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Education Literature Review: Education Literature Review

What does this guide cover.

Writing the literature review is a long, complex process that requires you to use many different tools, resources, and skills.

This page provides links to the guides, tutorials, and webinars that can help you with all aspects of completing your literature review.

The Basic Process

These resources provide overviews of the entire literature review process. Start here if you are new to the literature review process.

  • Literature Reviews Overview : Writing Center
  • How to do a Literature Review : Library
  • Video: Common Errors Made When Conducting a Lit Review (YouTube)  

The Role of the Literature Review

Your literature review gives your readers an understanding of the evolution of scholarly research on your topic.

In your literature review you will:

  • survey the scholarly landscape
  • provide a synthesis of the issues, trends, and concepts
  • possibly provide some historical background

Review the literature in two ways:

  • Section 1: reviews the literature for the Problem
  • Section 3: reviews the literature for the Project

The literature review is NOT an annotated bibliography. Nor should it simply summarize the articles you've read. Literature reviews are organized thematically and demonstrate synthesis of the literature.

For more information, view the Library's short video on searching by themes:

Short Video: Research for the Literature Review

(4 min 10 sec) Recorded August 2019 Transcript 

Search for Literature

The iterative process of research:

  • Find an article.
  • Read the article and build new searches using keywords and names from the article.
  • Mine the bibliography for other works.
  • Use “cited by” searches to find more recent works that reference the article.
  • Repeat steps 2-4 with the new articles you find.

These are the main skills and resources you will need in order to effectively search for literature on your topic:

  • Subject Research: Education by Jon Allinder Last Updated Aug 7, 2023 1488 views this year
  • Keyword Searching: Finding Articles on Your Topic by Lynn VanLeer Last Updated Sep 12, 2023 6297 views this year
  • Google Scholar by Jon Allinder Last Updated Aug 16, 2023 4710 views this year
  • Quick Answer: How do I find books and articles that cite an article I already have?
  • Quick Answer: How do I find a measurement, test, survey or instrument?

Video: Education Databases and Doctoral Research Resources

(6 min 04 sec) Recorded April 2019 Transcript 

Staying Organized

The literature review requires organizing a variety of information. The following resources will help you develop the organizational systems you'll need to be successful.

  • Organize your research
  • Citation Management Software

You can make your search log as simple or complex as you would like.  It can be a table in a word document or an excel spread sheet.  Here are two examples.  The word document is a basic table where you can keep track of databases, search terms, limiters, results and comments.  The Excel sheet is more complex and has additional sheets for notes, Google Scholar log; Journal Log, and Questions to ask the Librarian.  

  • Search Log Example Sample search log in Excel
  • Search Log Example Sample search log set up as a table in a word document.
  • Literature Review Matrix with color coding Sample template for organizing and synthesizing your research

Writing the Literature Review

The following resources created by the Writing Center and the Academic Skills Center support the writing process for the dissertation/project study. 

  • Critical Reading
  • What is Synthesis 
  • Walden Templates
  • Quick Answer: How do I find Walden EdD (Doctor of Education) studies?
  • Quick Answer: How do I find Walden PhD dissertations?

Beyond the Literature Review

The literature review isn't the only portion of a dissertation/project study that requires searching. The following resources can help you identify and utilize a theory, methodology, measurement instruments, or statistics.

  • Education Theory by Jon Allinder Last Updated May 1, 2022 146 views this year
  • Tests & Measures in Education by Kimberly Burton Last Updated Nov 18, 2021 13 views this year
  • Education Statistics by Jon Allinder Last Updated Feb 22, 2022 15 views this year
  • Office of Research and Doctoral Services

Books and Articles about the Lit Review

The following articles and books outline the purpose of the literature review and offer advice for successfully completing one.

  • Chen, D. T. V., Wang, Y. M., & Lee, W. C. (2016). Challenges confronting beginning researchers in conducting literature reviews. Studies in Continuing Education, 38(1), 47-60. https://doi.org/10.1080/0158037X.2015.1030335 Proposes a framework to conceptualize four types of challenges students face: linguistic, methodological, conceptual, and ontological.
  • Randolph, J.J. (2009). A guide to writing the dissertation literature review. Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation 14(13), 1-13. Provides advice for writing a quantitative or qualitative literature review, by a Walden faculty member.
  • Torraco, R. J. (2016). Writing integrative literature reviews: Using the past and present to explore the future. Human Resource Development Review, 15(4), 404–428. https://doi.org/10.1177/1534484316671606 This article presents the integrative review of literature as a distinctive form of research that uses existing literature to create new knowledge.
  • Wee, B. V., & Banister, D. (2016). How to write a literature review paper?. Transport Reviews, 36(2), 278-288. http://doi.org/10.1080/01441647.2015.1065456 Discusses how to write a literature review with a focus on adding value rather and suggests structural and contextual aspects found in outstanding literature reviews.
  • Winchester, C. L., & Salji, M. (2016). Writing a literature review. Journal of Clinical Urology, 9(5), 308-312. https://doi.org/10.1177/2051415816650133 Reviews the use of different document types to add structure and enrich your literature review and the skill sets needed in writing the literature review.
  • Xiao, Y., & Watson, M. (2017). Guidance on conducting a systematic literature review. Journal of Planning Education and Research. https://doi.org/10.1177/0739456X17723971 Examines different types of literature reviews and the steps necessary to produce a systematic review in educational research.

examples of literature reviews in education

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  • How to Write a Literature Review | Guide, Examples, & Templates

How to Write a Literature Review | Guide, Examples, & Templates

Published on January 2, 2023 by Shona McCombes . Revised on September 11, 2023.

What is a literature review? A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources on a specific topic. It provides an overview of current knowledge, allowing you to identify relevant theories, methods, and gaps in the existing research that you can later apply to your paper, thesis, or dissertation topic .

There are five key steps to writing a literature review:

  • Search for relevant literature
  • Evaluate sources
  • Identify themes, debates, and gaps
  • Outline the structure
  • Write your literature review

A good literature review doesn’t just summarize sources—it analyzes, synthesizes , and critically evaluates to give a clear picture of the state of knowledge on the subject.

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Table of contents

What is the purpose of a literature review, examples of literature reviews, step 1 – search for relevant literature, step 2 – evaluate and select sources, step 3 – identify themes, debates, and gaps, step 4 – outline your literature review’s structure, step 5 – write your literature review, free lecture slides, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions, introduction.

  • Quick Run-through
  • Step 1 & 2

When you write a thesis , dissertation , or research paper , you will likely have to conduct a literature review to situate your research within existing knowledge. The literature review gives you a chance to:

  • Demonstrate your familiarity with the topic and its scholarly context
  • Develop a theoretical framework and methodology for your research
  • Position your work in relation to other researchers and theorists
  • Show how your research addresses a gap or contributes to a debate
  • Evaluate the current state of research and demonstrate your knowledge of the scholarly debates around your topic.

Writing literature reviews is a particularly important skill if you want to apply for graduate school or pursue a career in research. We’ve written a step-by-step guide that you can follow below.

Literature review guide

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Writing literature reviews can be quite challenging! A good starting point could be to look at some examples, depending on what kind of literature review you’d like to write.

  • Example literature review #1: “Why Do People Migrate? A Review of the Theoretical Literature” ( Theoretical literature review about the development of economic migration theory from the 1950s to today.)
  • Example literature review #2: “Literature review as a research methodology: An overview and guidelines” ( Methodological literature review about interdisciplinary knowledge acquisition and production.)
  • Example literature review #3: “The Use of Technology in English Language Learning: A Literature Review” ( Thematic literature review about the effects of technology on language acquisition.)
  • Example literature review #4: “Learners’ Listening Comprehension Difficulties in English Language Learning: A Literature Review” ( Chronological literature review about how the concept of listening skills has changed over time.)

You can also check out our templates with literature review examples and sample outlines at the links below.

Download Word doc Download Google doc

Before you begin searching for literature, you need a clearly defined topic .

If you are writing the literature review section of a dissertation or research paper, you will search for literature related to your research problem and questions .

Make a list of keywords

Start by creating a list of keywords related to your research question. Include each of the key concepts or variables you’re interested in, and list any synonyms and related terms. You can add to this list as you discover new keywords in the process of your literature search.

  • Social media, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok
  • Body image, self-perception, self-esteem, mental health
  • Generation Z, teenagers, adolescents, youth

Search for relevant sources

Use your keywords to begin searching for sources. Some useful databases to search for journals and articles include:

  • Your university’s library catalogue
  • Google Scholar
  • Project Muse (humanities and social sciences)
  • Medline (life sciences and biomedicine)
  • EconLit (economics)
  • Inspec (physics, engineering and computer science)

You can also use boolean operators to help narrow down your search.

Make sure to read the abstract to find out whether an article is relevant to your question. When you find a useful book or article, you can check the bibliography to find other relevant sources.

You likely won’t be able to read absolutely everything that has been written on your topic, so it will be necessary to evaluate which sources are most relevant to your research question.

For each publication, ask yourself:

  • What question or problem is the author addressing?
  • What are the key concepts and how are they defined?
  • What are the key theories, models, and methods?
  • Does the research use established frameworks or take an innovative approach?
  • What are the results and conclusions of the study?
  • How does the publication relate to other literature in the field? Does it confirm, add to, or challenge established knowledge?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the research?

Make sure the sources you use are credible , and make sure you read any landmark studies and major theories in your field of research.

You can use our template to summarize and evaluate sources you’re thinking about using. Click on either button below to download.

Take notes and cite your sources

As you read, you should also begin the writing process. Take notes that you can later incorporate into the text of your literature review.

It is important to keep track of your sources with citations to avoid plagiarism . It can be helpful to make an annotated bibliography , where you compile full citation information and write a paragraph of summary and analysis for each source. This helps you remember what you read and saves time later in the process.

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examples of literature reviews in education

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To begin organizing your literature review’s argument and structure, be sure you understand the connections and relationships between the sources you’ve read. Based on your reading and notes, you can look for:

  • Trends and patterns (in theory, method or results): do certain approaches become more or less popular over time?
  • Themes: what questions or concepts recur across the literature?
  • Debates, conflicts and contradictions: where do sources disagree?
  • Pivotal publications: are there any influential theories or studies that changed the direction of the field?
  • Gaps: what is missing from the literature? Are there weaknesses that need to be addressed?

This step will help you work out the structure of your literature review and (if applicable) show how your own research will contribute to existing knowledge.

  • Most research has focused on young women.
  • There is an increasing interest in the visual aspects of social media.
  • But there is still a lack of robust research on highly visual platforms like Instagram and Snapchat—this is a gap that you could address in your own research.

There are various approaches to organizing the body of a literature review. Depending on the length of your literature review, you can combine several of these strategies (for example, your overall structure might be thematic, but each theme is discussed chronologically).

Chronological

The simplest approach is to trace the development of the topic over time. However, if you choose this strategy, be careful to avoid simply listing and summarizing sources in order.

Try to analyze patterns, turning points and key debates that have shaped the direction of the field. Give your interpretation of how and why certain developments occurred.

If you have found some recurring central themes, you can organize your literature review into subsections that address different aspects of the topic.

For example, if you are reviewing literature about inequalities in migrant health outcomes, key themes might include healthcare policy, language barriers, cultural attitudes, legal status, and economic access.

Methodological

If you draw your sources from different disciplines or fields that use a variety of research methods , you might want to compare the results and conclusions that emerge from different approaches. For example:

  • Look at what results have emerged in qualitative versus quantitative research
  • Discuss how the topic has been approached by empirical versus theoretical scholarship
  • Divide the literature into sociological, historical, and cultural sources

Theoretical

A literature review is often the foundation for a theoretical framework . You can use it to discuss various theories, models, and definitions of key concepts.

You might argue for the relevance of a specific theoretical approach, or combine various theoretical concepts to create a framework for your research.

Like any other academic text , your literature review should have an introduction , a main body, and a conclusion . What you include in each depends on the objective of your literature review.

The introduction should clearly establish the focus and purpose of the literature review.

Depending on the length of your literature review, you might want to divide the body into subsections. You can use a subheading for each theme, time period, or methodological approach.

As you write, you can follow these tips:

  • Summarize and synthesize: give an overview of the main points of each source and combine them into a coherent whole
  • Analyze and interpret: don’t just paraphrase other researchers — add your own interpretations where possible, discussing the significance of findings in relation to the literature as a whole
  • Critically evaluate: mention the strengths and weaknesses of your sources
  • Write in well-structured paragraphs: use transition words and topic sentences to draw connections, comparisons and contrasts

In the conclusion, you should summarize the key findings you have taken from the literature and emphasize their significance.

When you’ve finished writing and revising your literature review, don’t forget to proofread thoroughly before submitting. Not a language expert? Check out Scribbr’s professional proofreading services !

This article has been adapted into lecture slides that you can use to teach your students about writing a literature review.

Scribbr slides are free to use, customize, and distribute for educational purposes.

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If you want to know more about the research process , methodology , research bias , or statistics , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

  • Sampling methods
  • Simple random sampling
  • Stratified sampling
  • Cluster sampling
  • Likert scales
  • Reproducibility

 Statistics

  • Null hypothesis
  • Statistical power
  • Probability distribution
  • Effect size
  • Poisson distribution

Research bias

  • Optimism bias
  • Cognitive bias
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  • Anchoring bias
  • Explicit bias

A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources (such as books, journal articles, and theses) related to a specific topic or research question .

It is often written as part of a thesis, dissertation , or research paper , in order to situate your work in relation to existing knowledge.

There are several reasons to conduct a literature review at the beginning of a research project:

  • To familiarize yourself with the current state of knowledge on your topic
  • To ensure that you’re not just repeating what others have already done
  • To identify gaps in knowledge and unresolved problems that your research can address
  • To develop your theoretical framework and methodology
  • To provide an overview of the key findings and debates on the topic

Writing the literature review shows your reader how your work relates to existing research and what new insights it will contribute.

The literature review usually comes near the beginning of your thesis or dissertation . After the introduction , it grounds your research in a scholarly field and leads directly to your theoretical framework or methodology .

A literature review is a survey of credible sources on a topic, often used in dissertations , theses, and research papers . Literature reviews give an overview of knowledge on a subject, helping you identify relevant theories and methods, as well as gaps in existing research. Literature reviews are set up similarly to other  academic texts , with an introduction , a main body, and a conclusion .

An  annotated bibliography is a list of  source references that has a short description (called an annotation ) for each of the sources. It is often assigned as part of the research process for a  paper .  

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Literature Review: Conducting & Writing

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Sample Lit Reviews from Communication Arts

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  • Literature Review Sample 1
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Have you written a stellar literature review you care to share for teaching purposes?

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Literature Review Tutorials

  • Literature Reviews: An Overview for Students What is a literature review? What purpose does it serve in research? What should you expect when writing one? Find out here in this guide from NCSU libraries.
  • Write a Lit Review from Virginia Commonwealth University Follow this guide to learn how to write a literature review, beginning with a synthesis matrix.
  • Literature Review: The What, Why and How-to Guide This guide will help you understand what is a Literature Review, why it is important and how it is done. Also includes information on Annotated Bibliographies.
  • Writing a Literature Review from the University of Toledo Covers what a lit review is, lit review types, writing a lit review and further readings.
  • The Literature Review Process A guide from the University of North Texas on selecting a topic, searching the literature, plan before reviewing, reviewing the literature and writing the review.
  • The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Permission granted to use this guide.

Sample Literature Reviews

  • Business Literature Review Example One Sharing economy: A comprehensive literature review
  • Business Literature Review Example Two Internet marketing: a content analysis of the research
  • Education Literature Review Sample One Teachers’ perception of STEM integration and education: a systematic literature review
  • Education Literature Review Sample Two Issues and Challenges for Teaching Successful Online Courses in Higher Education: A Literature Review
  • Gerontology Literature Review Sample One Attitudes towards caring for older people: literature review and methodology
  • Gerontology Literature Review Sample Two Literature review: understanding nursing competence in dementia care
  • Psychology Literature Review Sample One Psychological Correlates of University Students’ Academic Performance: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis
  • Psychology Literature Review Sample Two Misuse of Prescription Stimulants Among College Students: A Review of the Literature and Implications for Morphological and Cognitive Effects on Brain Functioning
  • Public Administration Literature Review Sample One Considering the Environment in Transportation Planning: Review of Emerging Paradigms and Practice in the United States
  • Public Administration Literature Review Sample Two Assessing the impact of research on policy: a literature review
  • Sociology Literature Review Sample One Employment Among Current and Former Welfare Recipients: A Literature Review
  • Sociology Literature Review Sample Two Deployment and family functioning: A literature review of US operations in Afghanistan and Iraq
  • Technology Literature Review Sample One Social media and innovation: A systematic literature review and future research directions
  • Technology Literature Review Sample Two Blockchain as a disruptive technology for business: A systematic review
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Education Research Guide: How to Write a Literature Review

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Literature Reviews Explained

Use the articles below to learn about:

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  • how to write a literature review
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill The Writing Center: Literature Reviews
  • OWL (Purdue University Online Writing Lab): Using APA to format your Literature Review

Synthesizing Explained

Synthesizing is a method of analyzing the main ideas and important information from your sources as you read and prepare to write a literature review. Review the resources below for sample synthesizing methods. Both examples have tables you can fill out as you read articles to help you organize your thoughts. 

  • Writing a Literature Review and Using a Synthesis Matrix: NC University Tutorial Center
  • Matrix Example from the University of West Florida Libraries
  • Synthesizing Cornelsen This article is included in "Writing a Literature Review and Using a Synthesis Matrix" to illustrate synthesizing articles in the sample matrix.
  • Synthesizing: Bruley This article is included in "Writing a Literature Review and Using a Synthesis Matrix" to illustrate synthesizing articles in the sample matrix.

Sample Literature Reviews

Make sure you follow any instructions from you professor on how to format your literature review! Use the examples below to get ideas for how you might write about the sources you found in your research.

  • Literature Review 1
  • Literature Review 2
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There are eight general steps in conducting an education literature review.  Please follow the eight numbered boxes, starting below.

Please note that the general framework for this guide is derived from the work of Joyce P. Gall, M.D. Gall, and Walter R. Borg in Applying Educational Research: a Practical Guide (5th ed., 2005). Also, much of the information on framing the research question comes from Emily Grimm's "Selected Reference Sources for Graduate Students in Education and Education Related Areas" (1995).

Step 1: Frame Your Research Question

Basic questions.

  • What do I want to know?  For what purpose? Consider subject terms, synonyms, related concepts and approaches.
  • What do I know already?
  • Who else might have performed similar research and why? Consider individuals, institutions, governmental agencies and other groups.
  • What summarizing or descriptive information is already available? Consider the secondary sources found below.

Time Questions

  • For which time span(s) do I need information?
  • Would recurrent or temporal events in education affect my research?  For example: school terms, budget hearings, conference proceedings, legislative sessions, policy decisions, elections, administrative procedural changes.

Limitation(s) Questions

  • Do I have other limitations?  For example:  language, age group, grade level, type of student, type of school, type of district, geography, curricular area, or style of teaching.

Aspect Questions

  • What aspects of education interest me?  For example:  financial, administrative, teaching, legislative, gender, parental, theoretical, research, developmental, practical or other.

Subjective Aspect Questions

  • What are my values, prejudices, biases, and areas of ignorance in regard to my research question(s)?
  • Will I let these prejudices limit my research?
  • Will I let these prejudices influence my note taking, choice of vocabulary and indexing terms, selection of data, evaluations of the work of other researchers, inclusion of conflicting theories, reporting of data, or my conclusions?

Step 2: Contact Experts to Get Answers or for Guidance to Relevant Publications

Consider consulting other educators, faculty or government officials who may specialize in your research area.

You may also want to consult the American Educational Research Association's Special Interest Groups (SIGs) for the names of groups and individuals who have expertise in different educational areas.  

Access: Free

Step 3: Read Secondary Sources to Gain a Broad Overview of the Literature Related to Your Research Area

Use secondary sources to further define your research question and to expand your literature search.  Secondary sources include encyclopedias, handbooks, dictionaries, and thesauri. Secondary sources are resources that review research that others have done.  They provide a general overview, will give you ideas for key search terms, and often include useful bibliographies for further reading.

Here are some key secondary sources and books on doing educational research:

  • Educational Psychology Review Educational Psychology Review is an international forum for the publication of peer-reviewed integrative review articles, special thematic issues, reflections or comments on previous research or new research directions, interviews, and research-based advice for practitioners.
  • NSSE Yearbook (Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education) Two issues are published annually; each focuses on a major education topic.
  • The Phi Delta Kappan Contains many articles that cite research and analyze practical implications.
  • Review of Educational Research Quarterly journal that consists of reviews of educational research literature.

