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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.

Introduction:

  • 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.

Conclusion:

  • 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.

  • Library databases
  • Library website

Education Literature Review: Education Literature Review

What does this guide cover.

Writing the literature review is a long, complex process that requires you to use many different tools, resources, and skills.

This page provides links to the guides, tutorials, and webinars that can help you with all aspects of completing your literature review.

The Basic Process

These resources provide overviews of the entire literature review process. Start here if you are new to the literature review process.

  • Literature Reviews Overview : Writing Center
  • How to do a Literature Review : Library
  • Video: Common Errors Made When Conducting a Lit Review (YouTube)  

The Role of the Literature Review

Your literature review gives your readers an understanding of the evolution of scholarly research on your topic.

In your literature review you will:

  • survey the scholarly landscape
  • provide a synthesis of the issues, trends, and concepts
  • possibly provide some historical background

Review the literature in two ways:

  • Section 1: reviews the literature for the Problem
  • Section 3: reviews the literature for the Project

The literature review is NOT an annotated bibliography. Nor should it simply summarize the articles you've read. Literature reviews are organized thematically and demonstrate synthesis of the literature.

For more information, view the Library's short video on searching by themes:

Short Video: Research for the Literature Review

(4 min 10 sec) Recorded August 2019 Transcript 

Search for Literature

The iterative process of research:

  • Find an article.
  • Read the article and build new searches using keywords and names from the article.
  • Mine the bibliography for other works.
  • Use “cited by” searches to find more recent works that reference the article.
  • Repeat steps 2-4 with the new articles you find.

These are the main skills and resources you will need in order to effectively search for literature on your topic:

  • Subject Research: Education by Jon Allinder Last Updated Aug 7, 2023 3636 views this year
  • Keyword Searching: Finding Articles on Your Topic by Lynn VanLeer Last Updated Sep 12, 2023 18028 views this year
  • Google Scholar by Jon Allinder Last Updated Aug 16, 2023 12060 views this year
  • Quick Answer: How do I find books and articles that cite an article I already have?
  • Quick Answer: How do I find a measurement, test, survey or instrument?

Video: Education Databases and Doctoral Research Resources

(6 min 04 sec) Recorded April 2019 Transcript 

Staying Organized

The literature review requires organizing a variety of information. The following resources will help you develop the organizational systems you'll need to be successful.

  • Organize your research
  • Citation Management Software

You can make your search log as simple or complex as you would like.  It can be a table in a word document or an excel spread sheet.  Here are two examples.  The word document is a basic table where you can keep track of databases, search terms, limiters, results and comments.  The Excel sheet is more complex and has additional sheets for notes, Google Scholar log; Journal Log, and Questions to ask the Librarian.  

  • Search Log Example Sample search log in Excel
  • Search Log Example Sample search log set up as a table in a word document.
  • Literature Review Matrix with color coding Sample template for organizing and synthesizing your research

Writing the Literature Review

The following resources created by the Writing Center and the Academic Skills Center support the writing process for the dissertation/project study. 

  • Critical Reading
  • What is Synthesis 
  • Walden Templates
  • Quick Answer: How do I find Walden EdD (Doctor of Education) studies?
  • Quick Answer: How do I find Walden PhD dissertations?

Beyond the Literature Review

The literature review isn't the only portion of a dissertation/project study that requires searching. The following resources can help you identify and utilize a theory, methodology, measurement instruments, or statistics.

  • Education Theory by Jon Allinder Last Updated May 1, 2022 406 views this year
  • Tests & Measures in Education by Kimberly Burton Last Updated Nov 18, 2021 42 views this year
  • Education Statistics by Jon Allinder Last Updated Feb 22, 2022 57 views this year
  • Office of Research and Doctoral Services

Books and Articles about the Lit Review

The following articles and books outline the purpose of the literature review and offer advice for successfully completing one.

  • Chen, D. T. V., Wang, Y. M., & Lee, W. C. (2016). Challenges confronting beginning researchers in conducting literature reviews. Studies in Continuing Education, 38(1), 47-60. https://doi.org/10.1080/0158037X.2015.1030335 Proposes a framework to conceptualize four types of challenges students face: linguistic, methodological, conceptual, and ontological.
  • Randolph, J.J. (2009). A guide to writing the dissertation literature review. Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation 14(13), 1-13. Provides advice for writing a quantitative or qualitative literature review, by a Walden faculty member.
  • Torraco, R. J. (2016). Writing integrative literature reviews: Using the past and present to explore the future. Human Resource Development Review, 15(4), 404–428. https://doi.org/10.1177/1534484316671606 This article presents the integrative review of literature as a distinctive form of research that uses existing literature to create new knowledge.
  • Wee, B. V., & Banister, D. (2016). How to write a literature review paper?. Transport Reviews, 36(2), 278-288. http://doi.org/10.1080/01441647.2015.1065456 Discusses how to write a literature review with a focus on adding value rather and suggests structural and contextual aspects found in outstanding literature reviews.
  • Winchester, C. L., & Salji, M. (2016). Writing a literature review. Journal of Clinical Urology, 9(5), 308-312. https://doi.org/10.1177/2051415816650133 Reviews the use of different document types to add structure and enrich your literature review and the skill sets needed in writing the literature review.
  • Xiao, Y., & Watson, M. (2017). Guidance on conducting a systematic literature review. Journal of Planning Education and Research. https://doi.org/10.1177/0739456X17723971 Examines different types of literature reviews and the steps necessary to produce a systematic review in educational research.

how to write a literature review for educational research

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Grad Coach

How To Write An A-Grade Literature Review

3 straightforward steps (with examples) + free template.

By: Derek Jansen (MBA) | Expert Reviewed By: Dr. Eunice Rautenbach | October 2019

Quality research is about building onto the existing work of others , “standing on the shoulders of giants”, as Newton put it. The literature review chapter of your dissertation, thesis or research project is where you synthesise this prior work and lay the theoretical foundation for your own research.

Long story short, this chapter is a pretty big deal, which is why you want to make sure you get it right . In this post, I’ll show you exactly how to write a literature review in three straightforward steps, so you can conquer this vital chapter (the smart way).

Overview: The Literature Review Process

  • Understanding the “ why “
  • Finding the relevant literature
  • Cataloguing and synthesising the information
  • Outlining & writing up your literature review
  • Example of a literature review

But first, the “why”…

Before we unpack how to write the literature review chapter, we’ve got to look at the why . To put it bluntly, if you don’t understand the function and purpose of the literature review process, there’s no way you can pull it off well. So, what exactly is the purpose of the literature review?

Well, there are (at least) four core functions:

  • For you to gain an understanding (and demonstrate this understanding) of where the research is at currently, what the key arguments and disagreements are.
  • For you to identify the gap(s) in the literature and then use this as justification for your own research topic.
  • To help you build a conceptual framework for empirical testing (if applicable to your research topic).
  • To inform your methodological choices and help you source tried and tested questionnaires (for interviews ) and measurement instruments (for surveys ).

Most students understand the first point but don’t give any thought to the rest. To get the most from the literature review process, you must keep all four points front of mind as you review the literature (more on this shortly), or you’ll land up with a wonky foundation.

Okay – with the why out the way, let’s move on to the how . As mentioned above, writing your literature review is a process, which I’ll break down into three steps:

  • Finding the most suitable literature
  • Understanding , distilling and organising the literature
  • Planning and writing up your literature review chapter

Importantly, you must complete steps one and two before you start writing up your chapter. I know it’s very tempting, but don’t try to kill two birds with one stone and write as you read. You’ll invariably end up wasting huge amounts of time re-writing and re-shaping, or you’ll just land up with a disjointed, hard-to-digest mess . Instead, you need to read first and distil the information, then plan and execute the writing.

Free Webinar: Literature Review 101

Step 1: Find the relevant literature

Naturally, the first step in the literature review journey is to hunt down the existing research that’s relevant to your topic. While you probably already have a decent base of this from your research proposal , you need to expand on this substantially in the dissertation or thesis itself.

Essentially, you need to be looking for any existing literature that potentially helps you answer your research question (or develop it, if that’s not yet pinned down). There are numerous ways to find relevant literature, but I’ll cover my top four tactics here. I’d suggest combining all four methods to ensure that nothing slips past you:

Method 1 – Google Scholar Scrubbing

Google’s academic search engine, Google Scholar , is a great starting point as it provides a good high-level view of the relevant journal articles for whatever keyword you throw at it. Most valuably, it tells you how many times each article has been cited, which gives you an idea of how credible (or at least, popular) it is. Some articles will be free to access, while others will require an account, which brings us to the next method.

Method 2 – University Database Scrounging

Generally, universities provide students with access to an online library, which provides access to many (but not all) of the major journals.

So, if you find an article using Google Scholar that requires paid access (which is quite likely), search for that article in your university’s database – if it’s listed there, you’ll have access. Note that, generally, the search engine capabilities of these databases are poor, so make sure you search for the exact article name, or you might not find it.

Method 3 – Journal Article Snowballing

At the end of every academic journal article, you’ll find a list of references. As with any academic writing, these references are the building blocks of the article, so if the article is relevant to your topic, there’s a good chance a portion of the referenced works will be too. Do a quick scan of the titles and see what seems relevant, then search for the relevant ones in your university’s database.

Method 4 – Dissertation Scavenging

Similar to Method 3 above, you can leverage other students’ dissertations. All you have to do is skim through literature review chapters of existing dissertations related to your topic and you’ll find a gold mine of potential literature. Usually, your university will provide you with access to previous students’ dissertations, but you can also find a much larger selection in the following databases:

  • Open Access Theses & Dissertations
  • Stanford SearchWorks

Keep in mind that dissertations and theses are not as academically sound as published, peer-reviewed journal articles (because they’re written by students, not professionals), so be sure to check the credibility of any sources you find using this method. You can do this by assessing the citation count of any given article in Google Scholar. If you need help with assessing the credibility of any article, or with finding relevant research in general, you can chat with one of our Research Specialists .

Alright – with a good base of literature firmly under your belt, it’s time to move onto the next step.

Need a helping hand?

how to write a literature review for educational research

Step 2: Log, catalogue and synthesise

Once you’ve built a little treasure trove of articles, it’s time to get reading and start digesting the information – what does it all mean?

While I present steps one and two (hunting and digesting) as sequential, in reality, it’s more of a back-and-forth tango – you’ll read a little , then have an idea, spot a new citation, or a new potential variable, and then go back to searching for articles. This is perfectly natural – through the reading process, your thoughts will develop , new avenues might crop up, and directional adjustments might arise. This is, after all, one of the main purposes of the literature review process (i.e. to familiarise yourself with the current state of research in your field).

As you’re working through your treasure chest, it’s essential that you simultaneously start organising the information. There are three aspects to this:

  • Logging reference information
  • Building an organised catalogue
  • Distilling and synthesising the information

I’ll discuss each of these below:

2.1 – Log the reference information

As you read each article, you should add it to your reference management software. I usually recommend Mendeley for this purpose (see the Mendeley 101 video below), but you can use whichever software you’re comfortable with. Most importantly, make sure you load EVERY article you read into your reference manager, even if it doesn’t seem very relevant at the time.

2.2 – Build an organised catalogue

In the beginning, you might feel confident that you can remember who said what, where, and what their main arguments were. Trust me, you won’t. If you do a thorough review of the relevant literature (as you must!), you’re going to read many, many articles, and it’s simply impossible to remember who said what, when, and in what context . Also, without the bird’s eye view that a catalogue provides, you’ll miss connections between various articles, and have no view of how the research developed over time. Simply put, it’s essential to build your own catalogue of the literature.

I would suggest using Excel to build your catalogue, as it allows you to run filters, colour code and sort – all very useful when your list grows large (which it will). How you lay your spreadsheet out is up to you, but I’d suggest you have the following columns (at minimum):

  • Author, date, title – Start with three columns containing this core information. This will make it easy for you to search for titles with certain words, order research by date, or group by author.
  • Categories or keywords – You can either create multiple columns, one for each category/theme and then tick the relevant categories, or you can have one column with keywords.
  • Key arguments/points – Use this column to succinctly convey the essence of the article, the key arguments and implications thereof for your research.
  • Context – Note the socioeconomic context in which the research was undertaken. For example, US-based, respondents aged 25-35, lower- income, etc. This will be useful for making an argument about gaps in the research.
  • Methodology – Note which methodology was used and why. Also, note any issues you feel arise due to the methodology. Again, you can use this to make an argument about gaps in the research.
  • Quotations – Note down any quoteworthy lines you feel might be useful later.
  • Notes – Make notes about anything not already covered. For example, linkages to or disagreements with other theories, questions raised but unanswered, shortcomings or limitations, and so forth.

If you’d like, you can try out our free catalog template here (see screenshot below).

Excel literature review template

2.3 – Digest and synthesise

Most importantly, as you work through the literature and build your catalogue, you need to synthesise all the information in your own mind – how does it all fit together? Look for links between the various articles and try to develop a bigger picture view of the state of the research. Some important questions to ask yourself are:

  • What answers does the existing research provide to my own research questions ?
  • Which points do the researchers agree (and disagree) on?
  • How has the research developed over time?
  • Where do the gaps in the current research lie?

To help you develop a big-picture view and synthesise all the information, you might find mind mapping software such as Freemind useful. Alternatively, if you’re a fan of physical note-taking, investing in a large whiteboard might work for you.

Mind mapping is a useful way to plan your literature review.

Step 3: Outline and write it up!

Once you’re satisfied that you have digested and distilled all the relevant literature in your mind, it’s time to put pen to paper (or rather, fingers to keyboard). There are two steps here – outlining and writing:

3.1 – Draw up your outline

Having spent so much time reading, it might be tempting to just start writing up without a clear structure in mind. However, it’s critically important to decide on your structure and develop a detailed outline before you write anything. Your literature review chapter needs to present a clear, logical and an easy to follow narrative – and that requires some planning. Don’t try to wing it!

Naturally, you won’t always follow the plan to the letter, but without a detailed outline, you’re more than likely going to end up with a disjointed pile of waffle , and then you’re going to spend a far greater amount of time re-writing, hacking and patching. The adage, “measure twice, cut once” is very suitable here.

In terms of structure, the first decision you’ll have to make is whether you’ll lay out your review thematically (into themes) or chronologically (by date/period). The right choice depends on your topic, research objectives and research questions, which we discuss in this article .

Once that’s decided, you need to draw up an outline of your entire chapter in bullet point format. Try to get as detailed as possible, so that you know exactly what you’ll cover where, how each section will connect to the next, and how your entire argument will develop throughout the chapter. Also, at this stage, it’s a good idea to allocate rough word count limits for each section, so that you can identify word count problems before you’ve spent weeks or months writing!

PS – check out our free literature review chapter template…

3.2 – Get writing

With a detailed outline at your side, it’s time to start writing up (finally!). At this stage, it’s common to feel a bit of writer’s block and find yourself procrastinating under the pressure of finally having to put something on paper. To help with this, remember that the objective of the first draft is not perfection – it’s simply to get your thoughts out of your head and onto paper, after which you can refine them. The structure might change a little, the word count allocations might shift and shuffle, and you might add or remove a section – that’s all okay. Don’t worry about all this on your first draft – just get your thoughts down on paper.

start writing

Once you’ve got a full first draft (however rough it may be), step away from it for a day or two (longer if you can) and then come back at it with fresh eyes. Pay particular attention to the flow and narrative – does it fall fit together and flow from one section to another smoothly? Now’s the time to try to improve the linkage from each section to the next, tighten up the writing to be more concise, trim down word count and sand it down into a more digestible read.

Once you’ve done that, give your writing to a friend or colleague who is not a subject matter expert and ask them if they understand the overall discussion. The best way to assess this is to ask them to explain the chapter back to you. This technique will give you a strong indication of which points were clearly communicated and which weren’t. If you’re working with Grad Coach, this is a good time to have your Research Specialist review your chapter.

