Teaching Literature Reviews

Here we provide recommendations on how to teach literature reviews to both undergraduate and graduate students, drawing from various sources and articles on what literature reviews are and how students can write them (included at the end for you to review as further reading). Literature reviews, like all kinds of writing, are best taught in their specific disciplinary contexts, although there are some overall principles about them that we focus on below.

First, some important questions to keep in mind as you think about literature reviews in your courses:

  • Why are you assigning literature reviews? Think about your learning outcomes. What do you want students to be able to do by the end of the course, and how does a literature review fit in? Does it need to be a formal “literature review” for the kinds of thinking and engagement you want students to demonstrate?
  • How much prior experience does your class have with literature reviews? Where else in their education might they have learned about it? (This can also be a great survey to send out to students, or a conversation to have with the full class)
  • What kind of literature review are you working with—a stand-alone literature review as an assignment, or a literature review nestled within a larger paper? There are some nuances between these types, and it can be helpful for you as the instructor to determine what it is you want students to do and demonstrate in the assignment as well as learn more about their prior knowledge of it.

Next, here are some recommendations we have for you to keep in mind as you teach and discuss literature reviews with your undergraduate students.

1. Discuss what a literature review is. A literature review is a synthesis and critical analysis of a body of research related to a particular topic or question. It can be stand-alone or part of a larger body of work, like a research paper. It consists of multiple voices from a body of scholarship and discusses them together. Helping students realize this and how it differs from plain summary is an important and productive place to start.

2. Explain the purpose of literature reviews. In academic contexts, we write literature reviews for specific reasons, including to:

  • Generate new insights about how a particular topic is currently and has been previously understood by the existing literature
  • Provide context for a new study, research, report or grant
  • Provide justification for the new study, research, or grant

All writing is writing in particular; that is, we write things (including literature reviews) for specific purposes and to respond to specific needs. Helping students learn about why they and others write literature reviews in your specific context is thus beneficial to explicitly discuss.

3. Break up and teach the different parts of a literature review. For literature reviews that are part of a larger study, there are typically three major parts to them:

  • Big picture problem being explored
  • What has been said on the subject
  • Author’s goals and intervention

Students could benefit from learning about working on each part separately, perhaps first understanding and thinking about what their big picture problem is before focusing on what it is they want to be able to do. It’s easy for the different parts of the literature review to blend together into one unit, but it can be helpful for students to conceptually think about each part and section.

4. Scaffold the literature review into manageable steps, or “chunks.” This recommendation directly builds from the last one. We know from the research on learning theory that students learn best when learning smaller pieces of a whole that further connect (Ambrose et al., 2011). To that end, students benefit from working on smaller pieces of a literature review across time. One assignment earlier on in the semester might be asking students to identify sources and determine who exactly is in conversation with one another on a given topic. A follow-up assignment could be asking students to write two paragraphs showing how the sources are writing about the same theme and building from (or diverging from) each other. Then, they could write more directly about how it is they want to intervene. For an example of this kind of smaller-step assignment, see the reverse genealogy assignment from one of our Faculty Writing Fellows Kate de Medeiros or insight on how to introduce students to research from Faculty Writing Fellow Elizabeth Hoover.

5. Help students create a reading matrix. A crucial part of writing literature reviews is reading a large amount of scholarship. As part of your scaffolding efforts, consider asking students to keep a running matrix about readings that includes information like main argument or hypothesis, method(ology), and themes; the organization of a matrix can help students distill and keep track of important information pertinent to a review of the literature. For examples, see ideas from this article using Excel or the sample chart in this resource on literature reviews.

6. Conduct a literature review genre analysis in class. Especially for students brand new to the idea of a literature review, it can be extremely helpful to walk them through multiple student examples (at least 3, preferably more like 4 or 5) where you ask students to identify patterns they see across the examples. We know from the research that students learn better if they can see something for themselves rather than being told something, so consider asking your students to look at examples of literature reviews and answer the following questions about them:

  • What conditions call for the genre? (why do we write it?)
  • What sort of content is typically contained in this genre? (what is here?)
  • What form does this genre take? (what does it look like?)
  • What makes this genre what it is? (and what is not here?)

Students can then discuss together as a whole group and compare what they’ve said for each answer, building their knowledge of literature reviews together.

