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How to Write a Literature Review

A review of literature is an research paper in which the author identifies, relates, and evaluates the resources consulted for a research project. The review of literature is more than an annotated bibliography or individual summary of each article; it demonstrates the author’s awareness and understanding of the key resources in a particular field as well as his or her ability to evaluate the strengths and limitations of those resources.

Imagine that the experts whose work you have consulted are having a conversation about your particular topic. You have the privilege of listening in on this conversation and you notice how one expert’s ideas relate to another expert’s ideas, where one expert is more in-depth while another is more comprehensive, how one expert adopts a very different approach from that of another expert, and how all of the ideas relate to the topic you are investigating. This aspect of relating your research to the existing body of knowledge and discovering patterns and themes among your sources is what makes the review of literature more than a mere summary.

The external research you have conducted, whether in print, video, online, or audio format, has allowed you to build a strong knowledge base as the foundation for your action research plan. You have learned what other educators have already explored about your topic, and you have learned how other educators have investigated some of the same variables you are interested in. You have gone to the experts, the members of the same professional education community to which you belong. Now you will provide a thorough description of this research as it interrelates and an evaluation of this research.

This review of literature is not meant to be exhaustive. You are required to consult at least three works, but you may engage in more research than that. If you have conducted extensive research, choose the best and most relevant pieces to review.

Before Writing the Review

  1. Determine the relationship among your resources that will allow you to link them to one another in your essay. For example:
    1. Is there a major controversy or difference of opinion in this literature?
    2. Do all the sources address the same question but answer it differently?
    3. Do some sources take a traditional approach, but more contemporary sources offer a different approach?
    4. Do some sources rest upon the earlier, foundational work of others?
    Try to find a way to connect these sources to one another—much like piecing together a puzzle. You are synthesizing separate sources, not simply listing them.
  2. The connection you make among your sources will become the unifying thesis of your essay. In one or two sentences, explain the relationship among these resources and let your reader know how the essay will proceed.
  3. Use your critical thinking skills to determine the strengths, inadequacies, and limitations of your resources. You are qualified to make this judgment because you are in the process of acquiring extensive knowledge of this topic. Note that this evaluation is more than an opinion. Rather, it is a careful judgment of the source’s value based on certain qualities: the material it covers, its currency, its comprehensiveness, the validity of its conclusions, its written expression, and other qualities you notice.

Writing the Literature Review

  1. Your first paragraph will:
    1. State your research question or the problem you’re investigating.
    2. State the unifying idea you’ve discovered which relates your sources to one another.
    3. Suggest to the reader the organization your paper will follow.
  2. Each of the subsequent paragraphs will describe an individual study, providing key information, such as:
    1. The parameters of the topic
    2. The methodology or approach of the resource
    3. The questions it seeks to answer
    4. Its key ideas
    5. The conclusions it proposes
    Note: You are not making any evaluations in these paragraphs.
    Plan the order of your paragraphs; know why you’re starting with a particular article or source and then moving to another specific source. Make this plan clear to your reader. Provide transitions, either at the end or at the beginning of each paragraph, explaining the relationship between one resource and the next.
  3. In the next to the last paragraph(s), evaluate all the resources you just described. Which are outstanding? Why?
    You might want to compare research assumptions, hypotheses, research designs, variables, equipment, and/or results. All studies have strengths and weaknesses. Some may be unusual and exciting, others basic but very helpful. Offer examples to support your judgments.
  4. In the final paragraph(s), discuss how this research, in particular these sources you’ve just reviewed, has immediately affected your collaborative action research plan. What is the result of your conducting this review?
  5. At the end of your review of literature, include on a separate page a list of references in APA format (refer to the APA guidelines).

Note: Because you will be referring to a number of ideas that are not your own, your review of literature will be full of in-text citations. Be careful to enclose in quotations any language you have taken from another source. Direct quotes and paraphrases must be followed by citations in correct APA format (refer to the APA guidelines). Full bibliographic information for each in-text citation must be included in your list of references.

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