Finally, tighten it up and send it off to your supervisor for comment. Some might argue that you should be sending your work to your supervisor sooner than this (indeed your university might formally require this), but in my experience, supervisors are extremely short on time (and often patience), so, the more refined your chapter is, the less time they’ll waste on addressing basic issues (which you know about already) and the more time they’ll spend on valuable feedback that will increase your mark-earning potential.

Literature Review Example

In the video below, we unpack an actual literature review so that you can see how all the core components come together in reality.

Let’s Recap

In this post, we’ve covered how to research and write up a high-quality literature review chapter. Let’s do a quick recap of the key takeaways:

  • It is essential to understand the WHY of the literature review before you read or write anything. Make sure you understand the 4 core functions of the process.
  • The first step is to hunt down the relevant literature . You can do this using Google Scholar, your university database, the snowballing technique and by reviewing other dissertations and theses.
  • Next, you need to log all the articles in your reference manager , build your own catalogue of literature and synthesise all the research.
  • Following that, you need to develop a detailed outline of your entire chapter – the more detail the better. Don’t start writing without a clear outline (on paper, not in your head!)
  • Write up your first draft in rough form – don’t aim for perfection. Remember, done beats perfect.
  • Refine your second draft and get a layman’s perspective on it . Then tighten it up and submit it to your supervisor.

Literature Review Course

Psst… there’s more!

This post is an extract from our bestselling short course, Literature Review Bootcamp . If you want to work smart, you don't want to miss this .

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38 Comments

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Derek Jansen

You’re welcome, Yinka. Thank you for the kind words. All the best writing your literature review.

Renee Buerger

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You’re most welcome, Renee. Good luck with your literature review 🙂

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Thank you very much. the video and the information were very helpful.

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Good morning scholar. I’m delighted coming to know you even before the commencement of my dissertation which hopefully is expected in not more than six months from now. I would love to engage my study under your guidance from the beginning to the end. I love to know how to do good job

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Thank you so much Derek for such useful information on writing up a good literature review. I am at a stage where I need to start writing my one. My proposal was accepted late last year but I honestly did not know where to start

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Like the name of your YouTube implies you are GRAD (great,resource person, about dissertation). In short you are smart enough in coaching research work.

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Very comprehensive and eye opener for me as beginner in postgraduate study. Well explained and easy to understand. Appreciate and good reference in guiding me in my research journey. Thank you

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Thank you. I requested to download the free literature review template, however, your website wouldn’t allow me to complete the request or complete a download. May I request that you email me the free template? Thank you.

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Education Research Guide: How to Write a Literature Review

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Literature Reviews Explained

Use the articles below to learn about:

  • what a literature review is
  • how to select and research a topic
  • how to write a literature review
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill The Writing Center: Literature Reviews
  • OWL (Purdue University Online Writing Lab): Using APA to format your Literature Review

Synthesizing Explained

Synthesizing is a method of analyzing the main ideas and important information from your sources as you read and prepare to write a literature review. Review the resources below for sample synthesizing methods. Both examples have tables you can fill out as you read articles to help you organize your thoughts. 

  • Writing a Literature Review and Using a Synthesis Matrix: NC University Tutorial Center
  • Matrix Example from the University of West Florida Libraries
  • Synthesizing Cornelsen This article is included in "Writing a Literature Review and Using a Synthesis Matrix" to illustrate synthesizing articles in the sample matrix.
  • Synthesizing: Bruley This article is included in "Writing a Literature Review and Using a Synthesis Matrix" to illustrate synthesizing articles in the sample matrix.

Sample Literature Reviews

Make sure you follow any instructions from you professor on how to format your literature review! Use the examples below to get ideas for how you might write about the sources you found in your research.

  • Literature Review 1
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  • What is a Literature Review? | Guide, Template, & Examples

What is a Literature Review? | Guide, Template, & Examples

Published on 22 February 2022 by Shona McCombes . Revised on 7 June 2022.

What is a literature review? A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources on a specific topic. It provides an overview of current knowledge, allowing you to identify relevant theories, methods, and gaps in the existing research.

There are five key steps to writing a literature review:

  • Search for relevant literature
  • Evaluate sources
  • Identify themes, debates and gaps
  • Outline the structure
  • Write your literature review

A good literature review doesn’t just summarise sources – it analyses, synthesises, and critically evaluates to give a clear picture of the state of knowledge on the subject.

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Table of contents

Why write a literature review, examples of literature reviews, step 1: search for relevant literature, step 2: evaluate and select sources, step 3: identify themes, debates and gaps, step 4: outline your literature review’s structure, step 5: write your literature review, frequently asked questions about literature reviews, introduction.

  • Quick Run-through
  • Step 1 & 2

When you write a dissertation or thesis, you will have to conduct a literature review to situate your research within existing knowledge. The literature review gives you a chance to:

  • Demonstrate your familiarity with the topic and scholarly context
  • Develop a theoretical framework and methodology for your research
  • Position yourself in relation to other researchers and theorists
  • Show how your dissertation addresses a gap or contributes to a debate

You might also have to write a literature review as a stand-alone assignment. In this case, the purpose is to evaluate the current state of research and demonstrate your knowledge of scholarly debates around a topic.

The content will look slightly different in each case, but the process of conducting a literature review follows the same steps. We’ve written a step-by-step guide that you can follow below.

Literature review guide

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Writing literature reviews can be quite challenging! A good starting point could be to look at some examples, depending on what kind of literature review you’d like to write.

  • Example literature review #1: “Why Do People Migrate? A Review of the Theoretical Literature” ( Theoretical literature review about the development of economic migration theory from the 1950s to today.)
  • Example literature review #2: “Literature review as a research methodology: An overview and guidelines” ( Methodological literature review about interdisciplinary knowledge acquisition and production.)
  • Example literature review #3: “The Use of Technology in English Language Learning: A Literature Review” ( Thematic literature review about the effects of technology on language acquisition.)
  • Example literature review #4: “Learners’ Listening Comprehension Difficulties in English Language Learning: A Literature Review” ( Chronological literature review about how the concept of listening skills has changed over time.)

You can also check out our templates with literature review examples and sample outlines at the links below.

Download Word doc Download Google doc

Before you begin searching for literature, you need a clearly defined topic .

If you are writing the literature review section of a dissertation or research paper, you will search for literature related to your research objectives and questions .

If you are writing a literature review as a stand-alone assignment, you will have to choose a focus and develop a central question to direct your search. Unlike a dissertation research question, this question has to be answerable without collecting original data. You should be able to answer it based only on a review of existing publications.

Make a list of keywords

Start by creating a list of keywords related to your research topic. Include each of the key concepts or variables you’re interested in, and list any synonyms and related terms. You can add to this list if you discover new keywords in the process of your literature search.

  • Social media, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok
  • Body image, self-perception, self-esteem, mental health
  • Generation Z, teenagers, adolescents, youth

Search for relevant sources

Use your keywords to begin searching for sources. Some databases to search for journals and articles include:

  • Your university’s library catalogue
  • Google Scholar
  • Project Muse (humanities and social sciences)
  • Medline (life sciences and biomedicine)
  • EconLit (economics)
  • Inspec (physics, engineering and computer science)

You can use boolean operators to help narrow down your search:

Read the abstract to find out whether an article is relevant to your question. When you find a useful book or article, you can check the bibliography to find other relevant sources.

To identify the most important publications on your topic, take note of recurring citations. If the same authors, books or articles keep appearing in your reading, make sure to seek them out.

You probably won’t be able to read absolutely everything that has been written on the topic – you’ll have to evaluate which sources are most relevant to your questions.

For each publication, ask yourself:

  • What question or problem is the author addressing?
  • What are the key concepts and how are they defined?
  • What are the key theories, models and methods? Does the research use established frameworks or take an innovative approach?
  • What are the results and conclusions of the study?
  • How does the publication relate to other literature in the field? Does it confirm, add to, or challenge established knowledge?
  • How does the publication contribute to your understanding of the topic? What are its key insights and arguments?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the research?

Make sure the sources you use are credible, and make sure you read any landmark studies and major theories in your field of research.

You can find out how many times an article has been cited on Google Scholar – a high citation count means the article has been influential in the field, and should certainly be included in your literature review.

The scope of your review will depend on your topic and discipline: in the sciences you usually only review recent literature, but in the humanities you might take a long historical perspective (for example, to trace how a concept has changed in meaning over time).

Remember that you can use our template to summarise and evaluate sources you’re thinking about using!

Take notes and cite your sources

As you read, you should also begin the writing process. Take notes that you can later incorporate into the text of your literature review.

It’s important to keep track of your sources with references to avoid plagiarism . It can be helpful to make an annotated bibliography, where you compile full reference information and write a paragraph of summary and analysis for each source. This helps you remember what you read and saves time later in the process.

You can use our free APA Reference Generator for quick, correct, consistent citations.

To begin organising your literature review’s argument and structure, you need to understand the connections and relationships between the sources you’ve read. Based on your reading and notes, you can look for:

  • Trends and patterns (in theory, method or results): do certain approaches become more or less popular over time?
  • Themes: what questions or concepts recur across the literature?
  • Debates, conflicts and contradictions: where do sources disagree?
  • Pivotal publications: are there any influential theories or studies that changed the direction of the field?
  • Gaps: what is missing from the literature? Are there weaknesses that need to be addressed?

This step will help you work out the structure of your literature review and (if applicable) show how your own research will contribute to existing knowledge.

  • Most research has focused on young women.
  • There is an increasing interest in the visual aspects of social media.
  • But there is still a lack of robust research on highly-visual platforms like Instagram and Snapchat – this is a gap that you could address in your own research.

There are various approaches to organising the body of a literature review. You should have a rough idea of your strategy before you start writing.

Depending on the length of your literature review, you can combine several of these strategies (for example, your overall structure might be thematic, but each theme is discussed chronologically).

Chronological

The simplest approach is to trace the development of the topic over time. However, if you choose this strategy, be careful to avoid simply listing and summarising sources in order.

Try to analyse patterns, turning points and key debates that have shaped the direction of the field. Give your interpretation of how and why certain developments occurred.

If you have found some recurring central themes, you can organise your literature review into subsections that address different aspects of the topic.

For example, if you are reviewing literature about inequalities in migrant health outcomes, key themes might include healthcare policy, language barriers, cultural attitudes, legal status, and economic access.

Methodological

If you draw your sources from different disciplines or fields that use a variety of research methods , you might want to compare the results and conclusions that emerge from different approaches. For example:

  • Look at what results have emerged in qualitative versus quantitative research
  • Discuss how the topic has been approached by empirical versus theoretical scholarship
  • Divide the literature into sociological, historical, and cultural sources

Theoretical

A literature review is often the foundation for a theoretical framework . You can use it to discuss various theories, models, and definitions of key concepts.

You might argue for the relevance of a specific theoretical approach, or combine various theoretical concepts to create a framework for your research.

Like any other academic text, your literature review should have an introduction , a main body, and a conclusion . What you include in each depends on the objective of your literature review.

The introduction should clearly establish the focus and purpose of the literature review.

If you are writing the literature review as part of your dissertation or thesis, reiterate your central problem or research question and give a brief summary of the scholarly context. You can emphasise the timeliness of the topic (“many recent studies have focused on the problem of x”) or highlight a gap in the literature (“while there has been much research on x, few researchers have taken y into consideration”).

Depending on the length of your literature review, you might want to divide the body into subsections. You can use a subheading for each theme, time period, or methodological approach.

As you write, make sure to follow these tips:

  • Summarise and synthesise: give an overview of the main points of each source and combine them into a coherent whole.
  • Analyse and interpret: don’t just paraphrase other researchers – add your own interpretations, 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 transitions and topic sentences to draw connections, comparisons and contrasts.

In the conclusion, you should summarise the key findings you have taken from the literature and emphasise their significance.

If the literature review is part of your dissertation or thesis, reiterate how your research addresses gaps and contributes new knowledge, or discuss how you have drawn on existing theories and methods to build a framework for your research. This can lead directly into your methodology section.

A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources (such as books, journal articles, and theses) related to a specific topic or research question .

It is often written as part of a dissertation , thesis, research paper , or proposal .

There are several reasons to conduct a literature review at the beginning of a research project:

  • To familiarise yourself with the current state of knowledge on your topic
  • To ensure that you’re not just repeating what others have already done
  • To identify gaps in knowledge and unresolved problems that your research can address
  • To develop your theoretical framework and methodology
  • To provide an overview of the key findings and debates on the topic

Writing the literature review shows your reader how your work relates to existing research and what new insights it will contribute.

The literature review usually comes near the beginning of your  dissertation . After the introduction , it grounds your research in a scholarly field and leads directly to your theoretical framework or methodology .

Cite this Scribbr article

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  • UConn Library
  • Literature Review: The What, Why and How-to Guide
  • Introduction

Literature Review: The What, Why and How-to Guide — Introduction

  • Getting Started
  • How to Pick a Topic
  • Strategies to Find Sources
  • Evaluating Sources & Lit. Reviews
  • Tips for Writing Literature Reviews
  • Writing Literature Review: Useful Sites
  • Citation Resources
  • Other Academic Writings

What are Literature Reviews?

So, what is a literature review? "A literature review is an account of what has been published on a topic by accredited scholars and researchers. In writing the literature review, your purpose is to convey to your reader what knowledge and ideas have been established on a topic, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. As a piece of writing, the literature review must be defined by a guiding concept (e.g., your research objective, the problem or issue you are discussing, or your argumentative thesis). It is not just a descriptive list of the material available, or a set of summaries." Taylor, D.  The literature review: A few tips on conducting it . University of Toronto Health Sciences Writing Centre.

Goals of Literature Reviews

What are the goals of creating a Literature Review?  A literature could be written to accomplish different aims:

  • To develop a theory or evaluate an existing theory
  • To summarize the historical or existing state of a research topic
  • Identify a problem in a field of research 

Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1997). Writing narrative literature reviews .  Review of General Psychology , 1 (3), 311-320.

What kinds of sources require a Literature Review?

  • A research paper assigned in a course
  • A thesis or dissertation
  • A grant proposal
  • An article intended for publication in a journal

All these instances require you to collect what has been written about your research topic so that you can demonstrate how your own research sheds new light on the topic.

Types of Literature Reviews

What kinds of literature reviews are written?

Narrative review: The purpose of this type of review is to describe the current state of the research on a specific topic/research and to offer a critical analysis of the literature reviewed. Studies are grouped by research/theoretical categories, and themes and trends, strengths and weakness, and gaps are identified. The review ends with a conclusion section which summarizes the findings regarding the state of the research of the specific study, the gaps identify and if applicable, explains how the author's research will address gaps identify in the review and expand the knowledge on the topic reviewed.

  • Example : Predictors and Outcomes of U.S. Quality Maternity Leave: A Review and Conceptual Framework:  10.1177/08948453211037398  

Systematic review : "The authors of a systematic review use a specific procedure to search the research literature, select the studies to include in their review, and critically evaluate the studies they find." (p. 139). Nelson, L. K. (2013). Research in Communication Sciences and Disorders . Plural Publishing.

  • Example : The effect of leave policies on increasing fertility: a systematic review:  10.1057/s41599-022-01270-w

Meta-analysis : "Meta-analysis is a method of reviewing research findings in a quantitative fashion by transforming the data from individual studies into what is called an effect size and then pooling and analyzing this information. The basic goal in meta-analysis is to explain why different outcomes have occurred in different studies." (p. 197). Roberts, M. C., & Ilardi, S. S. (2003). Handbook of Research Methods in Clinical Psychology . Blackwell Publishing.

  • Example : Employment Instability and Fertility in Europe: A Meta-Analysis:  10.1215/00703370-9164737

Meta-synthesis : "Qualitative meta-synthesis is a type of qualitative study that uses as data the findings from other qualitative studies linked by the same or related topic." (p.312). Zimmer, L. (2006). Qualitative meta-synthesis: A question of dialoguing with texts .  Journal of Advanced Nursing , 53 (3), 311-318.

