I. Thinking About Your Literature Review
The structure of a literature review should include the following:
- An overview of the subject, issue, or theory under consideration, along with the objectives of the literature review,
- Division of works under review into themes or categories [e.g. works that support a particular position, those against, and those offering alternative approaches entirely],
- An explanation of how each work is similar to and how it varies from the others,
- Conclusions as to which pieces are best considered in their argument, are most convincing of their opinions, and make the greatest contribution to the understanding and development of their area of research.
The critical evaluation of each work should consider:
- Provenance -- what are the author's credentials? Are the author's arguments supported by evidence [e.g. primary historical material, case studies, narratives, statistics, recent scientific findings]?
- Methodology -- were the techniques used to identify, gather, and analyze the data appropriate to addressing the research problem? Was the sample size appropriate? Were the results effectively interpreted and reported?
- Objectivity -- is the author's perspective even-handed or prejudicial? Is contrary data considered or is certain pertinent information ignored to prove the author's point?
- Persuasiveness -- which of the author's theses are most convincing or least convincing?
- Value -- are the author's arguments and conclusions convincing? Does the work ultimately contribute in any significant way to an understanding of the subject?
II. Development of the Literature Review
1. Problem formulation -- which topic or field is being examined and what are its component issues?
2. Literature search -- finding materials relevant to the subject being explored.
3. Data evaluation -- determining which literature makes a significant contribution to the understanding of the topic.
4. Analysis and interpretation -- discussing the findings and conclusions of pertinent literature.
Consider the following issues before writing the literature review:
If your assignment is not very specific about what form your literature review should take, seek clarification from your professor by asking these questions:
1. Roughly how many sources should I include?
2. What types of sources should I review (books, journal articles, websites; scholarly versus popular sources)?
3. Should I summarize, synthesize, or critique sources by discussing a common theme or issue?
4. Should I evaluate the sources?
5. Should I provide subheadings and other background information, such as definitions and/or a history?
Use the exercise of reviewing the literature to examine how authors in your discipline or area of interest have composed their literature review sections. Read them to get a sense of the types of themes you might want to look for in your own research or to identify ways to organize your final review. The bibliography or reference section of sources you've already read are also excellent entry points into your own research.
Narrow the Topic
The narrower your topic, the easier it will be to limit the number of sources you need to read in order to obtain a good survey of relevant resources. Your professor will probably not expect you to read everything that's available about the topic, but you'll make your job easier if you first limit scope of the research problem. A good strategy is to begin by searching the HOMER catalog for books about the topic and review the table of contents for chapters that focuses on specific issues. You can also review the indexes of books to find references to specific issues that can serve as the focus of your research. For example, a book surveying the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may include a chapter on the role Egypt has played in mediating the conflict, or look in the index for the pages where Egypt is mentioned in the text.
Consider Whether Your Sources are Current
Some disciplines require that you use information that is as current as possible. This is particularly true in disciplines in medicine and the sciences where research conducted becomes obsolete very quickly as new discoveries are made. However, when writing a review in the social sciences, a survey of the history of the literature may be required. In other words, a complete understanding the research problem requires you to deliberately examine how knowledge and perspectives have changed over time. Sort through other current bibliographies or literature reviews in the field to get a sense of what your discipline expects. You can also use this method to explore what is considered by scholars to be a "hot topic" and what is not.
III. Ways to Organize Your Literature Review
Chronology of Events
If your review follows the chronological method, you could write about the materials according to when they were published. This approach should only be followed if a clear path of research building on previous research can be identified and that these trends follow a clear chronological order of development. For example, a literature review that focuses on continuing research about the emergence of German economic power after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Order your sources by publication chronology, then, only if the order demonstrates a more important trend. For instance, you could order a review of literature on environmental studies of brown fields if the progression revealed, for example, a change in the soil collection practices of the researchers who wrote and/or conducted the studies.
Thematic [“conceptual categories”]
Thematic reviews of literature are organized around a topic or issue, rather than the progression of time. However, progression of time may still be an important factor in a thematic review. For example, a review of the Internet’s impact on American presidential politics could focus on the development of online political satire. While the study focuses on one topic, the Internet’s impact on American presidential politics, it will still be organized chronologically reflecting technological developments in media. The only difference here between a "chronological" and a "thematic" approach is what is emphasized the most: the role of the Internet in presidential politics. Note however that more authentic thematic reviews tend to break away from chronological order. A review organized in this manner would shift between time periods within each section according to the point made.
