Research Methods: Doing a literature review - single page view

Doing a literature review: How to find and make sense of published research

This guide is designed to help you to:

  • understand how to use other people’s writing to inform your own research;
  • develop a strategy for carrying out a search of the literature;
  • organise the themes logically;
  • evaluate the research you read;
  • think about the features of a reflective literature review and explore how to achieve this in practice. 


This MESHGuide draws on a range of key literature in the field of social science research. Also its design has been informed by lessons learned from personal research, which has focussed on the following areas:

  • developing effective collaborative learning in science
  • factors influencing learning through play in the early years
  • student teachers’ engagement with research and its impact on their developing practice
  • constructivist informed practice in science within initial teacher education
  • creativity in learning and teaching.


Bryman, A. (2008) Social Research Methods, 3rd edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cresswell, J.W. (2011) Planning, Conducting, and Evaluating Qualitative Research, 4th edn, London: Pearson.

Newby, P. (2014) Research Methods for Education, 2nd edn. Harlow: Pearson Education Ltd.

O'Leary, Z. (2010) The Essential Guide to Doing Your Research Project. London: Sage.

Patterson, E.W. (2011) Initial teacher development in science: the impact of constructivist-informed practice on learning, Teacher Development, 15(1), pp69-86.

Punch, K. (2009) Introduction to Research Methods in Education. London: Sage.

Walliman, N. (2009) Your Research Project: A step-by-step guide for the first-time researcher, 2nd edn. London: Sage.

Winter, G. (2000) A comparative discussion of the notion of 'validity' in qualitative and quantitative research. The Qualitative Report, 4 (3-4), March. Retrieved 10/7/15]


Further Reading

Useful books

Cohen, L., Manion, L. and Morrison, K. (2007) Research Methods in Education, 6th edn. London: Routledge.

Langdridge, D. and Hagger-Johnson, G. (2009) Introduction to Research Methods and Data Analysis in Psychology, 2nd edn. Harlow: Pearson Education Ltd.

Newby, P. (2014) Research Methods for Education, 2nd edn. Harlow: Pearson Education Ltd.

Orna, E. and Stevens, G. (2009) Managing Information for Research: Practical Help in Researching, Writing and Designing Dissertations. Buckingham: Open University Press. This book provides useful guidance on how to go about writing your literature review.

Pears, R. and Shields, G. (2008) Cite Them Right: The Essential Referencing Guide, 2nd edn. Wickham: Pear Tree Books. This book provides extremely useful and comprehensive guidance on how to set out your references.

Ridley, D. (2012) The Literature Review: A Step-by-Step Guide for Students, 2nd edn. London: Sage.

Rumsey,S. (2008) How to Find Information: A Guide for Researchers, 2nd edn. Maidenhead: Open University Press. This book provides useful guidance on how to conduct electronic searches.

Web-based resources

The REPOSE Guidelines are designed as a framework to support the reporting of research, but could also be useful in helping you to evaluate the effectiveness of reports

British Education Research Association (BERA) publications

National Foundation for Education Research (NFER) research reports and guides

How to conduct an effective and valid literature search (

Guide to Harvard Referencing (University of Southampton)

How to conduct a systematic or evidence based literature review: Margaret Adolphus

Methods for conducting systematic reviews: EPPI

Creating a literature map: UWE

Using a concept map to organise a literature review using VUE

VUE software download

Sources of research reports

Institute of Education / UCL EPrints repository

Department for Education (DfE) research publications

Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Coordinating Centre (EPPI-Centre) database of education research

Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) Survey and Thematic reports

Oxfam research publications

American Educational Research Association:

Review of Educational Research:

Review of Research in Education

Key ideas

The most basic purpose for carrying out a literature review is to enable you to develop your understanding of the key theoretical perspectives, research findings and issues within the area being reviewed. This will involve engaging with sources such as journal articles, books and other documents in a critical and reflective way. The process of engaging with the literature should be an on-going process throughout your research project. 

Why carry out a literature review?