  • Example : Women’s perspectives on career successes and barriers: A qualitative meta-synthesis:  10.1177/05390184221113735

Literature Reviews in the Health Sciences

  • UConn Health subject guide on systematic reviews Explanation of the different review types used in health sciences literature as well as tools to help you find the right review type
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  • Next: How to Pick a Topic >>
  • Last Updated: Sep 21, 2022 2:16 PM
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As a student at VCU, VCU Libraries are here to help you succeed!  This guide offers an introduction to conducting a literature review and provides links to the resources and tools we offer.  To navigate, simply click the blue tabs to the left based on type of information you're needing.  

If ever you are in need of research assistance, don't hesitate to consult a specialist  based on your subject area.   

Please provide feedback on this guide at any point by emailing Kelsey Cheshire,  [email protected]

What is a Literature Review?

A literature review is an essential component of every research project. Literature reviews ask: What do we know, or not know, about this particular issue/ topic/ subject?  

How well you answer this question depends upon:

  • the effectiveness of your search for information
  • the quality & reliability of the sources you choose
  • your ability to synthesize the sources you select

Literature reviews require “re-viewing” what credible scholars in the field have said, done, and found in order to help you:

  • Identify what is currently known in your area of interest
  • Establish an empirical/ theoretical/ foundation for your research
  • Identify potential gaps in knowledge that you might fill
  • Develop viable research questions and hypotheses
  • Decide upon the scope of your research
  • Demonstrate the importance of your research to the field

A literature review is not a descriptive summary of what you found. All works included in the review must be read, evaluated, and analyzed, and synthesized, meaning that relationships between the works must also be discussed.  

  • Next: Developing a Research Question >>
  • Last Updated: Oct 16, 2023 1:53 PM
  • URL: https://guides.library.vcu.edu/lit-review

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What is a Literature Review? How to Write It (with Examples)

literature review

A literature review is a critical analysis and synthesis of existing research on a particular topic. It provides an overview of the current state of knowledge, identifies gaps, and highlights key findings in the literature. 1 The purpose of a literature review is to situate your own research within the context of existing scholarship, demonstrating your understanding of the topic and showing how your work contributes to the ongoing conversation in the field. Learning how to write a literature review is a critical tool for successful research. Your ability to summarize and synthesize prior research pertaining to a certain topic demonstrates your grasp on the topic of study, and assists in the learning process. 

Table of Contents

  • What is the purpose of literature review? 
  • a. Habitat Loss and Species Extinction: 
  • b. Range Shifts and Phenological Changes: 
  • c. Ocean Acidification and Coral Reefs: 
  • d. Adaptive Strategies and Conservation Efforts: 

How to write a good literature review 

  • Choose a Topic and Define the Research Question: 
  • Decide on the Scope of Your Review: 
  • Select Databases for Searches: 
  • Conduct Searches and Keep Track: 
  • Review the Literature: 
  • Organize and Write Your Literature Review: 
  • How to write a literature review faster with Paperpal? 
  • Frequently asked questions 

What is a literature review?

A well-conducted literature review demonstrates the researcher’s familiarity with the existing literature, establishes the context for their own research, and contributes to scholarly conversations on the topic. One of the purposes of a literature review is also to help researchers avoid duplicating previous work and ensure that their research is informed by and builds upon the existing body of knowledge.

how to write a literature review for educational research

What is the purpose of literature review?

A literature review serves several important purposes within academic and research contexts. Here are some key objectives and functions of a literature review: 2  

1. Contextualizing the Research Problem: The literature review provides a background and context for the research problem under investigation. It helps to situate the study within the existing body of knowledge. 

2. Identifying Gaps in Knowledge: By identifying gaps, contradictions, or areas requiring further research, the researcher can shape the research question and justify the significance of the study. This is crucial for ensuring that the new research contributes something novel to the field. 

Find academic papers related to your research topic faster. Try Research on Paperpal  

3. Understanding Theoretical and Conceptual Frameworks: Literature reviews help researchers gain an understanding of the theoretical and conceptual frameworks used in previous studies. This aids in the development of a theoretical framework for the current research. 

4. Providing Methodological Insights: Another purpose of literature reviews is that it allows researchers to learn about the methodologies employed in previous studies. This can help in choosing appropriate research methods for the current study and avoiding pitfalls that others may have encountered. 

5. Establishing Credibility: A well-conducted literature review demonstrates the researcher’s familiarity with existing scholarship, establishing their credibility and expertise in the field. It also helps in building a solid foundation for the new research. 

6. Informing Hypotheses or Research Questions: The literature review guides the formulation of hypotheses or research questions by highlighting relevant findings and areas of uncertainty in existing literature. 

Literature review example

Let’s delve deeper with a literature review example: Let’s say your literature review is about the impact of climate change on biodiversity. You might format your literature review into sections such as the effects of climate change on habitat loss and species extinction, phenological changes, and marine biodiversity. Each section would then summarize and analyze relevant studies in those areas, highlighting key findings and identifying gaps in the research. The review would conclude by emphasizing the need for further research on specific aspects of the relationship between climate change and biodiversity. The following literature review template provides a glimpse into the recommended literature review structure and content, demonstrating how research findings are organized around specific themes within a broader topic. 

Literature Review on Climate Change Impacts on Biodiversity:

Climate change is a global phenomenon with far-reaching consequences, including significant impacts on biodiversity. This literature review synthesizes key findings from various studies: 

a. Habitat Loss and Species Extinction:

Climate change-induced alterations in temperature and precipitation patterns contribute to habitat loss, affecting numerous species (Thomas et al., 2004). The review discusses how these changes increase the risk of extinction, particularly for species with specific habitat requirements. 

b. Range Shifts and Phenological Changes:

Observations of range shifts and changes in the timing of biological events (phenology) are documented in response to changing climatic conditions (Parmesan & Yohe, 2003). These shifts affect ecosystems and may lead to mismatches between species and their resources. 

c. Ocean Acidification and Coral Reefs:

The review explores the impact of climate change on marine biodiversity, emphasizing ocean acidification’s threat to coral reefs (Hoegh-Guldberg et al., 2007). Changes in pH levels negatively affect coral calcification, disrupting the delicate balance of marine ecosystems. 

d. Adaptive Strategies and Conservation Efforts:

Recognizing the urgency of the situation, the literature review discusses various adaptive strategies adopted by species and conservation efforts aimed at mitigating the impacts of climate change on biodiversity (Hannah et al., 2007). It emphasizes the importance of interdisciplinary approaches for effective conservation planning. 

how to write a literature review for educational research

Strengthen your literature review with factual insights. Try Research on Paperpal for free!    

Writing a literature review involves summarizing and synthesizing existing research on a particular topic. A good literature review format should include the following elements. 

Introduction: The introduction sets the stage for your literature review, providing context and introducing the main focus of your review. 

  • Opening Statement: Begin with a general statement about the broader topic and its significance in the field. 
  • Scope and Purpose: Clearly define the scope of your literature review. Explain the specific research question or objective you aim to address. 
  • Organizational Framework: Briefly outline the structure of your literature review, indicating how you will categorize and discuss the existing research. 
  • Significance of the Study: Highlight why your literature review is important and how it contributes to the understanding of the chosen topic. 
  • Thesis Statement: Conclude the introduction with a concise thesis statement that outlines the main argument or perspective you will develop in the body of the literature review. 

Body: The body of the literature review is where you provide a comprehensive analysis of existing literature, grouping studies based on themes, methodologies, or other relevant criteria. 

  • Organize by Theme or Concept: Group studies that share common themes, concepts, or methodologies. Discuss each theme or concept in detail, summarizing key findings and identifying gaps or areas of disagreement. 
  • Critical Analysis: Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each study. Discuss the methodologies used, the quality of evidence, and the overall contribution of each work to the understanding of the topic. 
  • Synthesis of Findings: Synthesize the information from different studies to highlight trends, patterns, or areas of consensus in the literature. 
  • Identification of Gaps: Discuss any gaps or limitations in the existing research and explain how your review contributes to filling these gaps. 
  • Transition between Sections: Provide smooth transitions between different themes or concepts to maintain the flow of your literature review. 

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Conclusion: The conclusion of your literature review should summarize the main findings, highlight the contributions of the review, and suggest avenues for future research. 

  • Summary of Key Findings: Recap the main findings from the literature and restate how they contribute to your research question or objective. 
  • Contributions to the Field: Discuss the overall contribution of your literature review to the existing knowledge in the field. 
  • Implications and Applications: Explore the practical implications of the findings and suggest how they might impact future research or practice. 
  • Recommendations for Future Research: Identify areas that require further investigation and propose potential directions for future research in the field. 
  • Final Thoughts: Conclude with a final reflection on the importance of your literature review and its relevance to the broader academic community. 

what is a literature review

Conducting a literature review

Conducting a literature review is an essential step in research that involves reviewing and analyzing existing literature on a specific topic. It’s important to know how to do a literature review effectively, so here are the steps to follow: 1  

Choose a Topic and Define the Research Question:

  • Select a topic that is relevant to your field of study. 
  • Clearly define your research question or objective. Determine what specific aspect of the topic do you want to explore? 

Decide on the Scope of Your Review:

  • Determine the timeframe for your literature review. Are you focusing on recent developments, or do you want a historical overview? 
  • Consider the geographical scope. Is your review global, or are you focusing on a specific region? 
  • Define the inclusion and exclusion criteria. What types of sources will you include? Are there specific types of studies or publications you will exclude? 

Select Databases for Searches:

  • Identify relevant databases for your field. Examples include PubMed, IEEE Xplore, Scopus, Web of Science, and Google Scholar. 
  • Consider searching in library catalogs, institutional repositories, and specialized databases related to your topic. 

Conduct Searches and Keep Track:

  • Develop a systematic search strategy using keywords, Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT), and other search techniques. 
  • Record and document your search strategy for transparency and replicability. 
  • Keep track of the articles, including publication details, abstracts, and links. Use citation management tools like EndNote, Zotero, or Mendeley to organize your references. 

Review the Literature:

  • Evaluate the relevance and quality of each source. Consider the methodology, sample size, and results of studies. 
  • Organize the literature by themes or key concepts. Identify patterns, trends, and gaps in the existing research. 
  • Summarize key findings and arguments from each source. Compare and contrast different perspectives. 
  • Identify areas where there is a consensus in the literature and where there are conflicting opinions. 
  • Provide critical analysis and synthesis of the literature. What are the strengths and weaknesses of existing research? 

Organize and Write Your Literature Review:

  • Literature review outline should be based on themes, chronological order, or methodological approaches. 
  • Write a clear and coherent narrative that synthesizes the information gathered. 
  • Use proper citations for each source and ensure consistency in your citation style (APA, MLA, Chicago, etc.). 
  • Conclude your literature review by summarizing key findings, identifying gaps, and suggesting areas for future research. 

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Frequently asked questions

A literature review is a critical and comprehensive analysis of existing literature (published and unpublished works) on a specific topic or research question and provides a synthesis of the current state of knowledge in a particular field. A well-conducted literature review is crucial for researchers to build upon existing knowledge, avoid duplication of efforts, and contribute to the advancement of their field. It also helps researchers situate their work within a broader context and facilitates the development of a sound theoretical and conceptual framework for their studies.

Literature review is a crucial component of research writing, providing a solid background for a research paper’s investigation. The aim is to keep professionals up to date by providing an understanding of ongoing developments within a specific field, including research methods, and experimental techniques used in that field, and present that knowledge in the form of a written report. Also, the depth and breadth of the literature review emphasizes the credibility of the scholar in his or her field.  

Before writing a literature review, it’s essential to undertake several preparatory steps to ensure that your review is well-researched, organized, and focused. This includes choosing a topic of general interest to you and doing exploratory research on that topic, writing an annotated bibliography, and noting major points, especially those that relate to the position you have taken on the topic. 

Literature reviews and academic research papers are essential components of scholarly work but serve different purposes within the academic realm. 3 A literature review aims to provide a foundation for understanding the current state of research on a particular topic, identify gaps or controversies, and lay the groundwork for future research. Therefore, it draws heavily from existing academic sources, including books, journal articles, and other scholarly publications. In contrast, an academic research paper aims to present new knowledge, contribute to the academic discourse, and advance the understanding of a specific research question. Therefore, it involves a mix of existing literature (in the introduction and literature review sections) and original data or findings obtained through research methods. 

Literature reviews are essential components of academic and research papers, and various strategies can be employed to conduct them effectively. If you want to know how to write a literature review for a research paper, here are four common approaches that are often used by researchers.  Chronological Review: This strategy involves organizing the literature based on the chronological order of publication. It helps to trace the development of a topic over time, showing how ideas, theories, and research have evolved.  Thematic Review: Thematic reviews focus on identifying and analyzing themes or topics that cut across different studies. Instead of organizing the literature chronologically, it is grouped by key themes or concepts, allowing for a comprehensive exploration of various aspects of the topic.  Methodological Review: This strategy involves organizing the literature based on the research methods employed in different studies. It helps to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of various methodologies and allows the reader to evaluate the reliability and validity of the research findings.  Theoretical Review: A theoretical review examines the literature based on the theoretical frameworks used in different studies. This approach helps to identify the key theories that have been applied to the topic and assess their contributions to the understanding of the subject.  It’s important to note that these strategies are not mutually exclusive, and a literature review may combine elements of more than one approach. The choice of strategy depends on the research question, the nature of the literature available, and the goals of the review. Additionally, other strategies, such as integrative reviews or systematic reviews, may be employed depending on the specific requirements of the research.

The literature review format can vary depending on the specific publication guidelines. However, there are some common elements and structures that are often followed. Here is a general guideline for the format of a literature review:  Introduction:   Provide an overview of the topic.  Define the scope and purpose of the literature review.  State the research question or objective.  Body:   Organize the literature by themes, concepts, or chronology.  Critically analyze and evaluate each source.  Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the studies.  Highlight any methodological limitations or biases.  Identify patterns, connections, or contradictions in the existing research.  Conclusion:   Summarize the key points discussed in the literature review.  Highlight the research gap.  Address the research question or objective stated in the introduction.  Highlight the contributions of the review and suggest directions for future research.

Both annotated bibliographies and literature reviews involve the examination of scholarly sources. While annotated bibliographies focus on individual sources with brief annotations, literature reviews provide a more in-depth, integrated, and comprehensive analysis of existing literature on a specific topic. The key differences are as follows: 

References 

  • Denney, A. S., & Tewksbury, R. (2013). How to write a literature review.  Journal of criminal justice education ,  24 (2), 218-234. 
  • Pan, M. L. (2016).  Preparing literature reviews: Qualitative and quantitative approaches . Taylor & Francis. 
  • Cantero, C. (2019). How to write a literature review.  San José State University Writing Center . 

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A literature review surveys prior research published in books, scholarly articles, and any other sources relevant to a particular issue, area of research, or theory, and by so doing, provides a description, summary, and critical evaluation of these works in relation to the research problem being investigated. Literature reviews are designed to provide an overview of sources you have used in researching a particular topic and to demonstrate to your readers how your research fits within existing scholarship about the topic.

Fink, Arlene. Conducting Research Literature Reviews: From the Internet to Paper . Fourth edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2014.

Importance of a Good Literature Review

A literature review may consist of simply a summary of key sources, but in the social sciences, a literature review usually has an organizational pattern and combines both summary and synthesis, often within specific conceptual categories . A summary is a recap of the important information of the source, but a synthesis is a re-organization, or a reshuffling, of that information in a way that informs how you are planning to investigate a research problem. The analytical features of a literature review might:

  • Give a new interpretation of old material or combine new with old interpretations,
  • Trace the intellectual progression of the field, including major debates,
  • Depending on the situation, evaluate the sources and advise the reader on the most pertinent or relevant research, or
  • Usually in the conclusion of a literature review, identify where gaps exist in how a problem has been researched to date.

Given this, the purpose of a literature review is to:

  • Place each work in the context of its contribution to understanding the research problem being studied.
  • Describe the relationship of each work to the others under consideration.
  • Identify new ways to interpret prior research.
  • Reveal any gaps that exist in the literature.
  • Resolve conflicts amongst seemingly contradictory previous studies.
  • Identify areas of prior scholarship to prevent duplication of effort.
  • Point the way in fulfilling a need for additional research.
  • Locate your own research within the context of existing literature [very important].

