Mind the Gap: Helping Students Write Better Literature Reviews

Let’s face it.

You have seen the literature review that is basically a compressed annotated bibliography.

You have seen the literature review that does no synthesis, tells no story, and makes no claim for how the literature addresses the need for the proposed research.

Why does the literature frequently feel like the weakest link in an otherwise acceptable thesis or dissertation project?

The literature review requires high-level metacognitive skills (Granello, 2001). Reading for a literature review requires not only the ability to comprehend given text, but also the ability to find patterns, themes, and conversations between texts. Like an artist drawing negative space, when we read for a literature review, we are reading not only for what is there, but also for what isn’t there.

To discern and track patterns, themes, and conversations in the literature, students must have sophisticated reading and annotation skills. They must have some way to organize and track what they read as they read it. Students who do not learn or invent some system or shorthand to process and map their reading often have to start reading over and over again. On top of that, the literature review requires the ability to rhetorically express those patterns, themes, conversations, and gaps.

Students are often unclear about the “voice” of the literature review? Questions I hear frequently include: Does the professor want my opinion? Should I use first person? What exactly is synthesis? How do I actually explain the gap in the literature? 

Finally, it’s not always clear to students that the literature review needs to tell a kind of story that leads to the need for their own research. What that story sounds like varies across disciplines, but students are often unclear about how to act as the narrator of that story.

Use these tools to help your students create stronger literature reviews.

1. Give your students this thought experiment: “If I gave all of you the same 10 pieces of literature and asked you to synthesize them, do you think your pieces would all be identical?” Most students can intuit that there would be significant differences. Ask them why there might be differences. Use their insights to emphasize that the literature review is actually an important part of original research; their synthesis of the literature is a unique contribution to our collective understanding of their subfield.

2. Write a literature review assignment that describes what you’re looking for in detail. In many cases students are simply told to review the literature, but receive no information about the specific expectations. You might specify, for example, whether you want students to critique or evaluate the literature or simply synthesize it. Is it acceptable for students to use first person as a narrative tool?

3. Synthesis and evaluation sound different across disciplines. Give students sample literature reviews from your field and ask them to highlight the synthesis and evaluation sentences in different colors and then discuss the rhetorical features of each.  Ask students to use those features in their own literature reviews.

4. Save and share effective and less effective examples (with permission). Assign students to read literature reviews from previous theses or dissertations in their departments. Many time these are readily available online or in a department office.

5. Scaffold the creation of synthesis sentences by having students write topic sentences about their sources using the “relational” words from the list below:

Despite / In spite of / However/ Though /Nevertheless / Nonetheless / Conversely / In contrast / On the other hand / Whereas / Not only / Yet / In addition / Similarly / Also / Moreover / Further / Analogous / Parallel / Comparable / Like / Including / Equally / Likewise

6. Have students create schematics of their literature reviews, beginning with the large “buckets” of literature they need to include.


7. For more complete ideas and exercises on writing literature reviews, join over 200 other students in my online workshop,  Write a Killer Literature Review. Easily linked to course management software. Use the code “webster” for a $5.00 discount.


References and Resources on Literature Reviews
Froese, A. D., Gantz, B. S., & Henry, A. L. (1998). Teaching students to write literature reviews: A meta-analytic model. Teaching of Psychology25(2), 102-205.
Granello, D. H. (2001). Promoting cognitive complexity in graduate written work: Using Bloom’s Taxonomy as a pedagogical tool to improve literature reviews.Counselor Education & Supervision40(4), 292-307.
Kucan, L. (2011). Approximating the practice of writing the dissertation literature review. Literacy Research and Instruction, (3), 229-240. 


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