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Study Skills- Literature Review

Skills support on literature reviews

What is a Literature Review?

When thinking about conducting a literature review, it is always useful to begin with what a literature review actually is.

We can define a literature review as 'a critical evaluation of the existing published work in a selected subject area'. In simple terms, it is an overall view of what is known about your subject and what is not known, which demonstrates your understanding of the topic and the debates surrounding it.

Jesson, Mattheson and Lacey (2011, pp.22-23) highlight that, an academic literature review allows you to show,

  • that you are aware of and can interpret what is already known about your topic
  • you can make sense of the literature, highlighting trends, common themes, debates, contradictions, and gaps in existing knowledge
  • when part of a research project or dissertation, you can discuss how your research is important and how it will contribute to the existing knowledge. 

You might come across different definitions and expectations of what a literature review is.

The Thinglink below explores an alternative one offered by Dianna Ridley (2012). Read the definition and examine the three key elements it highlights by clicking on the tags. Compare these to the elements listed above

For study skills support on the other dissertation areas see the dissertation Library Guide link below. 

Why you are being asked to conduct a literature review will determine what you include within it. You may, for example, be asked to write a stand-alone literature review on a topic, or you might need to produce a literature review as part of a research proposal or project. It is vital that you read your brief and understand the purpose of your review to ensure it does what it needs to.

In short, producing a literature review shows that you can handle academic material and understand the impact of the strengths and limitations of the different sources. It demonstrates that you can make sense of a complex topic and explain the trends, agreements, debates, and gaps in knowledge clearly. Finally, a literature review shows that you can use this understanding to inform your own ideas and research, where appropriate. 

Check your understanding with the quick drag-and-drop activity below:


References and additional reading:

Jesson, J. K., Matheson, L. and Lacey, F. M. (2011) Doing your literature review: Traditional and Systematic TechniquesLondon: Sage Publications Ltd.

Ridley, D. (2012) The literature review: a step-by-step guide for studentsLos Angeles: Sage Publications Ltd.