Welcome to this tutorial for graduate students on writing a literature review, brought to you by the Allyn & Betty Taylor Library.
So you’re a graduate student with your thesis or dissertation topic, and you need to get started on your literature review. But… what exactly IS a literature review?
The literature review is often a chapter in your thesis or dissertation where you will describe and cite what research has already been done related to your topic, how this research has helped inform your own topic, and how your topic fits into the bigger picture of research in your discipline. Sometimes it will be broken up into several smaller sections in different chapters. It’s usually done as you get started with your own research, since it will help you understand the background of your topic.
How can you learn what research has already been done on your topic? Your advisor should be able to point you to some key articles or authors in the field, and you can use library resources to find articles and other information on your topic. Each of those publications will have reference lists that will lead you to other relevant articles. The library has access to citation databases, such as Scopus and Web of Science, that will help you find out who has cited the articles you’re reading in order to build on their research. To help you navigate your way through all of this information, be sure to get in touch with your subject librarian. He or she would be happy to help you out!
During this information-gathering process, you will probably end up with a big pile of growing papers, or thumb drives or Refworks accounts filling up with articles.
“One of the hardest parts of working on the literature review is recognizing how work done by other researchers relates to your topic. Even after you’ve found the articles, identifying the key ideas and theories can be a real challenge, especially if you’ve never done a literature review before. I’ve been in the middle of writing a literature review and felt really overwhelmed - like there’s no end in sight. Keeping things organized is important but I’m not always sure of the best way to do it with so many different articles and formats.”
“Reading and understanding an article isn’t always intuitive, and it certainly takes time. One tip I often share with students, is to start with the abstract, introduction and discussion sections. After you’ve read these, you should be able to identify the significance of the research and how it relates to your own project. This will help you decide which articles to take a closer look at. To keep organized, many students print out the articles and make notes on them, or keep their notes on a computer.”
Another method to consider that works well for a lot of students is to keep what’s called a ‘synthesis matrix.’ This simple table can be created in Excel or Word or any similar software, with one column for each article you read. As you’re reading your first article, start to note some of the key points or themes you’re finding, including the page number, so you can easily cite it later on. When you move on to the second article, continue to note how each new article addresses these main points or themes. When you’re done, you’ll have a helpful table that will keep you organized, and you can write your literature review according to the themes you’ve identified.
“Over the years, I have advised many graduate students and helped them with their literature reviews. For a successful review, you need to show how the literature is related to your actual project. The review should include a critical analysis of approaches used by other researchers. You should make connections between articles you have read; this will help you organize your thoughts and research. Grouping these connections together by theme will also help to avoid a review that just summarizes each article individually. Remember that citations are still needed to support the connecting ideas.“
If you’d like to see a sample literature review for a thesis or dissertation, ask your advisor or colleagues, or use one of the library’s theses databases to find examples from Western and other universities. The library also has print copies that you can sign out.
At any point when you get stuck or have questions, there are many resources available to help you through. Your advisors or other faculty members, your subject librarian, and the graduate writing centre staff are all people who can help with this process. Don’t hesitate to ask them!
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