Handbooks and Encyclopedias 

  • Encyclopedia of Education by James W. Guthrie Call Number: Online Book Publication Date: 2004
  • Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory by Michael A. Peters (Editor) Call Number: Online Book Publication Date: 2017
  • Encyclopedia of Special Education by Cecil R. Reynolds (Editor); Elaine Fletcher-Janzen (Editor); Kimberly J. Vannest (Editor) Call Number: Online Book Publication Date: 2014
  • Encyclopedia of the Social and Cultural Foundations of Education by Eugene F. Provenzo (Editor); John Philip Renaud (Editor) Call Number: Online Book Publication Date: 2008
  • Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology by J. Michael Spector (Editor); M. David Merrill (Editor); Jan Elen (Editor); M. J. Bishop (Editor) Call Number: Online Book ISBN: 9781461431855 Publication Date: 2013
  • Handbook of Research on Teaching by Drew Gitomer Call Number: Online Book Publication Date: 2016
  • Handbook of Research on the Education of Young Children by Olivia N. Saracho (Editor); Bernard Spodek (Editor) Call Number: Online Book Publication Date: 2012
  • Philosophy : Education by Brian Warnick Call Number: Online book Publication Date: 2017

Step 4: Select Preliminary Sources that Index Relevant Research Literature

Preliminary sources index primary research resources such as journal articles, conference proceeding papers, technical reports, government documents, dissertations and more. See below for key education databases:

e-books

Step 5: Identify Subject Terms, or Descriptors, and Use Them to Search Preliminary Sources

Choosing the most appropriate subject search terms, or descriptors, for searching indexes and catalogs can greatly influence your search results.  A good place to start is ERIC's thesaurus of descriptors:

Step 6: Read and Evaluate Primary Sources Discovered Through Indexes

For assistance in obtaining copies of primary sources, please consult online tutorials from UC Libraries .

As you print out copies of articles, review copies of books or reports, remember to look in the sources for bibliographies, names of individuals or groups who have done research on the topic, and for additional subject terms to help you narrow or broaden your research.

Step 7: Classify the Publications You Have Reviewed into Meaningful Categories

As you review the sources you find, classify them into meaningful categories.  This will help you prioritize reading them and may indicate useful ways to synthesize what you discover.  You may want to create a simple code for the different categories.

Step 8: Prepare Your Literature Review Report

The following books can help you assemble a literature review report. The resource icons indicate whether the book is available in print or as an e-book.

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Getting Started on Literature Reviews

  • "Reviewing the Literature" Project Planner SAGE Research Methods. Provides checklists and bullet points for the literature review process, with "Search for reources" links to relevant SAGE Research Methods fulltext books and book chapters.
  • "Literature reviews" / Lawrence A. Machi & Brenda T. McEvoy Oxford Bibliographies : Education, 2016. An annotated bibliography identifying and describing books and articles on the theory of literature reviews, their variety, and how to write them.

Selected Books on Writing Literature Reviews

Cover art

Search Databases for Literature Review Articles and Overview Publications

  • ERIC (ProQuest) Filter search results for Document Type = 070 : Information Analyses and 130 : Reference Materials - Bibliographies. ERIC Digests, research syntheses produced by ERIC ceased after ERIC's reform that closed its research-monitoring clearinghouses in the early 2000s. The ERIC database continues to make available the 3,000+ ERIC Digest published in 1980-2003. They may be found in ERIC (ProQuest) using the search filter for Document type = 073
  • APA PsycInfo PsycINFO has a Methodology limit, with values of Literature review, Systematic Review, or Meta-analysis.
  • Web of Science (WOS) Don't be misled by "science" in the title. WOS also covers the humanities and social sciences. On the left, under Refine Results, Select REVIEWS under Document Types. This is a limit for literature reviews or overview articles. THis may not get all lit reviews. Consider also searching the TS field (Title, Abstract, Author Keyword, Keywords Plus®) with meta-analysis, metaanalysis, synthesis, overview.
  • Scopus Do a search in Scopus for a keyword. Then refine the results by selected under "Document type" - review.
  • PubMed Perform a search, then under Article Type on the right, see Reviews or Systematic Reviews.
  • ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global‎: Full Collection Dissertations can sometimes be useful for review-type surveys of the literature on a specific field. Most often authors begin their study with a review of the literature in order to offer context for their contribution.

Selected Journals with Review Articles

  • Review of Educational Research (RER) SAGE, for American Educational Research Association (AERA), 1931- . Publishes critical, integrative reviews of research literature bearing on education, including conceptualizations, interpretations, and syntheses of literature and scholarly work in a field broadly relevant to education and educational research.
  • Review of Research in Education (RRE) SAGE, for AERA, 1973- . Each RRE annual volume is devoted to a single topic, with research syntheses and literature reviews.
  • Educational Research Review Elsevier, for European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction (EARLI), 2006- .
  • Campbell Systematic Reviews Wiley, for Campbell Collaboration, 2004- . CSR publishes finalized systematic reviews developed through the Campbell Collaboration. Subjects include education and child welfare.
  • Educational Psychology Review An international forum for the publication of peer-reviewed integrative review articles, special thematic issues, reflections or comments on previous research or new research directions, interviews, and research-based advice for practitioners - all pertaining to the field of educational psychology.
  • Annual Reviews AnnRev publishes literature-review journals in physical, life and social sciences. Includes anthropology, economics, linguistics, public health, psychology, and sociology. Education topics may be found in many of these discipline-specific journals.
  • Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science SAGE, for AAPSS, 1890- . Penn's house journal for the social sciences, and one of the oldest US scholarly journals. Each issue presents research syntheses on a specific topic, with one issue per year focusing on education or child welfare.
  • Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral sciences Wiley, 2015-201?. Review articles on new research fronts. Includes a recurring section on "Educational Institutions" .

Systematic Review Databases

  • Systematic Review Data Repository (SRDR) U.S. Department of Health and Human Services - open and searchable archive of systematic reviews and their data.
  • Campbell Collaboration - Library of Systematic Reviews Systematic reviews in areas such as education, criminal justice, social policy and social care. (The Campbell Collaboration was formally established at a meeting at the University of Pennsylvania on 24-25 February 2000.)
  • EPPI-Centre The Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Co-ordinating Centre (EPPI-Centre) is part of the Social Science Research Unit at the Institute of Education, University of London. EPPI develops systematic reviews and developing review methods in social science and public policy.
  • Cochrane Collaboration Cochrane Reviews are systematic reviews of primary research in human health care and health policy. Since 2011, Cochrane has an official partnership with the WHO.
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In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Literature Reviews

Introduction, what is a literature review.

  • Literature Reviews for Thesis or Dissertation
  • Stand-alone and Systemic Reviews
  • Purposes of a Literature Review
  • Texts on Conducting a Literature Review
  • Identifying the Research Topic
  • The Persuasive Argument
  • Searching the Literature
  • Creating a Synthesis
  • Critiquing the Literature
  • Building the Case for the Literature Review Document
  • Presenting the Literature Review

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Literature Reviews by Lawrence A. Machi , Brenda T. McEvoy LAST REVIEWED: 21 April 2021 LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2016 DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0169

Literature reviews play a foundational role in the development and execution of a research project. They provide access to the academic conversation surrounding the topic of the proposed study. By engaging in this scholarly exercise, the researcher is able to learn and to share knowledge about the topic. The literature review acts as the springboard for new research, in that it lays out a logically argued case, founded on a comprehensive understanding of the current state of knowledge about the topic. The case produced provides the justification for the research question or problem of a proposed study, and the methodological scheme best suited to conduct the research. It can also be a research project in itself, arguing policy or practice implementation, based on a comprehensive analysis of the research in a field. The term literature review can refer to the output or the product of a review. It can also refer to the process of Conducting a Literature Review . Novice researchers, when attempting their first research projects, tend to ask two questions: What is a Literature Review? How do you do one? While this annotated bibliography is neither definitive nor exhaustive in its treatment of the subject, it is designed to provide a beginning researcher, who is pursuing an academic degree, an entry point for answering the two previous questions. The article is divided into two parts. The first four sections of the article provide a general overview of the topic. They address definitions, types, purposes, and processes for doing a literature review. The second part presents the process and procedures for doing a literature review. Arranged in a sequential fashion, the remaining eight sections provide references addressing each step of the literature review process. References included in this article were selected based on their ability to assist the beginning researcher. Additionally, the authors attempted to include texts from various disciplines in social science to present various points of view on the subject.

Novice researchers often have a misguided perception of how to do a literature review and what the document should contain. Literature reviews are not narrative annotated bibliographies nor book reports (see Bruce 1994 ). Their form, function, and outcomes vary, due to how they depend on the research question, the standards and criteria of the academic discipline, and the orthodoxies of the research community charged with the research. The term literature review can refer to the process of doing a review as well as the product resulting from conducting a review. The product resulting from reviewing the literature is the concern of this section. Literature reviews for research studies at the master’s and doctoral levels have various definitions. Machi and McEvoy 2016 presents a general definition of a literature review. Lambert 2012 defines a literature review as a critical analysis of what is known about the study topic, the themes related to it, and the various perspectives expressed regarding the topic. Fink 2010 defines a literature review as a systematic review of existing body of data that identifies, evaluates, and synthesizes for explicit presentation. Jesson, et al. 2011 defines the literature review as a critical description and appraisal of a topic. Hart 1998 sees the literature review as producing two products: the presentation of information, ideas, data, and evidence to express viewpoints on the nature of the topic, as well as how it is to be investigated. When considering literature reviews beyond the novice level, Ridley 2012 defines and differentiates the systematic review from literature reviews associated with primary research conducted in academic degree programs of study, including stand-alone literature reviews. Cooper 1998 states the product of literature review is dependent on the research study’s goal and focus, and defines synthesis reviews as literature reviews that seek to summarize and draw conclusions from past empirical research to determine what issues have yet to be resolved. Theoretical reviews compare and contrast the predictive ability of theories that explain the phenomenon, arguing which theory holds the most validity in describing the nature of that phenomenon. Grant and Booth 2009 identified fourteen types of reviews used in both degree granting and advanced research projects, describing their attributes and methodologies.

Bruce, Christine Susan. 1994. Research students’ early experiences of the dissertation literature review. Studies in Higher Education 19.2: 217–229.

DOI: 10.1080/03075079412331382057

A phenomenological analysis was conducted with forty-one neophyte research scholars. The responses to the questions, “What do you mean when you use the words literature review?” and “What is the meaning of a literature review for your research?” identified six concepts. The results conclude that doing a literature review is a problem area for students.

Cooper, Harris. 1998. Synthesizing research . Vol. 2. 3d ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

The introductory chapter of this text provides a cogent explanation of Cooper’s understanding of literature reviews. Chapter 4 presents a comprehensive discussion of the synthesis review. Chapter 5 discusses meta-analysis and depth.

Fink, Arlene. 2010. Conducting research literature reviews: From the Internet to paper . 3d ed. Los Angeles: SAGE.

The first chapter of this text (pp. 1–16) provides a short but clear discussion of what a literature review is in reference to its application to a broad range of social sciences disciplines and their related professions.

Grant, Maria J., and Andrew Booth. 2009. A typology of reviews: An analysis of 14 review types and associated methodologies. Health Information & Libraries Journal 26.2: 91–108. Print.

DOI: 10.1111/j.1471-1842.2009.00848.x

This article reports a scoping review that was conducted using the “Search, Appraisal, Synthesis, and Analysis” (SALSA) framework. Fourteen literature review types and associated methodology make up the resulting typology. Each type is described by its key characteristics and analyzed for its strengths and weaknesses.

Hart, Chris. 1998. Doing a literature review: Releasing the social science research imagination . London: SAGE.

Chapter 1 of this text explains Hart’s definition of a literature review. Additionally, it describes the roles of the literature review, the skills of a literature reviewer, and the research context for a literature review. Of note is Hart’s discussion of the literature review requirements for master’s degree and doctoral degree work.

Jesson, Jill, Lydia Matheson, and Fiona M. Lacey. 2011. Doing your literature review: Traditional and systematic techniques . Los Angeles: SAGE.

Chapter 1: “Preliminaries” provides definitions of traditional and systematic reviews. It discusses the differences between them. Chapter 5 is dedicated to explaining the traditional review, while Chapter 7 explains the systematic review. Chapter 8 provides a detailed description of meta-analysis.

Lambert, Mike. 2012. A beginner’s guide to doing your education research project . Los Angeles: SAGE.

Chapter 6 (pp. 79–100) presents a thumbnail sketch for doing a literature review.

Machi, Lawrence A., and Brenda T. McEvoy. 2016. The literature review: Six steps to success . 3d ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

The introduction of this text differentiates between a simple and an advanced review and concisely defines a literature review.

Ridley, Diana. 2012. The literature review: A step-by-step guide for students . 2d ed. Sage Study Skills. London: SAGE.

In the introductory chapter, Ridley reviews many definitions of the literature review, literature reviews at the master’s and doctoral level, and placement of literature reviews within the thesis or dissertation document. She also defines and differentiates literature reviews produced for degree-affiliated research from the more advanced systematic review projects.

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15 Literature Review Examples

literature review examples, types, and definition, explained below

Literature reviews are a necessary step in a research process and often required when writing your research proposal . They involve gathering, analyzing, and evaluating existing knowledge about a topic in order to find gaps in the literature where future studies will be needed.

Ideally, once you have completed your literature review, you will be able to identify how your research project can build upon and extend existing knowledge in your area of study.

Generally, for my undergraduate research students, I recommend a narrative review, where themes can be generated in order for the students to develop sufficient understanding of the topic so they can build upon the themes using unique methods or novel research questions.

If you’re in the process of writing a literature review, I have developed a literature review template for you to use – it’s a huge time-saver and walks you through how to write a literature review step-by-step:

Get your time-saving templates here to write your own literature review.

Literature Review Examples

For the following types of literature review, I present an explanation and overview of the type, followed by links to some real-life literature reviews on the topics.

1. Narrative Review Examples

Also known as a traditional literature review, the narrative review provides a broad overview of the studies done on a particular topic.

It often includes both qualitative and quantitative studies and may cover a wide range of years.

The narrative review’s purpose is to identify commonalities, gaps, and contradictions in the literature .

I recommend to my students that they should gather their studies together, take notes on each study, then try to group them by themes that form the basis for the review (see my step-by-step instructions at the end of the article).

Example Study

Title: Communication in healthcare: a narrative review of the literature and practical recommendations

Citation: Vermeir, P., Vandijck, D., Degroote, S., Peleman, R., Verhaeghe, R., Mortier, E., … & Vogelaers, D. (2015). Communication in healthcare: a narrative review of the literature and practical recommendations. International journal of clinical practice , 69 (11), 1257-1267.

Source: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/ijcp.12686  

Overview: This narrative review analyzed themes emerging from 69 articles about communication in healthcare contexts. Five key themes were found in the literature: poor communication can lead to various negative outcomes, discontinuity of care, compromise of patient safety, patient dissatisfaction, and inefficient use of resources. After presenting the key themes, the authors recommend that practitioners need to approach healthcare communication in a more structured way, such as by ensuring there is a clear understanding of who is in charge of ensuring effective communication in clinical settings.

Other Examples

  • Burnout in United States Healthcare Professionals: A Narrative Review (Reith, 2018) – read here
  • Examining the Presence, Consequences, and Reduction of Implicit Bias in Health Care: A Narrative Review (Zestcott, Blair & Stone, 2016) – read here
  • A Narrative Review of School-Based Physical Activity for Enhancing Cognition and Learning (Mavilidi et al., 2018) – read here
  • A narrative review on burnout experienced by medical students and residents (Dyrbye & Shanafelt, 2015) – read here

2. Systematic Review Examples

This type of literature review is more structured and rigorous than a narrative review. It involves a detailed and comprehensive plan and search strategy derived from a set of specified research questions.

The key way you’d know a systematic review compared to a narrative review is in the methodology: the systematic review will likely have a very clear criteria for how the studies were collected, and clear explanations of exclusion/inclusion criteria. 

The goal is to gather the maximum amount of valid literature on the topic, filter out invalid or low-quality reviews, and minimize bias. Ideally, this will provide more reliable findings, leading to higher-quality conclusions and recommendations for further research.

You may note from the examples below that the ‘method’ sections in systematic reviews tend to be much more explicit, often noting rigid inclusion/exclusion criteria and exact keywords used in searches.

Title: The importance of food naturalness for consumers: Results of a systematic review  

Citation: Roman, S., Sánchez-Siles, L. M., & Siegrist, M. (2017). The importance of food naturalness for consumers: Results of a systematic review. Trends in food science & technology , 67 , 44-57.

Source: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S092422441730122X  

Overview: This systematic review included 72 studies of food naturalness to explore trends in the literature about its importance for consumers. Keywords used in the data search included: food, naturalness, natural content, and natural ingredients. Studies were included if they examined consumers’ preference for food naturalness and contained empirical data. The authors found that the literature lacks clarity about how naturalness is defined and measured, but also found that food consumption is significantly influenced by perceived naturalness of goods.

  • A systematic review of research on online teaching and learning from 2009 to 2018 (Martin, Sun & Westine, 2020) – read here
  • Where Is Current Research on Blockchain Technology? (Yli-Huumo et al., 2016) – read here
  • Universities—industry collaboration: A systematic review (Ankrah & Al-Tabbaa, 2015) – read here
  • Internet of Things Applications: A Systematic Review (Asghari, Rahmani & Javadi, 2019) – read here

3. Meta-analysis

This is a type of systematic review that uses statistical methods to combine and summarize the results of several studies.

Due to its robust methodology, a meta-analysis is often considered the ‘gold standard’ of secondary research , as it provides a more precise estimate of a treatment effect than any individual study contributing to the pooled analysis.

Furthermore, by aggregating data from a range of studies, a meta-analysis can identify patterns, disagreements, or other interesting relationships that may have been hidden in individual studies.

This helps to enhance the generalizability of findings, making the conclusions drawn from a meta-analysis particularly powerful and informative for policy and practice.

Title: Cholesterol and Alzheimer’s Disease Risk: A Meta-Meta-Analysis

Citation: Sáiz-Vazquez, O., Puente-Martínez, A., Ubillos-Landa, S., Pacheco-Bonrostro, J., & Santabárbara, J. (2020). Cholesterol and Alzheimer’s disease risk: a meta-meta-analysis. Brain sciences, 10(6), 386.

Source: https://doi.org/10.3390/brainsci10060386  

O verview: This study examines the relationship between cholesterol and Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Researchers conducted a systematic search of meta-analyses and reviewed several databases, collecting 100 primary studies and five meta-analyses to analyze the connection between cholesterol and Alzheimer’s disease. They find that the literature compellingly demonstrates that low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C) levels significantly influence the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

  • The power of feedback revisited: A meta-analysis of educational feedback research (Wisniewski, Zierer & Hattie, 2020) – read here
  • How Much Does Education Improve Intelligence? A Meta-Analysis (Ritchie & Tucker-Drob, 2018) – read here
  • A meta-analysis of factors related to recycling (Geiger et al., 2019) – read here
  • Stress management interventions for police officers and recruits (Patterson, Chung & Swan, 2014) – read here

Other Types of Reviews

  • Scoping Review: This type of review is used to map the key concepts underpinning a research area and the main sources and types of evidence available. It can be undertaken as stand-alone projects in their own right, or as a precursor to a systematic review.
  • Rapid Review: This type of review accelerates the systematic review process in order to produce information in a timely manner. This is achieved by simplifying or omitting stages of the systematic review process.
  • Integrative Review: This review method is more inclusive than others, allowing for the simultaneous inclusion of experimental and non-experimental research. The goal is to more comprehensively understand a particular phenomenon.
  • Critical Review: This is similar to a narrative review but requires a robust understanding of both the subject and the existing literature. In a critical review, the reviewer not only summarizes the existing literature, but also evaluates its strengths and weaknesses. This is common in the social sciences and humanities .
  • State-of-the-Art Review: This considers the current level of advancement in a field or topic and makes recommendations for future research directions. This type of review is common in technological and scientific fields but can be applied to any discipline.

How to Write a Narrative Review (Tips for Undergrad Students)

Most undergraduate students conducting a capstone research project will be writing narrative reviews. Below is a five-step process for conducting a simple review of the literature for your project.

  • Search for Relevant Literature: Use scholarly databases related to your field of study, provided by your university library, along with appropriate search terms to identify key scholarly articles that have been published on your topic.
  • Evaluate and Select Sources: Filter the source list by selecting studies that are directly relevant and of sufficient quality, considering factors like credibility , objectivity, accuracy, and validity.
  • Analyze and Synthesize: Review each source and summarize the main arguments  in one paragraph (or more, for postgrad). Keep these summaries in a table.
  • Identify Themes: With all studies summarized, group studies that share common themes, such as studies that have similar findings or methodologies.
  • Write the Review: Write your review based upon the themes or subtopics you have identified. Give a thorough overview of each theme, integrating source data, and conclude with a summary of the current state of knowledge then suggestions for future research based upon your evaluation of what is lacking in the literature.

Literature reviews don’t have to be as scary as they seem. Yes, they are difficult and require a strong degree of comprehension of academic studies. But it can be feasibly done through following a structured approach to data collection and analysis. With my undergraduate research students (who tend to conduct small-scale qualitative studies ), I encourage them to conduct a narrative literature review whereby they can identify key themes in the literature. Within each theme, students can critique key studies and their strengths and limitations , in order to get a lay of the land and come to a point where they can identify ways to contribute new insights to the existing academic conversation on their topic.

