Introduction to literature reviews

Introduction to literature reviews

Hi, my name is Michael and I’m a Teaching and Learning Librarian at the University of Manchester Library. In this resource I’m going to introduce you to literature reviews — what they are for and how you can write a good one. I’ll be asking you to read a published example while looking for particular features — and as with most types of writing the best way to learn is by reading the words of experienced authors and practising yourself.

What is a literature review?

A literature review is a critical and selective summary of the published research within a specific topic or research area. It is often part of a wider piece of work, such as a dissertation or journal article but can also be a stand-alone piece of research. You might recognise that you have read plenty of literature reviews during your studies — those ‘scene setting’ sections within academic books and articles.

Work through this online resource on literature reviews and use what you already know about literature reviews — it will take you around 15 minutes.

PLEASE EMBED LIT REVS RESOURCE: https://www.escholar.manchester.ac.uk/learning-objects/mle/lit-review/story_html5.html

Bell and Walters (2014) put it succinctly:

“A literature review should provide the reader with a picture of the state of knowledge and of major questions on the subject.”

Picking up on the idea of ‘providing a picture’ for the reader, I like to think of literature reviews as a picture of a landscape, where each feature in that landscape is something interesting or informative to your reader.

Activity: look at the landscape below and think metaphorically — if this landscape was a literature review what might the features in it represent? Post your ideas in the Menti and read what other people have posted.

To get you started — I might suggest that the mountains in the background represent the seminal research in the field, looming over everything else!

Landscape with blue sky, mountains in the background, hut and trees in the midground, and rocks and water in the foreground
Landscape photograph

<div style=’position: relative; padding-bottom: 56.25%; padding-top: 35px; height: 0; overflow: hidden;’><iframe sandbox=’allow-scripts allow-same-origin allow-presentation’ allowfullscreen=’true’ allowtransparency=’true’ frameborder=’0' height=’315' src=’https://www.mentimeter.com/embed/09de54e3fae1bb367ab129c8167f5a9f/11a846e6a223' style=’position: absolute; top: 0; left: 0; width: 100%; height: 100%;’ width=’420'></iframe></div>

Elements of a literature review

In our metaphorical take on literature reviews we began to recognise that they are made of component parts. The composition of a landscape has a background, midground and foreground, each showing particular features and points of interest. The same is true of a literature review, with some things included to provide background details while some are in greater focus. In this downloadable handout we will look at some of these components before trying to recognise them in the writing of others.

PLEASE EMBED ACCESSIBLE VERSION OF COMPONENTS DOC

What to include and what not to include

The handout gives you some examples of components of a literature review and space to include your own. You are not expected to include every single component in your own review — in fact, including things which don’t fit can take away from the points you are making in your review.

If we return to our metaphor and the landscape above, including a source that doesn’t fit the discussion in your review would be like putting an office block next to the cabin in the picture! It takes your readers attention away from the things that are important. Keep this in mind when you are putting your review together — it can be tempting to include every single source you have read, rather than your own which ‘paint your picture’.

Reading critically

If we want to learn from the things we read we need to read critically. In this case I want you to learn how to write a great literature review by reading published examples and applying what you learn from their content and structure to your own writing.

What is critical reading?

When you are reading critically you are actively engaging with the text rather than passively absorbing the information like you would do perhaps if you were reading a novel or a magazine.

Critical reading is about examining the text. You will evaluate the evidence and arguments presented in the text, and decide to what extent you accept the author’s opinions and conclusions. In this case you will also consider how and why the author has included different sources in their review.

Effective critical readers have been found to demonstrate a selection of behaviours that support their approach to reading. This post will explore these critical reading behaviours allowing you to practice them in your own academic reading.

Activity

Critically read Yoga in prisons: A review of the literature.

  • Use the ‘components of a literature review’ handout and identify some of the components within the literature review — make note of the page numbers or write down key quotes.
  • How does the author discuss the themes that their review highlights?
  • Share what you have learned from reading this literature review in the Menti below.

<div style=’position: relative; padding-bottom: 56.25%; padding-top: 35px; height: 0; overflow: hidden;’><iframe sandbox=’allow-scripts allow-same-origin allow-presentation’ allowfullscreen=’true’ allowtransparency=’true’ frameborder=’0' height=’315' src=’https://www.mentimeter.com/embed/09de54e3fae1bb367ab129c8167f5a9f/11a846e6a223' style=’position: absolute; top: 0; left: 0; width: 100%; height: 100%;’ width=’420'></iframe></div>

We will discuss your thoughts and findings when we meet in the live session.

A note on being critical

Good literature reviews show the understanding, analysis and opinions of the author. But how do you do this in a piece of writing that collects and collates the thoughts of other authors? By being critical!

Again, Bell and Walters (2014) put it well:

“It is easy to produce a furniture sale catalogue, to collect facts and to describe what is, but not so easy to produce this ‘critical’ review. It involves questioning assumptions, querying claims made for which no evidence has been provided, considering the findings of one researcher versus those of others and evaluating.”

Many of the ‘components of a literature’ review examples are inherently critical, such as analysing the strengths and weaknesses of your sources. You also show criticality by identifying themes; drawing links between sources; and analysing agreement or differences in opinion and why it matters. Without this you have produced a selective list of the literature on your topic — a furniture catalogue!

Work through this resource to learn more about being critical in our online resource:

PLEASE EMBED https://www.escholar.manchester.ac.uk/learning-objects/mle/being-critical/story_html5.html

Help and support

The Library and the My Learning Essentials Team are here for you, so get in touch with us using any of the following methods.

  • Email us at uml.teachingandlearning@manchester.ac.uk
  • Use the ‘Ask a question’ tab at the right side of the page on any Subject Guide.
  • Use Library Chat by going to the Library Website or MyManchester (log in required).

PLEASE EMBED STANDARD EVALUATION

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