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Academic staff at the University of Wollongong share their experiences with reading student literature reviews.
I think in engineering, many students find it difficult to write, particularly narratives, and to explain things in a way that is succinct and takes the technical as well as the non-technical aspects of their discipline. Is it traumatic for them? For quite a few, it can be a traumatic experience. The primary difficulty that some students seem to present is structuring the literature review and getting a framework for covering the various aspects that they will need to show mastery in. One challenge is when people just dump everything they’ve ever read and they let it all out. There’s no structure, no themes. It’s just letting people know they’ve read a lot of stuff. That’s a big problem.
So they need to learn how to organise things into themes and to put the related articles together. They can do that and still go wrong in that they sometimes just put a whole string of authors and say, they wrote about this. And in fact, what they need to do is tease out the nuances. If they all said the same thing, there’s no point in citing all of them. Whereas if they said different things, we need to know what was different about it. Another thing that they do is do a he-said, she-said type of approach. So they’re still looking at authors rather than themes.
And that’s quite common initially, where people are trying to structure it and they very often think about it chronologically but they really don’t get to grips with doing the work for the reader and understanding, what do we already know about this particular topic? And finally, I would say that the other main weakness– so this is when they’ve already got to themes– but simply doing a summary isn’t enough. The literary review is important, because it sets the foundation for your own research. So you need to know that that foundation is strong. And to do that, you need to know that the research you’re citing is reliable. It’s valid. It’s appropriate. It isn’t somebody’s opinion.
And so students need to learn how to do a critical literature, review and not just accept that something has been published and therefore it’s reliable. I notice particular challenges with some students in writing their literature review, and that is around the ability to move beyond describing literature. So it’s quite common, particularly for international students, to just list, like a list– some researcher did this, someone did that, someone did this, someone did that, with no critical engagement with the literature. And to kind of give a breakdown in detail of what that literature is about, rather than be able to succinctly synthesise the key points and why they are relevant to the research that the person or student is doing.
So that listing particularly is quite difficult. And trying to help students come up from purely descriptive writing about literature into critical writing is what I say is a key problem in student writing. How do I find literature reviews when I read them? Some are quite frustrating, because they’re trying to do too much. They’re not clear on what terms they’re actually defining, so positioning the literature review within an area. Frustrating from the point is they try and describe the paper rather than taking the essence of the paper and positioning it against other literature. That can be very frustrating. You’re saying, get to the point. The literature review is kind of a standalone in a sense, but it also isn’t a standalone.
So it to be standalone in that you read it as a chapter, as a whole, and it has to have its own beginning, middle, and end. So I’ve mentioned its organisation, how crucial that is. But not only that– it’s got to fit as part of a much bigger whole. Actually being able to tell whether something is a good piece of work, and therefore the critiquing part of it– have you read something that’s good, or is not so good? And if it’s not good, why is it not good? And it’s explaining those things which the students often find hard to do.
And that’s partly about the experience in the field and not necessarily wanting to critique people’s work, but it’s also about the ability to do that type of writing, I think. Yeah. I think the main problem is that students, even people who’ve come through their undergraduate degree– and sometimes honours or master’s– still don’t understand to what extent the literature review is a discussion, a debate, an argument, a persuasive kind of genre piece of writing, persuasive job that they’ve got to do. So they still concentrate on getting a whole lot of detail in, and it becomes much too much like a list of things I know about this topic.
I think the biggest thing is lack of self-proofreading– so writing a document probably up against a deadline, and then not going back and looking at it, along with not having a plan. So getting good information, but just kind of writing it down without having a plan, and then not going back and revisiting it. I think various different things can go wrong with a literature review. And maybe it’s not so much going wrong, but it’s just a case of what sorts of hurdles students need to try to overcome. And probably the main one is actually knowing what a literature review is, what it’s supposed to be. There’s lots of guidebooks and so on out there.
And actually, we all read– established academics and students read literature reviews all the time, but we’re often not looking at the pace of writing as a literature review. We’re looking at it for the data, for the findings, for the results. So when we’re reading, we don’t necessarily realise we’re reading literature reviews all the time. And so I think one of the challenges for students is to begin to see that they are actually reading literature reviews often, and to understand from the practise of reading what it is. So one of the big challenges is that, is working out what a literature review is.
Reviewing the literature on any topic can be interesting, satisfying…and confusing.
While the process of writing a literature review is always interesting, the experience can also be pretty painful. It’s a bit of a roller coaster, as the learning deepens and the confusion rises! It’s complex, and can be rather frustrating. But it’s worth going through the pain, as there is great gain in the end, when you really engage with it. As you listen to the further observations of some UOW academics, think about the challenges you might face in the process of developing a literature review.

Conversation starters

  • Do any of the comments made in the video relate to your own experience?
  • Do you think you have a good understanding of what a literature review is and does, at this stage?
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