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 . Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2011; Knopf, Jeffrey W. "Doing a Literature Review." PS: Political Science and Politics 39 (January 2006): 127-132; Ridley, Diana. The Literature Review: A Step-by-Step Guide for Students . 2nd ed. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2012.

Types of Literature Reviews

It is important to think of knowledge in a given field as consisting of three layers. First, there are the primary studies that researchers conduct and publish. Second are the reviews of those studies that summarize and offer new interpretations built from and often extending beyond the primary studies. Third, there are the perceptions, conclusions, opinion, and interpretations that are shared informally among scholars that become part of the body of epistemological traditions within the field.

In composing a literature review, it is important to note that it is often this third layer of knowledge that is cited as "true" even though it often has only a loose relationship to the primary studies and secondary literature reviews. Given this, while literature reviews are designed to provide an overview and synthesis of pertinent sources you have explored, there are a number of approaches you could adopt depending upon the type of analysis underpinning your study.

Argumentative Review This form examines literature selectively in order to support or refute an argument, deeply embedded assumption, or philosophical problem already established in the literature. The purpose is to develop a body of literature that establishes a contrarian viewpoint. Given the value-laden nature of some social science research [e.g., educational reform; immigration control], argumentative approaches to analyzing the literature can be a legitimate and important form of discourse. However, note that they can also introduce problems of bias when they are used to make summary claims of the sort found in systematic reviews [see below].

Integrative Review Considered a form of research that reviews, critiques, and synthesizes representative literature on a topic in an integrated way such that new frameworks and perspectives on the topic are generated. The body of literature includes all studies that address related or identical hypotheses or research problems. A well-done integrative review meets the same standards as primary research in regard to clarity, rigor, and replication. This is the most common form of review in the social sciences.

Historical Review Few things rest in isolation from historical precedent. Historical literature reviews focus on examining research throughout a period of time, often starting with the first time an issue, concept, theory, phenomena emerged in the literature, then tracing its evolution within the scholarship of a discipline. The purpose is to place research in a historical context to show familiarity with state-of-the-art developments and to identify the likely directions for future research.

Methodological Review A review does not always focus on what someone said [findings], but how they came about saying what they say [method of analysis]. Reviewing methods of analysis provides a framework of understanding at different levels [i.e. those of theory, substantive fields, research approaches, and data collection and analysis techniques], how researchers draw upon a wide variety of knowledge ranging from the conceptual level to practical documents for use in fieldwork in the areas of ontological and epistemological consideration, quantitative and qualitative integration, sampling, interviewing, data collection, and data analysis. This approach helps highlight ethical issues which you should be aware of and consider as you go through your own study.

Systematic Review This form consists of an overview of existing evidence pertinent to a clearly formulated research question, which uses pre-specified and standardized methods to identify and critically appraise relevant research, and to collect, report, and analyze data from the studies that are included in the review. The goal is to deliberately document, critically evaluate, and summarize scientifically all of the research about a clearly defined research problem . Typically it focuses on a very specific empirical question, often posed in a cause-and-effect form, such as "To what extent does A contribute to B?" This type of literature review is primarily applied to examining prior research studies in clinical medicine and allied health fields, but it is increasingly being used in the social sciences.

Theoretical Review The purpose of this form is to examine the corpus of theory that has accumulated in regard to an issue, concept, theory, phenomena. The theoretical literature review helps to establish what theories already exist, the relationships between them, to what degree the existing theories have been investigated, and to develop new hypotheses to be tested. Often this form is used to help establish a lack of appropriate theories or reveal that current theories are inadequate for explaining new or emerging research problems. The unit of analysis can focus on a theoretical concept or a whole theory or framework.

NOTE : Most often the literature review will incorporate some combination of types. For example, a review that examines literature supporting or refuting an argument, assumption, or philosophical problem related to the research problem will also need to include writing supported by sources that establish the history of these arguments in the literature.

Baumeister, Roy F. and Mark R. Leary. "Writing Narrative Literature Reviews."  Review of General Psychology 1 (September 1997): 311-320; Mark R. 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; Kennedy, Mary M. "Defining a Literature." Educational Researcher 36 (April 2007): 139-147; Petticrew, Mark and Helen Roberts. Systematic Reviews in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide . Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2006; Torracro, Richard. "Writing Integrative Literature Reviews: Guidelines and Examples." Human Resource Development Review 4 (September 2005): 356-367; Rocco, Tonette S. and Maria S. Plakhotnik. "Literature Reviews, Conceptual Frameworks, and Theoretical Frameworks: Terms, Functions, and Distinctions." Human Ressource Development Review 8 (March 2008): 120-130; Sutton, Anthea. Systematic Approaches to a Successful Literature Review . Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications, 2016.

Structure and Writing Style

I.  Thinking About Your Literature Review

The structure of a literature review should include the following in support of understanding the research problem :

  • 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?
  • Validity -- 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

Four Basic Stages of Writing 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: Clarify If your assignment is not specific about what form your literature review should take, seek clarification from your professor by asking these questions: 1.  Roughly how many sources would be appropriate to 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 in any way beyond evaluating how they relate to understanding the research problem? 5.  Should I provide subheadings and other background information, such as definitions and/or a history? Find Models 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, such as required readings in the course syllabus, 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 the act of reviewing easier if you first limit scope of the research problem. A good strategy is to begin by searching the USC Libraries Catalog for recent 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. By Publication 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”] A thematic literature review is the most common approach to summarizing prior research in the social and behavioral sciences. Thematic reviews are organized around a topic or issue, rather than the progression of time, although the progression of time may still be incorporated into 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 would still be organized chronologically reflecting technological developments in media. The difference in this example between a "chronological" and a "thematic" approach is what is emphasized the most: themes related to the role of the Internet in presidential politics. Note 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 being made. Methodological 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. However, only include what is necessary for the reader to locate your study within the larger scholarship about the research problem.

Here are examples of other sections, usually in the form of a single paragraph, you may need to include depending on the type of review you write:

  • Current Situation : Information necessary to understand the current topic or focus of the literature review.
  • Sources Used : Describes the methods and resources [e.g., databases] you used to identify the literature you reviewed.
  • History : The chronological progression of the field, the research 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 : 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 [i.e., scholarly] sources.
  • Standards : Description of 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.

Use Evidence 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. Be Selective 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 appropriate 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, is not common knowledge, or taken directly from the study. Do not use extensive quotes as a substitute for using your own words in reviewing 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 and the work of others. 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 relevant 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.

Writing Tip

Break Out of Your Disciplinary Box!

Thinking interdisciplinarily about a research problem can be a rewarding exercise in applying new ideas, theories, or concepts to an old problem. For example, what might cultural anthropologists say about the continuing conflict in the Middle East? In what ways might geographers view the need for better distribution of social service agencies in large cities than how social workers might study the issue? You don’t want to substitute a thorough review of core research literature in your discipline for studies conducted in other fields of study. However, particularly in the social sciences, thinking about research problems from multiple vectors is a key strategy for finding new solutions to a problem or gaining a new perspective. Consult with a librarian about identifying research databases in other disciplines; almost every field of study has at least one comprehensive database devoted to indexing its research literature.

Frodeman, Robert. The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity . New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Another Writing Tip

Don't Just Review for Content!

While conducting a review of the literature, maximize the time you devote to writing this part of your paper by thinking broadly about what you should be looking for and evaluating. Review not just what scholars are saying, but how are they saying it. Some questions to ask:

  • How are they organizing their ideas?
  • What methods have they used to study the problem?
  • What theories have been used to explain, predict, or understand their research problem?
  • What sources have they cited to support their conclusions?
  • How have they used non-textual elements [e.g., charts, graphs, figures, etc.] to illustrate key points?

When you begin to write your literature review section, you'll be glad you dug deeper into how the research was designed and constructed because it establishes a means for developing more substantial analysis and interpretation of the research problem.

Hart, Chris. Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Social Science Research Imagination . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1 998.

Yet Another Writing Tip

When Do I Know I Can Stop Looking and Move On?

Here are several strategies you can utilize to assess whether you've thoroughly reviewed the literature:

  • Look for repeating patterns in the research findings . If the same thing is being said, just by different people, then this likely demonstrates that the research problem has hit a conceptual dead end. At this point consider: Does your study extend current research?  Does it forge a new path? Or, does is merely add more of the same thing being said?
  • Look at sources the authors cite to in their work . If you begin to see the same researchers cited again and again, then this is often an indication that no new ideas have been generated to address the research problem.
  • Search Google Scholar to identify who has subsequently cited leading scholars already identified in your literature review [see next sub-tab]. This is called citation tracking and there are a number of sources that can help you identify who has cited whom, particularly scholars from outside of your discipline. Here again, if the same authors are being cited again and again, this may indicate no new literature has been written on the topic.

Onwuegbuzie, Anthony J. and Rebecca Frels. Seven Steps to a Comprehensive Literature Review: A Multimodal and Cultural Approach . Los Angeles, CA: Sage, 2016; Sutton, Anthea. Systematic Approaches to a Successful Literature Review . Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications, 2016.

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Literature Review Tutorials

  • Literature Reviews: An Overview for Students What is a literature review? What purpose does it serve in research? What should you expect when writing one? Find out here in this guide from NCSU libraries.
  • Write a Lit Review from Virginia Commonwealth University Follow this guide to learn how to write a literature review, beginning with a synthesis matrix.
  • Literature Review: The What, Why and How-to Guide This guide will help you understand what is a Literature Review, why it is important and how it is done. Also includes information on Annotated Bibliographies.
  • Writing a Literature Review from the University of Toledo Covers what a lit review is, lit review types, writing a lit review and further readings.
  • The Literature Review Process A guide from the University of North Texas on selecting a topic, searching the literature, plan before reviewing, reviewing the literature and writing the review.
  • The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Permission granted to use this guide.

Sample Literature Reviews

  • Business Literature Review Example One Sharing economy: A comprehensive literature review
  • Business Literature Review Example Two Internet marketing: a content analysis of the research
  • Education Literature Review Sample One Teachers’ perception of STEM integration and education: a systematic literature review
  • Education Literature Review Sample Two Issues and Challenges for Teaching Successful Online Courses in Higher Education: A Literature Review
  • Gerontology Literature Review Sample One Attitudes towards caring for older people: literature review and methodology
  • Gerontology Literature Review Sample Two Literature review: understanding nursing competence in dementia care
  • Psychology Literature Review Sample One Psychological Correlates of University Students’ Academic Performance: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis
  • Psychology Literature Review Sample Two Misuse of Prescription Stimulants Among College Students: A Review of the Literature and Implications for Morphological and Cognitive Effects on Brain Functioning
  • Public Administration Literature Review Sample One Considering the Environment in Transportation Planning: Review of Emerging Paradigms and Practice in the United States
  • Public Administration Literature Review Sample Two Assessing the impact of research on policy: a literature review
  • Sociology Literature Review Sample One Employment Among Current and Former Welfare Recipients: A Literature Review
  • Sociology Literature Review Sample Two Deployment and family functioning: A literature review of US operations in Afghanistan and Iraq
  • Technology Literature Review Sample One Social media and innovation: A systematic literature review and future research directions
  • Technology Literature Review Sample Two Blockchain as a disruptive technology for business: A systematic review
  • << Previous: Primary & Secondary Sources
  • Last Updated: Jun 28, 2023 9:19 AM
  • URL: https://laverne.libguides.com/litreviews

how to write a literature review for educational research

Education Studies Research

  • 1. Planning Research
  • 2. Reading Research
  • 3. Defining the Research Topic

What is a literature review?

What are different types of literature reviews, how do i conduct the search for my literature review, how do i write my literature review.

  • 5. Determining Research Frameworks and Methods
  • 6. Conducting Research
  • 7. Writing Research
  • 8. Publishing Research
  • Key Considerations
  • Additional Support

Once you've finalized your research topic, you can begin the process of conducting your research. Whether you are assessing the existing landscape for your research topic or creating space for your original research, a literature review will be a key component of any academic project that you complete.

"A literature review is a survey of information that has been written about a particular topic, theory, or research question. A literature review can stand on its own, or provide the background for a larger work. Much more than a simple list of sources, an effective literature review analyzes and synthesizes information about key themes or issues" from The Literature Review: A Few Tips on Writing It (UTSC Writing Centre)

What does it mean to "review the literature," and how is this different from a literature review? This two minute video describes scholarly literature and how it relates to your own research ideas. 

Resources (Books)

  • Making sense: A student's guide to research and writing—education (Margot Northey 2017)
  • 7 steps to a comprehensive literature review: A multimodal & cultural approach (Anthony J. Onwuegbuzie 2016)
  • The literature review: Six steps to success (Lawrence A. Machi 2012) 
  • Doing a literature review: Releasing the research imagination (Chris Hart 2018)

The type of literature review that you perform as a graduate student will depend on many factors including your research goals, your field of study, the time frame, and the level of required analysis. It is important to consider each of these factors in conjunction with any parameters or assessment criteria outlined by your professor or supervisor. The following are common types of literature reviews.

Narrative Literature Review:  A narrative literature review, also called a traditional literature review, describes existing research on a defined topic. A narrative review can stand alone, or serve as an introduction to original research. A strong narrative review will identify a research question, organize results thematically, summarize and analyze key concepts or ideas, and convey both what is known and unknown about a research topic. A narrative review is typically completed informally and independently, and may contain some biases as search results are not usually exhaustive.

Knowledge Synthesis:  The category of knowledge syntheses includes scoping reviews, systematic reviews, and rapid reviews. Knowledge syntheses must be transparent and reproducible in their methods, and hence are often referred to as methods-driven reviews. Common in clinical health research, these types of reviews involve a team of researchers and take several months to complete. For more information see the following resources:

  • Knowledge syntheses: Systematic & Scoping Reviews, and other review types From the Gerstein Library, this guide provides useful information and resources to learn about the different types of method-driven reviews, such as systematic reviews, scoping reviews, rapid reviews, among others, and the process of conducting them.

This guide offers a chart outlining several more types of literature reviews, including meta-analysis, mixed studies reviews, rapid reviews, state-of-the-art reviews and more.

Before starting your literature review, take some time to identify the key concepts in your research topic, and to brainstorm related terms so that you can search the literature more thoroughly. Authors sometimes describe the same concepts using different terminology, and by searching for multiple related terms, you'll be able to search for relevant literature that uses different language, terminology, or phrasing to express a similar concept. Use the Literature Search Plan worksheet below to plan the key concepts and related terms in your research question.

  • What are Boolean operators? How can I use them to improve my searches? (University of Toronto Libraries)
  • Reviewing the Literature (SAGE Research Methods 2017)
  • How to Generate Search Terms (University of Texas at Austin 2024)
  • Literature Search Plan Use this worksheet to help brainstorm and plan keywords for core concepts and and related terms. The video above provides a demonstration.
  • Tracking Your Searches This worksheet can help assist you in keeping track of the searches you conduct.
  • The Literature Review: A Few Tips On Conducting It  (Health Sciences Writing Centre, University of Toronto)
  • How to Write a Literature Review  (Andrew S. Denney and Richard Tewksbury 2012)
  • << Previous: 3. Defining the Research Topic
  • Next: 5. Determining Research Frameworks and Methods >>
  • Last Updated: Feb 28, 2024 4:00 PM
  • URL: https://guides.library.utoronto.ca/educationresearch

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Education: Literature Reviews

  • Handbooks, Encyclopedias, Dictionaries
  • Books and Searchable E-Book Collections
  • Articles in Education Databases
  • Articles in Subject Databases
  • Articles in Multidisciplinary Databases
  • Full-text Dissertations
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  • Publications, Reports, Working Papers
  • Literature Reviews
  • Research Methods
  • How to Search Better
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  • Journal Info / Metrics
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Getting Started on Literature Reviews

  • "Reviewing the Literature" Project Planner SAGE Research Methods. Provides checklists and bullet points for the literature review process, with "Search for reources" links to relevant SAGE Research Methods fulltext books and book chapters.
  • "Literature reviews" / Lawrence A. Machi & Brenda T. McEvoy Oxford Bibliographies : Education, 2016. An annotated bibliography identifying and describing books and articles on the theory of literature reviews, their variety, and how to write them.

