A literature review is a critical consideration of the current information available about a subject matter. The author of a literature review does not create a new primary source, but, instead, the author summarizes and analyzes existing primary sources to create a valuable secondary source that evaluates current, published theoretical, methodological, and experimental work in the field of the subject matter. Unlike a research paper, free- standing (not part of a larger paper) literature reviews do not seek to make a new argument; instead, a literature review synthesizes the arguments of other authors and collects a broad base of knowledge about a subject matter.
Often a literature review is the initial step of the research process of a thesis or other weighty research project, used to create the proposal, guide the writing, and provide evidence-based support for the findings of the writing. Also, the literature review provides the writing with a context within the subject matter for readers, equipping readers with the necessary knowledge regarding the subject matter so that they may correctly interpret the writing.
What are the learning advantages of a literature review?
From an instructional perspective, the learning advantages of assigning a literature review are numerous. Literature reviews encourage students to compare and contrast different authors’ arguments, methodology, writing styles, and conclusions about a particular subject matter. Furthermore, students are encouraged to evaluate sources, granting them insight into what characteristics make up a quality resource. By amassing a large number of resources about a single topic, literature reviews promote in-depth learning about that topic through a student-guided process. Though literature reviews often function as an early step in the process of writing research papers, literature reviews are also great for building academic writing skills in students.
From a student perspective, the writing tools developed by creating a literature review are also manifold. The critical skills built by comparing and contrasting how different authors research and present information reinforce students’ own abilities to research and present information. The process of determining which sources to use guides students to
Identify and use high-quality resources. Literature reviews allow students to select their own sources, building their decision-making process as well as their interest in the subject matter as they are the materials selectors. Considering that literature reviews are excellent starting points for all research assignments, even if only being conducted as informal notes for the writer, learning how to create a formal literature review will only improve future writings.
What are the basic components of a literature review?
Researching a literature review
Literature reviews have several steps involved in the composition process. First, writers must select a topic and the scope of that topic: how many sources should be included in the literature review? How much information must be included from each source? What aspects of the topic will be discussed? Will any aspects of the topic be ignored or only discussed to a lesser extent, and why? These questions and others that help writers discover limiters that clarify and focus their subject matter guide the further steps.
Depending on the scope of the literature review, the largest section of researching the literature review is often locating the sources necessary to write the review. Authors should always use resources that meet the quality standards of their given fields; usually, these standards include only using scholarly, peer-reviewed primary sources. Several strategies exist for finding these resources including: searching databases for relevant scholarly publications, browsing subject-specific databases for the most field-specific resources, using references pages or indexing resources to find further information, and searching library catalogs for print and digital holdings among many other search strategies. Use the limiters determined during the initial scope-determining process to enhance the search, reducing the time and effort necessary to complete this process.
In addition to merely gathering and organizing the writings to discuss in the literature review, authors must summarize the information contained in the resources within the context of the scope of the literature review. Authors also must critically consider the resources and provide scholarly feedback of the value of the resources within the subject matter of the literature review.
Writing a literature review
Often, much of the language of the introduction of the literature review can be gathered during the initial step of the process. The written introduction will include an overview of the topic, its relevance in the given field, and the purpose for composing the literature review. This section may also define key terms that appear within the body of the paper, especially if the paper includes technical language that may obfuscate the author’s ability to communicate effectively with the given audience.
Writing the body of the literature review requires thought into what organizational structure will best support the topic’s focus, such as in chronological order of publication, more broad subject matter to more specifically focused writings, different schools of thought about the same subject, or different theories addressing the given topic, among others. A large degree of comparing and contrasting the resources occurs at this level of the writing; the differences observed when contrasting the resources can sometimes suggest an organizational strategy. Beyond organization, authors must also decide the level of analysis to use in their literature reviews. Bloom’s Taxonomy helps guide writers about how to consider and express information to communicate different levels of thinking about a topic. Yet another important consideration at this step of the writing process is to consider how to provide in-text citations, a references page, and format the paper—the key tool for this consideration is the style guide that is prescribed for the assignment.
The literature review is not complete without a conclusion, results, or findings section that ties together the considerations of the author about the resources within the scope of the study. The research should be presented in such a way that the literature advances the knowledge of readers and the concluding section should summarize what information readers will have attained from reading the paper. This section serves as a final evaluation of the resources in a clear and concise manner for readers.
Key Terms of Literature Review
Discussion of literature reviews and the writing process can lead to confusion if students are unfamiliar with the key terms of researching. The following are some of the key terms that may require clear definition to ensure that students can successfully interpret assignment guidelines.
Evidence-based support: Defense of an argument with a foundation in other scholarly sources that reinforce the argument; outside sources valued in the relevant subject field that confirm the statement
Critical consideration: Writers of literature reviews only use scholarly (peer-reviewed) sources to analyze a subject matter and evaluate
Limiters: Specific search criteria, such as a date range, full-text only, or publication titles, that limit the search to exclude data that does not fit within the criteria
Primary source: Original research about a subject matter composed by the scholar(s) participating in the process; historical artifacts or documents, scholarly research, and recordings of events are all examples of primary sources
Secondary source: Any composition for which the basis of the creation is a primary source and does not involve new information beyond analysis, synthesis, and/or evaluation of existing sources
NOTE: The Literature Review information was provided by WCU Anaheim librarian, Bethany Firch.
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