The Literature Review: A Guide for Undergraduates
This guide provides undergraduate students with an introduction to writing a literature review. It will explain several things: what a literature review is, what it includes and how you should approach researching and writing it. As you have probably not had to write one before, you may be asking yourself: what is a literature review? Don’t panic! Think of it as a writing task with a specific objective and purpose: to show your tutor or lecturer that you have read, synthesised and understood the scholarly writings on a particular topic. To introduce you to the task, you may be asked to write a literature review as a separate assignment. Developing your skills in this area is an important part of your academic career: if you go on to do an Honours or postgraduate degree, the literature review will form a vital part of your research.
A literature review outlines and evaluates the available literature that has been produced on a given topic or theme by scholars and researchers. A literature review differs from similar exercises (such as annotated bibliographies or critical analyses of primary and secondary sources) in several ways.
The literature review does not just describe a text or an academic’s body of work: it examines and evaluates that work critically in relation to other works on the same topic. The focus of a literature review is governed and guided by an overarching research question, theme, argument or topic.
By synthesising the body of work that is relevant to a particular topic in this way, the literature review establishes the available knowledge on a topic, defines the strengths and weaknesses of different works, and can help you to identify the main scholarly arguments, debates, research gaps and approaches relevant to the topic.
The literature reviewed can include (but is not limited to) academic journal articles, books and book chapters, monographs, conference proceedings, scientific reports and theses (dissertations). For undergraduate literature reviews, you would usually only be expected to read journal articles, books and book chapters. For a literature review assignment, you may be asked to read between three to seven scholarly texts (or more, if you are a third-year student).
It is vital that the literature included in a review is of an academic standard. This means that the text has been written by an academic. The texts you choose to assess normally should have been through a peer-review process, because peer-reviewed academic sources are even higher-quality than other academic sources, and it will have been made available through a reputable academic publisher.
Although many academic journals and digital versions of scholarly books are now available online, information available on general websites and online encyclopedias such as Wikipedia, for example, is not considered appropriate material for academic research.
In some disciplines—such as science or computer technology—it will be important to include only contemporary or relatively recent research; in other disciplines—such as ancient history or philosophy—the relevant literature may encompass much earlier texts.
The first step in your research is to determine the specific question, topic or problem that your literature review will focus on (if a topic or question hasn’t been provided to you by your lecturer or tutor). This will help you undertake relevant keyword searches in the databases available through your university’s library or other appropriate sources. You can also use the reference lists in your course readings to locate relevant source material.
An important second step, even before you begin your research, is to write a rough plan, much like you would for a research essay. Identify some key themes or concepts that you can use to structure your review. This might involve writing subheadings ordered in a logical manner. This outline can then be used to structure the review. List each relevant text (including the bibliographic information) under each subheading and write a topic sentence for each group. Some texts may be included under several subheadings. You’ll develop this rough plan as you research and will finalise it before you begin writing.
When you are ready to read the literature you have collected, do so with some specific strategies (different types of academic reading) and questions in mind, and keep notes as you read.
Skim reading is useful for identifying the relevance of an article or book to your research. For an article, read the abstract, introduction and conclusion and then skim over the headings and subheadings to get an impression of the article’s focus. With a book, you may need to read the introductory chapter, as well as skimming over the contents.
Once you have determined that a text is suitable for your literature review, you can then read it more thoroughly—this is focused reading—and take systematic notes (including the bibliographic information) as you do this. This is when you read with particular questions in your mind. What question has the author posed? What issue has the author identified? How has the author established the scope and relevance of their particular work? Does the author have a particular theoretical perspective or research methodology? In what historical and social context is the author writing? What information has the author included or omitted? Is the author’s writing clear and the arguments well structured?
Make sure you take effective notes while reading: information on note-taking strategies is available online, and you will need to use the one you are most comfortable with. We recommend that you always use a research document when making notes, so that your research will be well organised and in an easy-to-use format when you begin writing your literature review. Our guide to essay writing explains how to organise and use a research document.
Remember that the literature review does not just summarise the texts you have chosen. Instead, it offers a critical analysis of the texts, which is a vital element of academic debate. Writing an effective critical analysis of the scholarly literature involves several steps and academic skills.
The form of your literature review will depend—to some extent—on why you are writing one. For undergraduates, you may have been asked to write a standalone literature review to establish your knowledge and understanding of a particular topic or field of enquiry. A standalone literature review should be structured like a standard research essay, with an introduction, discussion paragraphs and a conclusion. You can organise the literature review in several ways: chronologically, thematically or from the most to the least important works. When compiling the works to include in your literature review, make sure that you record all the relevant bibliographic information for later reference.
Once you’ve completed your research, you can refine and finalise your rough plan into a full and detailed plan to follow while writing your literature review. Use the plan you have developed to help you write in an organised and methodical way. The plan can operate as a checklist so that you do not omit any important texts or ideas you wish to include.
Begin your writing by reviewing your notes, identifying key concepts and any direct quotations that you think are important enough to include. As you review your notes, paraphrase the main ideas and arguments from each text, writing out sentences. List the key concepts, direct quotations and paraphrasing under the subheadings (with topic statements) in your plan. By building up a detailed plan (one that resembles a database), you are actually creating the framework for your writing.
Write up your critical and synthesised analysis of the texts listed under each subheading, incorporating your paraphrasing and direct quotations. Remember to use citations where required. Also remember that this first part of writing is called a ‘draft’. Don’t worry too much about perfect grammar, spelling or sentence structure at this point. This phase of writing needs to flow, and you have already created a framework to scaffold your flow of ideas.
Once you have written a first draft in the way outlined above, you can then review what you have written (after a short break). Compare the draft to your plan and your notes. Have you discussed everything you wanted to? Is there any unnecessary repetition? Have you engaged in an appropriate level of critical analysis of the texts? Do you need to create more synthesis in your analysis?
At this point, you can rewrite the first draft and focus on your sentence structures, the logical flow of your arguments both within and between paragraphs (and across the review overall), your use of citations and your written expression. Be critical of your own writing and argumentation, and analyse your own strengths and weaknesses. The final step is to edit your literature review, looking at grammar, syntax, spelling, punctuation, the use of tenses and other elements. Remember that this final editing stage is vital for producing written work that is polished, readable and of a high academic standard.
Producing a literature review will help you to develop some vital academic skills and demonstrate these skills to your tutor or lecturer. These include:
We hope that this guide has given you a broad understanding of the literature review and how you research and write one. Please see the other resources available on the Capstone Editing website, along with those available through your university’s library or academic skills services.
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