Selected Books on Writing Literature Reviews

Cover art

Search Databases for Literature Review Articles and Overview Publications

  • ERIC (ProQuest) Filter search results for Document Type = 070 : Information Analyses and 130 : Reference Materials - Bibliographies. ERIC Digests, research syntheses produced by ERIC ceased after ERIC's reform that closed its research-monitoring clearinghouses in the early 2000s. The ERIC database continues to make available the 3,000+ ERIC Digest published in 1980-2003. They may be found in ERIC (ProQuest) using the search filter for Document type = 073
  • APA PsycInfo PsycINFO has a Methodology limit, with values of Literature review, Systematic Review, or Meta-analysis.
  • Web of Science (WOS) Don't be misled by "science" in the title. WOS also covers the humanities and social sciences. On the left, under Refine Results, Select REVIEWS under Document Types. This is a limit for literature reviews or overview articles. THis may not get all lit reviews. Consider also searching the TS field (Title, Abstract, Author Keyword, Keywords Plus®) with meta-analysis, metaanalysis, synthesis, overview.
  • Scopus Do a search in Scopus for a keyword. Then refine the results by selected under "Document type" - review.
  • PubMed Perform a search, then under Article Type on the right, see Reviews or Systematic Reviews.
  • ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global‎: Full Collection Dissertations can sometimes be useful for review-type surveys of the literature on a specific field. Most often authors begin their study with a review of the literature in order to offer context for their contribution.

Selected Journals with Review Articles

  • Review of Educational Research (RER) SAGE, for American Educational Research Association (AERA), 1931- . Publishes critical, integrative reviews of research literature bearing on education, including conceptualizations, interpretations, and syntheses of literature and scholarly work in a field broadly relevant to education and educational research.
  • Review of Research in Education (RRE) SAGE, for AERA, 1973- . Each RRE annual volume is devoted to a single topic, with research syntheses and literature reviews.
  • Educational Research Review Elsevier, for European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction (EARLI), 2006- .
  • Campbell Systematic Reviews Wiley, for Campbell Collaboration, 2004- . CSR publishes finalized systematic reviews developed through the Campbell Collaboration. Subjects include education and child welfare.
  • Educational Psychology Review An international forum for the publication of peer-reviewed integrative review articles, special thematic issues, reflections or comments on previous research or new research directions, interviews, and research-based advice for practitioners - all pertaining to the field of educational psychology.
  • Annual Reviews AnnRev publishes literature-review journals in physical, life and social sciences. Includes anthropology, economics, linguistics, public health, psychology, and sociology. Education topics may be found in many of these discipline-specific journals.
  • Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science SAGE, for AAPSS, 1890- . Penn's house journal for the social sciences, and one of the oldest US scholarly journals. Each issue presents research syntheses on a specific topic, with one issue per year focusing on education or child welfare.
  • Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral sciences Wiley, 2015-201?. Review articles on new research fronts. Includes a recurring section on "Educational Institutions" .

Systematic Review Databases

  • Systematic Review Data Repository (SRDR) U.S. Department of Health and Human Services - open and searchable archive of systematic reviews and their data.
  • Campbell Collaboration - Library of Systematic Reviews Systematic reviews in areas such as education, criminal justice, social policy and social care. (The Campbell Collaboration was formally established at a meeting at the University of Pennsylvania on 24-25 February 2000.)
  • EPPI-Centre The Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Co-ordinating Centre (EPPI-Centre) is part of the Social Science Research Unit at the Institute of Education, University of London. EPPI develops systematic reviews and developing review methods in social science and public policy.
  • Cochrane Collaboration Cochrane Reviews are systematic reviews of primary research in human health care and health policy. Since 2011, Cochrane has an official partnership with the WHO.
  • What Works Clearinghouse - U.S. Department of Education
  • << Previous: Publications, Reports, Working Papers
  • Next: Research Methods >>
  • Last Updated: Apr 16, 2024 8:23 AM
  • URL: https://guides.library.upenn.edu/education

Systematic Reviews in Educational Research: Methodology, Perspectives and Application

  • Open Access
  • First Online: 22 November 2019

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how to write a literature review for educational research

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  • David Gough 6  

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This chapter explores the processes of reviewing literature as a research method. The logic of the family of research approaches called systematic review is analysed and the variation in techniques used in the different approaches explored using examples from existing reviews. The key distinctions between aggregative and configurative approaches are illustrated and the chapter signposts further reading on key issues in the systematic review process.

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how to write a literature review for educational research

Reviewing Literature for and as Research

how to write a literature review for educational research

Methodological Approaches to Literature Review

how to write a literature review for educational research

The Role of Meta-analysis in Educational Research

1 what are systematic reviews.

A literature review is a scholarly paper which provides an overview of current knowledge about a topic. It will typically include substantive findings, as well as theoretical and methodological contributions to a particular topic (Hart 2018 , p. xiii). Traditionally in education ‘reviewing the literature’ and ‘doing research’ have been viewed as distinct activities. Consider the standard format of research proposals, which usually have some kind of ‘review’ of existing knowledge presented distinctly from the methods of the proposed new primary research. However, both reviews and research are undertaken in order to find things out. Reviews to find out what is already known from pre-existing research about a phenomena, subject or topic; new primary research to provide answers to questions about which existing research does not provide clear and/or complete answers.

When we use the term research in an academic sense it is widely accepted that we mean a process of asking questions and generating knowledge to answer these questions using rigorous accountable methods. As we have noted, reviews also share the same purposes of generating knowledge but historically we have not paid as much attention to the methods used for reviewing existing literature as we have to the methods used for primary research. Literature reviews can be used for making claims about what we know and do not know about a phenomenon and also about what new research we need to undertake to address questions that are unanswered. Therefore, it seems reasonable to conclude that ‘how’ we conduct a review of research is important.

The increased focus on the use of research evidence to inform policy and practice decision-making in Evidence Informed Education (Hargreaves 1996 ; Nelson and Campbell 2017 ) has increased the attention given to contextual and methodological limitations of research evidence provided by single studies. Reviews of research may help address these concerns when carried on in a systematic, rigorous and transparent manner. Thus, again emphasizing the importance of ‘how’ reviews are completed.

The logic of systematic reviews is that reviews are a form of research and thus can be improved by using appropriate and explicit methods. As the methods of systematic review have been applied to different types of research questions, there has been an increasing plurality of types of systematic review. Thus, the term ‘systematic review’ is used in this chapter to refer to a family of research approaches that are a form of secondary level analysis (secondary research) that brings together the findings of primary research to answer a research question. Systematic reviews can therefore be defined as “a review of existing research using explicit, accountable rigorous research methods” (Gough et al. 2017 , p. 4).

2 Variation in Review Methods

Reviews can address a diverse range of research questions. Consequently, as with primary research, there are many different approaches and methods that can be applied. The choices should be dictated by the review questions. These are shaped by reviewers’ assumptions about the meaning of a particular research question, the approach and methods that are best used to investigate it. Attempts to classify review approaches and methods risk making hard distinctions between methods and thereby to distract from the common defining logics that these approaches often share. A useful broad distinction is between reviews that follow a broadly configurative synthesis logic and reviews that follow a broadly aggregative synthesis logic (Sandelowski et al. 2012 ). However, it is important to keep in mind that most reviews have elements of both (Gough et al. 2012 ).

Reviews that follow a broadly configurative synthesis logic approach usually investigate research questions about meaning and interpretation to explore and develop theory. They tend to use exploratory and iterative review methods that emerge throughout the process of the review. Studies included in the review are likely to have investigated the phenomena of interest using methods such as interviews and observations, with data in the form of text. Reviewers are usually interested in purposive variety in the identification and selection of studies. Study quality is typically considered in terms of authenticity. Synthesis consists of the deliberative configuring of data by reviewers into patterns to create a richer conceptual understanding of a phenomenon. For example, meta ethnography (Noblit and Hare 1988 ) uses ethnographic data analysis methods to explore and integrate the findings of previous ethnographies in order to create higher-level conceptual explanations of phenomena. There are many other review approaches that follow a broadly configurative logic (for an overview see Barnett-Page and Thomas 2009 ); reflecting the variety of methods used in primary research in this tradition.

Reviews that follow a broadly aggregative synthesis logic usually investigate research questions about impacts and effects. For example, systematic reviews that seek to measure the impact of an educational intervention test the hypothesis that an intervention has the impact that has been predicted. Reviews following an aggregative synthesis logic do not tend to develop theory directly; though they can contribute by testing, exploring and refining theory. Reviews following an aggregative synthesis logic tend to specify their methods in advance (a priori) and then apply them without any deviation from a protocol. Reviewers are usually concerned to identify the comprehensive set of studies that address the research question. Studies included in the review will usually seek to determine whether there is a quantitative difference in outcome between groups receiving and not receiving an intervention. Study quality assessment in reviews following an aggregative synthesis logic focusses on the minimisation of bias and thus selection pays particular attention to homogeneity between studies. Synthesis aggregates, i.e. counts and adds together, the outcomes from individual studies using, for example, statistical meta-analysis to provide a pooled summary of effect.

3 The Systematic Review Process

Different types of systematic review are discussed in more detail later in this chapter. The majority of systematic review types share a common set of processes. These processes can be divided into distinct but interconnected stages as illustrated in Fig.  1 . Systematic reviews need to specify a research question and the methods that will be used to investigate the question. This is often written as a ‘protocol’ prior to undertaking the review. Writing a protocol or plan of the methods at the beginning of a review can be a very useful activity. It helps the review team to gain a shared understanding of the scope of the review and the methods that they will use to answer the review’s questions. Different types of systematic reviews will have more or less developed protocols. For example, for systematic reviews investigating research questions about the impact of educational interventions it is argued that a detailed protocol should be fully specified prior to the commencement of the review to reduce the possibility of reviewer bias (Torgerson 2003 , p. 26). For other types of systematic review, in which the research question is more exploratory, the protocol may be more flexible and/or developmental in nature.

A set of 9 labeled circles presents the following processes involved in a systemic review process. Developing research questions, coding studies, assessing the quality of studies, designing conceptual framework, selecting students using selection criteria, synthesizing results of individual studies to answer the review research questions, constructing selection criteria, developing a search strategy, and reporting findings.

The systematic review process

3.1 Systematic Review Questions and the Conceptual Framework

The review question gives each review its particular structure and drives key decisions about what types of studies to include; where to look for them; how to assess their quality; and how to combine their findings. Although a research question may appear to be simple, it will include many assumptions. Whether implicit or explicit, these assumptions will include: epistemological frameworks about knowledge and how we obtain it, theoretical frameworks, whether tentative or firm, about the phenomenon that is the focus of study.

Taken together, these produce a conceptual framework that shapes the research questions, choices about appropriate systematic review approach and methods. The conceptual framework may be viewed as a working hypothesis that can be developed, refined or confirmed during the course of the research. Its purpose is to explain the key issues to be studied, the constructs or variables, and the presumed relationships between them. The framework is a research tool intended to assist a researcher to develop awareness and understanding of the phenomena under scrutiny and to communicate this (Smyth 2004 ).

A review to investigate the impact of an educational intervention will have a conceptual framework that includes a hypothesis about a causal link between; who the review is about (the people), what the review is about (an intervention and what it is being compared with), and the possible consequences of intervention on the educational outcomes of these people. Such a review would follow a broadly aggregative synthesis logic. This is the shape of reviews of educational interventions carried out for the What Works Clearing House in the USA Footnote 1 and the Education Endowment Foundation in England. Footnote 2

A review to investigate meaning or understanding of a phenomenon for the purpose of building or further developing theory will still have some prior assumptions. Thus, an initial conceptual framework will contain theoretical ideas about how the phenomena of interest can be understood and some ideas justifying why a particular population and/or context is of specific interest or relevance. Such a review is likely to follow a broadly configurative logic.

3.2 Selection Criteria

Reviewers have to make decisions about which research studies to include in their review. In order to do this systematically and transparently they develop rules about which studies can be selected into the review. Selection criteria (sometimes referred to as inclusion or exclusion criteria) create restrictions on the review. All reviews, whether systematic or not, limit in some way the studies that are considered by the review. Systematic reviews simply make these restrictions transparent and therefore consistent across studies. These selection criteria are shaped by the review question and conceptual framework. For example, a review question about the impact of homework on educational attainment would have selection criteria specifying who had to do the homework; the characteristics of the homework and the outcomes that needed to be measured. Other commonly used selection criteria include study participant characteristics; the country where the study has taken place and the language in which the study is reported. The type of research method(s) may also be used as a selection criterion but this can be controversial given the lack of consensus in education research (Newman 2008 ), and the inconsistent terminology used to describe education research methods.

3.3 Developing the Search Strategy

The search strategy is the plan for how relevant research studies will be identified. The review question and conceptual framework shape the selection criteria. The selection criteria specify the studies to be included in a review and thus are a key driver of the search strategy. A key consideration will be whether the search aims to be exhaustive i.e. aims to try and find all the primary research that has addressed the review question. Where reviews address questions about effectiveness or impact of educational interventions the issue of publication bias is a concern. Publication bias is the phenomena whereby smaller and/or studies with negative findings are less likely to be published and/or be harder to find. We may therefore inadvertently overestimate the positive effects of an educational intervention because we do not find studies with negative or smaller effects (Chow and Eckholm 2018 ). Where the review question is not of this type then a more specific or purposive search strategy, that may or may not evolve as the review progresses, may be appropriate. This is similar to sampling approaches in primary research. In primary research studies using aggregative approaches, such as quasi-experiments, analysis is based on the study of complete or representative samples. In primary research studies using configurative approaches, such as ethnography, analysis is based on examining a range of instances of the phenomena in similar or different contexts.

The search strategy will detail the sources to be searched and the way in which the sources will be searched. A list of search source types is given in Box 1 below. An exhaustive search strategy would usually include all of these sources using multiple bibliographic databases. Bibliographic databases usually index academic journals and thus are an important potential source. However, in most fields, including education, relevant research is published in a range of journals which may be indexed in different bibliographic databases and thus it may be important to search multiple bibliographic databases. Furthermore, some research is published in books and an increasing amount of research is not published in academic journals or at least may not be published there first. Thus, it is important to also consider how you will find relevant research in other sources including ‘unpublished’ or ‘grey’ literature. The Internet is a valuable resource for this purpose and should be included as a source in any search strategy.

Box 1: Search Sources

The World Wide Web/Internet

Google, Specialist Websites, Google Scholar, Microsoft Academic

Bibliographic Databases

Subject specific e.g. Education—ERIC: Education Resources Information Centre

Generic e.g. ASSIA: Applied Social Sciences Index and Abstracts

Handsearching of specialist journals or books

Contacts with Experts

Citation Checking

New, federated search engines are being developed, which search multiple sources at the same time, eliminating duplicates automatically (Tsafnat et al. 2013 ). Technologies, including text mining, are being used to help develop search strategies, by suggesting topics and terms on which to search—terms that reviewers may not have thought of using. Searching is also being aided by technology through the increased use (and automation) of ‘citation chasing’, where papers that cite, or are cited by, a relevant study are checked in case they too are relevant.

A search strategy will identify the search terms that will be used to search the bibliographic databases. Bibliographic databases usually index records according to their topic using ‘keywords’ or ‘controlled terms’ (categories used by the database to classify papers). A comprehensive search strategy usually involves searching both a freetext search using keywords determined by the reviewers and controlled terms. An example of a bibliographic database search is given in Box 2. This search was used in a review that aimed to find studies that investigated the impact of Youth Work on positive youth outcomes (Dickson et al. 2013 ). The search is built using terms for the population of interest (Youth), the intervention of interest (Youth Work) and the outcomes of Interest (Positive Development). It used both keywords and controlled terms, ‘wildcards’ (the *sign in this database) and the Boolean operators ‘OR’ and ‘AND’ to combine terms. This example illustrates the potential complexity of bibliographic database search strings, which will usually require a process of iterative development to finalise.