When writing your literature review it is important to be aware of the functions that your literature review could serve, as this will provide a clear focus to your writing. The literature review enables you to set your proposed research in context. For some projects it will be important to explore the historical context, for example significant events within education in a period of history; key government papers and policies; or exploration of significant research projects and how they influenced the development of thinking in your particular area of research. For all projects the current context in the field of study needs to be considered, for example exploration of current educational debates.

Another important function of your literature review is the exploration of theoretical perspectives relevant to your area of research. Within your proposed area of research there will exist established theories. These theories will have emerged from the research that has been carried out in the past and can be used to inform future research. It is likely that alternative and sometimes conflicting ideas may exist and it is important to consider these in the literature review. In order for you to be able to make effective use of theoretical perspectives in your work, it is essential that you gain a clear understanding of the concepts associated with these and the terminology used to describe these concepts. It is important to explain these concepts and provide clear definitions of terminology within your literature review.

The main focus of your literature review will be to explore the research findings from projects that are related to your research focus. The scope and direction that this review of the research literature takes will be directed by your research questions or aims. Engaging with other research will help you to develop and refine your research questions or aims and to establish a rationale for the significance of your research, for example through identifying a gap in existing research.

Carrying out a literature review provides direction for your research by:

  • supporting the development of your rationale for doing this research i.e. establishing why this research is important
  • informing the development of your research focus and questions
  • supporting the identification of relevant search terms
  • facilitating identification of gaps in existing research
  • enabling you to develop a definition for key terms within this area of research
  • allowing you to identify the research approaches and methods which have been used by other researchers in this area and to critically evaluate these to support the development of your own research design.

Further reading

How to conduct an effective and valid literature search (

What is a systematic literature review?

A systematic review of the literature investigates a particular issue by analysing the key findings of existing research. This type of literature review will also be framed around a research issue and research questions or aims, but the source of the data is secondary. In a project that involves the collection of primary data, decisions need to be made regarding how to carry out the research in practice, whereas in a systematic literature review the approach that will be used in critically reviewing the literature needs to be considered. In the field of education a commonly used approach is narrative synthesis, which involves drawing together and analysing the key findings of research. 

Further reading:

How to conduct a systematic or evidence based literature review: Margaret Adolphus


Searching the literature in an organised way

It is important to develop an organised and systematic approach to searching the literature, as ultimately this makes the process of searching more efficient and effective. This section of the guide is designed to help you carry out searches effectively and efficiently. 

Identifying key terms

When carrying out electronic searches it is important to try out different synonyms or related terms, therefore one of the first things that you need to do is to establish the key terms to use. Once you have found some journal articles relevant to your study, these often include lists of key words and you can then use some of these to develop your search. An example of how key terms can be identified is included here:

Area of focus: Constructivism in science teaching

Suggested steps to follow:

  1. Think of key terms that relate to the focus area.

  2. Enter these terms into Google Scholar and identify some relevant journal articles.

  3. Use these articles to help you identify further search terms

  4. If your search does not come up with any useful sources consider using alternative terms.

Possible key words and phrases you could search for:

Possible key terms

Alternative terms you could try

 you could tryconstructivism



(the three terms above would be entered together as a search string)

constructivist; constructivist learning; discovery learning; problem-based learning; inquiry learning experiential learning

“constructivist-informed practice”

“constructivist-informed teaching”


“socially mediated learning”



Electronic searches

Boolean operators: the words AND, NOT, and OR can be used to combine words in a search string to allow you to:

  • narrow the search by using NOT which will reduce the number of sources retrieved (in Google and Google Scholar, this function can be achieved by inserting a minus sign in front of the word)
  • or broaden the search using AND or OR

The search can also be broadened by locating different search terms and by putting ~ in front of a word, which will facilitate related words being found e.g. ~foreign students will also find international and overseas students.

Truncation symbols such as * (most common) or ? or $ can be attached to the suffix of a word to allow you to search for different suffixes e.g. ‘manage*’ would enable you to retrieve the terms manager, managing, manages and management.

