How to Help Students Excel in Reviews of the Literature

How to Help Students Excel in Reviews of the Literature

Yukiko Inoue-Smith (University of Guam, Guam)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-4036-7.ch016
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Reviewing the literature helps students to build knowledge in their areas of study. An effective review must critically evaluate—not just summarize—the literature, which presents a significant challenge to students undertaking a literature review. This chapter describes a sequence of assignments for students in an education research methods course in a master's degree program as an example of an effective approach for teaching students how to write a good standalone literature review. This approach consists of four distinct yet interconnected phases: (1) establishing a topic together with developing a plan of action, (2) searching the literature using databases, (3) writing a review with APA style, and (4) reflecting on the review process. The purpose of a literature review is, in effect, to guide one's own research. Helping students complete their reviews in the phases described herein may increase the quality of their reviews, and, simultaneously, it may decrease their frustration in writing reviews for their research in the future.
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A literature review—broadly understood as an assessment of the literature—is “set as student assignments in a variety of modules to broaden understanding of particular research topics and to enable students to participate critically appraising ideas and arguments” (Rewhorn, 2018, p. 143). Students are often required to undertake a literature review in junior college courses, four-year university courses, and graduate education. In addition to writing as part of a thesis or a dissertation, writing a literature review is indeed an indispensable learning activity for students in academic programs and courses of study.

While students write numerous papers in higher education courses, “One of the most common types of papers assigned is the comprehensive review of the existing literature” (Granello, 2001, p. 292). A literature review is a great way to summarize information published regarding a topic but requires more than just compiling a collection of references about the topic (Kowalczyk & Truluck, 2013). It requires skills “to collect, analyze, and critique the ideas and arguments presented in a range of research studies in order to understand where research boundaries are located, to identify areas where knowledge is missing or contested, and where future research may be undertaken” (Rewhorn, 2018, p. 143). An important role of reviewing the literature is “to provide the reader with a comprehensive background for understanding the current knowledge and highlighting the significance of a new research…helping the researcher to determine or define research questions or hypotheses” (Cronin, Ryan, & Coughlan, 2008, p. 38).

A literature review—also broadly understood as a survey of secondary sources—is “both a summary and an explanation of the complete and current state of knowledge on a limited topic as found in academic books and journal articles” (University of the Fraser Valley, 2010, p. 1). As referred to earlier, two types of reviews for students to conduct in their academic studies are: (i) to write as a standalone assignment in a course; and (ii) to write as part of an introduction, typically, to a thesis or a dissertation.

A literature review assigned to students is mostly a broad-ranging critical review of the literature on a particular topic—and it is precisely “structured like an essay and is often a similar length but there are differences: in an essay, you argue a point of view, whereas in a literature review assignment, you critically analyze the literature in order to understand what is known about a topic” (RMIT, 2015, ¶1–2).

“Even though the literature review is a hallmark of scholarly research, students may have difficulty even defining the term. Students find it challenging to synthesize works in a literature review and thus are unable to write a coherent review” (Cisco, 2014, p. 42)—moreover, students have “difficulty with the structure of the literature review: they typically write a series of unrelated paragraphs, each of which summarizes one of the works reviewed rather than an integrative analysis of all the sources” (p. 42).

A literature review “can outline the advantages and disadvantages of the methods used…. A review can also help to refresh the information base of a researcher returning to a subject area after some time away from it” (Wee & Banister, 2016, p. 278)—for that reason, “A literature review should be a review not an overview, and especially the paper should clearly state its objectives in the introduction, and the conclusion should return to these objectives to assess whether they have been achieved” (p. 287).

“While there is a growing awareness of the need for explicit pedagogy to support students writing this genre, many pedagogical interventions fail to move beyond a focus on citations as a stylistic convention or as a way of avoiding plagiarism” (Badenhorst, 2018, p. 121): one of the most complicated writing tasks for higher education students is undoubtedly “the literature review [which] involves selecting sources, reading critically, extracting from texts, and synthesizing sources into writing through citations. All these tasks require an understanding of the multiple literacy practices of academic discourses” (p. 121).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Feedback: A description (either verbally or in writing) about reactions to a person’s performance.

Online Database: A web-based filing system used to store information, accessible by using web scripts.

Research: A systematic investigation to describe, explain, and predict the observed phenomenon.

APA Style: A writing style and format for journal articles and books: it is commonly used for citing sources within the field of behavioral and social sciences including education.

Synthesizing: Combining many different parts or ideas to come up with a new idea or theory.

Library Search: Accessing the library catalogue, e-journals catalogue, and database collections.

Rubric: A scoring guide used to evaluate the quality of students’ competencies in assignments.

Systematic Review: A review of the literature conducted in a methodical manner with synthesis of the retrieved information often by means of a meta-analysis. (Note: In Bloom’s Taxonomy, synthesis is evident when students put the parts they have reviewed as a whole in order to create new meaning.)

Standalone Literature Review: Writing a literature review as a standalone paper, not writing as part of an introduction, usually, to a thesis or a dissertation.

Reflective Practice: An ability to reflect on one’s actions in order to engage in a process of continuous learning.

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