Ankrah, S., & Omar, A. T. (2015). Universities–industry collaboration: A systematic review. Scandinavian Journal of Management, 31(3), 387-408.

Asghari, P., Rahmani, A. M., & Javadi, H. H. S. (2019). Internet of Things applications: A systematic review. Computer Networks , 148 , 241-261.

Dyrbye, L., & Shanafelt, T. (2016). A narrative review on burnout experienced by medical students and residents. Medical education , 50 (1), 132-149.

Geiger, J. L., Steg, L., Van Der Werff, E., & Ünal, A. B. (2019). A meta-analysis of factors related to recycling. Journal of environmental psychology , 64 , 78-97.

Martin, F., Sun, T., & Westine, C. D. (2020). A systematic review of research on online teaching and learning from 2009 to 2018. Computers & education , 159 , 104009.

Mavilidi, M. F., Ruiter, M., Schmidt, M., Okely, A. D., Loyens, S., Chandler, P., & Paas, F. (2018). A narrative review of school-based physical activity for enhancing cognition and learning: The importance of relevancy and integration. Frontiers in psychology , 2079.

Patterson, G. T., Chung, I. W., & Swan, P. W. (2014). Stress management interventions for police officers and recruits: A meta-analysis. Journal of experimental criminology , 10 , 487-513.

Reith, T. P. (2018). Burnout in United States healthcare professionals: a narrative review. Cureus , 10 (12).

Ritchie, S. J., & Tucker-Drob, E. M. (2018). How much does education improve intelligence? A meta-analysis. Psychological science , 29 (8), 1358-1369.

Roman, S., Sánchez-Siles, L. M., & Siegrist, M. (2017). The importance of food naturalness for consumers: Results of a systematic review. Trends in food science & technology , 67 , 44-57.

Sáiz-Vazquez, O., Puente-Martínez, A., Ubillos-Landa, S., Pacheco-Bonrostro, J., & Santabárbara, J. (2020). Cholesterol and Alzheimer’s disease risk: a meta-meta-analysis. Brain sciences, 10(6), 386.

Vermeir, P., Vandijck, D., Degroote, S., Peleman, R., Verhaeghe, R., Mortier, E., … & Vogelaers, D. (2015). Communication in healthcare: a narrative review of the literature and practical recommendations. International journal of clinical practice , 69 (11), 1257-1267.

Wisniewski, B., Zierer, K., & Hattie, J. (2020). The power of feedback revisited: A meta-analysis of educational feedback research. Frontiers in Psychology , 10 , 3087.

Yli-Huumo, J., Ko, D., Choi, S., Park, S., & Smolander, K. (2016). Where is current research on blockchain technology?—a systematic review. PloS one , 11 (10), e0163477.

Zestcott, C. A., Blair, I. V., & Stone, J. (2016). Examining the presence, consequences, and reduction of implicit bias in health care: a narrative review. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations , 19 (4), 528-542

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Chris Drew (PhD)

Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

  • Chris Drew (PhD) https://helpfulprofessor.com/author/chris-drew-phd/ 50 Durable Goods Examples
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Writing a Literature Review

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A literature review is a document or section of a document that collects key sources on a topic and discusses those sources in conversation with each other (also called synthesis ). The lit review is an important genre in many disciplines, not just literature (i.e., the study of works of literature such as novels and plays). When we say “literature review” or refer to “the literature,” we are talking about the research ( scholarship ) in a given field. You will often see the terms “the research,” “the scholarship,” and “the literature” used mostly interchangeably.

Where, when, and why would I write a lit review?

There are a number of different situations where you might write a literature review, each with slightly different expectations; different disciplines, too, have field-specific expectations for what a literature review is and does. For instance, in the humanities, authors might include more overt argumentation and interpretation of source material in their literature reviews, whereas in the sciences, authors are more likely to report study designs and results in their literature reviews; these differences reflect these disciplines’ purposes and conventions in scholarship. You should always look at examples from your own discipline and talk to professors or mentors in your field to be sure you understand your discipline’s conventions, for literature reviews as well as for any other genre.

A literature review can be a part of a research paper or scholarly article, usually falling after the introduction and before the research methods sections. In these cases, the lit review just needs to cover scholarship that is important to the issue you are writing about; sometimes it will also cover key sources that informed your research methodology.

Lit reviews can also be standalone pieces, either as assignments in a class or as publications. In a class, a lit review may be assigned to help students familiarize themselves with a topic and with scholarship in their field, get an idea of the other researchers working on the topic they’re interested in, find gaps in existing research in order to propose new projects, and/or develop a theoretical framework and methodology for later research. As a publication, a lit review usually is meant to help make other scholars’ lives easier by collecting and summarizing, synthesizing, and analyzing existing research on a topic. This can be especially helpful for students or scholars getting into a new research area, or for directing an entire community of scholars toward questions that have not yet been answered.

What are the parts of a lit review?

Most lit reviews use a basic introduction-body-conclusion structure; if your lit review is part of a larger paper, the introduction and conclusion pieces may be just a few sentences while you focus most of your attention on the body. If your lit review is a standalone piece, the introduction and conclusion take up more space and give you a place to discuss your goals, research methods, and conclusions separately from where you discuss the literature itself.

Introduction:

  • An introductory paragraph that explains what your working topic and thesis is
  • A forecast of key topics or texts that will appear in the review
  • Potentially, a description of how you found sources and how you analyzed them for inclusion and discussion in the review (more often found in published, standalone literature reviews than in lit review sections in an article or research paper)
  • Summarize and synthesize: Give an overview of the main points of each source and combine them into a coherent whole
  • Analyze and interpret: Don’t just paraphrase other researchers – add your own interpretations where possible, discussing the significance of findings in relation to the literature as a whole
  • Critically Evaluate: Mention the strengths and weaknesses of your sources
  • Write in well-structured paragraphs: Use transition words and topic sentence to draw connections, comparisons, and contrasts.

Conclusion:

  • Summarize the key findings you have taken from the literature and emphasize their significance
  • Connect it back to your primary research question

How should I organize my lit review?

Lit reviews can take many different organizational patterns depending on what you are trying to accomplish with the review. Here are some examples:

  • Chronological : The simplest approach is to trace the development of the topic over time, which helps familiarize the audience with the topic (for instance if you are introducing something that is not commonly known in your field). If you choose this strategy, be careful to avoid simply listing and summarizing sources in order. Try to analyze the patterns, turning points, and key debates that have shaped the direction of the field. Give your interpretation of how and why certain developments occurred (as mentioned previously, this may not be appropriate in your discipline — check with a teacher or mentor if you’re unsure).
  • Thematic : If you have found some recurring central themes that you will continue working with throughout your piece, you can organize your literature review into subsections that address different aspects of the topic. For example, if you are reviewing literature about women and religion, key themes can include the role of women in churches and the religious attitude towards women.
  • Qualitative versus quantitative research
  • Empirical versus theoretical scholarship
  • Divide the research by sociological, historical, or cultural sources
  • Theoretical : In many humanities articles, the literature review is the foundation for the theoretical framework. You can use it to discuss various theories, models, and definitions of key concepts. You can argue for the relevance of a specific theoretical approach or combine various theorical concepts to create a framework for your research.

What are some strategies or tips I can use while writing my lit review?

Any lit review is only as good as the research it discusses; make sure your sources are well-chosen and your research is thorough. Don’t be afraid to do more research if you discover a new thread as you’re writing. More info on the research process is available in our "Conducting Research" resources .

As you’re doing your research, create an annotated bibliography ( see our page on the this type of document ). Much of the information used in an annotated bibliography can be used also in a literature review, so you’ll be not only partially drafting your lit review as you research, but also developing your sense of the larger conversation going on among scholars, professionals, and any other stakeholders in your topic.

Usually you will need to synthesize research rather than just summarizing it. This means drawing connections between sources to create a picture of the scholarly conversation on a topic over time. Many student writers struggle to synthesize because they feel they don’t have anything to add to the scholars they are citing; here are some strategies to help you:

  • It often helps to remember that the point of these kinds of syntheses is to show your readers how you understand your research, to help them read the rest of your paper.
  • Writing teachers often say synthesis is like hosting a dinner party: imagine all your sources are together in a room, discussing your topic. What are they saying to each other?
  • Look at the in-text citations in each paragraph. Are you citing just one source for each paragraph? This usually indicates summary only. When you have multiple sources cited in a paragraph, you are more likely to be synthesizing them (not always, but often
  • Read more about synthesis here.

The most interesting literature reviews are often written as arguments (again, as mentioned at the beginning of the page, this is discipline-specific and doesn’t work for all situations). Often, the literature review is where you can establish your research as filling a particular gap or as relevant in a particular way. You have some chance to do this in your introduction in an article, but the literature review section gives a more extended opportunity to establish the conversation in the way you would like your readers to see it. You can choose the intellectual lineage you would like to be part of and whose definitions matter most to your thinking (mostly humanities-specific, but this goes for sciences as well). In addressing these points, you argue for your place in the conversation, which tends to make the lit review more compelling than a simple reporting of other sources.

Library Home

Literature Reviews for Education and Nursing Graduate Students

(13 reviews)

examples of literature reviews in education

Linda Frederiksen, Washington State University Vancouver

Sue F. Phelps, Washington State University Vancouver

Copyright Year: 2017

Publisher: Rebus Community

Language: English

Formats Available

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Learn more about reviews.

Reviewed by Yolanda Griffiths, Professor of Occupational Therapy, Drake University on 12/15/21

The authors were thorough and very organized in stepping readers through the process of conducting and writing a literature review. Each area is appropriately indexed and examples are provided in a variety of ways. The synthesis section is... read more

Comprehensiveness rating: 5 see less

The authors were thorough and very organized in stepping readers through the process of conducting and writing a literature review. Each area is appropriately indexed and examples are provided in a variety of ways. The synthesis section is especially useful as students often do not understand what this means. Perhaps some content on plagiarism would benefit this section as well. The flow of the material easily guides users logically through each topic.

Content Accuracy rating: 5

The content is accurate and unbiased. The content is presented in an easy to understand way with videos, and examples.

Relevance/Longevity rating: 5

The relevance of the content is classic and the text should be pertinent for many years. The links included in the text are very useful and should be easy for authors to check periodically. Using a digital media is more relevant to today's students than print textbooks. Each section addresses a reasonable chunk of information.

Clarity rating: 5

The book is user friendly, written in an easy to understand manner, and graphics or links add to the understanding of the content. Definitions are clearly written. Such as clarifying the types of literature reviews will be useful for students. Providing a test yourself section at the end of sections allows the reader to check if any content was confusing or not clear.

Consistency rating: 5

The text is consistently laid out in a logical manner which helps to unpack content which may be new or unfamiliar to the reader/student.

Modularity rating: 5

The amount of content allocated to each chapter is appropriate and will be easy to assign readings. The chapter headings are clear and the embedded videos, charts and test questions enlighten each subunit. The hyperlinking in the table of contents helps to navigate the chapters well.

Organization/Structure/Flow rating: 5

The organization of the content is logical and easy to understand the process of completing a literature review. The book is laid out much like a road map where students can see the big picture as well as the supporting parts to the process. The references by chapter are very useful.

Interface rating: 5

The graphics were clear, and the non-serif font aids in eye fatigue. One recommendation is to lower the brightness of the bold blue text in the table of contents to reduce eye fatigue. There was no problem to play the videos and the audio was clear. All links worked well.

Grammatical Errors rating: 5

There were no grammatical errors. There were a few typos such as 1.3.1.8 needs a space between "A specific", 2.3 in the phrase "Articles by the type of periodical in which an article it is published" perhaps remove the word "it", in the table on page 41. under Nursing , the word clinical is spelled "Cclinical", remove the capital C.

Cultural Relevance rating: 5

No evidence of cultural bias or insensitivity.

I am very excited to use this textbook in my doctoral level occupational therapy class. The inclusion of concise explanations of PICO and SPICE will be very useful. This will be a wonderful resource for graduate students and being mindful of costs for textbooks is compassionate.

Reviewed by Susan Bassett, Instructor, Nursing Graduate Program, Eastern New Mexico University on 11/9/21

Each chapter presented a different aspect of doing a literature review. This was organized and orderly. The index/table of contents was very detailed which allowed the reader to easily use this book as a reference while conducting a literature... read more

Each chapter presented a different aspect of doing a literature review. This was organized and orderly. The index/table of contents was very detailed which allowed the reader to easily use this book as a reference while conducting a literature review.

The content appeared to be entirely accurate. It did a good job of combining information for both education and nursing students. The authors addressed pertinent points of research study development as well as the specific methodology of approaching a research-focused literature review.

The text was up-to-date in methodology, which should not change frequently. The many links to websites were very helpful and yet were basic enough that they should be relevant for years. If they do need updating, the are clearly presented and should be easily updated. The breakdown to very small "chunks" of information per section will help in easily updating specific parts of information.

The book presented a rather complex topic in an extremely straight-forward, easy to read, clear manner. Each small "chunk" of information was identified per section numbering which correlated with movement through the content. The writing was professional and yet not overwhelmed with discipline-specific terminology. Where potentially new terminology was presented, it was immediately followed with definitions and examples.

The book was well-organized and moved along the structure set out early in the book. Content was gradually unfolded, as divided per chapter. There was a bit of repetition (probably about three examples) where the authors attempted to tie information together. Although this stood out to a reader, it seemed more useful in organizing than detrimental in repetition.

The book was subdivided into chapters and then into many small modules of discrete information. It could easily be assigned in part. It could also readily be used as a reference for students to go back and easily find processes or pieces of information they might need later.

I found the continual clear and succinct organization of information to be a defining highlight of this book. When presenting early steps of the research process and then linking these steps with how to conduct a literature review and subsequenty organize and write a literature review, this book is presenting numerous procews steps that must work in tandem. This book did that in a clear and easily readable fashion.

The one feature that did distract me was within the bullet points of 1.3.1. "Types of Reviews". There was a mix of complete and incomplete sentences that worked to convey information succinctly, but distracted me as a reader.

Grammatical Errors rating: 4

I did find several spelling and grammaticl errors (1.3.1.8, , 1.3.1.9, 2.1.1, 2.3, 2.3.1.1, , 2.3.1.4, 2.3 Table A., p. 41, p. 53, p. 54). Although small errors (a few letters or spacing) they should be corrected.

I did not find any mistakes in cultural appropriateness The content did repeatedly talk about bias reduction in the process of writing a literature review

I thought this book was very well-written and contained great information for my students. The links provided were very appropriate and helpful. The Table "Guide to searching for literature at various stages of the scholarly communication process” was particularly helpful. I will immediately begin using portions of the content in this book to support my research class. Additionally, I will recommend the entire book as a reference for the dedicated student (or one intending to go forward to a doctoral level of education in nursing). Thank you for collating all this information and helpful links into one clear, easily readable and understandable document.

Reviewed by Leah Nillas, Associate Professor, Illinois Wesleyan University on 9/6/21

This book addresses the basic steps in the process of writing a literature review research. Chapter 2 (What is a Literature Review?) needs to be retitled. I think Chapter 1 (Introduction) clearly defines and characterizes literature review as a... read more

Comprehensiveness rating: 4 see less

This book addresses the basic steps in the process of writing a literature review research. Chapter 2 (What is a Literature Review?) needs to be retitled. I think Chapter 1 (Introduction) clearly defines and characterizes literature review as a research category. Chapter 2 focuses more on the creation of information, information cycle, and selecting appropriate sources. Chapter 7 (Synthesizing Sources) and Chapter 8 (Writing the Lit Review) can still be improved to incorporate specific strategies in synthesizing research literature and examples of writing styles through analysis of a variety of published examples. Writing a synthesis is a challenging skill for most novice researchers.

Information shared is accurate. I did not notice any content error.

Relevance/Longevity rating: 4

Main content is up-to-date. A few citations maybe dated but they are necessary in illustrating different examples of literature reviews. It will be easy to include additional relevant examples of research work that are published recently.

I like how this text is written. Tone is reader friendly and narrative is accessible to novice researchers.

Clearly consistent throughout the chapters.

Clear and purposeful "chunking" of information per chapter.

Readers can easily follow the organization of topics and content.

No obvious interface issues. Appropriate use of multimedia tools.

No grammatical errors.

Text is culturally sensitive. Additional readings, references, or examples can easily be added to incorporate research conducted by diverse authors or literature reviews which focus on diversity and inclusion issues in education and nursing.

This is a good introductory literature review text even for undergraduate education students. Clear discussion of the nature of the research and the writing process. The use of videos and images is helpful in providing multimodal approach in explaining topics or processes. Writing style and tone make the text accessible to novice researchers.

Reviewed by Rebecca Scheckler, Assistant Professor, Radford University on 7/6/20

Two missing topics were inter-library loan and how to avoid plagiarism in writing up the literature review. This second is such an important topic that it deserves its own chapter. read more

Two missing topics were inter-library loan and how to avoid plagiarism in writing up the literature review. This second is such an important topic that it deserves its own chapter.

It is accurate. I found no inaccuracies.

This book is very relevant. Every advanced undergraduate or graduate students requires such a book

I found the book clear. The videos interspersed within the book added much to the clarity. There are lots of good diagrams that add to the clarity. They are not all original but their sources are all cited. The section on boolean searches, usage of asterisks and quotes in searches is very helpful and appropriate although often left out of discussion of searches.

The book is consistent in terminology and framework.

The chapters were cohesive.

Organization/Structure/Flow rating: 4

I like the links to within the text to the references and other matter. What is needed are back links to the text from the references. I also would have liked links from the exercises to the answers of the exercises.

Interface rating: 4

See navigation links mentioned above. The grey literature link is broken.

I saw no grammatical problems. There are many bulleted lists rather than text which is appropriate to this topic.

There could be more attention to cultural context in the frequent examples.

I wondered why nursing and education were combined. They are similar in nature but not identical. separation them out into two books might be appropriate.

Reviewed by Lisa Shooman, Associate Professor, Worcester State University on 6/29/20

Overall, this book provides a very comprehensive and thorough roadmap for creating a literature review. The videos assist the reader in crystallizing the information presented in the text. There is an effective index and glossary that provide... read more

Overall, this book provides a very comprehensive and thorough roadmap for creating a literature review. The videos assist the reader in crystallizing the information presented in the text. There is an effective index and glossary that provide helpful navigation to the reader.

The content is detailed, clearly explained, error-free, and unbiased. My students would greatly benefit from the lucid information presented in this text to guide them with developing a literature review. I would be eager to adopt this book for my students.

The content is timely and will not be quickly out-of-date. The quiz questions at the end of each chapter are relevant and will aid students with the consolidation of the material. The online format allows for updating, and the version history at the end of the text clearly indicated that the book was updated recently.

The text is clear and not ridden with any excess jargon /technical terminology. Pictures, graphics, and videos further elucidate the text. There are helpful questions that stimulate thought and lists that help to organize information.

The internal consistency in the text is excellent. However, Chapter 1.1 and Chapter 2 have the same title and it would benefit the reader to have different titles that would highlight the differences between these two sections. Chapter 1.1 is an overview and Chapter 2 dives into more depth.

The text is efficiently divided into smaller reading sections that are demarcated by numbers. The subsections in each chapter can be assigned at different points in the course. The text is organized logically and systematically that assists the reader with comprehension and provides a roadmap for creating an effective literature review.

The entire text is presented coherently and concisely. The organization of the text takes the reader through the process of creating an effective literature review. It can be used by multiple health professions, although the length of the text is relatively short it includes a considerable depth of the material. Other disciplines that would benefit from using this test in their courses may include occupational therapy, physical therapy, and speech and language pathology students.

The interface of the text is simple and easy to follow. The cover of the text would benefit from photos, color, and graphic design to appeal to the modern digital reader.

No grammatical or spelling errors are noted.

No cultural biases existed in the text in any way. There are no individuals highlighted in the book, and due to the technical nature of the subject matter, the text is inclusive to a variety of races, ethnicities, and backgrounds. No offensive statements are included in this book.

The authors should consider including other health professionals in the title and provide examples that can relate to other health professionals throughout the text. Other health professionals that can benefit from reading this text include occupational therapy, physical therapy, and speech and language pathology students. Literature reviews are relevant for many health professionals in their master's and doctorate programs and the text could serve a wider audience.

Reviewed by Ellen Rearick, Assistant Professor, Framingham State University on 6/1/20

This text covers all areas and the process of the integrative review appropriately. It is an engaging text for graduate students new to these assignments. read more

This text covers all areas and the process of the integrative review appropriately. It is an engaging text for graduate students new to these assignments.

This text is well done, very accurate

This text is relevant. The updates needed regarding APA format should be relatively easy to implement.

This text is clear and provides users with definitions and examples of the variety of reviews.

Very well written using consistent terminology throughout.

The text's reading sections are easily accessible and users will find them organized. Each chapter and its sections are presented in the sequence of the process of an integrative review.

Very clear and logical order.

The navigation of this text was problem-free.

No grammatical errors noted.

No issues with cultural insensitivity noted.

This was a well-organized text using videos to reinforce content that would benefit any education or nursing graduate student new to the integrative review process.

