Evaluation and Synthesis for Literature Reviews in Engineering

R23–1053 MECH60041

Library for Educators
6 min readJan 31, 2024

Links to: R23–1053 MECH60041 Structuring and Delivering an Effective Presentation

IMPORTANT: Please take attendance with a paper register (get the students to sign in with name and student ID) at the start of the session and keep this for our records at the end. This is so that we can capture how many people came and potentially ask them for more feedback later 😊 You can tell students that this attendance is for Library research use and is not to do with their attendance on their degree programme.

Supporting materials:

  • Slides/materials: Slides with notes for trainers, Sources 1, 2 and 3, Note-making template
  • Practicalities: Please print out several copies of the sources and note-making template to bring to the session, and set up tables in groups beforehand (where possible), with pens.
  • Group size: Up to 120
  • Length: 50 minutes
  • Room: Various
  • Discipline: Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering
  • Level: PGT

Learning outcomes:

By the end of the session, participants will be able to:

  • Define the key purpose of a literature review and the steps involved in researching and writing one
  • Understand the role of an academic argument in a literature review
  • Synthesise key ideas from sources under a given research question and bring them together using the They Say, I Say, And So structure

Suggested online resources:

Session plan

Slides 1–3: Introduction and session outline

Flag other MLE workshops while you discuss what the session will cover: Successful Searching, and SLS: Searching Systematically; ‘How to write an effective introduction’; ‘Structuring for effective essays’; ‘Academic Writing: using references to support your writing’.

Slide 4: Introduction to literature reviews

Emphasise that a lit review is not ‘just to show that you have read stuff’, although that is part of it (particularly in engineering, where showing that you understand prior research and methods is key). It’s showing that you understand the conversation that is happening around this topic, and then how you and your work are going to fit into this conversation.

A literature review is about constructing an ‘argument’ to explain why you have taken the approach that you have to your research. It is not an encyclopaedic list of everything you have ever read on the topic; it’s about selecting relevant points from the literature and identifying connections between the sources.

Explain that we will look at the idea of an academic argument later in the session, as the word ‘argument’ is not commonly referred to in engineering, but it is still important to have a focal point when writing your literature review.

Slides 5 and 6: The literature review process

Show slide 5 and explain that we can break down the process of a literature review into steps like these to avoid overwhelm, but that we will often go back and forth between the steps. The circled sections (‘make notes’ and ‘synthesise and evaluate’) are the steps that this session will focus on, as feedback from MACE lecturers on previous years’ dissertations emphasised that students need to show their understanding of how their work fits into the research conversation more clearly.

Slide 6 has links to MLE workshops that map onto each step for students to attend, if they would like support with the other steps. Mention that there are async resources too if students have timetable clashes or struggle to get to this part of campus.

Slide 7: Developing your argument

This slide aims to clarify what we mean when we talk about an academic argument. Your argument demonstrates your understanding of the sources. It shows that you have read them and thought critically about what they mean in the context of your topic. This goes beyond description (which shows that you have read something, but does not necessarily say why it matters for your work).

Slide 8: What does being critical involve, and why is critical thinking important?

Slide 8 gives some ideas of what being critical involves, especially in academic work.

In order to develop an argument, you need to engage critically with the sources that you read. You will need to think about how the authors have done their research, and consider the pros and cons of their approach (and their results) for your project. Beyond your project, this skill is very important for engineers to be able to critically reflect on their own methods, the safety of them, the potential cost to industry/academic funding bodies, and the implications for the people and climate who experience their output, for example.

Slides 9–12: It says, I say, and so…

Talk through how this model can be a helpful guide to ensure that you are drawing upon evidence from your reading, bringing in your own analysis of it, and then linking this discussion to your wider point (or argument!).

Slides 10–12 give a step-by-step example of this, adapted from a published journal article in engineering by academics from the Department.

Slides 13–14: Adapting It says, I say, and so to synthesise multiple sources

Slide 13 talks about how in a literature review, you need to bring together multiple sources. As such, it may help to think about ‘They say’ instead of ‘It says’. You don’t always have to follow the model in this order, either; Slide 14 shows an example from the engineering article referenced previously.

[Note to trainers: you don’t need to read through these slides; students can read through in detail in their own time. The key is to demonstrate this ‘back and forth’ pattern between the ideas of others and the author’s own analysis.]

Slides 15–18: Activity: Evaluate and synthesise sources

Slide 15 shows the example research question that students will focus on for this activity — stress that they will need to keep this question in mind when reading the sources for key points.

Slide 16: Group students in roughly groups of 4 and ensure that all students can read the three sources, either on Blackboard or on paper. Emphasise that they are reading for key ideas: points that will be important to answer their research question, and any questions they have about the claims made or limitations of the study. Draw attention to the note-making template (both on paper and on their Blackboard page for this unit) that they can use to guide their reading. Allow around 10–15 minutes for students to read, make any notes and then discuss connections/contrasts between the articles.

Slide 17: Explain that students will now select their strongest point of comparison between the articles that enables them to answer the question and write a critical paragraph following the They say, I say, And So outline. Tell students that they will need to be ready to read and comment on each others’ paragraphs at the end of the activity. They can write them on laptops or on paper, whatever they prefer.

Slide 18: Show students the Academic Phrasebank before they start writing as this may really help with writing their paragraph. Draw attention to the ‘Being Critical’ section on the screen and show that there are lots of sentence starters to help prompt students to engage critically with sources and to phrase their writing in an academic register. Highlight that it is not plagiarism to copy these sentences and use them in your writing! This is a free resource for anyone to use.

Allow time for students to write a paragraph together. Walk around the room and check how groups are doing — it has worked really well for trainers to sit down with a group and talk through their thinking, if this is feasible, but try to get around the majority of students.

When students have drafted some writing, take feedback from the room on how they have grouped/connected their sources and allow time for students to ask any questions.

Slide 19: Overall structure of literature reviews

Mention that there is more than one way to connect sources — and how students group them will depend on the connections that emerge from their reading. We can then ‘label’ the different approaches with these types of micro-structure. These are not mutually exclusive! For example, if you are tracking the evolution of an experimental technique over time, you may order your review chronologically, but you may find themes emerging in terms of how researchers have approached the experiments.

Explain that a literature review still needs an intro and conclusion, to frame how you have gone about selecting and collecting your literature, define your understanding of key terms, etc. It is advisable to write this after you have written the main body of the review. Similarly, the conclusion should sum up your findings from the lit review and how you will take these forward to inform your method, etc.

Slides 20–21: Signpost further Library resources and support, including the University Centre for Academic English.

Slide 22: Qualtrics feedback survey linked to this EP request — please encourage students to scan the QR code and complete this for us to take forward in future MACE sessions.



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