A methodological approach focuses on the methods utilized by the researcher. For the Internet in American presidential politics project, one methodological approach would be to look at cultural differences between the portrayal of American presidents on American, British, and French websites. Or the review might focus on the fundraising impact of the Internet on a particular political party. A methodological scope will influence either the types of documents in the review or the way in which these documents are discussed.
Other Sections of Your Literature Review
Once you've decided on the organizational method for your literature review, the sections you need to include in the paper should be easy to figure out because they arise from your organizational strategy. In other words, a chronological review would have subsections for each vital time period; a thematic review would have subtopics based upon factors that relate to the theme or issue. However, sometimes you may need to add additional sections that are necessary for your study, but do not fit in the organizational strategy of the body. What other sections you include in the body is up to you but include only what is necessary for the reader to locate your study within the larger scholarship framework.
Here are examples of other sections you may need to include depending on the type of review you write:
- Current Situation: information necessary to understand the topic or focus of the literature review.
- History: the chronological progression of the field, the literature, or an idea that is necessary to understand the literature review, if the body of the literature review is not already a chronology.
- Selection Methods: the criteria you used to select (and perhaps exclude) sources in your literature review. For instance, you might explain that your review includes only peer-reviewed articles and journals.
- Standards: the way in which you present your information.
- Questions for Further Research: What questions about the field has the review sparked? How will you further your research as a result of the review?
IV. Writing Your Literature Review
Once you've settled on how to organize your literature review, you're ready to write each section. When writing your review, keep in mind these issues.
A literature review section is, in this sense, just like any other academic research paper. Your interpretation of the available sources must be backed up with evidence [citations] that demonstrates that what you are saying is valid.
Select only the most important points in each source to highlight in the review. The type of information you choose to mention should relate directly to the research problem, whether it is thematic, methodological, or chronological. Related items that provide additional information but that are not key to understanding the research problem can be included in a list of further readings.
Use Quotes Sparingly
Some short quotes are okay if you want to emphasize a point, or if what an author stated cannot be easily paraphrased. Sometimes you may need to quote certain terminology that was coined by the author, not common knowledge, or taken directly from the study. Do not use extensive quotes as a substitute for your own summary and interpretation of the literature.
Summarize and Synthesize
Remember to summarize and synthesize your sources within each thematic paragraph as well as throughout the review. Recapitulate important features of a research study, but then synthesize it by rephrasing the study's significance and relating it to your own work.
Keep Your Own Voice
While the literature review presents others' ideas, your voice [the writer's] should remain front and center. For example, weave references to other sources into what you are writing but maintain your own voice by starting and ending the paragraph with your own ideas and wording.
Use Caution When Paraphrasing
When paraphrasing a source that is not your own, be sure to represent the author's information or opinions accurately and in your own words. Even when paraphrasing an author’s work, you still must provide a citation to that work.
V. Common Mistakes to Avoid
These are the most common mistakes made in reviewing social science research literature.
- Sources in your literature review do not clearly relate to the research problem;
- You do not take sufficient time to define and identify the most relevent sources to use in the literature review related to the research problem;
- Relies exclusively on secondary analytical sources rather than including relevant primary research studies or data;
- Uncritically accepts another researcher's findings and interpretations as valid, rather than examining critically all aspects of the research design and analysis;
- Does not describe the search procedures that were used in identifying the literature to review;
- Reports isolated statistical results rather than synthesizing them in chi-squared or meta-analytic methods; and,
- Only includes research that validates assumptions and does not consider contrary findings and alternative interpretations found in the literature.
Cook, Kathleen E. and Elise Murowchick. “Do Literature Review Skills Transfer from One Course to Another?” Psychology Learning and Teaching 13 (March 2014): 3-11; Fink, Arlene. Conducting Research Literature Reviews: From the Internet to Paper. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2005; Hart, Chris. Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Social Science Research Imagination. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1998; Jesson, Jill. Doing Your Literature Review: Traditional and Systematic Techniques. London: SAGE, 2011; Literature Review Handout. Online Writing Center. Liberty University; Literature Reviews. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Onwuegbuzie, Anthony J. and Rebecca Frels. Seven Steps to a Comprehensive Literature Review: A Multimodal and Cultural Approach. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2016; Ridley, Diana. The Literature Review: A Step-by-Step Guide for Students. 2nd ed. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2012; Randolph, Justus J. “A Guide to Writing the Dissertation Literature Review." Practical Assessment, Research, and Evaluation. vol. 14, June 2009; Sutton, Anthea. Systematic Approaches to a Successful Literature Review. Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications, 2016; Taylor, Dena. The Literature Review: A Few Tips On Conducting It. University College Writing Centre. University of Toronto; Writing a Literature Review. Academic Skills Centre. University of Canberra.