Reviewed by Ruth Stoltzfus, Professor of Nursing; Dir., Grad Programs in Nursing, Goshen College on 6/1/19

This text provides everything a graduate student needs to write a literature review in a concise manner. If you look at the digital pdf, there are many strategies to help the reader learn the process - videos, diagrams, and also text. read more

This text provides everything a graduate student needs to write a literature review in a concise manner. If you look at the digital pdf, there are many strategies to help the reader learn the process - videos, diagrams, and also text.

I found no evidence of bias and no errors.

This book has long-term relevance. The content will not quickly out-date.

I really liked the way the textbook is structured. The author is concise which makes the textbook easy to read.

I found no inconsistencies in terminology or other aspects related to the content.

I will adopt this text for a research course I use and will likely assign only specific chapters. I plan to recommend the textbook to another faculty who teaches a comprehensive research course with the idea of assigning only specific sections to read..

The textbook begins with an introduction to the subject matter. Subsequent chapters develop specific aspects related to lit reviews. The textbook provides a nice "how to" for each element of a lit review. Chapters are also organized in a smooth, easy to follow format.

I only looked at the digital pdf and print pdf versions. The print pdf indicates that there are videos to watch, but of course since it is a print pdf, there is no linkage. I think this would be obvious to a savvy reader - that a print pdf will be limited in what the reader can access.

I found no grammatical errors in my quick read.

I found no evidence of cultural bias or insensitivity.

This is the first open textbook that I have encountered. I was expecting it to be flat and boring! However, it was neither of those. There were color diagrams, color photos, and even videos embedded in the textbook.

I have adopted this book for the Research Lit Review course that I am teaching soon. I am impressed!

Reviewed by Melissa Wells, Assistant Professor, University of Mary Washington on 5/1/19

This book helps students in education and nursing complete a literature review, which may be the first time these students are tackling such a task. The chapters break down the process into defining the special genre of a literature review;... read more

This book helps students in education and nursing complete a literature review, which may be the first time these students are tackling such a task. The chapters break down the process into defining the special genre of a literature review; providing tips to get started; suggesting where students can find literature to review; explaining how to evaluate sources; detailing the process of documenting sources; giving advice for synthesizing sources; and finally, putting all of these pieces together into a final literature review. Most significantly, the text provides specific examples of ideas presented in the context of both nursing and education, which makes the content directly relatable to the student's course of study. The conclusion recaps the main points of each chapter in bullet form. The text is lacking both an index and a glossary, which would be additions that could strengthen the text.

Content Accuracy rating: 4

The text explains 11 different types of literature reviews that students may encounter or be asked to create. Also, the text is framed to work with multiple methodologies; for example, steps for writing a research question or a hypothesis to frame the literature review are provided. One inconsistency I noted was in diagram 6.2: the APA citation is incorrectly capitalized for the journal title (which should use sentence, not title, capitalization).

The text also includes external links to sources, such as a videos, which provide students with multiple modalities in which to digest the information. An example of a literature review for both education and nursing is provided at the end of the book; instead of embedding these in the text, the hyperlinks refer the reader to the external site. This will be easy to change to a new example in the future, but checks will need to be done to ensure that all such external sources remain actively accessible.

Each chapter opens with learning objectives to help frame the content with which the reader is about to engage. Throughout the text, the language is approachable and reader-friendly. For example, when the text explains more factual components (i.e., what makes a literature review or what the basics of an effective literature review include), this information is presented in bullet points with hyperlinks to the original sources.

Each chapter follows a similar construction, which makes it accessible to the reader. For example, chapters end with a "Practice" and "Check Yourself" section to apply new learning and self-check responses (an answer key is provided in an appendix). Examples in these exercises are either related to nursing or education, continuing with the stated theme of the text.

When I used this text with my own students, I assigned chapters in isolation, since they had already taken a research methods course and were applying that knowledge to create a research proposal in a specific area of study in my course.

The book is organized in such a way that logically walks the reader through the literature review writing process. Clear headings (which are hyperlinked in the table of contents) also allow the reader to jump to specific parts with which they need additional support.

The interface of this document offered a lot of flexibility. Options allowed users to access the text online, or as a download in multiple file types (EPUB, Digital PDF, MOBI, XHTML, Pressbooks XML, Wordpress XML, and Open Document). These formats provide the reader with an opportunity to pick the interface that works best for them.

I did not see any grammatical errors in the text.

Cultural Relevance rating: 4

No culturally insensitive/offensive content was noted. A variety of examples of research topics were included from both nursing and education. Of the images/video thumbnails embedded in the text that involved people, all depicted White people except for 2 images; therefore, more intentional selection of culturally diverse visuals would be helpful in future versions of this text.

I feel this text was helpful to my students as they wrote their own literature reviews. The only weakness in their papers that I noted was their organization of their literature review based on themes/topic, which was addressed in Chapters 7- 8. I now know to focus more on this part of literature review writing with future students. This text is approachable and field-specific, and I will be using it again!

Reviewed by Bernita (Bernie) Missal, Professor, Bethel University on 12/14/18

This book includes all areas that a graduate student needs to begin a literature review. However metasynthesis could have also been included in types of literature review. read more

This book includes all areas that a graduate student needs to begin a literature review. However metasynthesis could have also been included in types of literature review.

This book is accurate although missing qualitative research.

Although content is up to date, some of the article examples need to be updated. (Example: articles published in 1981 and 1992 need to be updated to more recent articles.)

The book is clear and easy to follow. Bullet points were used throughout the book with short paragraphs which helps the student.

Each chapter follows the same format with narrative followed by practice and test questions.

Clear subheadings are used throughout the book.

This book is presented in a logical way and easy for the student to follow.

Images are clear and appropriate for the content.

No specific grammar issues were seen.

It would be helpful for students to include additional examples of cultural studies throughout the book

This book is an excellent resource for graduate students. It has helpful information for the preparation and process for a literature review. Examples of written literature reviews in chapter 8 or in an appendix would be helpful for students.

Reviewed by Nancyruth Leibold, Associate Professor, Southwest Minnesota State University on 6/19/18

The text is overall comprehensive, yet it breaks the information up into manageable parts. See the table of contents for an overview of the topics. The text is very quantitative driven in that the focus is on reviewing quantitative studies. The... read more

The text is overall comprehensive, yet it breaks the information up into manageable parts. See the table of contents for an overview of the topics. The text is very quantitative driven in that the focus is on reviewing quantitative studies. The book included information about PICO statements, but did not include PICO(T) or the time variable, which is not always used in every case. Population was included in the PICO explanation, but a bit more information on the population or aggregate narrowing could improve the PICO section. These items do not hinder use of the book, but these items would need further inclusion by the faculty member using the text as specific to the discipline.

The content in the book is very accurate.

The content in the book is current and should not be obsolete within a short period of time. Any updates would be easy to add.

The text is clear and easy to understand.

The internal organization and terminology of the book is consistent and logical

The text is set up in small reading sessions. The videos and learning activities are well done and break up some of the content, so there is a variety of presentation. The tutorials, figures, practice and self-test areas are also fantastic in that they are quality and sprinkled throughout the text.

The topics in the book are presented in clear and organized fashion. I particularly like the upbeat and personal writing tone of the book. This tone makes it seem like the authors are speaking to me.

The text is free of any significant interface issues. The book is available in many formats. I used the book online and I did have one navigational problem and that is when clicking on a video, it does not open in a new tab and so the book is lost and have to start over going in the start to the book. One easy solution to this is to right click your mouse and then select open in new tab to watch videos. That way, your place in the book is not lost.

No grammar problems present.

The book is not culturally insensitive or offensive in any way.

Overall, this is a well written textbook and I recommend it!

Reviewed by Marjorie Webb, Professor, Metropolitan State University on 6/19/18

From the Introduction to the Conclusion, the text covers the step-by-step process of conducting a literature review. The text includes topics such as, “Where to find the Literature” and “Synthesizing Sources” that will be useful to graduate... read more

From the Introduction to the Conclusion, the text covers the step-by-step process of conducting a literature review. The text includes topics such as, “Where to find the Literature” and “Synthesizing Sources” that will be useful to graduate nursing students.

The content in the text, including texts, links, and diagrams, is accurate and unbiased. Again, it will aid the graduate nursing student in the long process of conducting a literature review.

The text is current and this type of material does not become dated quickly. The authors did use internet links in the text which will need to be monitored periodically to ensure they are still available. Updates to the text will be relatively easy and straightforward. If media styles change, there may be some challenges to updating.

The text is clear and easy to read. Technical terminology is defined and/or explained.

The text is internally consistent.

The text is organized in sections which facilitates assigning readings based on the subject matter for the class time. It would be pretty easy to divide up this text into easily readable units based on headings and subheadings.

This text is structured well. The topics flow in an organized manner and really help the student see the process of a literature review. The authors discuss the both theory and purpose of the review and the day-to-day logistics of actually performing the review. The day-today organization is not always included in other texts.

The interface is well-done with no distractions.

There was no indication of cultural bias.

I think this text is appropriate for graduate nursing students. Some students struggle with the difference between writing about a topic (generally undergraduate writing) and synthesizing literature on a given topic (generally graduate writing). Chapters seven and eight focus on preparing the graduate student to make the jump to graduate-level writing and should really benefit new graduate students.

Reviewed by Susanna Thornhill, Associate Professor , George Fox University on 3/27/18

This book is fairly comprehensive and offers step-by-step instructions for conceptualizing/researching a literature review. The Table of Contents is well-organized to reflect the book's progression, from establishing the basics of why to write a... read more

This book is fairly comprehensive and offers step-by-step instructions for conceptualizing/researching a literature review. The Table of Contents is well-organized to reflect the book's progression, from establishing the basics of why to write a literature review and the various types of literature reviews, to getting started with formulating a research idea/question, finding and evaluating sources, synthesizing sources, and guidelines on writing the literature review, itself. I found this text to be a straightforward guide for my graduate students in education, and while I worried at first that the merging of education and nursing topics would prove distracting to my education students, I don't believe this was the case.

One thing that was not comprehensive in this book was discussion of qualitative research and methodologies as a valid means of conceptualizing research aims. I hoped for a more balanced discussion between methodological branches as it applied to literature reviews; this book overly favored quantitative methodologies and studies in terms of its direction to readers about how to conceptualize/choose a topic and design a research question in relation to it. Variables that cannot be measured are not inherently un-researchable, which is the conclusion put forth in this textbook. This might serve nursing students better than education students in terms of their discipline's requirements, but it still represents an element that could be improved.

Finally, while the background on what a literature review is, how to conceptualize research, and how to search for and synthesize research was all valuable, the chapter on actually writing the literature review was a bit thin, simply offering tips for introduction, body, and conclusion and some questions for self-evaluation. Some of the most difficult work for students writing a literature review is achieving proper focus, organization, hierarchy of themes, balance in treatment of related topics, etc. None of these issues were discussed in the chapter pertaining to the writing of a literature review.

I did not have any concerns about the book's accuracy. Content was accurate, albeit biased to quantitative and positivist views of research. I would have liked to see it include additional prompts to support students in conceptualizing and valuing qualitative research; this is an area where I had to supplement course readings with additional texts.

The only significant error I could discern in the text was a lack of an Answer Key corresponding to the questions posed at the end of each chapter.

Content is up-to-date and seems like it will hold meaning well over the next few years. The only things I anticipate might go out-of-date is technological information on things like citation managers, search guidelines, and database information. This is easily updatable with future versions of the text. In my view, ERIC is not the best database for educational research and I have confirmed this with educational librarians who support my students, yet it is the only one identified in this text as the best subject-specific source of educational research; this could be revised for additional relevance.

I noticed no issues with the book's clarity. The authors write in a clear and straightforward style, making the text easy to read. Overall, they did well writing for students across two disciplines by avoiding nursing or education-specific terms that would have been problematic to readers in the other discipline.

The book is internally consistent and did not have issues with terminology or framework.

No issues with the book's modularity. Chapter headings and sub-headings were appropriately paced and spaced. I assigned this textbook to my graduate students as a whole text that I wanted them to read at the beginning of a course, but it has been easy to refer them back to particular topics as the course has continued.

In future iterations of the book, I suggest hyperlinking the Answer Key to the exercises at the end of each chapter and/or listing the Answer Key in the Table of Contents for easy referral.

I found the book's organization to be straightforward and sensible. The Table of Contents offers a helpful snapshot of the scope of the book and the authors write in a direct and clear style, which contributes to an appropriate flow for the text.

I did not note any navigation problems with any links. All charts/images loaded well in my iBook app. The authors did a nice job of pulling relevant content and links in to support their ideas; it provided an easy way to seek more information if I wanted it, without feeling like the text was loaded down with unnecessary information.

I only found a few small typos in the text, with no grammar issues. The book is obviously written by two very detail-oriented librarians. I appreciated the clarity of the text and lack of errors.

The text was not culturally insensitive; a variety of topics across nursing and education were discussed as examples, which yielded a fairly balanced text regarding cultural considerations.

Reviewed by Alicia Rossiter, Assistant Professor, University of South Florida on 3/27/18

I believe the book gives a comprehensive overview on how to complete a literature view at the graduate level. It begins with an overview of the purpose of a literature review and moves through the steps to completing the review process. read more

I believe the book gives a comprehensive overview on how to complete a literature view at the graduate level. It begins with an overview of the purpose of a literature review and moves through the steps to completing the review process.

I believe the book was accurate and unbiased. It was easy to read but comprehensive.

Content within the text is relevant and supports the literature view process. It did discuss the various databases for searches which may need updating to include new sites, search engines but otherwise relevant and useful information.

The text is easy to read, provides appropriate examples, includes a section on putting the process into practice as well as a "test yourself" section to ensure the content is understood.

The text is consistent throughout in regards to terminology, framework, and set up.

The text is easy to read and content is leveled for the reader but not over simplified. Content is chunked into sections making it easy for the reader to digest the content. The chapters are well laid out and flow from chapter to chapter. Each chapter contains learning objectives, content sections, practice section, and test yourself section. Well organized and great visuals.

Topics are presented in a logical, clear fashion that flow from chapter to chapter and build as the reader moves through the process.

The text is free of interface issues. I could not get the videos to play but other visuals were appropriate and useful to support content.

The text contains no grammatical errors.

The text is not culturally offensive. There was no evidence of bias or cultural insensitivity.

I think this would be a great resource for graduate student learning to navigate the literature review process. It is easy to read, straightforward, and guides the individual through the process from start to finish. I will recommend this text to my graduate students in evidence-based practice and research courses as a recommended reference.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter 1: Introduction
  • Chapter 2: What is a Literature Review?
  • Chapter 3: How to Get Started
  • Chapter 4: Where to Find the Literature
  • Chapter 5: Evaluating Sources
  • Chapter 6: Documenting Sources
  • Chapter 7: Synthesizing Sources
  • Chapter 8: Writing the Literature Review

Ancillary Material

About the book.

Literature Reviews for Education and Nursing Graduate Students is an open textbook designed for students in graduate-level nursing and education programs. Its intent is to recognize the significant role the literature review plays in the research process and to prepare students for the work that goes into writing one. Developed for new graduate students and novice researchers just entering into the work of a chosen discipline, each of the eight chapters covers a component of the literature review process. Students will learn how to form a research question, search existing literature, synthesize results and write the review. The book contains examples, checklists, supplementary materials, and additional resources. Literature Reviews for Education and Nursing Graduate Students is written by two librarians with expertise guiding students through research and writing assignments, and is openly licensed.

About the Contributors

Linda Frederiksen is the Head of Access Services at Washington State University Vancouver.  She has a Master of Library Science degree from Emporia State University in Kansas. Linda is active in local, regional and national organizations, projects and initiatives advancing open educational resources and equitable access to information.

Sue F. Phelps is the Health Sciences and Outreach Services Librarian at Washington State University Vancouver. Her research interests include information literacy, accessibility of learning materials for students who use adaptive technology, diversity and equity in higher education, and evidence based practice in the health sciences

Contribute to this Page

Book cover

Systematic Reviews in Educational Research pp 3–22 Cite as

Systematic Reviews in Educational Research: Methodology, Perspectives and Application

  • Mark Newman 6 &
  • David Gough 6  
  • Open Access
  • First Online: 22 November 2019

77k Accesses

123 Citations

1 Altmetric

This chapter explores the processes of reviewing literature as a research method. The logic of the family of research approaches called systematic review is analysed and the variation in techniques used in the different approaches explored using examples from existing reviews. The key distinctions between aggregative and configurative approaches are illustrated and the chapter signposts further reading on key issues in the systematic review process.

Download chapter PDF

1 What Are Systematic Reviews?

A literature review is a scholarly paper which provides an overview of current knowledge about a topic. It will typically include substantive findings, as well as theoretical and methodological contributions to a particular topic (Hart 2018 , p. xiii). Traditionally in education ‘reviewing the literature’ and ‘doing research’ have been viewed as distinct activities. Consider the standard format of research proposals, which usually have some kind of ‘review’ of existing knowledge presented distinctly from the methods of the proposed new primary research. However, both reviews and research are undertaken in order to find things out. Reviews to find out what is already known from pre-existing research about a phenomena, subject or topic; new primary research to provide answers to questions about which existing research does not provide clear and/or complete answers.

When we use the term research in an academic sense it is widely accepted that we mean a process of asking questions and generating knowledge to answer these questions using rigorous accountable methods. As we have noted, reviews also share the same purposes of generating knowledge but historically we have not paid as much attention to the methods used for reviewing existing literature as we have to the methods used for primary research. Literature reviews can be used for making claims about what we know and do not know about a phenomenon and also about what new research we need to undertake to address questions that are unanswered. Therefore, it seems reasonable to conclude that ‘how’ we conduct a review of research is important.

The increased focus on the use of research evidence to inform policy and practice decision-making in Evidence Informed Education (Hargreaves 1996 ; Nelson and Campbell 2017 ) has increased the attention given to contextual and methodological limitations of research evidence provided by single studies. Reviews of research may help address these concerns when carried on in a systematic, rigorous and transparent manner. Thus, again emphasizing the importance of ‘how’ reviews are completed.

The logic of systematic reviews is that reviews are a form of research and thus can be improved by using appropriate and explicit methods. As the methods of systematic review have been applied to different types of research questions, there has been an increasing plurality of types of systematic review. Thus, the term ‘systematic review’ is used in this chapter to refer to a family of research approaches that are a form of secondary level analysis (secondary research) that brings together the findings of primary research to answer a research question. Systematic reviews can therefore be defined as “a review of existing research using explicit, accountable rigorous research methods” (Gough et al. 2017 , p. 4).

2 Variation in Review Methods

Reviews can address a diverse range of research questions. Consequently, as with primary research, there are many different approaches and methods that can be applied. The choices should be dictated by the review questions. These are shaped by reviewers’ assumptions about the meaning of a particular research question, the approach and methods that are best used to investigate it. Attempts to classify review approaches and methods risk making hard distinctions between methods and thereby to distract from the common defining logics that these approaches often share. A useful broad distinction is between reviews that follow a broadly configurative synthesis logic and reviews that follow a broadly aggregative synthesis logic (Sandelowski et al. 2012 ). However, it is important to keep in mind that most reviews have elements of both (Gough et al. 2012 ).

Reviews that follow a broadly configurative synthesis logic approach usually investigate research questions about meaning and interpretation to explore and develop theory. They tend to use exploratory and iterative review methods that emerge throughout the process of the review. Studies included in the review are likely to have investigated the phenomena of interest using methods such as interviews and observations, with data in the form of text. Reviewers are usually interested in purposive variety in the identification and selection of studies. Study quality is typically considered in terms of authenticity. Synthesis consists of the deliberative configuring of data by reviewers into patterns to create a richer conceptual understanding of a phenomenon. For example, meta ethnography (Noblit and Hare 1988 ) uses ethnographic data analysis methods to explore and integrate the findings of previous ethnographies in order to create higher-level conceptual explanations of phenomena. There are many other review approaches that follow a broadly configurative logic (for an overview see Barnett-Page and Thomas 2009 ); reflecting the variety of methods used in primary research in this tradition.

Reviews that follow a broadly aggregative synthesis logic usually investigate research questions about impacts and effects. For example, systematic reviews that seek to measure the impact of an educational intervention test the hypothesis that an intervention has the impact that has been predicted. Reviews following an aggregative synthesis logic do not tend to develop theory directly; though they can contribute by testing, exploring and refining theory. Reviews following an aggregative synthesis logic tend to specify their methods in advance (a priori) and then apply them without any deviation from a protocol. Reviewers are usually concerned to identify the comprehensive set of studies that address the research question. Studies included in the review will usually seek to determine whether there is a quantitative difference in outcome between groups receiving and not receiving an intervention. Study quality assessment in reviews following an aggregative synthesis logic focusses on the minimisation of bias and thus selection pays particular attention to homogeneity between studies. Synthesis aggregates, i.e. counts and adds together, the outcomes from individual studies using, for example, statistical meta-analysis to provide a pooled summary of effect.

