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Education - Doing Literature Reviews

Nature/Purpose of Literature Reviews

What is a Literature Review?

A literature review is both a process and a product. As a process, it involves searching for information related to your topic to familarize yourself with the relevant research. This process also helps you identify issues and gaps in the research. Remember that you're seeking to identify the key authors and key arguments that are relevant to your topic, not to exhaustively read everything written on the subject.

You will need to find ways to systematically document your search process (where you've searched and your search terms), to keep track of what you've read (look into bibliographic/citation software), and to summarize key points from relevant literature.  One way of doing the last is through a synthesis matrix.

As a finished product, a literature review tells the reader the current state of understanding about a topic. However it's more than a summary of what you've read, it's a critical analysis, which argues the need for your own study. It provides a context for your own research, by showing the relationship between it and existing scholarship.

A literature review can be a component of a research paper, or it can be published on its own as a 'review article.'  A literature review is a mandatory part of every thesis and dissertation.

The focus of this guide is on the process of searching for relevant literatureIt will guide you through an approach that is specifically tailored for Education and which uses Education examples. However the process is similar in other disciplines, especially those that use Social Science methodologies.

Writing a Literature Review video

An excellent overview, from North Carolina State University Libraries.

More about Literature Reviews

Boote, D.N. & Beile, P. (2005). Scholars before researchers: On the centrality of the dissertation literature review in research preparation.  Educational Researcher, 36(6), 3-15. - suggests criteria to evaluate the quality of dissertation literature reviews AND Maxwell, J. A.. (2006). Literature Reviews of, and for, Educational Research: A Commentary on Boote and Beile's "Scholars before Researchers". Educational Researcher35(9), 28–31. 
Boell, S.B. & Cecez-Kecmanovic, D. (2010). Literature reviews and the hermeneutic circle. Australian Academic & Research Libraries41(2), 129-144. - proposes an approach to literature reviews that is capable of dealing with their complexity and uncertainly
Literature Reviews handout from the University of North Carolina

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