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Skills for Learning

Dissertations & Literature Reviews

Overview

Literature reviews can be individual assignments or chapters in a larger project (such as a dissertation or research report). They examine a large body of information relevant to a topic and position your research in relation to what has come before it. They provide an overview of the research that has led you to your topic. In a literature review, you must analyse, pass judgment on, and compare / contrast previous studies. When included in a larger project, literature reviews highlight gaps or limitations, and justify further research.

We run interactive workshops to help you prepare for writing literature reviews. Find out more on the Skills for Learning Workshops page.

We have online academic skills modules within MyBeckett for all levels of university study. These modules will help your academic development and support your success at LBU. You can work through the modules at your own pace, revisiting them as required. Find out more from our FAQ What academic skills modules are available?

Six steps to writing a literature review

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You might be starting from scratch and have to find a research topic. Make sure you select a topic which you find interesting and that you're passionate about. You'll spend a long time completing this project. It will help if you're interested in it. Begin with a scoping search of the literature to assess whether there is enough material on your topic.

Once you have selected your topic, you need to make it appropriate for academic study. This might mean changing your original wording to a thesis statement using academic language. For example, you might be interested in researching refugees, but this is not specific enough. There are also certain elements which could be defined further:

  • Which aspect would you like to focus on?
  • Is there a particular period of time that has contextual importance?
  • Will you look at a particular demographic?

It is important to define your key ideas and any limitations to your study at this early stage. This will help you frame your research interest and give it a clearer focus. 

It is also useful to explore your chosen academic field and become familiar with any specialist terminology and vocabulary.

Top tip! Think about what your research interest is and try turning it into a thesis statement. You can read more about developing a thesis statement on the Essay Writing web page.

The Literature Review Planning Worksheet can help you shape your research interest and formulate a research question. 

Once you have your selected topic, you need to develop an understanding of exactly how arguments are constructed. A good literature review builds a well-argued case using logically framed arguments. These arguments are typically made up of claims, evidence and warrants.

claim is a statement used to convince your reader of a particular argument. They are contestable and so require evidence to support them. 

Claim: Cycling to work is better for the environment than driving a car. 

We might back up this up with a piece of evidence which states that if more people are cycling to work, there are fewer cars on the road, which leads to fewer emissions. 

Making strong claims and using solid evidence to support them up will make your academic writing more persuasive and convincing. A good argument proves its claims by using credible evidence to validate each assertion. All sides of a question should be presented before coming to a justified conclusion. 

The warrant forms a connection between your claim and your evidence. It helps explain why or how that piece of evidence supports the particular claim being made. It is important to think about what your warrant is, since you might have a piece of evidence which is completely true but that lends no credence to the claim.

To connect our claim and our evidence, we might warrant that more car emissions are worse for the environment. 

We can then come to the logical conclusion that cycling to work is better for the environment than driving a car, and we have the evidence to support it, along with a warrant as to why that is the case. 

Top tip! Think about what claims you are making in your literature review. What evidence do you need to find which will help support your claims? How does that evidence support the claim? What is the connection?

For your literature review, your evidence will be made up largely of different pieces of literature which back up your thesis statement. 

Don't worry if your topic alters and shifts at this point. You are reading literature which influences and shapes your ideas around the subject. Your knowledge on the topic will increase and you may find your thesis statement becoming narrower and more concrete. You can then continue to refine your topic based on the evidence you have found. 

You can find techniques and strategies about literature searching on the Finding Information & Reading pages

Top tip! Look at the Library Subject Guides for your course. These have information on finding high quality resources for your literature review.

Once you have found the sources you want to use, assemble and organise them in a way that works for you. This might include adding tags or subjects, organising by author, themes or chronology. 

You should then review the quality and strength of the sources you have found and consider how well they support your argument. 

It might also be helpful at this stage to analyse any patterns you find within the literature as these could be a key focus for your literature review and can help you gain an understanding of what is currently known about the research topic. 

Top tip! Using reference management software like Zotero and EndNote can help you to organise your literature and provide tags and subjects for each source. See the Reference Management pages to help you get started. 