3 The Systematic Review Process

Different types of systematic review are discussed in more detail later in this chapter. The majority of systematic review types share a common set of processes. These processes can be divided into distinct but interconnected stages as illustrated in Fig.  1 . Systematic reviews need to specify a research question and the methods that will be used to investigate the question. This is often written as a ‘protocol’ prior to undertaking the review. Writing a protocol or plan of the methods at the beginning of a review can be a very useful activity. It helps the review team to gain a shared understanding of the scope of the review and the methods that they will use to answer the review’s questions. Different types of systematic reviews will have more or less developed protocols. For example, for systematic reviews investigating research questions about the impact of educational interventions it is argued that a detailed protocol should be fully specified prior to the commencement of the review to reduce the possibility of reviewer bias (Torgerson 2003 , p. 26). For other types of systematic review, in which the research question is more exploratory, the protocol may be more flexible and/or developmental in nature.

A set of 9 labeled circles presents the following processes involved in a systemic review process. Developing research questions, coding studies, assessing the quality of studies, designing conceptual framework, selecting students using selection criteria, synthesizing results of individual studies to answer the review research questions, constructing selection criteria, developing a search strategy, and reporting findings.

The systematic review process

3.1 Systematic Review Questions and the Conceptual Framework

The review question gives each review its particular structure and drives key decisions about what types of studies to include; where to look for them; how to assess their quality; and how to combine their findings. Although a research question may appear to be simple, it will include many assumptions. Whether implicit or explicit, these assumptions will include: epistemological frameworks about knowledge and how we obtain it, theoretical frameworks, whether tentative or firm, about the phenomenon that is the focus of study.

Taken together, these produce a conceptual framework that shapes the research questions, choices about appropriate systematic review approach and methods. The conceptual framework may be viewed as a working hypothesis that can be developed, refined or confirmed during the course of the research. Its purpose is to explain the key issues to be studied, the constructs or variables, and the presumed relationships between them. The framework is a research tool intended to assist a researcher to develop awareness and understanding of the phenomena under scrutiny and to communicate this (Smyth 2004 ).

A review to investigate the impact of an educational intervention will have a conceptual framework that includes a hypothesis about a causal link between; who the review is about (the people), what the review is about (an intervention and what it is being compared with), and the possible consequences of intervention on the educational outcomes of these people. Such a review would follow a broadly aggregative synthesis logic. This is the shape of reviews of educational interventions carried out for the What Works Clearing House in the USA Footnote 1 and the Education Endowment Foundation in England. Footnote 2

A review to investigate meaning or understanding of a phenomenon for the purpose of building or further developing theory will still have some prior assumptions. Thus, an initial conceptual framework will contain theoretical ideas about how the phenomena of interest can be understood and some ideas justifying why a particular population and/or context is of specific interest or relevance. Such a review is likely to follow a broadly configurative logic.

3.2 Selection Criteria

Reviewers have to make decisions about which research studies to include in their review. In order to do this systematically and transparently they develop rules about which studies can be selected into the review. Selection criteria (sometimes referred to as inclusion or exclusion criteria) create restrictions on the review. All reviews, whether systematic or not, limit in some way the studies that are considered by the review. Systematic reviews simply make these restrictions transparent and therefore consistent across studies. These selection criteria are shaped by the review question and conceptual framework. For example, a review question about the impact of homework on educational attainment would have selection criteria specifying who had to do the homework; the characteristics of the homework and the outcomes that needed to be measured. Other commonly used selection criteria include study participant characteristics; the country where the study has taken place and the language in which the study is reported. The type of research method(s) may also be used as a selection criterion but this can be controversial given the lack of consensus in education research (Newman 2008 ), and the inconsistent terminology used to describe education research methods.

3.3 Developing the Search Strategy

The search strategy is the plan for how relevant research studies will be identified. The review question and conceptual framework shape the selection criteria. The selection criteria specify the studies to be included in a review and thus are a key driver of the search strategy. A key consideration will be whether the search aims to be exhaustive i.e. aims to try and find all the primary research that has addressed the review question. Where reviews address questions about effectiveness or impact of educational interventions the issue of publication bias is a concern. Publication bias is the phenomena whereby smaller and/or studies with negative findings are less likely to be published and/or be harder to find. We may therefore inadvertently overestimate the positive effects of an educational intervention because we do not find studies with negative or smaller effects (Chow and Eckholm 2018 ). Where the review question is not of this type then a more specific or purposive search strategy, that may or may not evolve as the review progresses, may be appropriate. This is similar to sampling approaches in primary research. In primary research studies using aggregative approaches, such as quasi-experiments, analysis is based on the study of complete or representative samples. In primary research studies using configurative approaches, such as ethnography, analysis is based on examining a range of instances of the phenomena in similar or different contexts.

The search strategy will detail the sources to be searched and the way in which the sources will be searched. A list of search source types is given in Box 1 below. An exhaustive search strategy would usually include all of these sources using multiple bibliographic databases. Bibliographic databases usually index academic journals and thus are an important potential source. However, in most fields, including education, relevant research is published in a range of journals which may be indexed in different bibliographic databases and thus it may be important to search multiple bibliographic databases. Furthermore, some research is published in books and an increasing amount of research is not published in academic journals or at least may not be published there first. Thus, it is important to also consider how you will find relevant research in other sources including ‘unpublished’ or ‘grey’ literature. The Internet is a valuable resource for this purpose and should be included as a source in any search strategy.

Box 1: Search Sources

The World Wide Web/Internet

Google, Specialist Websites, Google Scholar, Microsoft Academic

Bibliographic Databases

Subject specific e.g. Education—ERIC: Education Resources Information Centre

Generic e.g. ASSIA: Applied Social Sciences Index and Abstracts

Handsearching of specialist journals or books

Contacts with Experts

Citation Checking

New, federated search engines are being developed, which search multiple sources at the same time, eliminating duplicates automatically (Tsafnat et al. 2013 ). Technologies, including text mining, are being used to help develop search strategies, by suggesting topics and terms on which to search—terms that reviewers may not have thought of using. Searching is also being aided by technology through the increased use (and automation) of ‘citation chasing’, where papers that cite, or are cited by, a relevant study are checked in case they too are relevant.

A search strategy will identify the search terms that will be used to search the bibliographic databases. Bibliographic databases usually index records according to their topic using ‘keywords’ or ‘controlled terms’ (categories used by the database to classify papers). A comprehensive search strategy usually involves searching both a freetext search using keywords determined by the reviewers and controlled terms. An example of a bibliographic database search is given in Box 2. This search was used in a review that aimed to find studies that investigated the impact of Youth Work on positive youth outcomes (Dickson et al. 2013 ). The search is built using terms for the population of interest (Youth), the intervention of interest (Youth Work) and the outcomes of Interest (Positive Development). It used both keywords and controlled terms, ‘wildcards’ (the *sign in this database) and the Boolean operators ‘OR’ and ‘AND’ to combine terms. This example illustrates the potential complexity of bibliographic database search strings, which will usually require a process of iterative development to finalise.

Box 2: Search string example To identify studies that address the question What is the empirical research evidence on the impact of youth work on the lives of children and young people aged 10-24 years?: CSA ERIC Database

((TI = (adolescen* or (“young man*”) or (“young men”)) or TI = ((“young woman*”) or (“young women”) or (Young adult*”)) or TI = ((“young person*”) or (“young people*”) or teen*) or AB = (adolescen* or (“young man*”) or (“young men”)) or AB = ((“young woman*”) or (“young women”) or (Young adult*”)) or AB = ((“young person*”) or (“young people*”) or teen*)) or (DE = (“youth” or “adolescents” or “early adolescents” or “late adolescents” or “preadolescents”))) and(((TI = ((“positive youth development “) or (“youth development”) or (“youth program*”)) or TI = ((“youth club*”) or (“youth work”) or (“youth opportunit*”)) or TI = ((“extended school*”) or (“civic engagement”) or (“positive peer culture”)) or TI = ((“informal learning”) or multicomponent or (“multi-component “)) or TI = ((“multi component”) or multidimensional or (“multi-dimensional “)) or TI = ((“multi dimensional”) or empower* or asset*) or TI = (thriv* or (“positive development”) or resilienc*) or TI = ((“positive activity”) or (“positive activities”) or experiential) or TI = ((“community based”) or “community-based”)) or(AB = ((“positive youth development “) or (“youth development”) or (“youth program*”)) or AB = ((“youth club*”) or (“youth work”) or (“youth opportunit*”)) or AB = ((“extended school*”) or (“civic engagement”) or (“positive peer culture”)) or AB = ((“informal learning”) or multicomponent or (“multi-component “)) or AB = ((“multi component”) or multidimensional or (“multi-dimensional “)) or AB = ((“multi dimensional”) or empower* or asset*) or AB = (thriv* or (“positive development”) or resilienc*) or AB = ((“positive activity”) or (“positive activities”) or experiential) or AB = ((“community based”) or “community-based”))) or (DE=”community education”))

Detailed guidance for finding effectiveness studies is available from the Campbell Collaboration (Kugley et al. 2015 ). Guidance for finding a broader range of studies has been produced by the EPPI-Centre (Brunton et al. 2017a ).

3.4 The Study Selection Process

Studies identified by the search are subject to a process of checking (sometimes referred to as screening) to ensure they meet the selection criteria. This is usually done in two stages whereby titles and abstracts are checked first to determine whether the study is likely to be relevant and then a full copy of the paper is acquired to complete the screening exercise. The process of finding studies is not efficient. Searching bibliographic databases, for example, leads to many irrelevant studies being found which then have to be checked manually one by one to find the few relevant studies. There is increasing use of specialised software to support and in some cases, automate the selection process. Text mining, for example, can assist in selecting studies for a review (Brunton et al. 2017b ). A typical text mining or machine learning process might involve humans undertaking some screening, the results of which are used to train the computer software to learn the difference between included and excluded studies and thus be able to indicate which of the remaining studies are more likely to be relevant. Such automated support may result in some errors in selection, but this may be less than the human error in manual selection (O’Mara-Eves et al. 2015 ).

3.5 Coding Studies

Once relevant studies have been selected, reviewers need to systematically identify and record the information from the study that will be used to answer the review question. This information includes the characteristics of the studies, including details of the participants and contexts. The coding describes: (i) details of the studies to enable mapping of what research has been undertaken; (ii) how the research was undertaken to allow assessment of the quality and relevance of the studies in addressing the review question; (iii) the results of each study so that these can be synthesised to answer the review question.

The information is usually coded into a data collection system using some kind of technology that facilitates information storage and analysis (Brunton et al. 2017b ) such as the EPPI-Centre’s bespoke systematic review software EPPI Reviewer. Footnote 3 Decisions about which information to record will be made by the review team based on the review question and conceptual framework. For example, a systematic review about the relationship between school size and student outcomes collected data from the primary studies about each schools funding, students, teachers and school organisational structure as well as about the research methods used in the study (Newman et al. 2006 ). The information coded about the methods used in the research will vary depending on the type of research included and the approach that will be used to assess the quality and relevance of the studies (see the next section for further discussion of this point).

Similarly, the information recorded as ‘results’ of the individual studies will vary depending on the type of research that has been included and the approach to synthesis that will be used. Studies investigating the impact of educational interventions using statistical meta-analysis as a synthesis technique will require all of the data necessary to calculate effect sizes to be recorded from each study (see the section on synthesis below for further detail on this point). However, even in this type of study there will be multiple data that can be considered to be ‘results’ and so which data needs to be recorded from studies will need to be carefully specified so that recording is consistent across studies

3.6 Appraising the Quality of Studies

Methods are reinvented every time they are used to accommodate the real world of research practice (Sandelowski et al. 2012 ). The researcher undertaking a primary research study has attempted to design and execute a study that addresses the research question as rigorously as possible within the parameters of their resources, understanding, and context. Given the complexity of this task, the contested views about research methods and the inconsistency of research terminology, reviewers will need to make their own judgements about the quality of the any individual piece of research included in their review. From this perspective, it is evident that using a simple criteria, such as ‘published in a peer reviewed journal’ as a sole indicator of quality, is not likely to be an adequate basis for considering the quality and relevance of a study for a particular systematic review.

In the context of systematic reviews this assessment of quality is often referred to as Critical Appraisal (Petticrew and Roberts 2005 ). There is considerable variation in what is done during critical appraisal: which dimensions of study design and methods are considered; the particular issues that are considered under each dimension; the criteria used to make judgements about these issues and the cut off points used for these criteria (Oancea and Furlong 2007 ). There is also variation in whether the quality assessment judgement is used for excluding studies or weighting them in analysis and when in the process judgements are made.

There are broadly three elements that are considered in critical appraisal: the appropriateness of the study design in the context of the review question, the quality of the execution of the study methods and the study’s relevance to the review question (Gough 2007 ). Distinguishing study design from execution recognises that whilst a particular design may be viewed as more appropriate for a study it also needs to be well executed to achieve the rigour or trustworthiness attributed to the design. Study relevance is achieved by the review selection criteria but assessing the degree of relevance recognises that some studies may be less relevant than others due to differences in, for example, the characteristics of the settings or the ways that variables are measured.

The assessment of study quality is a contested and much debated issue in all research fields. Many published scales are available for assessing study quality. Each incorporates criteria relevant to the research design being evaluated. Quality scales for studies investigating the impact of interventions using (quasi) experimental research designs tend to emphasis establishing descriptive causality through minimising the effects of bias (for detailed discussion of issues associated with assessing study quality in this tradition see Waddington et al. 2017 ). Quality scales for appraising qualitative research tend to focus on the extent to which the study is authentic in reflecting on the meaning of the data (for detailed discussion of the issues associated with assessing study quality in this tradition see Carroll and Booth 2015 ).

3.7 Synthesis

A synthesis is more than a list of findings from the included studies. It is an attempt to integrate the information from the individual studies to produce a ‘better’ answer to the review question than is provided by the individual studies. Each stage of the review contributes toward the synthesis and so decisions made in earlier stages of the review shape the possibilities for synthesis. All types of synthesis involve some kind of data transformation that is achieved through common analytic steps: searching for patterns in data; Checking the quality of the synthesis; Integrating data to answer the review question (Thomas et al. 2012 ). The techniques used to achieve these vary for different types of synthesis and may appear more or less evident as distinct steps.

Statistical meta-analysis is an aggregative synthesis approach in which the outcome results from individual studies are transformed into a standardized, scale free, common metric and combined to produce a single pooled weighted estimate of effect size and direction. There are a number of different metrics of effect size, selection of which is principally determined by the structure of outcome data in the primary studies as either continuous or dichotomous. Outcome data with a dichotomous structure can be transformed into Odds Ratios (OR), Absolute Risk Ratios (ARR) or Relative Risk Ratios (RRR) (for detailed discussion of dichotomous outcome effect sizes see Altman 1991 ). More commonly seen in education research, outcome data with a continuous structure can be translated into Standardised Mean Differences (SMD) (Fitz-Gibbon 1984 ). At its most straightforward effect size calculation is simple arithmetic. However given the variety of analysis methods used and the inconsistency of reporting in primary studies it is also possible to calculate effect sizes using more complex transformation formulae (for detailed instructions on calculating effect sizes from a wide variety of data presentations see Lipsey and Wilson 2000 ).

The combination of individual effect sizes uses statistical procedures in which weighting is given to the effect sizes from the individual studies based on different assumptions about the causes of variance and this requires the use of statistical software. Statistical measures of heterogeneity produced as part of the meta-analysis are used to both explore patterns in the data and to assess the quality of the synthesis (Thomas et al. 2017a ).

In configurative synthesis the different kinds of text about individual studies and their results are meshed and linked to produce patterns in the data, explore different configurations of the data and to produce new synthetic accounts of the phenomena under investigation. The results from the individual studies are translated into and across each other, searching for areas of commonality and refutation. The specific techniques used are derived from the techniques used in primary research in this tradition. They include reading and re-reading, descriptive and analytical coding, the development of themes, constant comparison, negative case analysis and iteration with theory (Thomas et al. 2017b ).

4 Variation in Review Structures

All research requires time and resources and systematic reviews are no exception. There is always concern to use resources as efficiently as possible. For these reasons there is a continuing interest in how reviews can be carried out more quickly using fewer resources. A key issue is the basis for considering a review to be systematic. Any definitions are clearly open to interpretation. Any review can be argued to be insufficiently rigorous and explicit in method in any part of the review process. To assist reviewers in being rigorous, reporting standards and appraisal tools are being developed to assess what is required in different types of review (Lockwood and Geum Oh 2017 ) but these are also the subject of debate and disagreement.

In addition to the term ‘systematic review’ other terms are used to denote the outputs of systematic review processes. Some use the term ‘scoping review’ for a quick review that does not follow a fully systematic process. This term is also used by others (for example, Arksey and O’Malley 2005 ) to denote ‘systematic maps’ that describe the nature of a research field rather than synthesise findings. A ‘quick review’ type of scoping review may also be used as preliminary work to inform a fuller systematic review. Another term used is ‘rapid evidence assessment’. This term is usually used when systematic review needs to be undertaken quickly and in order to do this the methods of review are employed in a more minimal than usual way. For example, by more limited searching. Where such ‘shortcuts’ are taken there may be some loss of rigour, breadth and/or depth (Abrami et al. 2010 ; Thomas et al. 2013 ).

Another development has seen the emergence of the concept of ‘living reviews’, which do not have a fixed end point but are updated as new relevant primary studies are produced. Many review teams hope that their review will be updated over time, but what is different about living reviews is that it is built into the system from the start as an on-going developmental process. This means that the distribution of review effort is quite different to a standard systematic review, being a continuous lower-level effort spread over a longer time period, rather than the shorter bursts of intensive effort that characterise a review with periodic updates (Elliott et al. 2014 ).

4.1 Systematic Maps and Syntheses

One potentially useful aspect of reviewing the literature systematically is that it is possible to gain an understanding of the breadth, purpose and extent of research activity about a phenomenon. Reviewers can be more informed about how research on the phenomenon has been constructed and focused. This type of reviewing is known as ‘mapping’ (see for example, Peersman 1996 ; Gough et al. 2003 ). The aspects of the studies that are described in a map will depend on what is of most interest to those undertaking the review. This might include information such as topic focus, conceptual approach, method, aims, authors, location and context. The boundaries and purposes of a map are determined by decisions made regarding the breadth and depth of the review, which are informed by and reflected in the review question and selection criteria.

Maps can also be a useful stage in a systematic review where study findings are synthesised as well. Most synthesis reviews implicitly or explicitly include some sort of map in that they describe the nature of the relevant studies that they have identified. An explicit map is likely to be more detailed and can be used to inform the synthesis stage of a review. It can provide more information on the individual and grouped studies and thus also provide insights to help inform choices about the focus and strategy to be used in a subsequent synthesis.

4.2 Mixed Methods, Mixed Research Synthesis Reviews

Where studies included in a review consist of more than one type of study design, there may also be different types of data. These different types of studies and data can be analysed together in an integrated design or segregated and analysed separately (Sandelowski et al. 2012 ). In a segregated design, two or more separate sub-reviews are undertaken simultaneously to address different aspects of the same review question and are then compared with one another.

Such ‘mixed methods’ and ‘multiple component’ reviews are usually necessary when there are multiple layers of review question or when one study design alone would be insufficient to answer the question(s) adequately. The reviews are usually required, to have both breadth and depth. In doing so they can investigate a greater extent of the research problem than would be the case in a more focussed single method review. As they are major undertakings, containing what would normally be considered the work of multiple systematic reviews, they are demanding of time and resources and cannot be conducted quickly.

4.3 Reviews of Reviews

Systematic reviews of primary research are secondary levels of research analysis. A review of reviews (sometimes called ‘overviews’ or ‘umbrella’ reviews) is a tertiary level of analysis. It is a systematic map and/or synthesis of previous reviews. The ‘data’ for reviews of reviews are previous reviews rather than primary research studies (see for example Newman et al. ( 2018 ). Some review of reviews use previous reviews to combine both primary research data and synthesis data. It is also possible to have hybrid review models consisting of a review of reviews and then new systematic reviews of primary studies to fill in gaps in coverage where there is not an existing review (Caird et al. 2015 ). Reviews of reviews can be an efficient method for examining previous research. However, this approach is still comparatively novel and questions remain about the appropriate methodology. For example, care is required when assessing the way in which the source systematic reviews identified and selected data for inclusion, assessed study quality and to assess the overlap between the individual reviews (Aromataris et al. 2015 ).

5 Other Types of Research Based Review Structures

This chapter so far has presented a process or method that is shared by many different approaches within the family of systematic review approaches, notwithstanding differences in review question and types of study that are included as evidence. This is a helpful heuristic device for designing and reading systematic reviews. However, it is the case that there are some review approaches that also claim to use a research based review approach but that do not claim to be systematic reviews and or do not conform with the description of processes that we have given above at all or in part at least.

5.1 Realist Synthesis Reviews

Realist synthesis is a member of the theory-based school of evaluation (Pawson 2002 ). This means that it is underpinned by a ‘generative’ understanding of causation, which holds that, to infer a causal outcome/relationship between an intervention (e.g. a training programme) and an outcome (O) of interest (e.g. unemployment), one needs to understand the underlying mechanisms (M) that connect them and the context (C) in which the relationship occurs (e.g. the characteristics of both the subjects and the programme locality). The interest of this approach (and also of other theory driven reviews) is not simply which interventions work, but which mechanisms work in which context. Rather than identifying replications of the same intervention, the reviews adopt an investigative stance and identify different contexts within which the same underlying mechanism is operating.