Box 2: Search string example To identify studies that address the question What is the empirical research evidence on the impact of youth work on the lives of children and young people aged 10-24 years?: CSA ERIC Database

((TI = (adolescen* or (“young man*”) or (“young men”)) or TI = ((“young woman*”) or (“young women”) or (Young adult*”)) or TI = ((“young person*”) or (“young people*”) or teen*) or AB = (adolescen* or (“young man*”) or (“young men”)) or AB = ((“young woman*”) or (“young women”) or (Young adult*”)) or AB = ((“young person*”) or (“young people*”) or teen*)) or (DE = (“youth” or “adolescents” or “early adolescents” or “late adolescents” or “preadolescents”))) and(((TI = ((“positive youth development “) or (“youth development”) or (“youth program*”)) or TI = ((“youth club*”) or (“youth work”) or (“youth opportunit*”)) or TI = ((“extended school*”) or (“civic engagement”) or (“positive peer culture”)) or TI = ((“informal learning”) or multicomponent or (“multi-component “)) or TI = ((“multi component”) or multidimensional or (“multi-dimensional “)) or TI = ((“multi dimensional”) or empower* or asset*) or TI = (thriv* or (“positive development”) or resilienc*) or TI = ((“positive activity”) or (“positive activities”) or experiential) or TI = ((“community based”) or “community-based”)) or(AB = ((“positive youth development “) or (“youth development”) or (“youth program*”)) or AB = ((“youth club*”) or (“youth work”) or (“youth opportunit*”)) or AB = ((“extended school*”) or (“civic engagement”) or (“positive peer culture”)) or AB = ((“informal learning”) or multicomponent or (“multi-component “)) or AB = ((“multi component”) or multidimensional or (“multi-dimensional “)) or AB = ((“multi dimensional”) or empower* or asset*) or AB = (thriv* or (“positive development”) or resilienc*) or AB = ((“positive activity”) or (“positive activities”) or experiential) or AB = ((“community based”) or “community-based”))) or (DE=”community education”))

Detailed guidance for finding effectiveness studies is available from the Campbell Collaboration (Kugley et al. 2015 ). Guidance for finding a broader range of studies has been produced by the EPPI-Centre (Brunton et al. 2017a ).

3.4 The Study Selection Process

Studies identified by the search are subject to a process of checking (sometimes referred to as screening) to ensure they meet the selection criteria. This is usually done in two stages whereby titles and abstracts are checked first to determine whether the study is likely to be relevant and then a full copy of the paper is acquired to complete the screening exercise. The process of finding studies is not efficient. Searching bibliographic databases, for example, leads to many irrelevant studies being found which then have to be checked manually one by one to find the few relevant studies. There is increasing use of specialised software to support and in some cases, automate the selection process. Text mining, for example, can assist in selecting studies for a review (Brunton et al. 2017b ). A typical text mining or machine learning process might involve humans undertaking some screening, the results of which are used to train the computer software to learn the difference between included and excluded studies and thus be able to indicate which of the remaining studies are more likely to be relevant. Such automated support may result in some errors in selection, but this may be less than the human error in manual selection (O’Mara-Eves et al. 2015 ).

3.5 Coding Studies

Once relevant studies have been selected, reviewers need to systematically identify and record the information from the study that will be used to answer the review question. This information includes the characteristics of the studies, including details of the participants and contexts. The coding describes: (i) details of the studies to enable mapping of what research has been undertaken; (ii) how the research was undertaken to allow assessment of the quality and relevance of the studies in addressing the review question; (iii) the results of each study so that these can be synthesised to answer the review question.

The information is usually coded into a data collection system using some kind of technology that facilitates information storage and analysis (Brunton et al. 2017b ) such as the EPPI-Centre’s bespoke systematic review software EPPI Reviewer. Footnote 3 Decisions about which information to record will be made by the review team based on the review question and conceptual framework. For example, a systematic review about the relationship between school size and student outcomes collected data from the primary studies about each schools funding, students, teachers and school organisational structure as well as about the research methods used in the study (Newman et al. 2006 ). The information coded about the methods used in the research will vary depending on the type of research included and the approach that will be used to assess the quality and relevance of the studies (see the next section for further discussion of this point).

Similarly, the information recorded as ‘results’ of the individual studies will vary depending on the type of research that has been included and the approach to synthesis that will be used. Studies investigating the impact of educational interventions using statistical meta-analysis as a synthesis technique will require all of the data necessary to calculate effect sizes to be recorded from each study (see the section on synthesis below for further detail on this point). However, even in this type of study there will be multiple data that can be considered to be ‘results’ and so which data needs to be recorded from studies will need to be carefully specified so that recording is consistent across studies

3.6 Appraising the Quality of Studies

Methods are reinvented every time they are used to accommodate the real world of research practice (Sandelowski et al. 2012 ). The researcher undertaking a primary research study has attempted to design and execute a study that addresses the research question as rigorously as possible within the parameters of their resources, understanding, and context. Given the complexity of this task, the contested views about research methods and the inconsistency of research terminology, reviewers will need to make their own judgements about the quality of the any individual piece of research included in their review. From this perspective, it is evident that using a simple criteria, such as ‘published in a peer reviewed journal’ as a sole indicator of quality, is not likely to be an adequate basis for considering the quality and relevance of a study for a particular systematic review.

In the context of systematic reviews this assessment of quality is often referred to as Critical Appraisal (Petticrew and Roberts 2005 ). There is considerable variation in what is done during critical appraisal: which dimensions of study design and methods are considered; the particular issues that are considered under each dimension; the criteria used to make judgements about these issues and the cut off points used for these criteria (Oancea and Furlong 2007 ). There is also variation in whether the quality assessment judgement is used for excluding studies or weighting them in analysis and when in the process judgements are made.

There are broadly three elements that are considered in critical appraisal: the appropriateness of the study design in the context of the review question, the quality of the execution of the study methods and the study’s relevance to the review question (Gough 2007 ). Distinguishing study design from execution recognises that whilst a particular design may be viewed as more appropriate for a study it also needs to be well executed to achieve the rigour or trustworthiness attributed to the design. Study relevance is achieved by the review selection criteria but assessing the degree of relevance recognises that some studies may be less relevant than others due to differences in, for example, the characteristics of the settings or the ways that variables are measured.

The assessment of study quality is a contested and much debated issue in all research fields. Many published scales are available for assessing study quality. Each incorporates criteria relevant to the research design being evaluated. Quality scales for studies investigating the impact of interventions using (quasi) experimental research designs tend to emphasis establishing descriptive causality through minimising the effects of bias (for detailed discussion of issues associated with assessing study quality in this tradition see Waddington et al. 2017 ). Quality scales for appraising qualitative research tend to focus on the extent to which the study is authentic in reflecting on the meaning of the data (for detailed discussion of the issues associated with assessing study quality in this tradition see Carroll and Booth 2015 ).

3.7 Synthesis

A synthesis is more than a list of findings from the included studies. It is an attempt to integrate the information from the individual studies to produce a ‘better’ answer to the review question than is provided by the individual studies. Each stage of the review contributes toward the synthesis and so decisions made in earlier stages of the review shape the possibilities for synthesis. All types of synthesis involve some kind of data transformation that is achieved through common analytic steps: searching for patterns in data; Checking the quality of the synthesis; Integrating data to answer the review question (Thomas et al. 2012 ). The techniques used to achieve these vary for different types of synthesis and may appear more or less evident as distinct steps.

Statistical meta-analysis is an aggregative synthesis approach in which the outcome results from individual studies are transformed into a standardized, scale free, common metric and combined to produce a single pooled weighted estimate of effect size and direction. There are a number of different metrics of effect size, selection of which is principally determined by the structure of outcome data in the primary studies as either continuous or dichotomous. Outcome data with a dichotomous structure can be transformed into Odds Ratios (OR), Absolute Risk Ratios (ARR) or Relative Risk Ratios (RRR) (for detailed discussion of dichotomous outcome effect sizes see Altman 1991 ). More commonly seen in education research, outcome data with a continuous structure can be translated into Standardised Mean Differences (SMD) (Fitz-Gibbon 1984 ). At its most straightforward effect size calculation is simple arithmetic. However given the variety of analysis methods used and the inconsistency of reporting in primary studies it is also possible to calculate effect sizes using more complex transformation formulae (for detailed instructions on calculating effect sizes from a wide variety of data presentations see Lipsey and Wilson 2000 ).

The combination of individual effect sizes uses statistical procedures in which weighting is given to the effect sizes from the individual studies based on different assumptions about the causes of variance and this requires the use of statistical software. Statistical measures of heterogeneity produced as part of the meta-analysis are used to both explore patterns in the data and to assess the quality of the synthesis (Thomas et al. 2017a ).

In configurative synthesis the different kinds of text about individual studies and their results are meshed and linked to produce patterns in the data, explore different configurations of the data and to produce new synthetic accounts of the phenomena under investigation. The results from the individual studies are translated into and across each other, searching for areas of commonality and refutation. The specific techniques used are derived from the techniques used in primary research in this tradition. They include reading and re-reading, descriptive and analytical coding, the development of themes, constant comparison, negative case analysis and iteration with theory (Thomas et al. 2017b ).

4 Variation in Review Structures

All research requires time and resources and systematic reviews are no exception. There is always concern to use resources as efficiently as possible. For these reasons there is a continuing interest in how reviews can be carried out more quickly using fewer resources. A key issue is the basis for considering a review to be systematic. Any definitions are clearly open to interpretation. Any review can be argued to be insufficiently rigorous and explicit in method in any part of the review process. To assist reviewers in being rigorous, reporting standards and appraisal tools are being developed to assess what is required in different types of review (Lockwood and Geum Oh 2017 ) but these are also the subject of debate and disagreement.

In addition to the term ‘systematic review’ other terms are used to denote the outputs of systematic review processes. Some use the term ‘scoping review’ for a quick review that does not follow a fully systematic process. This term is also used by others (for example, Arksey and O’Malley 2005 ) to denote ‘systematic maps’ that describe the nature of a research field rather than synthesise findings. A ‘quick review’ type of scoping review may also be used as preliminary work to inform a fuller systematic review. Another term used is ‘rapid evidence assessment’. This term is usually used when systematic review needs to be undertaken quickly and in order to do this the methods of review are employed in a more minimal than usual way. For example, by more limited searching. Where such ‘shortcuts’ are taken there may be some loss of rigour, breadth and/or depth (Abrami et al. 2010 ; Thomas et al. 2013 ).

Another development has seen the emergence of the concept of ‘living reviews’, which do not have a fixed end point but are updated as new relevant primary studies are produced. Many review teams hope that their review will be updated over time, but what is different about living reviews is that it is built into the system from the start as an on-going developmental process. This means that the distribution of review effort is quite different to a standard systematic review, being a continuous lower-level effort spread over a longer time period, rather than the shorter bursts of intensive effort that characterise a review with periodic updates (Elliott et al. 2014 ).

4.1 Systematic Maps and Syntheses

One potentially useful aspect of reviewing the literature systematically is that it is possible to gain an understanding of the breadth, purpose and extent of research activity about a phenomenon. Reviewers can be more informed about how research on the phenomenon has been constructed and focused. This type of reviewing is known as ‘mapping’ (see for example, Peersman 1996 ; Gough et al. 2003 ). The aspects of the studies that are described in a map will depend on what is of most interest to those undertaking the review. This might include information such as topic focus, conceptual approach, method, aims, authors, location and context. The boundaries and purposes of a map are determined by decisions made regarding the breadth and depth of the review, which are informed by and reflected in the review question and selection criteria.

Maps can also be a useful stage in a systematic review where study findings are synthesised as well. Most synthesis reviews implicitly or explicitly include some sort of map in that they describe the nature of the relevant studies that they have identified. An explicit map is likely to be more detailed and can be used to inform the synthesis stage of a review. It can provide more information on the individual and grouped studies and thus also provide insights to help inform choices about the focus and strategy to be used in a subsequent synthesis.

4.2 Mixed Methods, Mixed Research Synthesis Reviews

Where studies included in a review consist of more than one type of study design, there may also be different types of data. These different types of studies and data can be analysed together in an integrated design or segregated and analysed separately (Sandelowski et al. 2012 ). In a segregated design, two or more separate sub-reviews are undertaken simultaneously to address different aspects of the same review question and are then compared with one another.

Such ‘mixed methods’ and ‘multiple component’ reviews are usually necessary when there are multiple layers of review question or when one study design alone would be insufficient to answer the question(s) adequately. The reviews are usually required, to have both breadth and depth. In doing so they can investigate a greater extent of the research problem than would be the case in a more focussed single method review. As they are major undertakings, containing what would normally be considered the work of multiple systematic reviews, they are demanding of time and resources and cannot be conducted quickly.

4.3 Reviews of Reviews

Systematic reviews of primary research are secondary levels of research analysis. A review of reviews (sometimes called ‘overviews’ or ‘umbrella’ reviews) is a tertiary level of analysis. It is a systematic map and/or synthesis of previous reviews. The ‘data’ for reviews of reviews are previous reviews rather than primary research studies (see for example Newman et al. ( 2018 ). Some review of reviews use previous reviews to combine both primary research data and synthesis data. It is also possible to have hybrid review models consisting of a review of reviews and then new systematic reviews of primary studies to fill in gaps in coverage where there is not an existing review (Caird et al. 2015 ). Reviews of reviews can be an efficient method for examining previous research. However, this approach is still comparatively novel and questions remain about the appropriate methodology. For example, care is required when assessing the way in which the source systematic reviews identified and selected data for inclusion, assessed study quality and to assess the overlap between the individual reviews (Aromataris et al. 2015 ).

5 Other Types of Research Based Review Structures

This chapter so far has presented a process or method that is shared by many different approaches within the family of systematic review approaches, notwithstanding differences in review question and types of study that are included as evidence. This is a helpful heuristic device for designing and reading systematic reviews. However, it is the case that there are some review approaches that also claim to use a research based review approach but that do not claim to be systematic reviews and or do not conform with the description of processes that we have given above at all or in part at least.

5.1 Realist Synthesis Reviews

Realist synthesis is a member of the theory-based school of evaluation (Pawson 2002 ). This means that it is underpinned by a ‘generative’ understanding of causation, which holds that, to infer a causal outcome/relationship between an intervention (e.g. a training programme) and an outcome (O) of interest (e.g. unemployment), one needs to understand the underlying mechanisms (M) that connect them and the context (C) in which the relationship occurs (e.g. the characteristics of both the subjects and the programme locality). The interest of this approach (and also of other theory driven reviews) is not simply which interventions work, but which mechanisms work in which context. Rather than identifying replications of the same intervention, the reviews adopt an investigative stance and identify different contexts within which the same underlying mechanism is operating.

Realist synthesis is concerned with hypothesising, testing and refining such context-mechanism-outcome (CMO) configurations. Based on the premise that programmes work in limited circumstances, the discovery of these conditions becomes the main task of realist synthesis. The overall intention is to first create an abstract model (based on the CMO configurations) of how and why programmes work and then to test this empirically against the research evidence. Thus, the unit of analysis in a realist synthesis is the programme mechanism, and this mechanism is the basis of the search. This means that a realist synthesis aims to identify different situations in which the same programme mechanism has been attempted. Integrative Reviewing, which is aligned to the Critical Realist tradition, follows a similar approach and methods (Jones-Devitt et al. 2017 ).

5.2 Critical Interpretive Synthesis (CIS)

Critical Interpretive Synthesis (CIS) (Dixon-Woods et al. 2006 ) takes a position that there is an explicit role for the ‘authorial’ (reviewer’s) voice in the review. The approach is derived from a distinctive tradition within qualitative enquiry and draws on some of the tenets of grounded theory in order to support explicitly the process of theory generation. In practice, this is operationalised in its inductive approach to searching and to developing the review question as part of the review process, its rejection of a ‘staged’ approach to reviewing and embracing the concept of theoretical sampling in order to select studies for inclusion. When assessing the quality of studies CIS prioritises relevance and theoretical contribution over research methods. In particular, a critical approach to reading the literature is fundamental in terms of contextualising findings within an analysis of the research traditions or theoretical assumptions of the studies included.