Wildcards such as ? or # can be used to represent letters that may vary e.g. behave? would retrieve behaviour and behavior. 

Search engines

Google Scholar is a useful search engine which allows searches to be carried out using key word, subject or author. This can be found at:

If you want to search using a particular phrase keeping the words in the same order, put them in double quotation marks, for example “constructivist informed practice”

Google Scholar will give you the references for the sources and in some cases where articles or conference proceedings etc. are freely available it will give you a link to the article. When you want to access a journal article that you have found via Google Scholar, write down or copy and paste the reference and then use the journal section of your University library catalogue to locate and download the article. It may be the case that the library does not subscribe to that journal, in which case if the article is particularly relevant you could consider ordering an inter library loan or alternatively there is the option to pay for it via the publisher website (but this could work out expensive and should only be used if you know the article is useful and there is no other way to access it). 

Some benefits of using Google Scholar are that it gives you the following useful information in the form of links under each of the search results:

  • Cited by tells you how many people have cited this source and if you click on this it will take you to a list of references for these
  • Related Articles will give you access to articles related to your search, many of which will also be useful for your literature review
  • View as HTML provides a link to a simplified text that does not require Acrobat readers etc
  • Web Search takes you to a web search using key terms generated by Google Scholar in response to your initial search
  • Library Search tells you which libraries have copies of a particular book or journal article
  • BL Direct allows you access to the journals held by the British Library, however this service is not free and the first thing you should do is to find out if your own University library subscribes to the journal.

The Advanced Search facility of Google Scholar is also useful to help you narrow down your search. For example it is possible to enter the journals you want to search in Publication: Return articles published in... If you want to search all journals, but filter out other sources, just enter journal into this box.

Google Books is another search engine that will allow you to focus just on books in your search, however often most of these will also be found in a Google Scholar search. If you use Google Books, you may need to be more specific in your use of search terms.

Solving common problems related to searching for sources

If your search comes up with too many results and you find that a lot of these are not directly relevant to the focus of your enquiry, then the search parameters are too broad and need to be narrowed. This can be achieved by limiting the population or narrowing the focus. For example if the following search terms had been used:

behaviour management

The search could be made more specific by:

  • limiting the population to primary age children narrowing the focus to positive strategies

Also the NOT operator can be used to make the search more precise by screening out a particular subset of results if you are findings that a particular unwanted theme is appearing in the search results.

Alternatively you may find that your search is not coming up with any information. In this case you could try using different search facilities, or broaden your search by including new related search terms. The choice of search terms is usually the problem when a search does not yield many results and you need to try out alternatives. 

Examples of databases

In addition to using Google Scholar, you may consider accessing education databases. Some examples of useful education databases are:

BEI – the British Education Index is another free database that searches journal articles and papers, and provides a useful summary (

BERTiE - a semantic search environment which is currently being developed by Bath Spa Institute for Education . This will enable researchers not only to find information quickly and effectively but also to find connections and links between data. (

EBSCO, INGENTA, JSTOR and ERA – these are databases of journal articles which if you are working with a University you may be able to get access to through their subscription and are usually accessed via the library portal.

EDNA - Education Network Australia is also a free database, including a range of different types of sources (

ERIC – this is a free database developed by the US government, which searches journal articles and reports, also it provides useful summaries of the sources located (

Zetoc - a comprehensive research database that can be used to set up email alerts when a new article is published containing particular keywords or published by certain authors. If your University subscribes to Zetoc it can be accessed using your Athens username and password and is located at:

How to read effectively

At an early stage in the development of your research question it is essential to explore the literature to find out what kind of research has already been carried out and to identify relevant theoretical perspectives. This early reading will help you to develop and refine the focus for your research and to frame your research question. Once this is established, your research question then needs to provide a focus to direct your reading. 