Realist synthesis is concerned with hypothesising, testing and refining such context-mechanism-outcome (CMO) configurations. Based on the premise that programmes work in limited circumstances, the discovery of these conditions becomes the main task of realist synthesis. The overall intention is to first create an abstract model (based on the CMO configurations) of how and why programmes work and then to test this empirically against the research evidence. Thus, the unit of analysis in a realist synthesis is the programme mechanism, and this mechanism is the basis of the search. This means that a realist synthesis aims to identify different situations in which the same programme mechanism has been attempted. Integrative Reviewing, which is aligned to the Critical Realist tradition, follows a similar approach and methods (Jones-Devitt et al. 2017 ).

5.2 Critical Interpretive Synthesis (CIS)

Critical Interpretive Synthesis (CIS) (Dixon-Woods et al. 2006 ) takes a position that there is an explicit role for the ‘authorial’ (reviewer’s) voice in the review. The approach is derived from a distinctive tradition within qualitative enquiry and draws on some of the tenets of grounded theory in order to support explicitly the process of theory generation. In practice, this is operationalised in its inductive approach to searching and to developing the review question as part of the review process, its rejection of a ‘staged’ approach to reviewing and embracing the concept of theoretical sampling in order to select studies for inclusion. When assessing the quality of studies CIS prioritises relevance and theoretical contribution over research methods. In particular, a critical approach to reading the literature is fundamental in terms of contextualising findings within an analysis of the research traditions or theoretical assumptions of the studies included.

5.3 Meta-Narrative Reviews

Meta-narrative reviews, like critical interpretative synthesis, place centre-stage the importance of understanding the literature critically and understanding differences between research studies as possibly being due to differences between their underlying research traditions (Greenhalgh et al. 2005 ). This means that each piece of research is located (and, when appropriate, aggregated) within its own research tradition and the development of knowledge is traced (configured) through time and across paradigms. Rather than the individual study, the ‘unit of analysis’ is the unfolding ‘storyline’ of a research tradition over time’ (Greenhalgh et al. 2005 ).

6 Conclusions

This chapter has briefly described the methods, application and different perspectives in the family of systematic review approaches. We have emphasized the many ways in which systematic reviews can vary. This variation links to different research aims and review questions. But also to the different assumptions made by reviewers. These assumptions derive from different understandings of research paradigms and methods and from the personal, political perspectives they bring to their research practice. Although there are a variety of possible types of systematic reviews, a distinction in the extent that reviews follow an aggregative or configuring synthesis logic is useful for understanding variations in review approaches and methods. It can help clarify the ways in which reviews vary in the nature of their questions, concepts, procedures, inference and impact. Systematic review approaches continue to evolve alongside critical debate about the merits of various review approaches (systematic or otherwise). So there are many ways in which educational researchers can use and engage with systematic review methods to increase knowledge and understanding in the field of education.

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Newman, M., Gough, D. (2020). Systematic Reviews in Educational Research: Methodology, Perspectives and Application. In: Zawacki-Richter, O., Kerres, M., Bedenlier, S., Bond, M., Buntins, K. (eds) Systematic Reviews in Educational Research. Springer VS, Wiesbaden. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-658-27602-7_1

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Literature Reviews

What this handout is about.

This handout will explain what literature reviews are and offer insights into the form and construction of literature reviews in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences.

Introduction

OK. You’ve got to write a literature review. You dust off a novel and a book of poetry, settle down in your chair, and get ready to issue a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” as you leaf through the pages. “Literature review” done. Right?

Wrong! The “literature” of a literature review refers to any collection of materials on a topic, not necessarily the great literary texts of the world. “Literature” could be anything from a set of government pamphlets on British colonial methods in Africa to scholarly articles on the treatment of a torn ACL. And a review does not necessarily mean that your reader wants you to give your personal opinion on whether or not you liked these sources.

What is a literature review, then?

A literature review discusses published information in a particular subject area, and sometimes information in a particular subject area within a certain time period.

A literature review can be just a simple summary of the sources, but it usually has an organizational pattern and combines both summary and synthesis. A summary is a recap of the important information of the source, but a synthesis is a re-organization, or a reshuffling, of that information. It might give a new interpretation of old material or combine new with old interpretations. Or it might trace the intellectual progression of the field, including major debates. And depending on the situation, the literature review may evaluate the sources and advise the reader on the most pertinent or relevant.

But how is a literature review different from an academic research paper?

The main focus of an academic research paper is to develop a new argument, and a research paper is likely to contain a literature review as one of its parts. In a research paper, you use the literature as a foundation and as support for a new insight that you contribute. The focus of a literature review, however, is to summarize and synthesize the arguments and ideas of others without adding new contributions.

Why do we write literature reviews?

Literature reviews provide you with a handy guide to a particular topic. If you have limited time to conduct research, literature reviews can give you an overview or act as a stepping stone. For professionals, they are useful reports that keep them up to date with what is current in the field. For scholars, the depth and breadth of the literature review emphasizes the credibility of the writer in his or her field. Literature reviews also provide a solid background for a research paper’s investigation. Comprehensive knowledge of the literature of the field is essential to most research papers.

Who writes these things, anyway?

Literature reviews are written occasionally in the humanities, but mostly in the sciences and social sciences; in experiment and lab reports, they constitute a section of the paper. Sometimes a literature review is written as a paper in itself.

Let’s get to it! What should I do before writing the literature review?

If your assignment is not very specific, seek clarification from your instructor:

  • Roughly how many sources should you include?
  • What types of sources (books, journal articles, websites)?
  • Should you summarize, synthesize, or critique your sources by discussing a common theme or issue?
  • Should you evaluate your sources?
  • Should you provide subheadings and other background information, such as definitions and/or a history?

Find models

Look for other literature reviews in your area of interest or in the discipline and read them to get a sense of the types of themes you might want to look for in your own research or ways to organize your final review. You can simply put the word “review” in your search engine along with your other topic terms to find articles of this type on the Internet or in an electronic database. The bibliography or reference section of sources you’ve already read are also excellent entry points into your own research.

Narrow your topic

There are hundreds or even thousands of articles and books on most areas of study. The narrower your topic, the easier it will be to limit the number of sources you need to read in order to get a good survey of the material. Your instructor will probably not expect you to read everything that’s out there on the topic, but you’ll make your job easier if you first limit your scope.

Keep in mind that UNC Libraries have research guides and to databases relevant to many fields of study. You can reach out to the subject librarian for a consultation: https://library.unc.edu/support/consultations/ .

And don’t forget to tap into your professor’s (or other professors’) knowledge in the field. Ask your professor questions such as: “If you had to read only one book from the 90’s on topic X, what would it be?” Questions such as this help you to find and determine quickly the most seminal pieces in the field.

Consider whether your sources are current

Some disciplines require that you use information that is as current as possible. In the sciences, for instance, treatments for medical problems are constantly changing according to the latest studies. Information even two years old could be obsolete. However, if you are writing a review in the humanities, history, or social sciences, a survey of the history of the literature may be what is needed, because what is important is how perspectives have changed through the years or within a certain time period. Try sorting through some other current bibliographies or literature reviews in the field to get a sense of what your discipline expects. You can also use this method to consider what is currently of interest to scholars in this field and what is not.

Strategies for writing the literature review

Find a focus.

A literature review, like a term paper, is usually organized around ideas, not the sources themselves as an annotated bibliography would be organized. This means that you will not just simply list your sources and go into detail about each one of them, one at a time. No. As you read widely but selectively in your topic area, consider instead what themes or issues connect your sources together. Do they present one or different solutions? Is there an aspect of the field that is missing? How well do they present the material and do they portray it according to an appropriate theory? Do they reveal a trend in the field? A raging debate? Pick one of these themes to focus the organization of your review.

Convey it to your reader

A literature review may not have a traditional thesis statement (one that makes an argument), but you do need to tell readers what to expect. Try writing a simple statement that lets the reader know what is your main organizing principle. Here are a couple of examples:

The current trend in treatment for congestive heart failure combines surgery and medicine. More and more cultural studies scholars are accepting popular media as a subject worthy of academic consideration.

Consider organization

You’ve got a focus, and you’ve stated it clearly and directly. Now what is the most effective way of presenting the information? What are the most important topics, subtopics, etc., that your review needs to include? And in what order should you present them? Develop an organization for your review at both a global and local level:

First, cover the basic categories

Just like most academic papers, literature reviews also must contain at least three basic elements: an introduction or background information section; the body of the review containing the discussion of sources; and, finally, a conclusion and/or recommendations section to end the paper. The following provides a brief description of the content of each:

  • Introduction: Gives a quick idea of the topic of the literature review, such as the central theme or organizational pattern.
  • Body: Contains your discussion of sources and is organized either chronologically, thematically, or methodologically (see below for more information on each).
  • Conclusions/Recommendations: Discuss what you have drawn from reviewing literature so far. Where might the discussion proceed?

Organizing the body

Once you have the basic categories in place, then you must consider how you will present the sources themselves within the body of your paper. Create an organizational method to focus this section even further.

To help you come up with an overall organizational framework for your review, consider the following scenario:

You’ve decided to focus your literature review on materials dealing with sperm whales. This is because you’ve just finished reading Moby Dick, and you wonder if that whale’s portrayal is really real. You start with some articles about the physiology of sperm whales in biology journals written in the 1980’s. But these articles refer to some British biological studies performed on whales in the early 18th century. So you check those out. Then you look up a book written in 1968 with information on how sperm whales have been portrayed in other forms of art, such as in Alaskan poetry, in French painting, or on whale bone, as the whale hunters in the late 19th century used to do. This makes you wonder about American whaling methods during the time portrayed in Moby Dick, so you find some academic articles published in the last five years on how accurately Herman Melville portrayed the whaling scene in his novel.

Now consider some typical ways of organizing the sources into a review:

  • Chronological: If your review follows the chronological method, you could write about the materials above according to when they were published. For instance, first you would talk about the British biological studies of the 18th century, then about Moby Dick, published in 1851, then the book on sperm whales in other art (1968), and finally the biology articles (1980s) and the recent articles on American whaling of the 19th century. But there is relatively no continuity among subjects here. And notice that even though the sources on sperm whales in other art and on American whaling are written recently, they are about other subjects/objects that were created much earlier. Thus, the review loses its chronological focus.
  • By publication: Order your sources by publication chronology, then, only if the order demonstrates a more important trend. For instance, you could order a review of literature on biological studies of sperm whales if the progression revealed a change in dissection practices of the researchers who wrote and/or conducted the studies.
  • By trend: A better way to organize the above sources chronologically is to examine the sources under another trend, such as the history of whaling. Then your review would have subsections according to eras within this period. For instance, the review might examine whaling from pre-1600-1699, 1700-1799, and 1800-1899. Under this method, you would combine the recent studies on American whaling in the 19th century with Moby Dick itself in the 1800-1899 category, even though the authors wrote a century apart.
  • Thematic: Thematic reviews of literature are organized around a topic or issue, rather than the progression of time. However, progression of time may still be an important factor in a thematic review. For instance, the sperm whale review could focus on the development of the harpoon for whale hunting. While the study focuses on one topic, harpoon technology, it will still be organized chronologically. The only difference here between a “chronological” and a “thematic” approach is what is emphasized the most: the development of the harpoon or the harpoon technology.But more authentic thematic reviews tend to break away from chronological order. For instance, a thematic review of material on sperm whales might examine how they are portrayed as “evil” in cultural documents. The subsections might include how they are personified, how their proportions are exaggerated, and their behaviors misunderstood. A review organized in this manner would shift between time periods within each section according to the point made.
  • Methodological: A methodological approach differs from the two above in that the focusing factor usually does not have to do with the content of the material. Instead, it focuses on the “methods” of the researcher or writer. For the sperm whale project, one methodological approach would be to look at cultural differences between the portrayal of whales in American, British, and French art work. Or the review might focus on the economic impact of whaling on a community. A methodological scope will influence either the types of documents in the review or the way in which these documents are discussed. Once you’ve decided on the organizational method for the body of the review, the sections you need to include in the paper should be easy to figure out. They should arise out of your organizational strategy. In other words, a chronological review would have subsections for each vital time period. A thematic review would have subtopics based upon factors that relate to the theme or issue.

Sometimes, though, you might need to add additional sections that are necessary for your study, but do not fit in the organizational strategy of the body. What other sections you include in the body is up to you. Put in only what is necessary. Here are a few other sections you might want to consider:

  • Current Situation: Information necessary to understand the topic or focus of the literature review.
  • History: The chronological progression of the field, the literature, or an idea that is necessary to understand the literature review, if the body of the literature review is not already a chronology.
  • Methods and/or Standards: The criteria you used to select the sources in your literature review or the way in which you present your information. For instance, you might explain that your review includes only peer-reviewed articles and journals.

Questions for Further Research: What questions about the field has the review sparked? How will you further your research as a result of the review?

Begin composing

Once you’ve settled on a general pattern of organization, you’re ready to write each section. There are a few guidelines you should follow during the writing stage as well. Here is a sample paragraph from a literature review about sexism and language to illuminate the following discussion:

However, other studies have shown that even gender-neutral antecedents are more likely to produce masculine images than feminine ones (Gastil, 1990). Hamilton (1988) asked students to complete sentences that required them to fill in pronouns that agreed with gender-neutral antecedents such as “writer,” “pedestrian,” and “persons.” The students were asked to describe any image they had when writing the sentence. Hamilton found that people imagined 3.3 men to each woman in the masculine “generic” condition and 1.5 men per woman in the unbiased condition. Thus, while ambient sexism accounted for some of the masculine bias, sexist language amplified the effect. (Source: Erika Falk and Jordan Mills, “Why Sexist Language Affects Persuasion: The Role of Homophily, Intended Audience, and Offense,” Women and Language19:2).

Use evidence

In the example above, the writers refer to several other sources when making their point. A literature review in this sense is just like any other academic research paper. Your interpretation of the available sources must be backed up with evidence to show that what you are saying is valid.

Be selective

Select only the most important points in each source to highlight in the review. The type of information you choose to mention should relate directly to the review’s focus, whether it is thematic, methodological, or chronological.

Use quotes sparingly

Falk and Mills do not use any direct quotes. That is because the survey nature of the literature review does not allow for in-depth discussion or detailed quotes from the text. Some short quotes here and there are okay, though, if you want to emphasize a point, or if what the author said just cannot be rewritten in your own words. Notice that Falk and Mills do quote certain terms that were coined by the author, not common knowledge, or taken directly from the study. But if you find yourself wanting to put in more quotes, check with your instructor.

Summarize and synthesize

Remember to summarize and synthesize your sources within each paragraph as well as throughout the review. The authors here recapitulate important features of Hamilton’s study, but then synthesize it by rephrasing the study’s significance and relating it to their own work.

Keep your own voice

While the literature review presents others’ ideas, your voice (the writer’s) should remain front and center. Notice that Falk and Mills weave references to other sources into their own text, but they still maintain their own voice by starting and ending the paragraph with their own ideas and their own words. The sources support what Falk and Mills are saying.

Use caution when paraphrasing

When paraphrasing a source that is not your own, be sure to represent the author’s information or opinions accurately and in your own words. In the preceding example, Falk and Mills either directly refer in the text to the author of their source, such as Hamilton, or they provide ample notation in the text when the ideas they are mentioning are not their own, for example, Gastil’s. For more information, please see our handout on plagiarism .

Revise, revise, revise

Draft in hand? Now you’re ready to revise. Spending a lot of time revising is a wise idea, because your main objective is to present the material, not the argument. So check over your review again to make sure it follows the assignment and/or your outline. Then, just as you would for most other academic forms of writing, rewrite or rework the language of your review so that you’ve presented your information in the most concise manner possible. Be sure to use terminology familiar to your audience; get rid of unnecessary jargon or slang. Finally, double check that you’ve documented your sources and formatted the review appropriately for your discipline. For tips on the revising and editing process, see our handout on revising drafts .

Works consulted

We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial . We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.

Anson, Chris M., and Robert A. Schwegler. 2010. The Longman Handbook for Writers and Readers , 6th ed. New York: Longman.

Jones, Robert, Patrick Bizzaro, and Cynthia Selfe. 1997. The Harcourt Brace Guide to Writing in the Disciplines . New York: Harcourt Brace.

Lamb, Sandra E. 1998. How to Write It: A Complete Guide to Everything You’ll Ever Write . Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.

Rosen, Leonard J., and Laurence Behrens. 2003. The Allyn & Bacon Handbook , 5th ed. New York: Longman.

Troyka, Lynn Quittman, and Doug Hesse. 2016. Simon and Schuster Handbook for Writers , 11th ed. London: Pearson.

You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute the source: The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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Educational Leadership: Literature Review Strategies

  • Literature Review Strategies
  • Search Tips

What's a Literature Review?

A Literature Review...

  • Provides comprehensive discussion of the scholarly research that has already been done on a topic.
  • Includes some summary of important articles on a topic.
  • Includes comparison: between how different authors discuss the same topic and how the topic has been handled over time.
  • Synthesizes previous ideas on a topic, but also looks for gaps in the literature: what needs to be investigated further?

What Should a Literature Review Do?

A Literature Review should...

  • Relate directly and clearly to your thesis or research question.
  • Synthesize and contextualize results, not just report them.
  • Identify areas of controversy in the literature.
  • Formulate questions that need further research.

Adapted from “The Literature Review: A Few Tips on Conducting It”, by Dena Taylor and Margaret Procter, University of Toronto: www.writing.utoronto.ca (file linked below)

  • The Literature Review: A Few Tips on Conducting It This two-page PDF handout created by Dena Taylor and Margaret Procter at the University of Toronto has excellent guidance on conducting a literature review.

Literature Review Search Strategies

Strategies for a literature review search...

  • Comb through bibliographies of relevant journal articles and books. You'll probably start to see patterns: authors, journals, and themes that show up over and over.
  • Find Full Text through the Library : If you find an article in a bibliography that you’d like to access, look for the journal name (not the article name), and follow the steps outlined under the Finding Full-text Material tab in our How to find Full Text Guide .
  • Can't get the article you need in full text through PSU? Don't Despair: Try Interlibrary Loan !
  • Find out who cited an article , and how many times it was cited, through Google Scholar . This will show you how influential an article was and gives you more articles and authors to investigate.
  • Learn How to Gut a Book -- in other words, how to get the most out of a book in the most efficient manner (i.e. it may not be necessary to read an entire book, word for word, taking diligent notes in order to get the gist of the book for use in a literature review).

Journal Ranking, Publication Outlets, Scholarly Communication

What are the top journals in your field? Which journals are the best for your topic?

The following resources can help you answer the following questions, which can be helpful to consider when performing a literature review:

  • SCImago Journal & Country Rank Journals and country scientific indicators based on data in the Scopus® database.
  • Eigenfactor Free website ranking and mapping academic journals.

PSU Authentication Required

  • Academic Publishing Information on authors' rights, copyright, open access, and more.

Cited Reference Search

How many times has one of the articles you're using in your literature review been cited?

The answer to that question can tell you not only how influential an article has been, but can lead you to more articles on your topic. Use the following to find out how many times the article you're using has been cited:

View a tutorial for this resource

Getting Started With Research: Tutorials

Need more help getting started with research? Check out the Library's video tutorials and playlists  .

Please also feel free to contact a librarian .

Literature Reviews: An Overview for Graduate Students

This excellent overview of the literature review explains what a literature review and outlines processes and best practices for doing one. It includes input from an NCSU professor on what a literature review is and what it should do. (Shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US license, attributed to North Carolina State University Libraries).

Writing the Literature Review: Part 1

Here's another excellent tutorial on what a literature review is and how to write it, in two parts, from David Taylor at the University of Maryland University College's Writing Program.  https://youtu.be/2IUZWZX4OGI

Writing the Literature Review: Part 2

Here's part two of David Taylor's "Writing the Literature Review" tutorial, from the University of Maryland University College's Writing Program. https://youtu.be/UoYpyY9n9YQ

Google Scholar

Google Scholar has been customized by the PSU library to find some full-text articles at PSU!

https://stats.lib.pdx.edu/proxy.php?url=http://scholar.google.com

Google Scholar can be extremely helpful in finding out how many times an article has been cited and who cited an article . This can help you determine how important an article is and which other authors you may want to investigate.

Make sure you're checking your discipline's databases as well, for fuller, more complete scholarly coverage of the journal articles on your topic. 

PDX Scholar

It can be helpful to look at the work of your peers to get a sense of how certain kinds of writing and research is done, including the literature review.

You can look at the full text of past dissertations, research, and other scholarly work from PSU students and faculty in the library's digital repository, PDXScholar.

  • PDXScholar Portland State University's Digital Repository, PDXScholar, preserves the University's research, unique resources, and other scholarly output with the goal of providing persistent, access to that work.
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  • Last Updated: Jan 23, 2024 12:52 PM
  • URL: https://guides.library.pdx.edu/edadmin

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Educational Leadership Doctoral Program

  • Background Sources & Research Methods
  • Identifying Empirical Articles
  • Writing a Literature Review
  • Citing Sources

Literature Review Tips

  • Literature Review and APA Tips

Literature Review Examples

To give you some examples of writing a literature review and an article analysis matrix to keep track of the themes of your articles, I have created a partial literature review and corresponding analysis matrix to demonstrate. My topic is the special education early intervention program called First Step to Success (FSS).