"How to" Guideline series is coordinated by Helen Mongan-Rallis of the Education Department at the University of Minnesota Duluth. If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions to improve these guidelines please me at e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Guidelines for writing a literature review
by Helen Mongan-Rallis. Last updated: November 21, 2014
[Note: For these guidelines, in some sections I have quoted directly some of the the steps from: Galvan, J. (2006). Writing literature reviews: a guide for students of the behavioral sciences (3rd ed.). Glendale, CA: Pyrczak Publishing.]
What is a literature review?
A literature review is not an annotated bibliography in which you summarize briefly each article that you have reviewed. While a summary of the what you have read is contained within the literature review, it goes well beyond merely summarizing professional literature. It focuses on a specific topic of interest to you and includes a critical analysis of the relationship among different works, and relating this research to your work. It may be written as a stand-alone paper or to provide a theoretical framework and rationale for a research study (such as a thesis or dissertation).
These guidelines are adapted primarily from Galvan (2006). Galvan outlines a very clear, step-by-step approach that is very useful to use as you write your review. I have integrated some other tips within this guide, particularly in suggesting different technology tools that you might want to consider in helping you organize your review. In the sections from Step 6-9 what I have included is the outline of those steps exactly as described by Galvan. I also provide links at the end of this guide to resources that you should use in order to search the literature and as you write your review.
In addition to using the step-by-step guide that I have provided below, I also recommend that you (a) locate examples of literature reviews in your field of study and skim over these to get a feel for what a literature review is and how these are written (I have also provided links to a couple of examples at the end of these guidelines (b) read over other guides to writing literature reviews so that you see different perspectives and approaches: Some examples are:
- Review of Literature: University of Wisconsin - Madison The Writing Center.
- How to ..Write a Literature Review: University of California, Santa Cruz University Library).
- Information Fluency - Literature Review: Washington & Lee University
- How to Do A Literature Review? North Carolina A&T State University F.D. Bluford Library.
- Selected Links to Resources on Writing a Literature Review
Step 1: Review APA guidelines
Read through the links provided below on APA guidelines so that you become familiar with the common core elements of how to write in APA style: in particular, pay attention to general document guidelines (e.g. font, margins, spacing), title page, abstract, body, text citations, quotations.
Step 2: Decide on a topic
It will help you considerably if your topic for your literature review is the one on which you intend to do your final M.Ed. project, or is in some way related to the topic of your final project. However, you may pick any scholarly topic.
Step 3: Identify the literature that you will review:
- Familiarize yourself with online databases (see UMD library resource links below for help with this), identifying relevant databases in your field of study.
- Using relevant databases, search for literature sources using Google Scholar and also searching using Furl (search all sources, including the Furl accounts of other Furl members). Some tips for identifying suitable literature and narrowing your search :
- Start with a general descriptor from the database thesaurus or one that you know is already a well defined descriptor based on past work that you have done in this field. You will need to experiment with different searches, such as limiting your search to descriptors that appear only in the document titles, or in both the document title and in the abstract.
- Redefine your topic if needed: as you search you will quickly find out if the topic that you are reviewing is too broad. Try to narrow it to a specific area of interest within the broad area that you have chosen (remember: this is merely an introductory literature review for Educ 7001). It is a good idea, as part of your literature search, to look for existing literature reviews that have already been written on this topic.
- As part of your search, be sure to identify landmark or classic studies and theorists as these provide you with a framework/context for your study.
- Import your references into your RefWorks account (see: Refworks Import Directions for guide on how to do this from different databases). You can also enter references manually into RefWorks if you need to.
Step 4: Analyze the literature
Once you have identified and located the articles for your review, you need to analyze them and organize them before you begin writing:
- Overview the articles: Skim the articles to get an idea of the general purpose and content of the article (focus your reading here on the abstract, introduction and first few paragraphs, the conclusion of each article. Tip: as you skim the articles, you may want to record the notes that you take on each directly into RefWorks in the box for User 1. You can take notes onto note cards or into a word processing document instead or as well as using RefWorks, but having your notes in RefWorks makes it easy to organize your notes later.
