Tuesday 18 July 2017

The Structure of a Literature Review

The Structure of a Literature Review

Different literature reviews can be structured in many different ways, however, there are certain aspects that you need to get right in your literature review which will usually help you to structure it well.

Your literature review has to have logical flow and coherence, and be structured similar to an essay, with an introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion. Each part of your literature review needs to flow into the next in a logical way, and there should be no parts included in your review that are irrelevant to your overall study or thesis topic. For this reason, even if you find something very interesting but it doesn’t relate to your field or fit in with any of your themes, you should probably leave it out.

For most literature reviews, the structure will usually follow the following basic outline:

·         Introduction paragraphs, explaining the intention of your literature review
·         Theoretical background
·         Theme/ concept/ case study 1
·         Theme/ concept/ case study 2
·         Theme/ concept/ case study 3, 4, 5…. (as many as you need listed below here with their own subheading each)
·         Similar studies and their findings
·         Conclusion

Each of these sections could have a subheading. For example, the theme or concept you explore in section 3 of your literature review will form the subheading of that section. If you have this plan before you start reading, you will have a very clear idea of the types of readings you will need to do.

Let’s look at an example. If your study is on tackling childhood obesity in Ohio by reducing the carbohydrate content in school lunches, you have a clear set of ideas you’ll need to explore. Your theoretical background will have to look at different nutritional theories, explain the food pyramid, and look at why low carbohydrate diets are argued to be effective in weight management.

Some of the themes or concepts you will have to explore in your study are:
·         The prevalence of childhood obesity
·         Why Ohio has higher levels of obesity
·         The school lunch policies and how these have changed
·         The lifestyle and eating patterns of youth in Ohio

Many more could be added to this. Each of these could form one of the themes in your literature review, and each could be given their own subheading. As you work through your many readings, you can add information under each of your subheadings listed above.

After listing all of the themes, you can then have a section for similar studies to yours. Have people tested low-fat diets for youth? Have they tested low-carb diets in other settings besides Ohio? What were the results?

And finally, you have the conclusion to the Literature Review section, where you can give some preliminary thoughts on your literature and say how it might lead into certain hypotheses which you could elaborate on in your methodology or research design sections.

Having this kind of clear outline now allows you to read with intention. Every time you come across a new article, you’ll know what you’re looking out for. When you find a citation or study that seems relevant, you can put the reference to it under the relevant subheading on your word processor.

What I advise my students to do, especially for their research proposals, is to get as many articles as possible that relate in some way to their topic, and then read the abstract and the first paragraph of each of those articles. This should take no longer than five minutes per article. Usually, you’ll get a good enough sense of what the article is about to include a short reference to it in your literature review, and to make a note for yourself in your research notes where you can summarize the main idea of the article and decide whether it’s worth coming back to. Then, for those articles, books or dissertations that seem especially relevant and worth returning to, read the entire piece and add a more nuanced paragraph or two in your literature review where you summarize the contents and explain the relevance to your topic of study.

In addition to the subheadings we’ve outlined above, you might want to include a subheading that looks at gaps in knowledge, where you can explain the shortcomings of some of the studies, and even hint at how your own study will try to address some of these shortcomings. Your literature review helps to provide some context for your study, and it also adds some motivation for why your study is important by showing that you will add to all of the knowledge which you’ve presented in a substantial way.

You don’t necessarily need a separate subheading for being critical of your readings; instead, you could include a sentence or two at the end of each subsection where you offer some critiques of the information which you have just presented, showing the gaps in knowledge or areas for development.
Try and keep a clear structure in your review and it will be much easier for your readers to follow your ideas and to see how your study adds to the field of knowledge.

Review Your Learning:
·         Your literature review has to be organized and present the concepts, theories and background thoroughly, clearly and logically
·         A good structure and plan helps you to read with intention and not to waste time with irrelevant readings
·         Try to be critically engaged with your readings. Don’t just parrot ideas, but show that you understand them and even that you can criticize them where appropriate