All academics and students at university will have to write a literature review at some point. In a nutshell, a literature review is an attempt to create a complete account of what has been published on a topic. The literature review is usually placed near the beginning of the academic writing in a research paper, essay, research report or thesis.
The aim of a literature review
The aim of a literature review is to critically present the current knowledge around a subject. The word critically is important in this sentence, because a critical point of view on an author's ideas is often favourable in the academic world.
A good literature review would cover areas such as the research objective and the issues or problems involved in the research. It’s important to note that a literature review shouldn’t simply be a list of publications or a set of summaries. It should be a range of ideas and findings around a subject that are contrasted against each other to find their strengths and weaknesses.
Important features of a literature review
Any literature review must be directly related to the title, research question and the problems that surround them. It must also highlight areas that are known and unknown. Critical analysis should also identify areas of controversy throughout the literature. Then all of this information should help to formulate questions that must be answered in your research or in other future research.
Questions to ask before starting a literature review
- What type of literature review does your academic work require? For example, theory, methodology, policy, quantitative research or qualitative research.
- What areas of research are key to the research question? For example, research in independent learning might require a literature review that covers learner autonomy, learner motivation, barriers to autonomous learning, intrinsic and extrinsic motivators, etc.
- What are the best keywords to search for the research topics required?
- Are you using the correct keywords?
- Has your search been wide enough to capture everything required to answer your research question?
- Is it too wide with results that bring back too many irrelevant sources?
- What type of literature is important for your academic work? For example, books, journals, news, etc.
- Are the strengths and weaknesses of each argument assessed thoroughly?
- How useful will the reader find the literature review?
A literature review should be organised into themes to ensure that it provides an easily understood text that reviews all of the relevant literature around your research question. Remember, it’s just as important for your reader to follow your understanding of the liturature as it is to understand it yourself! So, try to organise your review into themes and highlight any trends or points of controversy that relate to those themes in the same sections.
Good luck with your literature review, create a good one and you'll form the basis of great academic writing.