- Group the articles into categories (e.g. into topics and subtopics and chronologically within each subtopic). Once again, it's useful to enter this information into your RefWorks record. You can record the topics in the same box as before (User 1) or use User 2 box for the topic(s) under which you have chosen to place this article.
- Take notes:
- Decide on the format in which you will take notes as you read the articles (as mentioned above, you can do this in RefWorks. You can also do this using a Word Processor, or a concept mapping program like Inspiration (free 30 trial download), a data base program (e.g. Access or File Maker Pro), in an Excel spreadsheet, or the "old-fashioned" way of using note cards. Be consistent in how you record notes.
- Define key terms: look for differences in the way keys terms are defined (note these differences).
- Note key statistics that you may want to use in the introduction to your review.
- Select useful quotes that you may want to include in your review. Important: If you copy the exact words from an article, be sure to cite the page number as you will need this should you decide to use the quote when you write your review (as direct quotes must always be accompanied by page references). To ensure that you have quoted accurately (and to save time in note taking), if you are accessing the article in a format that allows this, you can copy and paste using your computer "edit --> copy --> paste" functions. Note: although you may collect a large number of quotes during the note taking phase of your review, when you write the review, use quotes very sparingly. The rule I follow is to quote only when when some key meaning would be lost in translation if I were to paraphrase the original author's words, or if using the original words adds special emphasis to a point that I am making.
- Note emphases, strengths & weaknesses: Since different research studies focus on different aspects of the issue being studied, each article that you read will have different emphases, strengths. and weaknesses. Your role as a reviewer is to evaluate what you read, so that your review is not a mere description of different articles, but rather a critical analysis that makes sense of the collection of articles that you are reviewing. Critique the research methodologies used in the studies, and distinguish between assertions (the author's opinion) and actual research findings (derived from empirical evidence).
- Identify major trends or patterns: As you read a range of articles on your topic, you should make note of trends and patterns over time as reported in the literature. This step requires you to synthesize and make sense of what you read, since these patterns and trends may not be spelled out in the literature, but rather become apparent to you as you review the big picture that has emerged over time. Your analysis can make generalizations across a majority of studies, but should also note inconsistencies across studies and over time.
- Identify gaps in the literature, and reflect on why these might exist (based on the understandings that you have gained by reading literature in this field of study). These gaps will be important for you to address as you plan and write your review.
- Identify relationships among studies: note relationships among studies, such as which studies were landmark ones that led to subsequent studies in the same area. You may also note that studies fall into different categories (categories that you see emerging or ones that are already discussed in the literature). When you write your review, you should address these relationships and different categories and discuss relevant studies using this as a framework.
- Keep your review focused on your topic: make sure that the articles you find are relevant and directly related to your topic. As you take notes, record which specific aspects of the article you are reading are relevant to your topic (as you read you will come up with key descriptors that you can record in your notes that will help you organize your findings when you come to write up your review). If you are using an electronic form of note taking, you might note these descriptors in a separate field (e.g. in RefWorks, put these under User 2 or User 3; in Excel have a separate column for each descriptor; if you use Inspiration, you might attach a separate note for key descriptors.
- Evaluate your references for currency and coverage: Although you can always find more articles on your topic, you have to decide at what point you are finished with collecting new resources so that you can focus on writing up your findings. However, before you begin writing, you must evaluate your reference list to ensure that it is up to date and has reported the most current work. Typically a review will cover the last five years, but should also refer to any landmark studies prior to this time if they have significance in shaping the direction of the field. If you include studies prior to the past five years that are not landmark studies, you should defend why you have chosen these rather than more current ones.
Step 5: Summarize the literature in table or concept map format
- Galvan (2006) recommends building tables as a key way to help you overview, organize, and summarize your findings, and suggests that including one or more of the tables that you create may be helpful in your literature review. If you do include tables as part of your review each must be accompanied by an analysis that summarizes, interprets and synthesizes the literature that you have charted in the table. You can plan your table or do the entire summary chart of your literature using a concept map (such as using Inspiration)
- You can create the table using the table feature within Microsoft Word, or can create it initially in Excel and then copy and paste/import the the Excel sheet into Word once you have completed the table in Excel. The advantage of using Excel is that it enables you to sort your findings according to a variety of factors (e.g. sort by date, and then by author; sort by methodology and then date)
- Examples of tables that may be relevant to your review:
- Definitions of key terms and concepts.
