literature reviews

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.

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:

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.

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

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:

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:

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. 

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 (

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:


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