Is your literature review more than a list?

Literature reviews are hard. First, there is a ton of stuff out there and you have to find the bits that are relevant to your study; and second, you are expected to seem like an expert and be able to weave it all together into a coherant argument that shows the reader how your little contribution is going to fit in (and potentially add to it). Phew, no pressure then.

For most undergraduate students, the most important (or only) lit review you do is for your final year dissertation or independent study…which is, let’s face it, already a fairly scarey undertaking. We can’t take away your fear or your stress, but we can take away some of the confusion which may be adding to it.

What’s it all about?

Artist painting a picture of woodland with fruit trees explaining how their study is the fruit of a particular 'research tree'.

A literature review is about creating a picture. A picture that shows how your study fits into the existing scholarship in the field. You must decide which literature is relevant and explain why. You need to answer the questions: What have you built upon? What influenced your study? Other papers may be interesting but not actually needed here.

What literature should you include?

You should concentrate on the academic literature. That is usually books and journal articles. Your aim is to show how experts in the field have approached the topic or issue.

Student with magnifying glass complaining that there are not many results to their search

After that, it becomes a bit harder to answer this question as it is very dependent on your study. For some of you, there is very little published that directly relates to what you are researching and you will be using all or most of it (and some from related areas). For others, you could be overwhelmed by your initial search and part of the skill is to whittle this down to the most relevant stuff.

Student drowning in a sea of papers

Don’t worry, help is at hand. The Skills Team run regular online workshops (webinars) helping you with finding relevant material and refining your searches. The full workshop programme can be accessed here: Workshop and Webinar programme.

What should you do with the literature once you have found it?

The most important thing about the review is that IT IS NOT A LIST. You must avoid summarising one piece of literature after another without making any connections between them or with your own study. There is some summarising, it is true, but it is more about SYNTHESIS and EVALUATION.


Student/artist painting trees explaining how they are related to each otherSynthesis is the act of combining elements to form a whole. So, with literature it is about making connections, looking for themes, noting disagreements etc and painting that bigger picture for your reader. The excellent ScholarStudio blog has come up with “10 questions to generate synthesis” which you can download from Learning to Synthesize for the Lit Review (the actual blog is aimed at academics so may be a bit heavy but if you scroll to the bottom you can get the student-friendly pdf via your email).


A judge

Evaluation means coming to a judgement. In the case of a literature review this is about explaining why you consider it to be worth including (why it is important and relevant to your study). You also need to show how your study will add to the overall picture – where will it sit? Is it similar to any other literature? What will it add? Is it different? How and why?

“Move through the literature reporting as you go how your work connects with the literatures – or summarise at the end of each chunk how the literatures inform your research”.

From Pat Thomson – Patter

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