Learning to Synthesize for the Lit Review

I am going to admit this right here. I did not write a literature review for my dissertation. But having to learn this genre myself made me a better teacher of it.

In the English dissertation I wrote at Rutgers, reviewing literature was woven throughout the document rather than being broken out as a separate chapter. So when dissertation writers began coming to me for help with the lit review, I had to teach myself what it was, what it does, and more importantly, how to help students do it.

Here is what I noticed about students who were struggling with the lit review:

  • These students understood what they were supposed to do—synthesize, find the gap, evaluate—they just didn’t know how to do it.
  • Many of them had been reading the literature for months? years?—but had very little written down to show for it. Sheepishly, they’d admit that they didn’t remember most of what they’d read.
  • Several had written annotated bibliographies but didn’t know how to break out of summary. They got lots of feedback saying, “synthesize, don’t summarize.”
  • Many of them were so stuck that their whole projects were at risk of dying at the feet of the literature review.

Interestingly, students are not the only ones struggling with the literature review. Faculty I talk to at my own and other universities dread reading them as much as their students dread writing them. Across disciplines, faculty are frustrated by the low quality of the literature reviews they receive. They want their students to succeed but can’t approve reviews that are structured by summary and that lack meaningful synthesis. My colleagues wanted to know how to explain what they were looking for so they could end the cycles of lit review frustration on both ends.

Why is the literature review so hard to teach? Here are my theories:

  • While students have written the other genres required by the dissertation (introduction, summary, research, analysis), they typically have not done a literature review before they sit down to write one for their thesis or dissertation.
  • The literature review is a genre that requires unique rhetorical moves that can be discipline-specific, yet faculty don’t necessarily know how to call attention to these moves or ask students to practice them.
  • Reading for synthesis requires a high level of metacognition, and students struggle to develop methods for reading and “processing” literature.
  • In other words, the literature review is a complex genre that can be difficult for students to execute and difficult for faculty to teach.

I set myself a challenge: could I reverse engineer the entire process of writing the literature review, thereby saving frustration–and maybe even whole projects?

I started by focusing on the underlying skills—how to dive into the databases, read for information that is relevant to the project, synthesize important connections, conceptualize the field, and finally, write a rigorous review.  The tools and strategies I created were tested and revised through the process of giving workshops and thesis intensives.

I was astonished to see how hungry students were for information and support about the literature review specifically. In fact, the first time I gave a workshop on writing literature reviews, so many students showed up that the university quickly had to move us from a conference room to a lecture hall. To this day, the literature review workshop remains my most-requested campus talk. Year after year I get the pleasure of seeing that specific instruction about the literature review process improves the quality of student work and supports equity for students from a wide range of academic backgrounds.

Here is a great place to start! If you (or your students) are struggling with synthesis, here are 10 Questions to help you begin to generate the kind of synthesis needed to do a productive lit review.



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