Selecting relevant literature: Focus and scope

It is necessary to be selective about what you choose to include in the literature review, and it is useful to think about how you will limit the scope of the literature you identify as you search. Points to consider to help you in limiting the scope of your literature are:

  • the relevance of research studies carried out in other countries to your research: it is necessary to reflect critically on whether the context that the research is so different from the one in which you will be working that the findings of studies in a particular geographical region would not provide any useful insights;
  • the time period within which work has been published: sometimes there is a case for including older sources, for example where a particular research study is of particular significance or where little recent work has been published in relation to a theme being developed in your review;
  • the age range of pupils / students in the studies you include.

Also it is important to critically evaluate the literature to identify whether a source is of high quality. Below are some criteria to help you to evaluate the quality of a piece of research published in a journal, or a research study accessed online:

  • Are the conclusions supported by evidence?
  • Does the research design give you confidence that the findings of the research are reliable and valid?
  • Are arguments clearly articulated and are conclusions clearly linked to the evidence presented in the results?

(Adapted from Walliman, 2009)

Finding information in texts

When you are searching the literature, it is important that you have established in your mind what you are looking for and this is achieved by having a clear focus for your research. An electronic search will identify a range of sources, some of which will be directly relevant to your work, and others which will be of limited or no use. To evaluate how useful a source is it is necessary to be able to read quickly, using for example the following techniques:

  • skimming a book involves looking through quickly, focussing on signposts like the contents, headings, introductions and conclusions
  • scanning is a quick search of the text looking for key words or other specific information as in the case of journal articles you would read through the abstracts quickly, actively searching for key words and phrases related to your research focus.

When you have found an article that is particularly useful (especially if it is quite recent), go through the reference list and use this to identify other sources that look interesting. In the case of academic books, when you have identified book titles from an electronic search to help you decide how useful a book may be, look through the contents first to find chapter headings that might be of interest and then speed read excerpts from a chapter. Another way to help you find relevant books is to make use of annotated bibliographies in books you have already used and found relevant to identify new sources.

Questions to help you identify themes in your literature review

Questions to help you identify themes in your literature review

The following questions are very useful to help you identify key themes that you might want to explore in your literature review:

  • What do I already know?
  • What are the key concepts and definitions within this area of study?
  • What are the political standpoints and historical context?
  • What are the beliefs underpinning this area of study?
  • Why is it important to study this research problem and how does it relate to the current national/international priorities within education?
  • What are the key questions asked by other researchers in this area and how can these help me to develop my own research focus and questions?
  • What research strategies and methods have been used by other researchers in this area of study?
  • Can I learn from mistakes that have been made by other researchers?
  • What are the key theoretical perspectives in this area?
  • What are the key research findings?
  • How do these existing ideas from theory and research link together?
  • How can the literature help me to interpret my findings? E.g. Are there analytical frameworks that have been used by other researchers that I could use to analyse my findings?
  • Are there any conflicting research findings or areas of controversy?
  • Are there any gaps in the existing research?

(Adapted from Langdridge and Hagger-Johnson (2009); Bryman (2008); and Hart, cited in Punch, 2009)



Organising information

The key to effective organisation of the literature is to identify emerging themes (see section ‘Constructing a literature map’) and then using these themes as the basis for organising the sources you have collected.

Organising sources electronically

Download electronic copies of journal articles and research reports and save these in labelled folders relating to the key areas identified in your literature map. Create Word documents for each of the key themes you generate and copy and paste in relevant excerpts from electronic sources into these. Ensure you include all the necessary reference information you need to be able to locate the source again quickly at a later date and in particular note the page number for excerpts that you may use as direct quotes.

Guidelines for managing files, references and emails:

Organising paper copy sources

For journal articles and excerpts from books that are particularly relevant to your study, it is useful to print paper copies of these and to use colour coding to organise information. The basis of this is your literature map which you will have developed from your initial reading identifying the areas for discussion which will be explored in your literature review. Each of the areas on the literature map can be colour coded and this can then be used as a key for the colour coding you carry out as you read. Different colour marker pens can be used for this purpose. Also coloured post-it notes are useful to help you locate the information again quickly. Annotations can also be useful, where you write ideas for how you will use a particular highlighted section or indicating how you will make links to other points in your literature review or listing other sources that have interesting contributions on this theme. These annotations indicating the key points in a particular source are useful to facilitate identifying key themes which can then be organised into a map, which would then serve as a plan for the literature review.