7. Contrast synthesis and summary skills. Learning the difference between summarizing and synthesizing is a notable challenge for students learning how to write literature reviews. Building from the previous suggestion, it could be helpful to have students look at examples of summary and synthesis and explicate the difference between the two, and then write out perhaps a concrete list of things one does when synthesizing that doesn’t appear in summary (and vice versa). This could be a quick class activity or a homework assignment.

8. Encourage revision. Revision is a key part of any writing task but especially when writing literature reviews tied to larger projects. It may take a few times to get right, and many of us in our own scholarly work often go back and add to/revise literature reviews as we write. Consider asking students to revisit their literature review at a later stage of the writing process, after they’ve completed a full draft and have moved on to other stages of writing (for larger projects).

Additional recommendations for teaching literature reviews to graduate students

We also wanted to provide some recommendations specifically for teaching literature reviews to graduate students, who often interact with scholarship in different ways than undergraduate students. Literature reviews look different for students at the graduate-level, who are entering more specialized, academic conversations and often work on larger projects that require more engagement with research and scholarly conversations. The following recommendations are made with that specific context in mind.

1. Help students think about the scope. Is this literature review just for one course/project, or might they use this review as a starting point for a larger project like a thesis or dissertation? Does this literature end in the course/lab, or can it live and extend elsewhere? Graduate students experience these longer-form types of writing for the first time, so they need extra support determining scope, including how much literature to cover in a review and what needs to be there now and what can be added later.

2. Frame literature reviews as scholarly conversations. Drawing from threshold concepts of writing (Adler-Kassner and Wardle, 2015) as well as work from Kamler and Thomson (2014), doctoral writing is a social practice that engages in conversation with many scholars. Kamler and Thomson propose pitching literature reviews as hosting a dinner party and inviting selected literatures/scholars, noting that one can't invite everyone and that they carve their own territory in who to invite and what to cover. There’s an important nuance between being too quiet as the host where the guests do all the talking as well and overpowering the guests and not giving them a chance to explain themselves. Helping students conceive of literature reviews in these ways can be a helpful way for them to cross some important thresholds in their thinking.

3. Encourage experimentation with citation software. At the graduate level, students read a lot of research that can be useful to them later and keeping it organized is essential to alter writing about it. Encourage students to try many of the citation softwares available to them, such as Zotero and Mendeley.

4. Play around with concept mapping. We know from the research on graduate education that conceptual frameworks (which are connected to literature reviews) are a threshold concept for graduate students (Kiley & Wisker, 2009), meaning it’s something they will struggle with and that takes time and acclimation. Concept mapping is one proposed way to help students visually see and connect the ideas and theories they are studying to see how they come together to inform their own work. You can read this article for ideas about mindmapping software, or check out Lucidchart for a free account.

5. Incentivise the thinking process. Writing literature reviews and developing conceptual frameworks for understanding graduate research takes a lot of time and thinking that can often be and feel invisible to graduate learners. Much of the learning that occurs when writing these documents happens off the page, so it could be helpful to assign thought process-type assignments that encourage students to reflect on the current state of their thinking and how they see ideas blending together. This could be paired with assigning mindmaps, as well as reading matrices, to help students see the fuller-picture.

6. Break down your own process. Especially when working with master’s or doctoral students who seek to write academic publications or pursue a career in academia, it can be helpful for them to learn from their mentors and instructors their own processes and struggles when working on literature reviews (and other genres). Students appreciate seeing the “curtain pulled back,” so to speak, and could benefit from their instructor working through how they work through literature reviews in their own work, and from perhaps seeing some of the messier, less-polished parts that we noted above is a very important part of the process.

Resources/Further Reading

For students on how to approach literature reviews:

For faculty on teaching literature reviews:

  • Ambrose, S. Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Casanave, C., & Li, Y. (2015). Novices’ struggles with conceptual and theoretical framing in writing dissertations and papers for publication. Publications, 3, 104–119.
  • Kamler, B., & Thomson, P. (2014). Helping doctoral students write: Pedagogies for supervision. London, UK: Routledge.
  • Kiley, M., & Wisker, G. (2009). Threshold concepts in research education and evidence of threshold crossing. Higher Education Research and Development, 28(4), 431–441.
  • Pickering, C., Grignon, J., Steven, R., Guitart, D., & Byrne, J. (2015). Publishing not perishing: how research students transition from novice to knowledgeable using systematic quantitative literature reviews. Studies in Higher Education, 40(10), 1756–1769. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2014.914907.