What Is a Literature Review?
A literature review is a summary and synthesis of existing research on a topic that gives the background of current knowledge on the topic, establishes a thesis, and provides credible evidence. Another way to think of a literature review is as an analysis of the discussion between authors. The literature review will contain common themes as well as agreeing and disagreeing perspectives.
Steps to Prepare Writing Your Literature Review
Frame your research area. Choose an area of research that interests you, considering recent issues, class discussions and topics you have encountered in your previous research.
Select resources and begin your search. Search the library’s catalog, and find the appropriate journal databases to explore for your particular topic. See your class’ topic guide for recommended databases and contact your librarian for additional help with selecting resources. Then, scan recent articles and reviews related to your research area. Remember to create reference lists of your resources.
Define your topic. Now that you have an overview of the existing research about your research area, define your topic. Consider what aspects of your research area interest you the most, which specific topics are discussed the most in the existing research, and whether you need to restrict your topic to a certain time period or field of study.
Survey the literature and select research most relevant to your topic. Read the articles and reviews you have already discovered and conduct additional research as necessary to select appropriate literature to include in your review. It is critical that you read all of your sources before you write your review.
Critique and analyze the literature. Evaluate the articles and reviews. Consider what assumptions researchers seem to be making, what procedures and methods they have used, and what findings and conclusions they have. Note any important trends revealed in the literature.
When preparing to write your literature review, you may find yourself completing these steps in a different order or even repeating steps. This is a natural part of the process as you learn more about your topic and the literature about it.
Writing the Literature Review
Often, one of the more difficult aspects of writing the literature review is figuring out how to structure it. Jonathan Cisco (2014) outlines a method for a “Theme-Based Literature Review” that helps you focus on analysis rather than description, leading to a true synthesis of the literature.
Define common themes
Think of all of the research on your topic as creating “cloud” of literature. As you read the literature, you start to notice patterns and that different authors discuss the same things. Make note of agreeing and disagreeing theories, methods, and results. Notice when authors focus on the same terms or have similar or conflicting conclusions. You can begin categorizing your sources by these “themes,” “breaking the bubble into several smaller bubbles, each of which address a topic within [your] literature review” (48).
Divide the literature into different theme “buckets.”
You can also view your themes as different “buckets.” You can organize your research by pulling evidence (quotations, theories, definition, conclusions, etc.) from source and placing that evidence into its corresponding theme (or subtopic) “bucket.”
Outline and write your review.
Once your themes are defined and your literature organized, you can create an outline for your literature review, structuring it by using the most important themes as subheadings.
Your introduction should define the general topic and context for the focus of your literature review. It should also point out general trends, conflicts, and conclusions while presenting your thesis on the research. You may also include any necessary criteria for analyzing the literature and the scope of your research.
Each section should contain a topic sentence introducing the theme (subheading) and then should present an analysis of the different authors’ perspectives, approaches, theories, and conclusions. Provide summaries of studies or articles only as part of the analysis, and synthesize the research by drawing parallels, pointing out conflicting results, and providing “so what” brief explanations.
Conclude your literature review by summarizing the significant themes in the literature. Provide insight into the relationship between your themes and their relationship to the overall body of knowledge of your topic area.
Note. “Theme-Based Literature Review” structure, idea, explanations and illustrations are adapted from “Teaching the Literature Review: A Practical Approach for College Instructors,” by J. Cisco, 2014, Teaching & Learning Inquiry: The ISSOTL Journal, 2.2, pp. 41-57. Used with permission.