Taking notes

The purpose of taking notes is to record the key ideas from sources, possibly also direct quotations that are of particular relevance. When taking notes it is very important to ensure full and accurate referencing. Notes can either be recorded in a paper based form, such as on index cards or else electronically. Electronic note taking is useful because it allows you to easily search your notes for key terms and also you can copy and paste your notes directly into your literature review.

A tabular format could be used to support note taking and engagement with journal articles. Download a Word document of this table here.

Reference of the journal article: (author(s), date of publication, title of article, journal, issue, page numbers)

Research focus of the article:

Sections of the article


Your evaluation / ideas

Research questions


Are the questions clearly focussed?

Research approach

  • -qualitative / quantitative / mixed methods

  • case study / action research / ethnographic study / experimental design etc


Does the research approach fit with the questions being researched?

Research methods


Have appropriate methods been chosen to answer the research questions?

Details of how the research was implemented:

  • Details of participants and sample size

  • Context where the research was carried out

  • Timeframe

  • Details of the researcher(s)


Consider impact of the research design on credibility and applicability of the data.

Key findings


What insights does this research give you?

How do the findings of this research relate to your experience / findings from other related research?

Implications for practice


What is the potential impact of this research:

  • on the participants of the project

  • on practice generally within this field?

How could the findings of this study be used in your setting?


Identifying themes to structure your literature review

In order to develop the sections in your literature review you will need to be able to draw out the key themes from your reading. The following questions are designed to help you achieve this:

  • What do I already know?
  • What are the key concepts and definitions within this area of study?
  • What are the political standpoints and historical context?
  • What are the beliefs underpinning this area of study?
  • Why is it important to study this research problem and how does it relate to the current national/international priorities within education?
  • What are the key questions asked by other researchers in this area and how can these help me to develop my own research focus and questions?
  • What research strategies and methods have been used by other researchers in this area of study?
  • Can I learn from mistakes that have been made by other researchers?
  • What are the key theoretical perspectives in this area?
  • What are the key research findings?
  • How do these existing ideas from theory and research link together?
  • How can the literature help me to interpret my findings? E.g. Are there analytical frameworks that have been used by other researchers that I could use to analyse my findings?
  • Are there any conflicting research findings or areas of controversy?
  • Are there any gaps in the existing research?

(Adapted from Langdridge and Hagger-Johnson (2009); Bryman (2008); and Hart, cited in Punch, 2009)

Telling the story

The research of Golden-Biddle and Locke (1997, cited in Bryman, 2008) identified that the most effective research articles ‘tell a story’ that engages the reader. Thomas (2009) explores the approach adopted by Jerome Bruner to structuring writing as a story as establishing the ‘trouble’ in a story. This concept of ‘trouble’ refers to identifying an interesting issue around which to build the discussion. This issue will then form the basis of the rationale for doing your research and your dissertation will focus on exploring the issue further. It is therefore important for you to write your research from the viewpoint of developing a story, and your writing should be structured with this aim in mind. Thomas (2009) identifies a principle identified by Bruner that the ‘trouble’ in the story needs to be established, in other words alternative viewpoints that need to be explored further. I have found this to be particularly significant and useful in my own writing. The excerpt below establishes the ‘trouble’ in a story about the role of a constructivist approach in supporting learning. 

