Conducting Educational Research
Step 15: Write the Literature Review

The purpose of a literature review is to familiarize the reader with other research that has been conducted on the topic of study, to highlight how your study fits in with what educators already know about your key variables, and to build a convincing case for the purpose of your study. By this point, you should have already searched through previous literature. Therefore, you should already have gathered a number of journal articles, books, and other resources. In this step, you will likely need to continue searching for other literature to create a coherent story about your variables under study.

Before starting to write the literature review, keep in mind the following suggestions from APA (2001, p. 16) about writing a literature review:

Steps in Writing a Literature Review
Step 1: Write an Outline

The first step in writing a literature review is to create an outline of the topics to be included. This outline is important for helping avoid plagiarism: instead of developing a literature review around relevant parts of a book that you then copy, you will now be finding literature to support the key points that you developed before reading any literature. This is an important distinction. When you do not have an outline of your literature review, it is easy to read another work and decide that they have perfectly said all of the necessary information. This is a lazy way of writing a literature review, and plagiarism then becomes easy. However, when you develop an outline first, then you now have put thought into your literature review and are going to find literature with a purpose: to support the points that you have already developed in your outline.

For example, I recently wrote a literature review about Nigerian teachers' beliefs of literacy development. My outline looked like this

  • Present statistics of poor literacy rates in Nigeria
  • Point out that most research focuses on adult literacy. Very little work focuses on literacy among young children because it is assumed that children learn to read in primary school
  • Research [e.g., Shuman (1987)] found that teachers' knowledge of a discipline (literacy in my study) influences teaching practices
  • Researchers have identified best practices in teaching early literacy
  • Importance of frequent reading
  • Positive outcomes of frequent reading
  • Nigerian education students laugh when I say to read to young children every day. Purpose of my study is to find out why - what is their knowledge of literacy development?

When I wrote that outline, I had not yet written any part of my literature review. However, once my outline was finished, I then knew what type of literature I needed to search for. I then could search academic databases to purposefully find articles that relate to each of the points above. For tips on searching for literature, return to Search the Literature.

It is difficult to give detailed advice about what a literature review outline should look like because every literature review is different. However, keep in mind that every section of a literature review should directly relate to the variables that will be studied. The most basic literature review will start with information about the independent variable, then information about the dependent variable, and then review studies that examine the effect of the independent variable on the dependent variable. When writing the outline, think about what information the reader needs to understand about the key variables in your study, and then write an outline that tells a story by logically moving from one topic to the next.

Step 2: Describe Major Theories

A literature review should provide a good description of the major theories that have been put forth about the key variables. For example, if writing about achievement motivation, the literature review should describe the theory that describes what achievement motivation is, why it is important, how it develops, and what influences achievement motivation. Describe the major propositions of the theory. Information about theories can typically be gathered from textbooks.

Step 3: Write Article Critiques

The primary purpose of a literature review is to critically review other empirical research that has been conducted on the key variables. Empirical research is almost always found in peer reviewed journal articles. Before writing the comprehensive literature review, it is helpful to first write an article critique of the major empirical articles that will be reviewed. Here are some questions to ask to evaluate the quality of quantitative research studies (adapted from Gall, Gall, & Borg, 2003, p. 606).

  • Introduction/Literature Review
    • Is each variable in the study clearly defined?
    • Are the research hypotheses, questions, or objectives clear?
    • Do the researchers make a convincing argument that the research hypotheses, questions, or objectives are important and relevant?
  • Methods
    • Is the sample representative of an identifiable population? Is the sample representative of your local population?
    • Is each measure in the study valid to measure the key variables as identified in the research hypotheses, questions, and/or objectives?
    • Is each measure appropriate for the sample?
    • Were the research procedures appropriate for the research hypotheses, questions, and/or objectives?
    • Were the research procedures clearly stated so they can be replicated?
  • Results
    • Is enough information provided about how the statistical results were calculated?
    • Were the appropriate statistical tests used?
    • Are the statistical results clearly presented?
  • Discussion/Conclusion
    • Do the results of the data analysis support and directly relate to the conclusions?
    • Did the researchers provide a reasonable explanation of the findings?
    • Did the researchers suggest reasonable recommendations for practice and future research, directly relating to the data analyses?
As a side note, these questions should also be continually asked about your own research study to improve the quality of the methodology.

Once you have answered these questions, then you can write the article critique. Most article critiques consist of the following components:

  • Explain the purpose of the study
  • Describe the research design.
  • Describe the participants.
  • Describe the key variables and how they were measured or manipulated.
  • Describe the results of the study that are relevant to your work.
  • Outline the flaws of the study, particularly relating to the research design, participants, measurement of key variables, and results.
  • Describe how the study relates to your research study.