5.3 Meta-Narrative Reviews

Meta-narrative reviews, like critical interpretative synthesis, place centre-stage the importance of understanding the literature critically and understanding differences between research studies as possibly being due to differences between their underlying research traditions (Greenhalgh et al. 2005 ). This means that each piece of research is located (and, when appropriate, aggregated) within its own research tradition and the development of knowledge is traced (configured) through time and across paradigms. Rather than the individual study, the ‘unit of analysis’ is the unfolding ‘storyline’ of a research tradition over time’ (Greenhalgh et al. 2005 ).

6 Conclusions

This chapter has briefly described the methods, application and different perspectives in the family of systematic review approaches. We have emphasized the many ways in which systematic reviews can vary. This variation links to different research aims and review questions. But also to the different assumptions made by reviewers. These assumptions derive from different understandings of research paradigms and methods and from the personal, political perspectives they bring to their research practice. Although there are a variety of possible types of systematic reviews, a distinction in the extent that reviews follow an aggregative or configuring synthesis logic is useful for understanding variations in review approaches and methods. It can help clarify the ways in which reviews vary in the nature of their questions, concepts, procedures, inference and impact. Systematic review approaches continue to evolve alongside critical debate about the merits of various review approaches (systematic or otherwise). So there are many ways in which educational researchers can use and engage with systematic review methods to increase knowledge and understanding in the field of education.

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Newman, M., Gough, D. (2020). Systematic Reviews in Educational Research: Methodology, Perspectives and Application. In: Zawacki-Richter, O., Kerres, M., Bedenlier, S., Bond, M., Buntins, K. (eds) Systematic Reviews in Educational Research. Springer VS, Wiesbaden. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-658-27602-7_1

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There are eight general steps in conducting an education literature review.  Please follow the eight numbered boxes, starting below.

Please note that the general framework for this guide is derived from the work of Joyce P. Gall, M.D. Gall, and Walter R. Borg in Applying Educational Research: a Practical Guide (5th ed., 2005). Also, much of the information on framing the research question comes from Emily Grimm's "Selected Reference Sources for Graduate Students in Education and Education Related Areas" (1995).

Step 1: Frame Your Research Question

Basic questions.

  • What do I want to know?  For what purpose? Consider subject terms, synonyms, related concepts and approaches.
  • What do I know already?
  • Who else might have performed similar research and why? Consider individuals, institutions, governmental agencies and other groups.
  • What summarizing or descriptive information is already available? Consider the secondary sources found below.

Time Questions

  • For which time span(s) do I need information?
  • Would recurrent or temporal events in education affect my research?  For example: school terms, budget hearings, conference proceedings, legislative sessions, policy decisions, elections, administrative procedural changes.

Limitation(s) Questions

  • Do I have other limitations?  For example:  language, age group, grade level, type of student, type of school, type of district, geography, curricular area, or style of teaching.

Aspect Questions

  • What aspects of education interest me?  For example:  financial, administrative, teaching, legislative, gender, parental, theoretical, research, developmental, practical or other.

Subjective Aspect Questions

  • What are my values, prejudices, biases, and areas of ignorance in regard to my research question(s)?
  • Will I let these prejudices limit my research?
  • Will I let these prejudices influence my note taking, choice of vocabulary and indexing terms, selection of data, evaluations of the work of other researchers, inclusion of conflicting theories, reporting of data, or my conclusions?

Step 2: Contact Experts to Get Answers or for Guidance to Relevant Publications

Consider consulting other educators, faculty or government officials who may specialize in your research area.

You may also want to consult the American Educational Research Association's Special Interest Groups (SIGs) for the names of groups and individuals who have expertise in different educational areas.  

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Step 3: Read Secondary Sources to Gain a Broad Overview of the Literature Related to Your Research Area

Use secondary sources to further define your research question and to expand your literature search.  Secondary sources include encyclopedias, handbooks, dictionaries, and thesauri. Secondary sources are resources that review research that others have done.  They provide a general overview, will give you ideas for key search terms, and often include useful bibliographies for further reading.

Here are some key secondary sources and books on doing educational research:

  • Educational Psychology Review Educational Psychology Review is an international forum for the publication of peer-reviewed integrative review articles, special thematic issues, reflections or comments on previous research or new research directions, interviews, and research-based advice for practitioners.
  • NSSE Yearbook (Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education) Two issues are published annually; each focuses on a major education topic.
  • The Phi Delta Kappan Contains many articles that cite research and analyze practical implications.
  • Review of Educational Research Quarterly journal that consists of reviews of educational research literature.

Handbooks and Encyclopedias 

  • Encyclopedia of Education by James W. Guthrie Call Number: Online Book Publication Date: 2004
  • Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory by Michael A. Peters (Editor) Call Number: Online Book Publication Date: 2017
  • Encyclopedia of Special Education by Cecil R. Reynolds (Editor); Elaine Fletcher-Janzen (Editor); Kimberly J. Vannest (Editor) Call Number: Online Book Publication Date: 2014
  • Encyclopedia of the Social and Cultural Foundations of Education by Eugene F. Provenzo (Editor); John Philip Renaud (Editor) Call Number: Online Book Publication Date: 2008
  • Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology by J. Michael Spector (Editor); M. David Merrill (Editor); Jan Elen (Editor); M. J. Bishop (Editor) Call Number: Online Book ISBN: 9781461431855 Publication Date: 2013
  • Handbook of Research on Teaching by Drew Gitomer Call Number: Online Book Publication Date: 2016
  • Handbook of Research on the Education of Young Children by Olivia N. Saracho (Editor); Bernard Spodek (Editor) Call Number: Online Book Publication Date: 2012
  • Philosophy : Education by Brian Warnick Call Number: Online book Publication Date: 2017

Step 4: Select Preliminary Sources that Index Relevant Research Literature

Preliminary sources index primary research resources such as journal articles, conference proceeding papers, technical reports, government documents, dissertations and more. See below for key education databases:

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Step 5: Identify Subject Terms, or Descriptors, and Use Them to Search Preliminary Sources

Choosing the most appropriate subject search terms, or descriptors, for searching indexes and catalogs can greatly influence your search results.  A good place to start is ERIC's thesaurus of descriptors:

Step 6: Read and Evaluate Primary Sources Discovered Through Indexes

For assistance in obtaining copies of primary sources, please consult online tutorials from UC Libraries .

As you print out copies of articles, review copies of books or reports, remember to look in the sources for bibliographies, names of individuals or groups who have done research on the topic, and for additional subject terms to help you narrow or broaden your research.

Step 7: Classify the Publications You Have Reviewed into Meaningful Categories

As you review the sources you find, classify them into meaningful categories.  This will help you prioritize reading them and may indicate useful ways to synthesize what you discover.  You may want to create a simple code for the different categories.

Step 8: Prepare Your Literature Review Report

The following books can help you assemble a literature review report. The resource icons indicate whether the book is available in print or as an e-book.

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Ten Simple Rules for Writing a Literature Review

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1 Centre for Functional and Evolutionary Ecology (CEFE), CNRS, Montpellier, France

2 Centre for Biodiversity Synthesis and Analysis (CESAB), FRB, Aix-en-Provence, France

Literature reviews are in great demand in most scientific fields. Their need stems from the ever-increasing output of scientific publications [1] . For example, compared to 1991, in 2008 three, eight, and forty times more papers were indexed in Web of Science on malaria, obesity, and biodiversity, respectively [2] . Given such mountains of papers, scientists cannot be expected to examine in detail every single new paper relevant to their interests [3] . Thus, it is both advantageous and necessary to rely on regular summaries of the recent literature. Although recognition for scientists mainly comes from primary research, timely literature reviews can lead to new synthetic insights and are often widely read [4] . For such summaries to be useful, however, they need to be compiled in a professional way [5] .

When starting from scratch, reviewing the literature can require a titanic amount of work. That is why researchers who have spent their career working on a certain research issue are in a perfect position to review that literature. Some graduate schools are now offering courses in reviewing the literature, given that most research students start their project by producing an overview of what has already been done on their research issue [6] . However, it is likely that most scientists have not thought in detail about how to approach and carry out a literature review.

Reviewing the literature requires the ability to juggle multiple tasks, from finding and evaluating relevant material to synthesising information from various sources, from critical thinking to paraphrasing, evaluating, and citation skills [7] . In this contribution, I share ten simple rules I learned working on about 25 literature reviews as a PhD and postdoctoral student. Ideas and insights also come from discussions with coauthors and colleagues, as well as feedback from reviewers and editors.

Rule 1: Define a Topic and Audience

How to choose which topic to review? There are so many issues in contemporary science that you could spend a lifetime of attending conferences and reading the literature just pondering what to review. On the one hand, if you take several years to choose, several other people may have had the same idea in the meantime. On the other hand, only a well-considered topic is likely to lead to a brilliant literature review [8] . The topic must at least be:

  • interesting to you (ideally, you should have come across a series of recent papers related to your line of work that call for a critical summary),
  • an important aspect of the field (so that many readers will be interested in the review and there will be enough material to write it), and
  • a well-defined issue (otherwise you could potentially include thousands of publications, which would make the review unhelpful).

Ideas for potential reviews may come from papers providing lists of key research questions to be answered [9] , but also from serendipitous moments during desultory reading and discussions. In addition to choosing your topic, you should also select a target audience. In many cases, the topic (e.g., web services in computational biology) will automatically define an audience (e.g., computational biologists), but that same topic may also be of interest to neighbouring fields (e.g., computer science, biology, etc.).

Rule 2: Search and Re-search the Literature

After having chosen your topic and audience, start by checking the literature and downloading relevant papers. Five pieces of advice here:

  • keep track of the search items you use (so that your search can be replicated [10] ),
  • keep a list of papers whose pdfs you cannot access immediately (so as to retrieve them later with alternative strategies),
  • use a paper management system (e.g., Mendeley, Papers, Qiqqa, Sente),
  • define early in the process some criteria for exclusion of irrelevant papers (these criteria can then be described in the review to help define its scope), and
  • do not just look for research papers in the area you wish to review, but also seek previous reviews.

The chances are high that someone will already have published a literature review ( Figure 1 ), if not exactly on the issue you are planning to tackle, at least on a related topic. If there are already a few or several reviews of the literature on your issue, my advice is not to give up, but to carry on with your own literature review,

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The bottom-right situation (many literature reviews but few research papers) is not just a theoretical situation; it applies, for example, to the study of the impacts of climate change on plant diseases, where there appear to be more literature reviews than research studies [33] .

  • discussing in your review the approaches, limitations, and conclusions of past reviews,
  • trying to find a new angle that has not been covered adequately in the previous reviews, and
  • incorporating new material that has inevitably accumulated since their appearance.

When searching the literature for pertinent papers and reviews, the usual rules apply:

  • be thorough,
  • use different keywords and database sources (e.g., DBLP, Google Scholar, ISI Proceedings, JSTOR Search, Medline, Scopus, Web of Science), and
  • look at who has cited past relevant papers and book chapters.

Rule 3: Take Notes While Reading

If you read the papers first, and only afterwards start writing the review, you will need a very good memory to remember who wrote what, and what your impressions and associations were while reading each single paper. My advice is, while reading, to start writing down interesting pieces of information, insights about how to organize the review, and thoughts on what to write. This way, by the time you have read the literature you selected, you will already have a rough draft of the review.

Of course, this draft will still need much rewriting, restructuring, and rethinking to obtain a text with a coherent argument [11] , but you will have avoided the danger posed by staring at a blank document. Be careful when taking notes to use quotation marks if you are provisionally copying verbatim from the literature. It is advisable then to reformulate such quotes with your own words in the final draft. It is important to be careful in noting the references already at this stage, so as to avoid misattributions. Using referencing software from the very beginning of your endeavour will save you time.

Rule 4: Choose the Type of Review You Wish to Write

After having taken notes while reading the literature, you will have a rough idea of the amount of material available for the review. This is probably a good time to decide whether to go for a mini- or a full review. Some journals are now favouring the publication of rather short reviews focusing on the last few years, with a limit on the number of words and citations. A mini-review is not necessarily a minor review: it may well attract more attention from busy readers, although it will inevitably simplify some issues and leave out some relevant material due to space limitations. A full review will have the advantage of more freedom to cover in detail the complexities of a particular scientific development, but may then be left in the pile of the very important papers “to be read” by readers with little time to spare for major monographs.

There is probably a continuum between mini- and full reviews. The same point applies to the dichotomy of descriptive vs. integrative reviews. While descriptive reviews focus on the methodology, findings, and interpretation of each reviewed study, integrative reviews attempt to find common ideas and concepts from the reviewed material [12] . A similar distinction exists between narrative and systematic reviews: while narrative reviews are qualitative, systematic reviews attempt to test a hypothesis based on the published evidence, which is gathered using a predefined protocol to reduce bias [13] , [14] . When systematic reviews analyse quantitative results in a quantitative way, they become meta-analyses. The choice between different review types will have to be made on a case-by-case basis, depending not just on the nature of the material found and the preferences of the target journal(s), but also on the time available to write the review and the number of coauthors [15] .

Rule 5: Keep the Review Focused, but Make It of Broad Interest

Whether your plan is to write a mini- or a full review, it is good advice to keep it focused 16 , 17 . Including material just for the sake of it can easily lead to reviews that are trying to do too many things at once. The need to keep a review focused can be problematic for interdisciplinary reviews, where the aim is to bridge the gap between fields [18] . If you are writing a review on, for example, how epidemiological approaches are used in modelling the spread of ideas, you may be inclined to include material from both parent fields, epidemiology and the study of cultural diffusion. This may be necessary to some extent, but in this case a focused review would only deal in detail with those studies at the interface between epidemiology and the spread of ideas.

While focus is an important feature of a successful review, this requirement has to be balanced with the need to make the review relevant to a broad audience. This square may be circled by discussing the wider implications of the reviewed topic for other disciplines.

Rule 6: Be Critical and Consistent

Reviewing the literature is not stamp collecting. A good review does not just summarize the literature, but discusses it critically, identifies methodological problems, and points out research gaps [19] . After having read a review of the literature, a reader should have a rough idea of:

  • the major achievements in the reviewed field,
  • the main areas of debate, and
  • the outstanding research questions.

It is challenging to achieve a successful review on all these fronts. A solution can be to involve a set of complementary coauthors: some people are excellent at mapping what has been achieved, some others are very good at identifying dark clouds on the horizon, and some have instead a knack at predicting where solutions are going to come from. If your journal club has exactly this sort of team, then you should definitely write a review of the literature! In addition to critical thinking, a literature review needs consistency, for example in the choice of passive vs. active voice and present vs. past tense.

Rule 7: Find a Logical Structure

Like a well-baked cake, a good review has a number of telling features: it is worth the reader's time, timely, systematic, well written, focused, and critical. It also needs a good structure. With reviews, the usual subdivision of research papers into introduction, methods, results, and discussion does not work or is rarely used. However, a general introduction of the context and, toward the end, a recapitulation of the main points covered and take-home messages make sense also in the case of reviews. For systematic reviews, there is a trend towards including information about how the literature was searched (database, keywords, time limits) [20] .

How can you organize the flow of the main body of the review so that the reader will be drawn into and guided through it? It is generally helpful to draw a conceptual scheme of the review, e.g., with mind-mapping techniques. Such diagrams can help recognize a logical way to order and link the various sections of a review [21] . This is the case not just at the writing stage, but also for readers if the diagram is included in the review as a figure. A careful selection of diagrams and figures relevant to the reviewed topic can be very helpful to structure the text too [22] .

Rule 8: Make Use of Feedback

Reviews of the literature are normally peer-reviewed in the same way as research papers, and rightly so [23] . As a rule, incorporating feedback from reviewers greatly helps improve a review draft. Having read the review with a fresh mind, reviewers may spot inaccuracies, inconsistencies, and ambiguities that had not been noticed by the writers due to rereading the typescript too many times. It is however advisable to reread the draft one more time before submission, as a last-minute correction of typos, leaps, and muddled sentences may enable the reviewers to focus on providing advice on the content rather than the form.