  • Synthetic Writing/Literature Example (First Steps to Success)
  • Article Analysis Spreadsheet Example (First Step to Success)
  • Article Analysis Spreadsheet Example (First Step to Success - PDF Version)

The Process of Writing a Literature Review

Mastering synthetic writing is key to a successful literature review. Use these resources to learn how to analyze the articles you want to use for your literature review, keep track of common themes using an article analysis matrix, and how to convert the notes in the analysis matrix into a piece of synthetic writing.

Think of working on your literature review as a multi-step process:

  • Identify a topic.
  • Find research articles on that topic.
  • Read and analyze each article. (Use the Individual Article Analysis Worksheet )
  • Compare all of the themes addressed in the articles. (Use the Article Analysis Matrix )
  • Use your notes from the article analysis matrix to decide how to organize your literature review (make an outline).
  • Write your literature review by discussing one theme at a time--how is this theme covered in the literature?
  • Your literature review will also need an introduction and a conclusion. Some students like to start with the introduction, while others find it is easier to write the introduction after they have written the body of their literature review.
  • Don't forget to include References at the end of your paper (and to cite them properly within the text)!
  • Individual Article Analysis Worksheet Use this to analyze each of your articles. Focus on questions #4 - #6. These will help you identify the major themes/main ideas in each article you read.
  • Article Analysis Matrix After completing the Individual Article Analysis Worksheet for each of your articles, use this Article Analysis Matrix to compile all of the information you have gathered. Use the Example Article Analysis Matrix below as a guide to get started.

Synthetic Writing

A literature review is not the same as a research paper. The point of a literature review is to synthesize the research of others without making a new argument or scholarly contribution. A literature review is also not an annotated bibliography. You should not write about each study you are reviewing in turn, but instead write synthetically to highlight the current state of the literature.

Key Points to Consider:

  • The purpose of a literature review is to report the current state of the topic. Literature reviewed should be relatively recent, unless you are delving into the history of the topic.
  • Discuss different themes within your literature review rather than individual articles. It will help if you pull information from 2-3 articles for each theme you discuss.
  • All works cited should be both in the text of the literature review and the bibliography
  • Avoid passive voice (ex: It was found that...); Use active voice ("Smith (2013) reported that...")
  • Report what the literature says, not what you think

Writing Your Literature Review

The sites below offer a range of considerations and steps for writing the literature review.

  • Learn How to Write a Review of Literature From the University of Wisconsin-Madison Writing Center.
  • Literature Reviews From the UNC Chapel Hill Writing Center.
  • Literature Review From the University of Houston-Victoria, Texas.
  • The Literature Review: A Few Tips on Conducting It From the University of Toronto Health Sciences Writing Centre.
  • Writing Literature Reviews From the Temple University Writing Center.
  • Getting Started on Your Literature Review From the University of New South Wales Learning Centre.
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  • Next: Citing Sources >>
  • Last Updated: Feb 9, 2024 2:55 PM
  • URL: https://library.ship.edu/eldp

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examples of literature reviews in education

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Book Title: Literature Reviews for Education and Nursing Graduate Students

Authors: Linda Frederiksen, Sue F. Phelps

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Book Description: This open textbook is designed for students in graduate-level nursing and education programs. From developing a research question to locating and evaluating sources to writing a sample literature review using appropriate publication guidelines, readers will be guided through the process. This book has been peer-reviewed by 7 subject experts and is now available for adoption and use in courses or as a library resource. If you’d like to adopt the book, please let us know . You can view the book's Review Statement for more information about reviewers and the review process. The Accessibility Assessment for this is book is also available. If you'd like to adopt or adapt this book, please let us know .

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Book description.

Literature Reviews for Education and Nursing Graduate Students is an open textbook designed for students in graduate-level nursing and education programs. Its intent is to recognize the significant role the literature review plays in the research process and to prepare students for the work that goes into writing one. Developed for new graduate students and novice researchers just entering into the work of a chosen discipline, each of the eight chapters covers a component of the literature review process. Students will learn how to form a research question, search existing literature, synthesize results and write the review. The book contains examples, checklists, supplementary materials, and additional resources. Literature Reviews for Education and Nursing Graduate Students is written by two librarians with expertise guiding students through research and writing assignments, and is openly licensed.

Literature Reviews for Education and Nursing Graduate Students Copyright © by Linda Frederiksen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Lau F, Kuziemsky C, editors. Handbook of eHealth Evaluation: An Evidence-based Approach [Internet]. Victoria (BC): University of Victoria; 2017 Feb 27.

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Handbook of eHealth Evaluation: An Evidence-based Approach [Internet].

Chapter 9 methods for literature reviews.

Guy Paré and Spyros Kitsiou .

9.1. Introduction

Literature reviews play a critical role in scholarship because science remains, first and foremost, a cumulative endeavour ( vom Brocke et al., 2009 ). As in any academic discipline, rigorous knowledge syntheses are becoming indispensable in keeping up with an exponentially growing eHealth literature, assisting practitioners, academics, and graduate students in finding, evaluating, and synthesizing the contents of many empirical and conceptual papers. Among other methods, literature reviews are essential for: (a) identifying what has been written on a subject or topic; (b) determining the extent to which a specific research area reveals any interpretable trends or patterns; (c) aggregating empirical findings related to a narrow research question to support evidence-based practice; (d) generating new frameworks and theories; and (e) identifying topics or questions requiring more investigation ( Paré, Trudel, Jaana, & Kitsiou, 2015 ).

Literature reviews can take two major forms. The most prevalent one is the “literature review” or “background” section within a journal paper or a chapter in a graduate thesis. This section synthesizes the extant literature and usually identifies the gaps in knowledge that the empirical study addresses ( Sylvester, Tate, & Johnstone, 2013 ). It may also provide a theoretical foundation for the proposed study, substantiate the presence of the research problem, justify the research as one that contributes something new to the cumulated knowledge, or validate the methods and approaches for the proposed study ( Hart, 1998 ; Levy & Ellis, 2006 ).

The second form of literature review, which is the focus of this chapter, constitutes an original and valuable work of research in and of itself ( Paré et al., 2015 ). Rather than providing a base for a researcher’s own work, it creates a solid starting point for all members of the community interested in a particular area or topic ( Mulrow, 1987 ). The so-called “review article” is a journal-length paper which has an overarching purpose to synthesize the literature in a field, without collecting or analyzing any primary data ( Green, Johnson, & Adams, 2006 ).

When appropriately conducted, review articles represent powerful information sources for practitioners looking for state-of-the art evidence to guide their decision-making and work practices ( Paré et al., 2015 ). Further, high-quality reviews become frequently cited pieces of work which researchers seek out as a first clear outline of the literature when undertaking empirical studies ( Cooper, 1988 ; Rowe, 2014 ). Scholars who track and gauge the impact of articles have found that review papers are cited and downloaded more often than any other type of published article ( Cronin, Ryan, & Coughlan, 2008 ; Montori, Wilczynski, Morgan, Haynes, & Hedges, 2003 ; Patsopoulos, Analatos, & Ioannidis, 2005 ). The reason for their popularity may be the fact that reading the review enables one to have an overview, if not a detailed knowledge of the area in question, as well as references to the most useful primary sources ( Cronin et al., 2008 ). Although they are not easy to conduct, the commitment to complete a review article provides a tremendous service to one’s academic community ( Paré et al., 2015 ; Petticrew & Roberts, 2006 ). Most, if not all, peer-reviewed journals in the fields of medical informatics publish review articles of some type.

The main objectives of this chapter are fourfold: (a) to provide an overview of the major steps and activities involved in conducting a stand-alone literature review; (b) to describe and contrast the different types of review articles that can contribute to the eHealth knowledge base; (c) to illustrate each review type with one or two examples from the eHealth literature; and (d) to provide a series of recommendations for prospective authors of review articles in this domain.

9.2. Overview of the Literature Review Process and Steps

As explained in Templier and Paré (2015) , there are six generic steps involved in conducting a review article:

  • formulating the research question(s) and objective(s),
  • searching the extant literature,
  • screening for inclusion,
  • assessing the quality of primary studies,
  • extracting data, and
  • analyzing data.

Although these steps are presented here in sequential order, one must keep in mind that the review process can be iterative and that many activities can be initiated during the planning stage and later refined during subsequent phases ( Finfgeld-Connett & Johnson, 2013 ; Kitchenham & Charters, 2007 ).

Formulating the research question(s) and objective(s): As a first step, members of the review team must appropriately justify the need for the review itself ( Petticrew & Roberts, 2006 ), identify the review’s main objective(s) ( Okoli & Schabram, 2010 ), and define the concepts or variables at the heart of their synthesis ( Cooper & Hedges, 2009 ; Webster & Watson, 2002 ). Importantly, they also need to articulate the research question(s) they propose to investigate ( Kitchenham & Charters, 2007 ). In this regard, we concur with Jesson, Matheson, and Lacey (2011) that clearly articulated research questions are key ingredients that guide the entire review methodology; they underscore the type of information that is needed, inform the search for and selection of relevant literature, and guide or orient the subsequent analysis. Searching the extant literature: The next step consists of searching the literature and making decisions about the suitability of material to be considered in the review ( Cooper, 1988 ). There exist three main coverage strategies. First, exhaustive coverage means an effort is made to be as comprehensive as possible in order to ensure that all relevant studies, published and unpublished, are included in the review and, thus, conclusions are based on this all-inclusive knowledge base. The second type of coverage consists of presenting materials that are representative of most other works in a given field or area. Often authors who adopt this strategy will search for relevant articles in a small number of top-tier journals in a field ( Paré et al., 2015 ). In the third strategy, the review team concentrates on prior works that have been central or pivotal to a particular topic. This may include empirical studies or conceptual papers that initiated a line of investigation, changed how problems or questions were framed, introduced new methods or concepts, or engendered important debate ( Cooper, 1988 ). Screening for inclusion: The following step consists of evaluating the applicability of the material identified in the preceding step ( Levy & Ellis, 2006 ; vom Brocke et al., 2009 ). Once a group of potential studies has been identified, members of the review team must screen them to determine their relevance ( Petticrew & Roberts, 2006 ). A set of predetermined rules provides a basis for including or excluding certain studies. This exercise requires a significant investment on the part of researchers, who must ensure enhanced objectivity and avoid biases or mistakes. As discussed later in this chapter, for certain types of reviews there must be at least two independent reviewers involved in the screening process and a procedure to resolve disagreements must also be in place ( Liberati et al., 2009 ; Shea et al., 2009 ). Assessing the quality of primary studies: In addition to screening material for inclusion, members of the review team may need to assess the scientific quality of the selected studies, that is, appraise the rigour of the research design and methods. Such formal assessment, which is usually conducted independently by at least two coders, helps members of the review team refine which studies to include in the final sample, determine whether or not the differences in quality may affect their conclusions, or guide how they analyze the data and interpret the findings ( Petticrew & Roberts, 2006 ). Ascribing quality scores to each primary study or considering through domain-based evaluations which study components have or have not been designed and executed appropriately makes it possible to reflect on the extent to which the selected study addresses possible biases and maximizes validity ( Shea et al., 2009 ). Extracting data: The following step involves gathering or extracting applicable information from each primary study included in the sample and deciding what is relevant to the problem of interest ( Cooper & Hedges, 2009 ). Indeed, the type of data that should be recorded mainly depends on the initial research questions ( Okoli & Schabram, 2010 ). However, important information may also be gathered about how, when, where and by whom the primary study was conducted, the research design and methods, or qualitative/quantitative results ( Cooper & Hedges, 2009 ). Analyzing and synthesizing data : As a final step, members of the review team must collate, summarize, aggregate, organize, and compare the evidence extracted from the included studies. The extracted data must be presented in a meaningful way that suggests a new contribution to the extant literature ( Jesson et al., 2011 ). Webster and Watson (2002) warn researchers that literature reviews should be much more than lists of papers and should provide a coherent lens to make sense of extant knowledge on a given topic. There exist several methods and techniques for synthesizing quantitative (e.g., frequency analysis, meta-analysis) and qualitative (e.g., grounded theory, narrative analysis, meta-ethnography) evidence ( Dixon-Woods, Agarwal, Jones, Young, & Sutton, 2005 ; Thomas & Harden, 2008 ).

9.3. Types of Review Articles and Brief Illustrations

EHealth researchers have at their disposal a number of approaches and methods for making sense out of existing literature, all with the purpose of casting current research findings into historical contexts or explaining contradictions that might exist among a set of primary research studies conducted on a particular topic. Our classification scheme is largely inspired from Paré and colleagues’ (2015) typology. Below we present and illustrate those review types that we feel are central to the growth and development of the eHealth domain.

9.3.1. Narrative Reviews

The narrative review is the “traditional” way of reviewing the extant literature and is skewed towards a qualitative interpretation of prior knowledge ( Sylvester et al., 2013 ). Put simply, a narrative review attempts to summarize or synthesize what has been written on a particular topic but does not seek generalization or cumulative knowledge from what is reviewed ( Davies, 2000 ; Green et al., 2006 ). Instead, the review team often undertakes the task of accumulating and synthesizing the literature to demonstrate the value of a particular point of view ( Baumeister & Leary, 1997 ). As such, reviewers may selectively ignore or limit the attention paid to certain studies in order to make a point. In this rather unsystematic approach, the selection of information from primary articles is subjective, lacks explicit criteria for inclusion and can lead to biased interpretations or inferences ( Green et al., 2006 ). There are several narrative reviews in the particular eHealth domain, as in all fields, which follow such an unstructured approach ( Silva et al., 2015 ; Paul et al., 2015 ).

Despite these criticisms, this type of review can be very useful in gathering together a volume of literature in a specific subject area and synthesizing it. As mentioned above, its primary purpose is to provide the reader with a comprehensive background for understanding current knowledge and highlighting the significance of new research ( Cronin et al., 2008 ). Faculty like to use narrative reviews in the classroom because they are often more up to date than textbooks, provide a single source for students to reference, and expose students to peer-reviewed literature ( Green et al., 2006 ). For researchers, narrative reviews can inspire research ideas by identifying gaps or inconsistencies in a body of knowledge, thus helping researchers to determine research questions or formulate hypotheses. Importantly, narrative reviews can also be used as educational articles to bring practitioners up to date with certain topics of issues ( Green et al., 2006 ).

Recently, there have been several efforts to introduce more rigour in narrative reviews that will elucidate common pitfalls and bring changes into their publication standards. Information systems researchers, among others, have contributed to advancing knowledge on how to structure a “traditional” review. For instance, Levy and Ellis (2006) proposed a generic framework for conducting such reviews. Their model follows the systematic data processing approach comprised of three steps, namely: (a) literature search and screening; (b) data extraction and analysis; and (c) writing the literature review. They provide detailed and very helpful instructions on how to conduct each step of the review process. As another methodological contribution, vom Brocke et al. (2009) offered a series of guidelines for conducting literature reviews, with a particular focus on how to search and extract the relevant body of knowledge. Last, Bandara, Miskon, and Fielt (2011) proposed a structured, predefined and tool-supported method to identify primary studies within a feasible scope, extract relevant content from identified articles, synthesize and analyze the findings, and effectively write and present the results of the literature review. We highly recommend that prospective authors of narrative reviews consult these useful sources before embarking on their work.

Darlow and Wen (2015) provide a good example of a highly structured narrative review in the eHealth field. These authors synthesized published articles that describe the development process of mobile health ( m-health ) interventions for patients’ cancer care self-management. As in most narrative reviews, the scope of the research questions being investigated is broad: (a) how development of these systems are carried out; (b) which methods are used to investigate these systems; and (c) what conclusions can be drawn as a result of the development of these systems. To provide clear answers to these questions, a literature search was conducted on six electronic databases and Google Scholar . The search was performed using several terms and free text words, combining them in an appropriate manner. Four inclusion and three exclusion criteria were utilized during the screening process. Both authors independently reviewed each of the identified articles to determine eligibility and extract study information. A flow diagram shows the number of studies identified, screened, and included or excluded at each stage of study selection. In terms of contributions, this review provides a series of practical recommendations for m-health intervention development.

9.3.2. Descriptive or Mapping Reviews

The primary goal of a descriptive review is to determine the extent to which a body of knowledge in a particular research topic reveals any interpretable pattern or trend with respect to pre-existing propositions, theories, methodologies or findings ( King & He, 2005 ; Paré et al., 2015 ). In contrast with narrative reviews, descriptive reviews follow a systematic and transparent procedure, including searching, screening and classifying studies ( Petersen, Vakkalanka, & Kuzniarz, 2015 ). Indeed, structured search methods are used to form a representative sample of a larger group of published works ( Paré et al., 2015 ). Further, authors of descriptive reviews extract from each study certain characteristics of interest, such as publication year, research methods, data collection techniques, and direction or strength of research outcomes (e.g., positive, negative, or non-significant) in the form of frequency analysis to produce quantitative results ( Sylvester et al., 2013 ). In essence, each study included in a descriptive review is treated as the unit of analysis and the published literature as a whole provides a database from which the authors attempt to identify any interpretable trends or draw overall conclusions about the merits of existing conceptualizations, propositions, methods or findings ( Paré et al., 2015 ). In doing so, a descriptive review may claim that its findings represent the state of the art in a particular domain ( King & He, 2005 ).

In the fields of health sciences and medical informatics, reviews that focus on examining the range, nature and evolution of a topic area are described by Anderson, Allen, Peckham, and Goodwin (2008) as mapping reviews . Like descriptive reviews, the research questions are generic and usually relate to publication patterns and trends. There is no preconceived plan to systematically review all of the literature although this can be done. Instead, researchers often present studies that are representative of most works published in a particular area and they consider a specific time frame to be mapped.

An example of this approach in the eHealth domain is offered by DeShazo, Lavallie, and Wolf (2009). The purpose of this descriptive or mapping review was to characterize publication trends in the medical informatics literature over a 20-year period (1987 to 2006). To achieve this ambitious objective, the authors performed a bibliometric analysis of medical informatics citations indexed in medline using publication trends, journal frequencies, impact factors, Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) term frequencies, and characteristics of citations. Findings revealed that there were over 77,000 medical informatics articles published during the covered period in numerous journals and that the average annual growth rate was 12%. The MeSH term analysis also suggested a strong interdisciplinary trend. Finally, average impact scores increased over time with two notable growth periods. Overall, patterns in research outputs that seem to characterize the historic trends and current components of the field of medical informatics suggest it may be a maturing discipline (DeShazo et al., 2009).

9.3.3. Scoping Reviews

Scoping reviews attempt to provide an initial indication of the potential size and nature of the extant literature on an emergent topic (Arksey & O’Malley, 2005; Daudt, van Mossel, & Scott, 2013 ; Levac, Colquhoun, & O’Brien, 2010). A scoping review may be conducted to examine the extent, range and nature of research activities in a particular area, determine the value of undertaking a full systematic review (discussed next), or identify research gaps in the extant literature ( Paré et al., 2015 ). In line with their main objective, scoping reviews usually conclude with the presentation of a detailed research agenda for future works along with potential implications for both practice and research.

Unlike narrative and descriptive reviews, the whole point of scoping the field is to be as comprehensive as possible, including grey literature (Arksey & O’Malley, 2005). Inclusion and exclusion criteria must be established to help researchers eliminate studies that are not aligned with the research questions. It is also recommended that at least two independent coders review abstracts yielded from the search strategy and then the full articles for study selection ( Daudt et al., 2013 ). The synthesized evidence from content or thematic analysis is relatively easy to present in tabular form (Arksey & O’Malley, 2005; Thomas & Harden, 2008 ).

One of the most highly cited scoping reviews in the eHealth domain was published by Archer, Fevrier-Thomas, Lokker, McKibbon, and Straus (2011) . These authors reviewed the existing literature on personal health record ( phr ) systems including design, functionality, implementation, applications, outcomes, and benefits. Seven databases were searched from 1985 to March 2010. Several search terms relating to phr s were used during this process. Two authors independently screened titles and abstracts to determine inclusion status. A second screen of full-text articles, again by two independent members of the research team, ensured that the studies described phr s. All in all, 130 articles met the criteria and their data were extracted manually into a database. The authors concluded that although there is a large amount of survey, observational, cohort/panel, and anecdotal evidence of phr benefits and satisfaction for patients, more research is needed to evaluate the results of phr implementations. Their in-depth analysis of the literature signalled that there is little solid evidence from randomized controlled trials or other studies through the use of phr s. Hence, they suggested that more research is needed that addresses the current lack of understanding of optimal functionality and usability of these systems, and how they can play a beneficial role in supporting patient self-management ( Archer et al., 2011 ).