Starting to analyse

Make critical comments as you read and this will help you develop critical analysis. For paper copies these could take the form of post-it notes and for electronic documents you could use margin notes. Critical comments on a journal article could focus on:

  • whether the research design is appropriate to answer the research questions
  • whether the sample is appropriate in relation to the research design and the extent to which the results can be generalised
  • evidence of author bias
  • your evaluation on the validity / reliability of the findings
  • the rigour of the data analysis
  • how the findings compare with those of other researchers in this area

(Adapted from O’Leary, 2010 and Punch, 2009)

Structuring your ideas: Creating a literature map

It is important to have a plan of the areas to be discussed, using this to indicated how these will link together. In the overall structure of the literature review, there should be a logical flow of ideas and within each paragraph there should be a clear theme, around which related ideas are explored and developed. A literature map can be useful for this purpose as it enables you to create a visual representation of the themes and how they could relate to one another.

A literature map (Cresswell, 2011) is a two dimensional diagrammatic representation of information where links are made between concepts by drawing arrows (which could be annotated to define the nature of these links). Constructing a literature map helps you to:

  • develop your understanding of the key issues and research findings in the literature
  • to organise ideas in your mind
  • to see more clearly how different research studies relate to one another and to group those with similar findings.

Your map can then be used as a plan for your literature review.

As well has helping you to organise the literature for your review, a literature map can be used to help you analyse the information in a particular journal article, supporting the exploration of strengths and weaknesses of the methodology and the resultant findings and enabling you to explore how key themes and concepts in the article link together.

It is important to represent the different views and any conflicting research findings that exist in the literature (Newby, 2014). There is a danger of selective referencing, only including literature that supports your own beliefs and findings, disregarding alternative views. This should be avoided as it is based on the assumption that your views are the correct ones, and it is possible that you could miss key ideas and findings that could take your research in new and exciting directions.



Application of ideas: Constructing your own literature map

Construct a literature map for the area of education that you are interested in researching.

Guidelines for helping you to construct a literature map:

  • identify emerging themes from your reading and write each of these on separate post-it notes to create headings
  • stick these onto a large piece of paper and highlight the key terms on each
  • look through your sources (paper based or electronic) searching for these key terms
  • make lists of the authors (and possibly relevant page numbers) who refer to one of the emerging themes on a post-it and stick next to the appropriate heading
  • repeat for each of the emerging themes
  • move the post-its around and explore how the different themes link together

Case study: Identifying the ‘trouble’ in a story

Read the excerpt below from a journal article and identify the ‘trouble’ in this story i.e. establish what the key issue is and the alternative viewpoints:

Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006) identified a range of terms that have been used synonymously with constructivist learning, namely discovery learning, problem-based learning, inquiry learning and experiential learning. At the opposite extreme is direct instruction, also termed didactic teaching, which involves transmission of ‘facts’ or overt instruction (Macleod and Golby 2003). Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006) call into question the effectiveness of a constructivist approach for facilitating learning, citing research which shows higher levels of attainment gained where learning takes place within the context of direct instruction as opposed to a constructivist context. They propose that this apparent failure of constructivist approaches is a consequence of limited or complete lack of guidance associated with this approach. Each example of constructivist practice studied in Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark’s review was based on the assumption that a constructivist approach is inextricably linked to minimal guidance or complete absence of guidance. Similarly Mayer (2004) reviews evidence that clearly points to the ineffectiveness of what he terms ‘pure discovery learning’, however he concludes that a constructivist approach is still a valid approach for facilitating learning when it incorporates elements of guided discovery or direct instruction.

(Patterson, 2011: 70)


The key issue here is that researchers are calling into question the effectiveness of a constructivist approach in facilitating learning. However Mayer (2004) proposes that if inquiry is combined with guidance or instruction then the process of learning through within a constructivist framework becomes effective. The research carried out in response to this issue explored students’ perceptions of the impact of a constructivist approach in supporting their learning in science in the context of undergraduate initial teacher education.  

How to reference

The most commonly used system for referencing is the Harvard referencing system. The key features of this system are:

  • All books, articles and other types of source that have been used are listed in a reference list at the end of the dissertation and are listed in alphabetical order.
  • Within the text key ideas that have been taken from the work of others are indicated by including the author or list of authors, together with the date of publication and page number if a direct quotation has been used (page numbers are not included for paraphrased ideas).
  • Direct quotations are either indicated by putting inverted commas to identify the start and end of the quotation; for longer quotations these should start a new line, be indented and put in italics.
  • The author(s) can either be included at the start of a sentence, for example:

Jones (2009) states that…or put at the end of the sentence referring to their work, where the whole reference would be inserted in brackets.

