Writing a Literature Review
A literature review…
• Provides an overview and a critical evaluation of a body of literature relating to a research topic or a research problem.
• Analyzes a body of literature in order to classify it by themes or categories, rather than simply discussing individual works one after another.
• Presents the research and ideas of the field rather than each individual work or author by itself.
A literature review often forms part of a larger research project, such as within a thesis (or major research paper), or it may be an independent written work, such as a synthesis paper.
Purpose of a literature review
A literature review situates your topic in relation to previous research and illuminates a spot for your research. It accomplishes several goals:
• provides background for your topic using previous research. • shows you are familiar with previous, relevant research. • evaluates the depth and breadth of the research in regards to your topic. • determines remaining questions or aspects of your topic in need of research.
Relationship between a literature review and a research project
Academic research at the graduate level is always part of a dialogue among researchers. As a graduate student, you must therefore indicate that you know where your topic is positioned within your field of study.
Therefore, a literature review is a key part of most research projects at the graduate level. There is often a reciprocal relationship between a literature review and the research project for which it is written:
• A research project is often undertaken in response to a literature review. Doing the literature review for a topic often reveals areas requiring further research. In this way, writing the literature review helps to formulate the research question.
• A literature review helps to establish the validity of a research project by revealing gaps in the existing literature on a topic that offer opportunities for new research.
Importance of the research question
Once identified, the research question will drive the research project. Whatever you read or write should have a clear connection to your question. 2
How to write a strong literature review
There are several steps toward writing a strong literature review:
1. Synthesize and evaluate information
2. Identify the main ideas of the literature
3. Identify the main argument of the literature review
4. Organize the main points of the literature review
5. Write literature review
1. Synthesize and evaluate information
A literature review requires critical thinking, reading, and writing. You will take the information that you have gathered through your research and synthesize and evaluate it by indicating important ideas and trends in the literature and explaining their significance.
Strategies for reading
• As soon as you begin reading, take note of the themes or categories that you see emerging. These may be used later to develop a structure for the literature review.
• Take note of how other writers classify their data, the literature in their fields, etc. It can be helpful to read literature reviews in your discipline to see how they are structured.
Categories for analysis and comparison
A strong literature review examines each work on its own and in relation to other works by identifying and then analyzing them with regards to a number of different research aspects and ideas. Here are some possible categories to use for comparison and analysis.
results found and conclusions
Overall, a literature review seeks to answer the following questions: • What does the literature tell you?
• What does the literature not tell you?
• Why is this important?
Questions for analyzing individual works
- What is the argument? Is it logically...
Bibliography: Bell, Judith. Doing Your Research Project: A Guide for First-time Researchers in Education, Health and Social Science.
Maidenhead, Berkshire: Open University Press, 2005.
Boote, David N. and Penny Beile. “Scholars before researchers: On the centrality of the dissertation literature review in research
preparation.” Educational researcher, 34.6 (2005): 3-15.
Booth, Wayne C., Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams. The Craft of Research. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
Verma, Gajendra K. and Kanka Mallick. Researching Education: Perspectives and Techniques. London: Falmer Press, 1999.
The Writing Center, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. Literature Reviews. Chapel Hill, NC. 2005. Available
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