research methods

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. 

Research Methods: Doing a literature review

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:

How to reference

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

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:

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:

Useful links to help you create a literature map

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.

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:

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.


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