Feedback is vital to writing a good review, and should be sought from a variety of colleagues, so as to obtain a diversity of views on the draft. This may lead in some cases to conflicting views on the merits of the paper, and on how to improve it, but such a situation is better than the absence of feedback. A diversity of feedback perspectives on a literature review can help identify where the consensus view stands in the landscape of the current scientific understanding of an issue [24] .

Rule 9: Include Your Own Relevant Research, but Be Objective

In many cases, reviewers of the literature will have published studies relevant to the review they are writing. This could create a conflict of interest: how can reviewers report objectively on their own work [25] ? Some scientists may be overly enthusiastic about what they have published, and thus risk giving too much importance to their own findings in the review. However, bias could also occur in the other direction: some scientists may be unduly dismissive of their own achievements, so that they will tend to downplay their contribution (if any) to a field when reviewing it.

In general, a review of the literature should neither be a public relations brochure nor an exercise in competitive self-denial. If a reviewer is up to the job of producing a well-organized and methodical review, which flows well and provides a service to the readership, then it should be possible to be objective in reviewing one's own relevant findings. In reviews written by multiple authors, this may be achieved by assigning the review of the results of a coauthor to different coauthors.

Rule 10: Be Up-to-Date, but Do Not Forget Older Studies

Given the progressive acceleration in the publication of scientific papers, today's reviews of the literature need awareness not just of the overall direction and achievements of a field of inquiry, but also of the latest studies, so as not to become out-of-date before they have been published. Ideally, a literature review should not identify as a major research gap an issue that has just been addressed in a series of papers in press (the same applies, of course, to older, overlooked studies (“sleeping beauties” [26] )). This implies that literature reviewers would do well to keep an eye on electronic lists of papers in press, given that it can take months before these appear in scientific databases. Some reviews declare that they have scanned the literature up to a certain point in time, but given that peer review can be a rather lengthy process, a full search for newly appeared literature at the revision stage may be worthwhile. Assessing the contribution of papers that have just appeared is particularly challenging, because there is little perspective with which to gauge their significance and impact on further research and society.

Inevitably, new papers on the reviewed topic (including independently written literature reviews) will appear from all quarters after the review has been published, so that there may soon be the need for an updated review. But this is the nature of science [27] – [32] . I wish everybody good luck with writing a review of the literature.

Acknowledgments

Many thanks to M. Barbosa, K. Dehnen-Schmutz, T. Döring, D. Fontaneto, M. Garbelotto, O. Holdenrieder, M. Jeger, D. Lonsdale, A. MacLeod, P. Mills, M. Moslonka-Lefebvre, G. Stancanelli, P. Weisberg, and X. Xu for insights and discussions, and to P. Bourne, T. Matoni, and D. Smith for helpful comments on a previous draft.

Funding Statement

This work was funded by the French Foundation for Research on Biodiversity (FRB) through its Centre for Synthesis and Analysis of Biodiversity data (CESAB), as part of the NETSEED research project. The funders had no role in the preparation of the manuscript.

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Educational Leadership Doctoral Program

  • Background Sources & Research Methods
  • Identifying Empirical Articles
  • Writing a Literature Review
  • Citing Sources

Literature Review Tips

  • Literature Review and APA Tips

Literature Review Examples

To give you some examples of writing a literature review and an article analysis matrix to keep track of the themes of your articles, I have created a partial literature review and corresponding analysis matrix to demonstrate. My topic is the special education early intervention program called First Step to Success (FSS).

  • Synthetic Writing/Literature Example (First Steps to Success)
  • Article Analysis Spreadsheet Example (First Step to Success)
  • Article Analysis Spreadsheet Example (First Step to Success - PDF Version)

The Process of Writing a Literature Review

Mastering synthetic writing is key to a successful literature review. Use these resources to learn how to analyze the articles you want to use for your literature review, keep track of common themes using an article analysis matrix, and how to convert the notes in the analysis matrix into a piece of synthetic writing.

Think of working on your literature review as a multi-step process:

  • Identify a topic.
  • Find research articles on that topic.
  • Read and analyze each article. (Use the Individual Article Analysis Worksheet )
  • Compare all of the themes addressed in the articles. (Use the Article Analysis Matrix )
  • Use your notes from the article analysis matrix to decide how to organize your literature review (make an outline).
  • Write your literature review by discussing one theme at a time--how is this theme covered in the literature?
  • Your literature review will also need an introduction and a conclusion. Some students like to start with the introduction, while others find it is easier to write the introduction after they have written the body of their literature review.
  • Don't forget to include References at the end of your paper (and to cite them properly within the text)!
  • Individual Article Analysis Worksheet Use this to analyze each of your articles. Focus on questions #4 - #6. These will help you identify the major themes/main ideas in each article you read.
  • Article Analysis Matrix After completing the Individual Article Analysis Worksheet for each of your articles, use this Article Analysis Matrix to compile all of the information you have gathered. Use the Example Article Analysis Matrix below as a guide to get started.

Synthetic Writing

A literature review is not the same as a research paper. The point of a literature review is to synthesize the research of others without making a new argument or scholarly contribution. A literature review is also not an annotated bibliography. You should not write about each study you are reviewing in turn, but instead write synthetically to highlight the current state of the literature.

Key Points to Consider:

  • The purpose of a literature review is to report the current state of the topic. Literature reviewed should be relatively recent, unless you are delving into the history of the topic.
  • Discuss different themes within your literature review rather than individual articles. It will help if you pull information from 2-3 articles for each theme you discuss.
  • All works cited should be both in the text of the literature review and the bibliography
  • Avoid passive voice (ex: It was found that...); Use active voice ("Smith (2013) reported that...")
  • Report what the literature says, not what you think

Writing Your Literature Review

The sites below offer a range of considerations and steps for writing the literature review.

  • Learn How to Write a Review of Literature From the University of Wisconsin-Madison Writing Center.
  • Literature Reviews From the UNC Chapel Hill Writing Center.
  • Literature Review From the University of Houston-Victoria, Texas.
  • The Literature Review: A Few Tips on Conducting It From the University of Toronto Health Sciences Writing Centre.
  • Writing Literature Reviews From the Temple University Writing Center.
  • Getting Started on Your Literature Review From the University of New South Wales Learning Centre.
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how to write a literature review for educational research

Assessment Types

  • Critical Review

Literature Review

  • Presentations

What is a Literature Review?

A literature review is different to an essay. It provides a snapshot of what we know about the research on a particular topic. The author is required to do a comprehensive search of relevant and recent literature (journal articles, text books, websites) to identify what is known about a topic. The main themes are then identified and crtically analysed. A literature review should cover:

  • Compare and contrast the research, what are the common themes in the research?
  • Are there any debates or disagreements in findings?
  • Are there any gaps or limitations in the research reviewed?
  • What are the strengths and limitations of the research?

What are the steps to write a literature review?

how to write a literature review for educational research

Adapted from Scribbr. Click here to learn more

Tips for Success Writing a Literature Review

  • If it is your first time allow more time that you would for an essay or report.
  • Finding quality research will make every step easier. Contact the library for help finding research.
  • It can be difficult keeping track of sources. Use a note taking guide.
  • Be flexible. Your structure may change as you write.

How do I Structure a Literature Review?

Introduction 	10% of word count 	define the topic, provide an appropriate context for reviewing the literature, and explain the organisation of your literature review Body Paragraphs 	organised on the basis of ideas, rather than authors. In other words, the literature should be grouped according to common theme 	Can use headings and subheadings Conclusion  	10% of word count 	summarise the major findings of the literature review 	make an evaluative statement about the current literature on the topic, point out major gaps or flaws, and outline areas for future study.

Organising Body Paragraphs

Do not arrange by articles. 

Paragraphs can not be organised as a summary of each article

Arrange by themes and ideas across the articles. 

Similarities  Differences Problems Solutions Gaps Methodologies

What does it look like?

Adapted from:

Ni Shé, C., Farrell, O., Brunton, J., & Costello, E. (2021). Integrating design thinking into instructional design: The #OpenTeach case study.  Australasian Journal of Educational Technology ,  38 (1), 33–52. https://doi.org/10.14742/ajet.6667

What language do I use in a Literature Review?

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COMMENTS

  1. How to Write a Literature Review

    Examples of literature reviews. Step 1 - Search for relevant literature. Step 2 - Evaluate and select sources. Step 3 - Identify themes, debates, and gaps. Step 4 - Outline your literature review's structure. Step 5 - Write your literature review.

  2. Writing a Literature Review

    Writing a Literature Review. 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 ...

  3. Education Literature Review: Education Literature Review

    In your literature review you will: survey the scholarly landscape. provide a synthesis of the issues, trends, and concepts. possibly provide some historical background. Review the literature in two ways: Section 1: reviews the literature for the Problem. Section 3: reviews the literature for the Project.

  4. How To Write A Literature Review

    Structure planning to write a good literature review; 1. Outline and identify the purpose of a literature review. As a first step on how to write a literature review, you must know what the research question or topic is and what shape you want your literature review to take. Ensure you understand the research topic inside out, or else seek ...

  5. How To Write A Literature Review (+ Free Template)

    Step 1: Find the relevant literature. Naturally, the first step in the literature review journey is to hunt down the existing research that's relevant to your topic. While you probably already have a decent base of this from your research proposal, you need to expand on this substantially in the dissertation or thesis itself.. Essentially, you need to be looking for any existing literature ...

  6. PDF How to Write a Literature Review

    This resource is adapted from the Graduate Writing Place's workshop "Tackling a Literature Review & Synthesizing the Work of Others." For more information about our workshops, see Graduate Writing Workshops. INTRODUCTION Compiling and synthesizing literature as a justification for one's own research is a key element of most academic work.

  7. Education Research Guide: How to Write a Literature Review

    Synthesizing is a method of analyzing the main ideas and important information from your sources as you read and prepare to write a literature review. Review the resources below for sample synthesizing methods. Both examples have tables you can fill out as you read articles to help you organize your thoughts.

  8. Research Guides: Education Basics: Literature Review Overview

    But masters and doctoral candidates in Education and related fields have found academic argumentation to be seamlessly intuitive with the six-step process pioneered by this book. Writing Literature Reviews: Guide for Students in the Social and Behavioral Sciences by Jose L. Galvan. ISBN: 9781936523375.

  9. What is a Literature Review?

    A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources on a specific topic. It provides an overview of current knowledge, allowing you to identify relevant theories, methods, and gaps in the existing research. There are five key steps to writing a literature review: Search for relevant literature. Evaluate sources. Identify themes, debates and gaps.

  10. Literature Review: The What, Why and How-to Guide

    As a piece of writing, the literature review must be defined by a guiding concept (e.g., your research objective, the problem or issue you are discussing, or your argumentative thesis). It is not just a descriptive list of the material available, or a set of summaries." Taylor, D. The literature review: A few tips on conducting it. University ...

  11. Write a Literature Review

    Decide upon the scope of your research; Demonstrate the importance of your research to the field; A literature review is not a descriptive summary of what you found. All works included in the review must be read, evaluated, and analyzed, and synthesized, meaning that relationships between the works must also be discussed.

  12. PDF Writing an Effective Literature Review

    usually be some element of literature review in the introduction. And if you have to write a grant application, you will be expected to review the work that has already been done in your area. However, just because we all have to do this a lot, doesn't make the task any easier, and indeed for many, writing a literature review is one of

  13. What is a Literature Review? How to Write It (with Examples)

    A literature review is a critical analysis and synthesis of existing research on a particular topic. It provides an overview of the current state of knowledge, identifies gaps, and highlights key findings in the literature. 1 The purpose of a literature review is to situate your own research within the context of existing scholarship ...

  14. 5. The Literature Review

    A literature review may consist of simply a summary of key sources, but in the social sciences, a literature review usually has an organizational pattern and combines both summary and synthesis, often within specific conceptual categories.A summary is a recap of the important information of the source, but a synthesis is a re-organization, or a reshuffling, of that information in a way that ...

  15. Subject Guides: Literature Review Basics: Tutorials & Samples

    Business Literature Review Example One. Sharing economy: A comprehensive literature review. Business Literature Review Example Two. Internet marketing: a content analysis of the research. Education Literature Review Sample One. Teachers' perception of STEM integration and education: a systematic literature review.

  16. Writing a literature review

    Writing a literature review requires a range of skills to gather, sort, evaluate and summarise peer-reviewed published data into a relevant and informative unbiased narrative. Digital access to research papers, academic texts, review articles, reference databases and public data sets are all sources of information that are available to enrich ...

  17. PDF Conducting a Systematic Literature Review in Education: A Basic A

    Literature Review in Education: A Basic Approach for Graduate Students . ... Keywords: academic writing, systematic literature review, graduate students ... making a good-quality literature review the most relevant research method they need to master (Snyder, 2019). While there are many different types of literature reviews (e.g., meta -analysis,

  18. 4. Completing a Literature Review

    Making sense: A student's guide to research and writing—education (Margot Northey 2017) 7 steps to a comprehensive literature review: A multimodal & cultural approach (Anthony J. Onwuegbuzie 2016) The literature review: Six steps to success (Lawrence A. Machi 2012) Doing a literature review: Releasing the research imagination (Chris Hart 2018)

  19. Literature Reviews

    The Literature Review by Lawrence A. Machi; Brenda T. McEvoy From daunting to doable in six steps The process of literature search and composing a formal literature review can be intimidating. But masters and doctoral candidates in Education and related fields have found academic argumentation to be seamlessly intuitive with the six-step process pioneered by this book.

  20. Systematic Reviews in Educational Research: Methodology, Perspectives

    A literature review is a scholarly paper which provides an overview of current knowledge about a topic. It will typically include substantive findings, as well as theoretical and methodological contributions to a particular topic (Hart 2018, p. xiii).Traditionally in education 'reviewing the literature' and 'doing research' have been viewed as distinct activities.

  21. Checklist for Education Literature Review

    There are eight general steps in conducting an education literature review. Please follow the eight numbered boxes, starting below. Please note that the general framework for this guide is derived from the work of Joyce P. Gall, M.D. Gall, and Walter R. Borg in Applying Educational Research: a Practical Guide (5th ed., 2005). Also, much of the information on framing the research question comes ...

  22. Ten Simple Rules for Writing a Literature Review

    When searching the literature for pertinent papers and reviews, the usual rules apply: be thorough, use different keywords and database sources (e.g., DBLP, Google Scholar, ISI Proceedings, JSTOR Search, Medline, Scopus, Web of Science), and. look at who has cited past relevant papers and book chapters.

  23. Structuring a literature review

    Throughout, headings and subheadings are used to divide up the literature review into meaningful sections. There is no single "correct" structure for how to structure the content of your literature review - every review is shaped by the nature of the field being reviewed and the specific argument the review is supporting.

  24. Writing a Literature Review

    The point of a literature review is to synthesize the research of others without making a new argument or scholarly contribution. A literature review is also not an annotated bibliography. You should not write about each study you are reviewing in turn, but instead write synthetically to highlight the current state of the literature.

  25. Literature review as a research methodology: An ...

    Why you should write a literature review. Consideration of prior, relevant literature is essential for all research disciplines and all research projects. When reading an article, independent of discipline, the author begins by describing previous research to map and assess the research area to motivate the aim of the study and justify the ...

  26. Literature Review

    It provides a snapshot of what we know about the research on a particular topic. The author is required to do a comprehensive search of relevant and recent literature (journal articles, text books, websites) to identify what is known about a topic. The main themes are then identified and crtically analysed. A literature review should cover:

  27. How To Write A Thesis Literature Review In 4 Simple Steps

    The conclusion of your literature review should summarize the primary arguments highlighted in the review and position your research within the context of the literature. The primary aim of this section is to explain the necessity of your research study based on the gaps it fills in the existing literature.The conclusion should align your research study with the upcoming thesis chapters.

  28. Best Practices for Effective Literature Reviews in Education

    Educational research is continually evolving, and new studies can emerge that may impact your review. Regularly updating your literature review ensures that it remains current and relevant.