- Research methods
- Summary of research results
Step 6: Synthesize the literature prior to writing your review
Using the notes that you have taken and summary tables, develop an outline of your final review. The following are the key steps as outlined by Galvan (2006: 71-79)
- Consider your purpose and voice before beginning to write. In the case of this Educ 7001 introductory literature review, your initial purpose is to provide an overview of the topic that is of interest to you, demonstrating your understanding of key works and concepts within your chosen area of focus. You are also developing skills in reviewing and writing, to provide a foundation on which you will build in subsequent courses within your M.Ed. and ultimately in your final project. In your final project your literature review should demonstrate your command of your field of study and/or establishing context for a study that you have done.
- Consider how you reassemble your notes: plan how you will organize your findings into a unique analysis of the picture that you have captured in your notes. Important: A literature review is not series of annotations (like an annotated bibliography). Galvan (2006:72) captures the difference between an annotated bibliography and a literature review very well: "...in essence, like describing trees when you really should be describing a forest. In the case of a literature review, you are really creating a new forest, which you will build by using the trees you found in the literature you read."
- Create a topic outline that traces your argument: first explain to the reader your line or argument (or thesis); then your narrative that follows should explain and justify your line of argument. You may find the program Inspiration useful in mapping out your argument (and once you have created this in a concept map form, Inspiration enables you to convert this to a text outline merely by clicking on the "outline" button). This can then be exported into a Microsoft Word document.
- Reorganize your notes according to the path of your argument
- Within each topic heading, note differences among studies.
- Within each topic heading, look for obvious gaps or areas needing more research.
- Plan to describe relevant theories.
- Plan to discuss how individual studies relate to and advance theory
- Plan to summarize periodically and, again near the end of the review
- Plan to present conclusions and implications
- Plan to suggest specific directions for future research near the end of the review
- Flesh out your outline with details from your analysis
Step 7: Writing the review (Galvan, 2006: 81-90)
- Identify the broad problem area, but avoid global statements
- Early in the review, indicate why the topic being reviewed is important
- Distinguish between research finding and other sources of information
- Indicate why certain studies are important
- If you are commenting on the timeliness of a topic, be specific in describing the time frame
- If citing a classic or landmark study, identify it as such
- If a landmark study was replicated, mention that and indicate the results of the replication
- Discuss other literature reviews on your topic
- Refer the reader to other reviews on issues that you will not be discussing in details
- Justify comments such as, "no studies were found."
- Avoid long lists of nonspecific references
- If the results of previous studies are inconsistent or widely varying, cite them separately
- Cite all relevant references in the review section of thesis, dissertation, or journal article
Step 8: Developing a coherent essay (Galvan, 2006: 91-96)
- If your review is long, provide an overview near the beginning of the review
- Near the beginning of a review, state explicitly what will and will not be covered
- Specify your point of view early in the review: this serves as the thesis statement of the review.
- Aim for a clear and cohesive essay that integrates the key details of the literature and communicates your point of view (a literature is not a series of annotated articles).
- Use subheadings, especially in long reviews
- Use transitions to help trace your argument
- If your topic teaches across disciplines, consider reviewing studies from each discipline separately
- Write a conclusion for the end of the review: Provide closure so that the path of the argument ends with a conclusion of some kind. How you end the review, however, will depend on your reason for writing it. If the review was written to stand alone, as is the case of a term paper or a review article for publication, the conclusion needs to make clear how the material in the body of the review has supported the assertion or proposition presented in the introduction. On the other hand, a review in a thesis, dissertation, or journal article presenting original research usually leads to the research questions that will be addressed.
- Check the flow of your argument for coherence.
Galvan, J. (2006). Writing literature reviews: a guide for students of the behavioral sciences ( 3rd ed.). Glendale, CA: Pyrczak Publishing.
- UMD & library resources and links:
- UMD library research tools: includes links to
- Refworks Import Directions: Links to step-by-step directions on how to important to Refworks from different databases
- Writing guidelines:
- Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab): A user-friendly writing lab that parallels with the 5th edition APA manual.
- APA guidelines:
- APA Style Essentials: overview of common core of elements of APA style.
- APA Research Style Crib Sheet is a summary of rules for using APA style.
- APA Style for Electronic Media and URL's: commonly asked questions regarding how to cite electronic media
- Examples of literature reviews:
- Johnson, B. & Reeves, B. (2005). Challenges. Literature review chapter from unpublished master's thesis, University of Minnesota Duluth, Minnesota.
- Maguire, L. (2005). Literature review – faculty participation in online distance education: barriers and motivators. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, Volume 8, No. 1, Spring 2005. State University of West Georgia, Distance Education Center.
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