackled by the authors you read. • contradictions and inconsistencies, both within single pieces of work ,and as a result of making comparisons between the work of different authors
The preceding suggestions may be helpful in obtaining the lower pass-level grades in assessed work, but the award of higher grades demands the application of more sophisticated forms of criticism. These are, in the main, associated with the identification of logical flaws in the literature you are reviewing. Consequently you will need to display the ability to: • recognise un-stated and invalid assumptions in arguments. • distinguish facts from hypotheses.
• distinguish facts from opinions.
• distinguish an argument’s conclusions from the statements that support it. • recognise what kind of evidence is relevant and essential for the validation of an argument. • recognise how much evidence is needed to support a conclusion. • distinguish between relevant and irrelevant statements and evidence. • identify logical fallacies.
NB if you are unsure what is meant by any of the terms in the last list you would be well advised to invest in a textbook on critical reasoning. There are a variety of useful books available on the market including:
Brown, N. & Keeley, S., (1997), Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking, Pearson: London (ISBN: 0131829939)
Cottrell, S., (2005), Critical Thinking Skills, Palgrave: Basingstoke; ISBN: 1-4039-9685-7
Cottrell is particularly good on assessing the quality of arguments and evidence and a wide variety of source materials, while Brown & Keeley is excellent on the analysis of the various parts of arguments. With primary sources it may also be possible to critically comment upon: • the suitability of the research design.
• the effectiveness of the data collection process.
• the validity of the sample selection process .
• the appropriateness of the chosen research methodology to the subject being researched. and so on.
The extracts shown below were taken from a mixture of student assignments and published critical literature reviews. This is not an exhaustive list, merely a sample of the many different ways one can go about critically assessing published work. You should also note that the examples were not selected for the quality of their written English. We are not recommending or endorsing any particular writing style or format by quoting these examples. We would like you to focus on the various methods of constructing criticisms of published work. The examples illustrate the following types of criticism:
• Flawed understanding of a phenomenon
• Challenge to a statement of ‘fact’
• Excessively narrow subject focus
• Poor data collection methods
• Omission of potentially relevant information
• Lack of evidence to support conclusions
• Lack of current data
• Challenge to the...
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