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Skip to 0 minutes and 13 seconds I thoroughly enjoy reading literature reviews. I’ve taught a literature review subject for many years. And so students know how to write them. I also read literature reviews in thesis that I’m examining for other universities or in journal articles. And generally, they’re well done. But there are also some that, at least if it’s their first or second time having a go at one, there are ways that they can improve. Currently I’m reading eight undergraduate honours theses, two master philosophy theses, and I have two PhD student just on the point of submitting. So over the years I’ve probably read hundreds of literature reviews.

Skip to 0 minutes and 54 seconds I read a number of literature reviews either as part of a mini literature review as part of a research proposal and end of first proposal and then as part of a thesis itself, so a variety of them. And so from those types of literature reviews, they vary in length. I read quite a few student lit reviews, both at honours level, so that’s the fourth year of the undergraduate programme. And then I read introductory ones that PhD students read and also the ones that finally appear in their written theses. So yes I do read quite a few. Well, so yeah, I do read a lot of literature reviews in various contexts.

Skip to 1 minute and 38 seconds So I coordinate a pharmacology subject in the third year and I personally read about 30 to 60 literature reviews every year for that subject. I also read third year project literature reviews, honour student literature reviews, and about five to six PhD student literature reviews a year. So quite a few literature reviews through the different levels, both within the undergraduate and the HDR curriculum. I do read a few. I supervise quite a lot of HDR students. So I read them from their early beginnings through to their resolution as a product. So in engineering, we have a number of different types of literature review.

Skip to 2 minutes and 21 seconds And it depends on whether the topic is a very specific, technical topic whereby the literature review will be tight and will probably cover the basics of the theory behind the topic. It will cover the previous work that has happened in that. It will help to establish the methodology and the experimental techniques that are going to be used later in the thesis. On the other hand, many engineering theses are cross disciplinary. I supervise quite a few students who work in engineering education. And so this takes an engineering student where they understand the topics of engineering but don’t really have a background in the education literature.

Skip to 3 minutes and 13 seconds So in that case, I ask my students to basically write a narrative picking out the main educational frameworks and theories that are going to be used in their theses. I don’t expect them to do a full literature review on all the educational topics, rather to pick out the best bits and the bits that will justify their approach. So in that case, we have a mixed mode of literature review. We’ve got some of the technical side of things, but also maybe a social science aspect to it which is more narrative and explaining to again validate the student’s understanding of a domain that they may not have a formal teaching in.

Skip to 3 minutes and 58 seconds Common in my area, my area is management discipline and more specifically organisational communication, so they’re looking at– depending on the research question obviously– they will be looking at defining the types of terms of organisation that they are looking at. They’re looking at the types of communication. Well, from the student’s perspective they will be literature reviews as the introductory chapter. So it’s also about setting the scene for the thesis as well as critiquing the literature to date. That will be true if honours theses and for PhDs. But in the field as a whole in the literature, you find opinion pieces. You find syntheses.

Skip to 4 minutes and 45 seconds And you find very extensive literature reviews which really are about going through the sort of the bulk of the literature and trying to assess what’s happened in the last 10 or 15 years in this field and where are we up to. The systematic literature view is really what’s expected but obviously couched in a narrative form. Mostly we are looking at critical reviews. So well within the undergraduate and the HDR space, we are mostly dealing with critical reviews. So that’s where somebody has a scientific topic and they are critically analysing the literature and the progress in that field. So in my field, it’s mostly a systematic literature review with sort of social science model.

Skip to 5 minutes and 30 seconds And sometimes there are separate literature reviews in different chapters really. For instance, sometimes there’s a kind of methods literature review in the methods section, in a methods chapter in a thesis. Sometimes that’s combined in with the content. So for instance, I supervise quite a lot of interdisciplinary projects, PhD theses. And often they’re a combination of linguistics with something like literature or maybe sociology. And so it can be quite hard to work out the play between the sort of literature review that a sociologist or a literary specialist will do.

Skip to 6 minutes and 21 seconds And often they’re more kind of woven into the topic chapters themselves, rather than brought, especially in literature, they’re less likely to be brought into a specific literature review chapter although that also occurs, but from my perspective, and I tend to work with that more systematic review model myself. I read lots of student literature reviews, both post graduate students and also undergraduate students. And I guess I find that a real mix. I think the main thing that strikes me is that irrespective of the level that the student’s at, I think students find literature reviews really challenging. And that shows in the writing. And I feel like it’s a process. It’s an iterative process.

Skip to 7 minutes and 11 seconds You know, it’s a lot of back and forth that goes on. And it actually takes the doing of the literature review for the student to work out how to do it.

Learning from experience

Reviewing the literature on any topic can be interesting, satisfying…and confusing.

Academics across all disciplines are constantly reading and thinking about literature reviews – by students and peers. They are keen observers of how researchers at various levels of experience write about published research. As you listen to these observations, think about how a literature review might be shaped differently by each particular discipline and course it is written for.

Conversation starter

  • Have you read many literature reviews?
  • What is the context for the literature review you want to write?
  • How long does your literature review need to be?

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This video is from the free online course:

Research Writing: How to Do a Literature Review

University of Wollongong