9.3.4. Forms of Aggregative Reviews

Healthcare providers, practitioners, and policy-makers are nowadays overwhelmed with large volumes of information, including research-based evidence from numerous clinical trials and evaluation studies, assessing the effectiveness of health information technologies and interventions ( Ammenwerth & de Keizer, 2004 ; Deshazo et al., 2009 ). It is unrealistic to expect that all these disparate actors will have the time, skills, and necessary resources to identify the available evidence in the area of their expertise and consider it when making decisions. Systematic reviews that involve the rigorous application of scientific strategies aimed at limiting subjectivity and bias (i.e., systematic and random errors) can respond to this challenge.

Systematic reviews attempt to aggregate, appraise, and synthesize in a single source all empirical evidence that meet a set of previously specified eligibility criteria in order to answer a clearly formulated and often narrow research question on a particular topic of interest to support evidence-based practice ( Liberati et al., 2009 ). They adhere closely to explicit scientific principles ( Liberati et al., 2009 ) and rigorous methodological guidelines (Higgins & Green, 2008) aimed at reducing random and systematic errors that can lead to deviations from the truth in results or inferences. The use of explicit methods allows systematic reviews to aggregate a large body of research evidence, assess whether effects or relationships are in the same direction and of the same general magnitude, explain possible inconsistencies between study results, and determine the strength of the overall evidence for every outcome of interest based on the quality of included studies and the general consistency among them ( Cook, Mulrow, & Haynes, 1997 ). The main procedures of a systematic review involve:

  • Formulating a review question and developing a search strategy based on explicit inclusion criteria for the identification of eligible studies (usually described in the context of a detailed review protocol).
  • Searching for eligible studies using multiple databases and information sources, including grey literature sources, without any language restrictions.
  • Selecting studies, extracting data, and assessing risk of bias in a duplicate manner using two independent reviewers to avoid random or systematic errors in the process.
  • Analyzing data using quantitative or qualitative methods.
  • Presenting results in summary of findings tables.
  • Interpreting results and drawing conclusions.

Many systematic reviews, but not all, use statistical methods to combine the results of independent studies into a single quantitative estimate or summary effect size. Known as meta-analyses , these reviews use specific data extraction and statistical techniques (e.g., network, frequentist, or Bayesian meta-analyses) to calculate from each study by outcome of interest an effect size along with a confidence interval that reflects the degree of uncertainty behind the point estimate of effect ( Borenstein, Hedges, Higgins, & Rothstein, 2009 ; Deeks, Higgins, & Altman, 2008 ). Subsequently, they use fixed or random-effects analysis models to combine the results of the included studies, assess statistical heterogeneity, and calculate a weighted average of the effect estimates from the different studies, taking into account their sample sizes. The summary effect size is a value that reflects the average magnitude of the intervention effect for a particular outcome of interest or, more generally, the strength of a relationship between two variables across all studies included in the systematic review. By statistically combining data from multiple studies, meta-analyses can create more precise and reliable estimates of intervention effects than those derived from individual studies alone, when these are examined independently as discrete sources of information.

The review by Gurol-Urganci, de Jongh, Vodopivec-Jamsek, Atun, and Car (2013) on the effects of mobile phone messaging reminders for attendance at healthcare appointments is an illustrative example of a high-quality systematic review with meta-analysis. Missed appointments are a major cause of inefficiency in healthcare delivery with substantial monetary costs to health systems. These authors sought to assess whether mobile phone-based appointment reminders delivered through Short Message Service ( sms ) or Multimedia Messaging Service ( mms ) are effective in improving rates of patient attendance and reducing overall costs. To this end, they conducted a comprehensive search on multiple databases using highly sensitive search strategies without language or publication-type restrictions to identify all rct s that are eligible for inclusion. In order to minimize the risk of omitting eligible studies not captured by the original search, they supplemented all electronic searches with manual screening of trial registers and references contained in the included studies. Study selection, data extraction, and risk of bias assessments were performed inde­­pen­dently by two coders using standardized methods to ensure consistency and to eliminate potential errors. Findings from eight rct s involving 6,615 participants were pooled into meta-analyses to calculate the magnitude of effects that mobile text message reminders have on the rate of attendance at healthcare appointments compared to no reminders and phone call reminders.

Meta-analyses are regarded as powerful tools for deriving meaningful conclusions. However, there are situations in which it is neither reasonable nor appropriate to pool studies together using meta-analytic methods simply because there is extensive clinical heterogeneity between the included studies or variation in measurement tools, comparisons, or outcomes of interest. In these cases, systematic reviews can use qualitative synthesis methods such as vote counting, content analysis, classification schemes and tabulations, as an alternative approach to narratively synthesize the results of the independent studies included in the review. This form of review is known as qualitative systematic review.

A rigorous example of one such review in the eHealth domain is presented by Mickan, Atherton, Roberts, Heneghan, and Tilson (2014) on the use of handheld computers by healthcare professionals and their impact on access to information and clinical decision-making. In line with the methodological guide­lines for systematic reviews, these authors: (a) developed and registered with prospero ( www.crd.york.ac.uk/ prospero / ) an a priori review protocol; (b) conducted comprehensive searches for eligible studies using multiple databases and other supplementary strategies (e.g., forward searches); and (c) subsequently carried out study selection, data extraction, and risk of bias assessments in a duplicate manner to eliminate potential errors in the review process. Heterogeneity between the included studies in terms of reported outcomes and measures precluded the use of meta-analytic methods. To this end, the authors resorted to using narrative analysis and synthesis to describe the effectiveness of handheld computers on accessing information for clinical knowledge, adherence to safety and clinical quality guidelines, and diagnostic decision-making.

In recent years, the number of systematic reviews in the field of health informatics has increased considerably. Systematic reviews with discordant findings can cause great confusion and make it difficult for decision-makers to interpret the review-level evidence ( Moher, 2013 ). Therefore, there is a growing need for appraisal and synthesis of prior systematic reviews to ensure that decision-making is constantly informed by the best available accumulated evidence. Umbrella reviews , also known as overviews of systematic reviews, are tertiary types of evidence synthesis that aim to accomplish this; that is, they aim to compare and contrast findings from multiple systematic reviews and meta-analyses ( Becker & Oxman, 2008 ). Umbrella reviews generally adhere to the same principles and rigorous methodological guidelines used in systematic reviews. However, the unit of analysis in umbrella reviews is the systematic review rather than the primary study ( Becker & Oxman, 2008 ). Unlike systematic reviews that have a narrow focus of inquiry, umbrella reviews focus on broader research topics for which there are several potential interventions ( Smith, Devane, Begley, & Clarke, 2011 ). A recent umbrella review on the effects of home telemonitoring interventions for patients with heart failure critically appraised, compared, and synthesized evidence from 15 systematic reviews to investigate which types of home telemonitoring technologies and forms of interventions are more effective in reducing mortality and hospital admissions ( Kitsiou, Paré, & Jaana, 2015 ).

9.3.5. Realist Reviews

Realist reviews are theory-driven interpretative reviews developed to inform, enhance, or supplement conventional systematic reviews by making sense of heterogeneous evidence about complex interventions applied in diverse contexts in a way that informs policy decision-making ( Greenhalgh, Wong, Westhorp, & Pawson, 2011 ). They originated from criticisms of positivist systematic reviews which centre on their “simplistic” underlying assumptions ( Oates, 2011 ). As explained above, systematic reviews seek to identify causation. Such logic is appropriate for fields like medicine and education where findings of randomized controlled trials can be aggregated to see whether a new treatment or intervention does improve outcomes. However, many argue that it is not possible to establish such direct causal links between interventions and outcomes in fields such as social policy, management, and information systems where for any intervention there is unlikely to be a regular or consistent outcome ( Oates, 2011 ; Pawson, 2006 ; Rousseau, Manning, & Denyer, 2008 ).

To circumvent these limitations, Pawson, Greenhalgh, Harvey, and Walshe (2005) have proposed a new approach for synthesizing knowledge that seeks to unpack the mechanism of how “complex interventions” work in particular contexts. The basic research question — what works? — which is usually associated with systematic reviews changes to: what is it about this intervention that works, for whom, in what circumstances, in what respects and why? Realist reviews have no particular preference for either quantitative or qualitative evidence. As a theory-building approach, a realist review usually starts by articulating likely underlying mechanisms and then scrutinizes available evidence to find out whether and where these mechanisms are applicable ( Shepperd et al., 2009 ). Primary studies found in the extant literature are viewed as case studies which can test and modify the initial theories ( Rousseau et al., 2008 ).

The main objective pursued in the realist review conducted by Otte-Trojel, de Bont, Rundall, and van de Klundert (2014) was to examine how patient portals contribute to health service delivery and patient outcomes. The specific goals were to investigate how outcomes are produced and, most importantly, how variations in outcomes can be explained. The research team started with an exploratory review of background documents and research studies to identify ways in which patient portals may contribute to health service delivery and patient outcomes. The authors identified six main ways which represent “educated guesses” to be tested against the data in the evaluation studies. These studies were identified through a formal and systematic search in four databases between 2003 and 2013. Two members of the research team selected the articles using a pre-established list of inclusion and exclusion criteria and following a two-step procedure. The authors then extracted data from the selected articles and created several tables, one for each outcome category. They organized information to bring forward those mechanisms where patient portals contribute to outcomes and the variation in outcomes across different contexts.

9.3.6. Critical Reviews

Lastly, critical reviews aim to provide a critical evaluation and interpretive analysis of existing literature on a particular topic of interest to reveal strengths, weaknesses, contradictions, controversies, inconsistencies, and/or other important issues with respect to theories, hypotheses, research methods or results ( Baumeister & Leary, 1997 ; Kirkevold, 1997 ). Unlike other review types, critical reviews attempt to take a reflective account of the research that has been done in a particular area of interest, and assess its credibility by using appraisal instruments or critical interpretive methods. In this way, critical reviews attempt to constructively inform other scholars about the weaknesses of prior research and strengthen knowledge development by giving focus and direction to studies for further improvement ( Kirkevold, 1997 ).

Kitsiou, Paré, and Jaana (2013) provide an example of a critical review that assessed the methodological quality of prior systematic reviews of home telemonitoring studies for chronic patients. The authors conducted a comprehensive search on multiple databases to identify eligible reviews and subsequently used a validated instrument to conduct an in-depth quality appraisal. Results indicate that the majority of systematic reviews in this particular area suffer from important methodological flaws and biases that impair their internal validity and limit their usefulness for clinical and decision-making purposes. To this end, they provide a number of recommendations to strengthen knowledge development towards improving the design and execution of future reviews on home telemonitoring.

9.4. Summary

Table 9.1 outlines the main types of literature reviews that were described in the previous sub-sections and summarizes the main characteristics that distinguish one review type from another. It also includes key references to methodological guidelines and useful sources that can be used by eHealth scholars and researchers for planning and developing reviews.

Table 9.1. Typology of Literature Reviews (adapted from Paré et al., 2015).

Typology of Literature Reviews (adapted from Paré et al., 2015).

As shown in Table 9.1 , each review type addresses different kinds of research questions or objectives, which subsequently define and dictate the methods and approaches that need to be used to achieve the overarching goal(s) of the review. For example, in the case of narrative reviews, there is greater flexibility in searching and synthesizing articles ( Green et al., 2006 ). Researchers are often relatively free to use a diversity of approaches to search, identify, and select relevant scientific articles, describe their operational characteristics, present how the individual studies fit together, and formulate conclusions. On the other hand, systematic reviews are characterized by their high level of systematicity, rigour, and use of explicit methods, based on an “a priori” review plan that aims to minimize bias in the analysis and synthesis process (Higgins & Green, 2008). Some reviews are exploratory in nature (e.g., scoping/mapping reviews), whereas others may be conducted to discover patterns (e.g., descriptive reviews) or involve a synthesis approach that may include the critical analysis of prior research ( Paré et al., 2015 ). Hence, in order to select the most appropriate type of review, it is critical to know before embarking on a review project, why the research synthesis is conducted and what type of methods are best aligned with the pursued goals.

9.5. Concluding Remarks

In light of the increased use of evidence-based practice and research generating stronger evidence ( Grady et al., 2011 ; Lyden et al., 2013 ), review articles have become essential tools for summarizing, synthesizing, integrating or critically appraising prior knowledge in the eHealth field. As mentioned earlier, when rigorously conducted review articles represent powerful information sources for eHealth scholars and practitioners looking for state-of-the-art evidence. The typology of literature reviews we used herein will allow eHealth researchers, graduate students and practitioners to gain a better understanding of the similarities and differences between review types.

We must stress that this classification scheme does not privilege any specific type of review as being of higher quality than another ( Paré et al., 2015 ). As explained above, each type of review has its own strengths and limitations. Having said that, we realize that the methodological rigour of any review — be it qualitative, quantitative or mixed — is a critical aspect that should be considered seriously by prospective authors. In the present context, the notion of rigour refers to the reliability and validity of the review process described in section 9.2. For one thing, reliability is related to the reproducibility of the review process and steps, which is facilitated by a comprehensive documentation of the literature search process, extraction, coding and analysis performed in the review. Whether the search is comprehensive or not, whether it involves a methodical approach for data extraction and synthesis or not, it is important that the review documents in an explicit and transparent manner the steps and approach that were used in the process of its development. Next, validity characterizes the degree to which the review process was conducted appropriately. It goes beyond documentation and reflects decisions related to the selection of the sources, the search terms used, the period of time covered, the articles selected in the search, and the application of backward and forward searches ( vom Brocke et al., 2009 ). In short, the rigour of any review article is reflected by the explicitness of its methods (i.e., transparency) and the soundness of the approach used. We refer those interested in the concepts of rigour and quality to the work of Templier and Paré (2015) which offers a detailed set of methodological guidelines for conducting and evaluating various types of review articles.

To conclude, our main objective in this chapter was to demystify the various types of literature reviews that are central to the continuous development of the eHealth field. It is our hope that our descriptive account will serve as a valuable source for those conducting, evaluating or using reviews in this important and growing domain.

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  • Cite this Page Paré G, Kitsiou S. Chapter 9 Methods for Literature Reviews. In: Lau F, Kuziemsky C, editors. Handbook of eHealth Evaluation: An Evidence-based Approach [Internet]. Victoria (BC): University of Victoria; 2017 Feb 27.
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  • Introduction
  • Overview of the Literature Review Process and Steps
  • Types of Review Articles and Brief Illustrations
  • Concluding Remarks

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  1. 39 Best Literature Review Examples (Guide & Samples)

    examples of literature reviews in education

  2. How To Write A Literature Review

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  3. Literature Review Example 1

    examples of literature reviews in education

  4. School essay: Sample literature review

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  5. 39 Best Literature Review Examples (Guide & Samples)

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  6. Sample Literature Review

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  1. Review of literature

  2. What is Literature Review?

  3. Effective Review of Literature

  4. Literature review and its process

  5. Systematic Literature Review, Part 2: How

  6. 3_session2 Importance of literature review, types of literature review, Reference management tool

COMMENTS

  1. Education Literature Review: Education Literature Review

    What does this guide cover? Writing the literature review is a long, complex process that requires you to use many different tools, resources, and skills. This page provides links to the guides, tutorials, and webinars that can help you with all aspects of completing your literature review. The Basic Process

  2. How to Write a Literature Review

    Examples of literature reviews Step 1 - Search for relevant literature Step 2 - Evaluate and select sources Step 3 - Identify themes, debates, and gaps Step 4 - Outline your literature review's structure Step 5 - Write your literature review Free lecture slides Other interesting articles Frequently asked questions Introduction Quick Run-through

  3. Sample Literature Reviews

    Literature Review Sample 1 Literature Review Sample 2 Literature Review Sample 3 Have an exemplary literature review? Have you written a stellar literature review you care to share for teaching purposes? Are you an instructor who has received an exemplary literature review and have permission from the student to post?

  4. Subject Guides: Literature Review Basics: Tutorials & Samples

    and methodology Gerontology Literature Review Sample Two Literature review: understanding nursing competence in dementia care Psychology Literature Review Sample One Psychological Correlates of University Students' Academic Performance: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis

  5. Chapter 1: Introduction

    map the research terrain or scope systemize relationships between concepts identify gaps in the literature ( Rocco & Plathotnik, 2009, p. 128) The purpose of a literature review is to demonstrate that your research question is meaningful.

  6. Literature Review Overview

    There are eight general steps in conducting an education literature review. Please follow the eight numbered boxes, starting below. Please note that the general framework for this guide is derived from the work of Joyce P. Gall, M.D. Gall, and Walter R. Borg in Applying Educational Research: a Practical Guide (5th ed., 2005).

  7. Education Research Guide: How to Write a Literature Review

    Synthesizing Explained Synthesizing is a method of analyzing the main ideas and important information from your sources as you read and prepare to write a literature review. Review the resources below for sample synthesizing methods. Both examples have tables you can fill out as you read articles to help you organize your thoughts.

  8. Checklist for Education Literature Review

    There are eight general steps in conducting an education literature review. Please follow the eight numbered boxes, starting below. Please note that the general framework for this guide is derived from the work of Joyce P. Gall, M.D. Gall, and Walter R. Borg in Applying Educational Research: a Practical Guide (5th ed., 2005). Also, much of the information on framing the research question comes ...

  9. Literature Reviews

    Author Citation Metrics Getting Started on Literature Reviews "Reviewing the Literature" Project Planner SAGE Research Methods. Provides checklists and bullet points for the literature review process, with "Search for reources" links to relevant SAGE Research Methods fulltext books and book chapters.

  10. Literature Reviews

    The term literature review can refer to the process of doing a review as well as the product resulting from conducting a review. The product resulting from reviewing the literature is the concern of this section. Literature reviews for research studies at the master's and doctoral levels have various definitions.

  11. 15 Literature Review Examples (2024)

    1. Narrative Review Examples Also known as a traditional literature review, the narrative review provides a broad overview of the studies done on a particular topic. It often includes both qualitative and quantitative studies and may cover a wide range of years.

  12. Writing a Literature Review

    Writing a Literature Review. A literature review is a document or section of a document that collects key sources on a topic and discusses those sources in conversation with each other (also called synthesis ). The lit review is an important genre in many disciplines, not just literature (i.e., the study of works of literature such as novels ...

  13. Literature Reviews for Education and Nursing Graduate Students

    An example of a literature review for both education and nursing is provided at the end of the book; instead of embedding these in the text, the hyperlinks refer the reader to the external site. This will be easy to change to a new example in the future, but checks will need to be done to ensure that all such external sources remain actively ...

  14. Systematic Reviews in Educational Research: Methodology, Perspectives

    1 Altmetric Abstract This chapter explores the processes of reviewing literature as a research method. The logic of the family of research approaches called systematic review is analysed and the variation in techniques used in the different approaches explored using examples from existing reviews.

  15. Literature Review

    Zotero Literature Review: an Overview for Graduate Students Literature Reviews: An Overview for Graduate Students Organize your notes on a Synthesis Matrix As you read, you'll encounter various ideas, disagreements, methods, and perspectives which can be hard to organize in a meaningful way.

  16. Literature Reviews

    Here is a sample paragraph from a literature review about sexism and language to illuminate the following discussion: However, other studies have shown that even gender-neutral antecedents are more likely to produce masculine images than feminine ones (Gastil, 1990). Hamilton (1988) asked students to complete sentences that required them to ...

  17. Literature Review Strategies

    Adapted from "The Literature Review: A Few Tips on Conducting It", by Dena Taylor and Margaret Procter, University of Toronto: www.writing.utoronto.ca (file linked below) This two-page PDF handout created by Dena Taylor and Margaret Procter at the University of Toronto has excellent guidance on conducting a literature review.

  18. PDF Writing an Effective Literature Review

    literature review in academia, at this point it might be useful to state what a literature review is not, before looking at what it is. It is not: § A list or annotated bibliography of the sources you have read § A simple summary of those sources or paraphrasing of the conclusions § Confined to description of the studies and their findings

  19. 39 Best Literature Review Examples (Guide & Samples)

    A literature review is a compilation of current knowledge on a particular topic derived from the critical evaluation of different scholarly sources such as books, articles, and publications, which is then presented in an organized manner to relate to a specific research problem being investigated.

  20. Literature Reviews, Theoretical Frameworks, and Conceptual Frameworks

    Biology education researchers need to consider whether their literature review requires studies from different disciplines within or outside DBER. For the example given, it would be fruitful to look at research focused on learning communities with faculty in STEM fields or in general education fields that result in instructional change.

  21. Writing a Literature Review

    Literature Review Examples To give you some examples of writing a literature review and an article analysis matrix to keep track of the themes of your articles, I have created a partial literature review and corresponding analysis matrix to demonstrate. My topic is the special education early intervention program called First Step to Success (FSS).

  22. Literature Reviews for Education and Nursing Graduate Students

    Literature Reviews for Education and Nursing Graduate Students - Simple Book Publishing Want to create or adapt books like this? Learn more about how Pressbooks supports open publishing practices. Literature Reviews for Education and Nursing Graduate Students Linda Frederiksen, Sue F. Phelps Download this book

  23. Chapter 9 Methods for Literature Reviews

    Literature reviews play a critical role in scholarship because science remains, first and foremost, a cumulative endeavour (vom Brocke et al., 2009). As in any academic discipline, rigorous knowledge syntheses are becoming indispensable in keeping up with an exponentially growing eHealth literature, assisting practitioners, academics, and graduate students in finding, evaluating, and ...