If the author is put at the start of a sentence it is important to select carefully the word or phrase used so that it describe how the contribution of the author(s) fit in with the surrounding text in your writing. Some examples of words or phrases that could be used include: 





agrees with…,

challenges this view… 

A common mistake that is made in an attempt to use a variety of words that demonstrate an academic style of writing is to select a word or phrase without considering how this contributes to the overall meaning.

Your University with have guidelines on exactly how to set out the Harvard referencing and often a useful guide is published by the library to help you with this. It is important to refer to your University’s guidelines as variations exist in the possible layout of Harvard referencing and if you find out how to set out your references and to get this right early in the project this will save you a lot of time later on. Bibliographic software such as endnote exists that can help you organise your references, however you need to think about whether the research project you are involved with (or your future plans for further study) will generate sufficient sources to merit learning to use the software.

When citing the literature there are four categories of citation:

  1. Longer quotations should be blocked, indented and put in italics.
  2. Within sentence quotations that have a lead in such as: Jones (2011) states that / argues / considers etc.
  3. Paraphrased ideas that are summarised points taken from a source and changed into your own words.
  4. Generalisations which draw on several sources e.g. several researchers have found that…….(list of the authors and dates of the sources).


Further reading

Guide to Harvard Referencing (University of Southampton)


Writing your literature review

Style of writing

It is important to write clearly and not to over complicate the ideas being presented. However the writing needs to adopt an academic style. The best way to develop this is to do lots of reading of a range of different academic work. A useful exercise when looking at developing your style of writing is to make a list of useful words and phrases that you could adopt in your writing, for example:

  • different ways of saying that a particular author stated something e.g. proposed, asserted, etc.
  • language used for signposting e.g. for opening paragraphs or linking sentences together
  • the range of ways used to compare ideas and findings e.g. similarly, in contrast, etc.

How to review of the literature critically

First it is necessary to establish what a critical review of the literature means in practice. Critical evaluation goes beyond summarising the key ideas from the literature, it also involves synthesis and analysis. The meaning of these concepts will be explored, as they are key concepts that underpin reflective and analytical writing, however how they can actually be implemented in practice is often not well understood by beginning researchers.


This process of synthesising ideas can take the form of:

  • exploring the relationships between related concepts, theoretical frameworks and research findings;
  • at the most advanced level, identifying new links that have not been established previously. (adapted from Bryman, 2008)

In order for synthesis of ideas to be effective, it is necessary to make use of appropriate words to introduce ideas at the start of paragraphs and sentences and those that link the ideas together within sentences. For example in order to signpost that you are about to present ideas or findings that support one another, begin paragraphs or sentences with words or phrases like similarly, also or in addition.

Critical analysis

Critical analysis within your literature review could take the form of:

  • identification of gaps in the existing research within the particular field being studied
  • application of theoretical frameworks to analyse findings
  • critical review of alternative views or contradictory findings from research
  • identifying different viewpoints in the literature and critically appraising the evidence available to support or challenge these.

As in the case of synthesis, the choice of words to link ideas together is important for signpost critical analysis. For example words that could be used to start sentences or paragraphs include: Alternatively…; Alternative views are presented by…; However

Critical analysis of a particular research study could involve:

  • carrying out a considered and justified examination of the methods, findings and interpretation in research papers, approaching these from a critical viewpoint, questioning the approaches used and conclusions drawn from the data
  • explicitly discussing the theoretical perspectives underpinning the research study

(adapted from Langdridge and Hagger-Johnson, 2009).

Useful questions to support critical evaluation of a research study:

Is the research focus clear and does the research answer the questions set out at the start of the article?

Has the analysis of the data been well developed?

Are the conclusion supported by the data presented?