Review the literature

Reviewing literature may be the most time consuming, difficult step in your research. Many students feel themselves stuck in the middle of references, trying to read each single piece that is related to their topic. Is it really what reviewing the literature is?


What is a literature review?

A literature review is a written summary of journal articles, books, and other documents that describes the past and current state of information on the topic of your research study.

You conduct a literature review to document how your study adds to the existing literature.

What is a GOOD and a POOR literature review?

A GOOD literature review… A POOR literature review…
… is a synthesis of related research … is an annotated bibliography
… is critical … is descriptive
… has appropriate breadth and depth … is narrow and shallow
… is clear and consistent … is confusing


How does the literature review differ for quantitative and qualitative studies?

Differences in Literature in Quantitative and Qualitative Research
Differences Quantitative Research Qualitative Research
Amount of literature cited at the beginning of the study Intensive Minimal (This allows the views of the participants to emerge without being constrained by the views of others from the literature.)
Use of literature at the beginning of the study Justifies or documents the need for the study

Provides a rationale for the direction of the study (i.e., purpose statement and research questions or hypotheses)

Justifies or documents the need for the study
Use of literature at the end of the study Confirms or disconfirms prior predictions from the literature Supports, extends, or modifies existing findings in the literature


What are the steps in conducting a literature review?

Regardless of whether the study is quantitative or qualitative, common steps can be used to conduct a literature review, which are:

  1. Identify key terms to use in your search for literature.

Begin your search of the literature by narrowing your topic to a few key terms using one or two words or short phrases. You should choose these carefully because they are important for initially locating literature in a library or through an internet search.

  1. Consult several types of materials and databases.

With these key words in mind, next go to the library and begin searching the library catalog for holdings (i.e. journals and books). Most major libraries have computerized data bases of their holdings.

You can also consult the open databases, e.g. DOAJ, ERIC, Mendeley, etc. you may also consult open access theses and dissertations’ databases, e.g. oatd, pqdtopen, ethos, etc.

  1. Critically evaluate and select the literature for your review.

Focus on the most relevant, recent, and accredited sources.

  1. Organize the literature you have selected by abstracting or taking notes on the literature.

You may then organize the studies on a chronological, logical (thematic), or methodological basis. Developing a visual diagram can be very helpful for such organization.

  1. Write a literature review that reports summaries of the literature for inclusion in your research report.

Now that you have scanned the literature, abstracted it, and organized it into a literature map, it’s time to construct the actual written summary of the literature. Use an appropriate style to write complete references for these summaries. Develop appropriate headings for the literature review. The following verbs can help reporting your studies:

Argue – Assert – Assume – Challenge – Claim – Contend – Contradict – Describe – Dispute – Emphasize – Examine – Find – Maintain – Note – Propose – Prove – Recommend – Reject – Suggest – Support, etc.

End your literature review by a concluding paragraph that highlights the gaps in the literature and justifies your study.



Creswell, J.W. (2012). Educational Research: Planning, Conducting, and Evaluating Quantitative and Qualitative Research, 4th ed. Boston, MA: Pearson Education.

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