Research Methods: Doing a literature review

Eira Patterson | View as single page | Feedback/Impact

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 (