Step 4: Write the Literature Review

Once the outline is written and relevant articles have been found, then it is time to start writing. For tips on improving your writing, an excellent resource is the Online Writing Laboratory (OWL) by Purdue University. Also remember the advice to stick to the point. Lecturers are busy people and do not want to read more than is directly relevant to the study. Finally, to avoid plagiarism, it is important to paraphrase and summarize the articles that are found. Below are two ways to do this (information summarized from Purdue's OWL).

Paraphrase involves rephrasing a passage from a source into your own words. Paraphrases are usually shorter by slightly condensing the information (OWL, 2010). For example, I paraphrased the above information from Purdue's OWL website. Here is exactly what is written on Purdue's OWL website: "Paraphrasing involves putting a passage from source material into your own words. A paraphrase must also be attributed to the original source. Paraphrased material is usually shorter than the original passage, taking a somewhat broader segment of the source and condensing it slightly." Notice how I wrote about the same information, but it was written in completely different words. I still cited OWL as the original source.

Another instance of paraphrasing is below. Here is a quotation from Perry (2008): "Historically, however, scholars dealing with Africa have focused on the problem of literacy development in adult learners; illiteracy among adults has been seen as a major impediment to national progress in developing nations in Africa (Bhola 1984, 1988; Mundy 1993). Although literacy development in early schooling in Africa has received increased attention from scholars, it is still underrepresented in the scholarly literature." I took this information and paraphrased it in the following paragraph: To date, most of the research examining literacy development in Africa focuses on adult learners (Perry, 2008). Because children are assumed to learn to read naturally in primary school, little attention has focused on the development of literacy skills in young children. However, as the previous statistics demonstrate, young African children are not in fact learning to read in primary school. Therefore, more research needs to focus on the development of literacy skills in young children.

Summarizing involves writing only the main ideas in your own words. Summaries are considerably shorter with only a broad overview of the source. Summaries are often used when you want to draw one major conclusion from an entire article. For example, here is a statement that I have written: "Early experiences reading storybooks at home and school has a positive effect on subsequent literacy skills (Bus, van IJzendoorn, & Pellegrini, 1995; Campbell, Donahue, Reese, & Phillips, 1996; Senechal & LeFevre, 2002; Taylor, Frye, Maruyama, 1990)." To write this statement, I personally read the four listed articles, each of which provide research evidence that reading storybooks improves children's literacy skills. For example, Senechal & LeFevre's (2002) article has the following quote: "Results showed that children's exposure to books was related to the development of vocabulary and listening comprehension skills..." I summarized this entire article - and the other three - by saying that reading storybooks improves children's literacy skills.

Step 4: Write the Summary

Once the literature review has been written, summarize the main findings from the literature review. What are the main lessons learned about the key variables? Then conclude the literature review with a paragraph or two summarizing the purpose of your research study and how it will fill the gaps in previous research.

Steps 5 to 1000: Revise, Revise, Revise, Revise, Revise Again, and Continue to Revise

A literature review is never perfect. Even when I read an article that I have already published, I see many places where I would change what I have written to make it clearer or more articulate. You must revise your literature review multiple times. Continually read over what you have written. Consider the flow of the work. Is it logical? Does it tell a story? Consider each paragraph. Is there a clear sentence that states the main idea? Does the rest of the paragraph support that main idea? Is the paragraph relevant to the key variables in the study? If the point is not necessary, delete it. What points might be missing that would help the reader understand the key variables? Consider each sentence. Is it clear? Is there a better way to say what needs to be said? Review the grammar, spelling, and punctuation and make corrections where necessary.

It is often helpful to have a peer review the work for you to make constructive criticism. Another person can make a better judgment of portions of the paper that are not understandable.

When you think that you have an acceptable literature review to present to your supervisor, consider whether the literature review satisfies the following criteria:

  • Do the sections have appropriate transitions between them? Transitions are important so the literature review flows like a story.
  • Have the relevant theories been adequately explained?
  • Have sufficient numbers of research studies been critically reviewed?
  • Does the literature review end with a good summary?
  • Does the literature review make a convincing argument for the purpose of the study?
  • Does any information need to be added to the literature review to help the reader understand the key variables?
  • Does any information need to be removed because it is irrelevant to the study?


Return to Educational Research Steps

Copyright 2013, Katrina A. Korb, All Rights Reserved