Now you have surveyed the existing knowledge on your chosen topic, you can begin to draw your own logical conclusions based on the findings within the literature. Critiquing involves interpreting the current understanding of the research topic and logically determining how this knowledge answers your research question or supports your thesis statement. Think about the strengths and weaknesses of each piece of literature and evaluate the author's claims, making comparisons with other pieces of literature. You should spend some time ensuring you really understand your literature before you critique it. 

Download the Critical Analysis Questions and Evidence Matrix Worksheets to help you with this process. 

Once you have compiled your literature and you have a good idea as to which evidence supports which claim, you can then start writing your literature review. It can be helpful to write a plan for your literature review before you begin the writing process. Think about what needs to be written and how best to convey it to your audience. 

Typically your literature review will be comprised of an introduction, main body and a conclusion. You should refer back to your module handbook for any specific stylistic guidance. See the headings below for guidance on what to include in each section. 

Literature review structure

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Always include an introduction, even if your literature review is part of a dissertation or larger project.

Your introduction will:

  • Outline the importance of the topic
  • Introduce the key ideas, focus and perspective.

You might also provide some context and highlight any significance your review has within the field. Tell your reader why there needs to be a focus on this subject. Why now? Define major trends, gaps or changes in the topic. You should also introduce your thesis statement and inform your reader how you plan to structure your literature review.

The main body forms the central part of the literature review. This is where you bring together all the evidence you have found to support your thesis statement. Start with the broad context, examining the background to your topic. Finish with the more specific details of your research area. You should paraphrase or summarise others’ ideas, writing concisely and clearly. Focus on the key ideas in the literature, explaining their significance in relation to your topic. 

You might provide some background to the key pieces of literature here and also analyse, interpret and critique your sources, considering the strengths and weaknesses of different works and what this means for your argument, as well as any gaps in the literature. Avoid simply listing or describing sources. Remember to continue referring back to your thesis statement and explain how the content helps answer the main research question. Your literature review should be an argument for this statement, so make sure you don't include anything which is irrelevant.

The way you structure your main body will be informed by the nature of your academic discipline and any patterns you've recognised within the literature. Think about some of the important elements you considered when surveying the literature and what the most logical structure would be for your piece of work. Would it be best to organise the literature by themes or in a more chronological manner? 

The Paraphrasing and Summarising Information Worksheet provides guidance on how you can write some of the content of the sources you find in your own words. This will help with developing your academic voice, as well as ensuring you avoid plagiarising content. 

Synthesising information from different sources improves the criticality of your academic writing. Download our Synthesising Sources in Writing worksheet which explains how to do this. 

This is where you pull together the key themes and ideas you have explored and summarise your thesis argument, based on the literature you have read. You can acknowledge any gaps, weaknesses or significant issues in your topic and include recommendations for future research. You can also remind your reader about the importance of your research, in light of everything you have found. You should not introduce any new information at this stage but rather use it as a stepping stone for getting started on your own research. Finish by summarising your review. If the literature review is a dissertation chapter, explain how the information links to your project.

Top tip! Remember to draft, edit and proofread your work. This will ensure your work flows and reads fluently and it can also be useful for developing your academic voice. Try reading your work out loud to hear how it sounds. Find out more from our Editing and Proofreading pages. 

Literature review style and language

You should paraphrase or summarise others’ ideas, writing concisely and clearly. Focus on the key ideas in the literature, explaining their significance in relation to your topic.

Top tips!  For help with literature searching, visit our pages on Finding Information. For advice on paraphrasing and referencing correctly, take a look at the Academic Integrity module in MyBeckett and our Paraphrasing and Summarising Information worksheet. For ideas about using reporting verbs to explain and analyse sources, download our Reporting Verbs Worksheet. The Synthesising Sources in Writing Worksheet will help you compare ideas from different sources. 

Annotated bibliographies

Annotated bibliographies contain a list of citations, each followed by one or two descriptive and analytical paragraphs. These paragraphs summarise the content and the main argument of the source. They also evaluate the usefulness of the source within the context of the research. 

The Annotated Bibliographies Worksheet provides a step-by-step guide on exactly how to tackle this assignment, as well as how to organise and critique your sources.