A thesis or dissertation can be daunting in itself. When an advisor tells a graduate student to start with Chapter 2, the literature review, anxiety can knock the wind out of even the most proficient writers. What follows is an OVERVIEW of a literature review, its purpose, and its structure.

What is the Literature Review?

A literature review (lit review) is most obviously a review of literature, but I realize that is not all that helpful. There is a body of literature on almost every subject you can imagine, all created from someone’s research or metaresearch (a summary of existing research). A researcher’s job is to justify her own research by ensuring her study has not already been done. Additionally, a researcher must illustrate how the foundation of her study has been laid based on existing research. A literature review provides the background for the study as well as evidence the researcher’s study is necessary. It should illustrate a gap, some study that has not been done, ideally pointing to the researcher’s purpose for doing his or her study.

How Do I Organize My Lit Review?

The organization of a lit review will most likely be driven by the literature found. A researcher must be creative and thorough with keywords when searching his topic to amplify his chances of exhausting the literature in the research area. For example, if a researcher is studying the effects of a tutoring program on homeless students in grades 3-6, the following topics are the minimum to be searched:

  • homeless children ages 9-12
  • tutoring programs, grades 3-6 (what’s a typical one look like?, a successful one?, a failed one?)
  • tutoring homeless students (what have other educators done?)
  • research on students in the district area in which the tutoring program will be implemented
  • barriers to tutoring program success
  • evaluating tutoring programs
  • recruiting criteria for tutoring programs
  • mandatory tutoring based on test scores

Depending on what the searches reveal, or the amount of literature in each area, the headings for the lit review could be determined by the search phrases. If not much was found, new search terms may need to be used and the researcher may have few headings.

There is typically a historical segment in the chapter that gives either an overview of the literature at hand or gives a chronological progression of how the research led to the current point of study. In the tutoring case, there would most likely be a history of homelessness – along with data describing homeless children’s school retention, test scores, and transiency – as well as a history of tutoring programs in the country and in the geographic area in which the program will be implemented.

What Does it Mean to Review Literature?

In a more specific sense, reviewing literature does have its regimen. There is much synthesis involved and some summarizing. It is important to find research studies, as opposed to theoretical articles, so there are empirical data to support your reasoning. It is great when big thinkers make important assertions, but it is even better when those are supported by data. However, research should be grounded in theory, typically described in a section titled Theoretical Framework (located in Chapter 1 or 2, depending on the program).

Critically analyzing the relevant literature is crucial to including the right literature in a document. Each study cited must in some way be relevant to the topic of the proposed study. In reviewing a study, it is important to discuss the methodology of the study, emphasizing differences from the proposed study. It is important to clarify for readers the study is not simply a duplicate of what has already been done. Reviewing a study means seriously examining sample size, population demographics, instrumentation, data collection and analysis, and conclusions and include those components that support the need for the study. Each of the above concepts does not necessarily need to be written up in the lit review. However, a researcher should analyze them all and cull the points key to his study’s relevance.

When writing about other studies, a researcher will summarize some of the information, but the connections between the proposed study and other studies on the same topic are created by synthesis. Synthesis by the writer creates connections for the reader so the inclusion of that particular research being cited is clear. An important point to mention is the idea of paraphrasing. A good lit review is one that has been synthesized from the existing literature instead of one containing direct quote after direct quote. If a researcher has only one paragraph between direct quotes, there are too many quotes.

How Much Literature Do I Need to Review?

While some programs may have a specific value in mind for how many studies the lit review should contain, it is more important the researcher cover his topic thoroughly in terms of the existing pertinent research. However, number of sources does not always equate to relevance. If a researcher has yet to provide evidence for why she is doing the study, she needs to keep looking for literature. On the flip side, if she found her gap, that does not mean she is finished looking. If someone can still question why she is doing her study the way she is doing it, she has more research and writing to do.

For more on lit reviews, see the following:
UC, Santa Cruz Library
University of Wisconsin, Madison