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How to Write a Literature Review for a Dissertation

Writing a Literature Review
Writing a dissertation is one of the great learning tasks of college education. However, many students find it a daunting process. One of the first challenges you face is writing a literature review and the purpose of this post is to help you get started with the process, to keep you on track as you proceed and to provide a means of self-reviewing your outputs when you (think you) have completed.
Let’s start with a simple set of questions: What constitutes a literature review? What is it used for? and What distinguishes a good literature review from a poor one?
As the name implies, a literature review is a review of other people’s work in a particular field of scholarship. Such a review is always directed and informed by the research question to be addressed. For example, if your research question is related to adult literacy then you will need to provide a review of other works, be they theoretical models, research reports or practice studies, that relate to adult literacy. Most importantly, a literature review cannot be of any value unless it is referenced to some form of research question or problem.

It is a common mistake for students to misunderstand the purpose of a literature review – it is not a means for the student to demonstrate wide ranging knowledge or to reproduce theory or to provide a history of developments in a particular field (although it can involve each of these). It is simply a matter of ‘re’viewing the literature from the perspective of the research question or topic. In other words, asking and addressing questions of the form ‘if such and such says or has found this then what are the implications for my research?’ 

The purpose of a literature review is to guide and support you and your reader in furthering the investigation or inquiry at hand. In academic scholarship you can and should build on the works of others – provided they are properly cited. 
Here is an analogy that might be useful: If you were planning to visit Rome then you would likely consult a guidebook and some web sites for information. You would be very interested in the section dealing with the specific area were you intend to stay, and you would also focus on the sites you plan to visit. To a certain extent, you don’t need to read everything in the guidebook. However, you might need to bring the guidebook with you and consult it during your visit.  Imagine if each visitor had to explore the entire city for the first time – we would have very poor experiences in Rome. It is wise therefore to find out from other sources all that you need to know to make your particular journey as successful as possible. So (please forgive me if this sounds patronising!) consider the following – the value of a guide book is always considered with respect to the place and time of your visit and similarly, literature reviews are intended to support the research inquiry at hand.

In academic scholarship you can use a literature review to address the following issues:

  • To outline a conceptual framework for your research question
  • To develop an argument as to the importance of your research question and to discuss the wider implications amd context
  • To discuss the theoretical and philosophical (epistemological) underpinnings of the problem
  • To refine, focus and improve the research question
  • To discuss relevant and related theory, models or frameworks
  • To discuss other relevant research
  • To discuss research approaches and methods (although a fuller treatment of this is normally part of a later section on methodology) 
A good literature review is never passive – the writer is constantly making connections between the work of others and the current research or inquiry. Indicators of a good review:
  • It is constructed from and connected to the research question
  • It is comprehensive in relation to the research question
  • It is connected and well structured
  • It provides a sound foundation for the other components of the dissertation
  • The writer adopts a critical stance  
The most straightforward way to organise a literature review is to structure it around the central themes that arise from the research question.
Here are 10 questions you can use to self-assess your literature review:
  1. Have I clearly stated my research question or problem at the onset?
  2. Have I provided an introduction that indicates the structure of my review and a rationale for that structure?
  3. Have I discussed each of the concepts/terms as used in my research question and provided a rationale for their inclusion?
  4. Have I conducted a comprehensive search for, and included the key relevant theoretical and research works related to my topic?
  5. Have I connected all parts of the review to my research question?
  6. Have I adopted a critical stance in my writing?
  7. Have I included discussion on other similar research?
  8. Have I argued for the importance of my research question and framed it in terms of wider issues and philosophies?
  9. Have I correctly used the Harvard Referencing System or similar?
  10. Have I proof read the review such that it is free from typos and errors?

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