Beginning a Literature Search

A good place to begin a review of the literature is to locate a recent review in the area of general interest to you.

Click on the Library icon within the online campus to get into the EBSCO Databases; in the first blank search box ask for a topic that interests you; in the second blank search box ask for a literature review. Then click on search.

Look over the resulting list, choose the most likely looking article, access the ‘Full Text’, and read the literature review.

Selecting Articles

  • Choose a topic that is limited but not too limiting. For example, if you are interested in learners over 60 years, type in “older adult learners” without specifying an age.
  • Select the most recent articles that come up on the list of results.
  • Read the Reference List and mark any articles that you might search for later.
  • If the result of this first search is too long, limit your search by typing in a modifier on the third line.

Organising your Articles

  • Once you have collected enough good articles for your review, you can stop searching and start reading the articles and thinking about how you are going to write your literature review.
  • Before you start reading, it is important to think about organizing and storing your information.

Begin Reading

Now you must read the articles you have found. To improve your critical reading skills, see our articles about thinking critically.

This is one step beyond analysis. Critical thinking does not necessarily mean being critical in the sense of disapproval, but weighing evidence, looking at arguments in an evaluative way, and making judgements about them.

Critical Thinking involves:
  • Breaking information into different ideas and concepts.
    Making careful judgments about and evaluating the quality of ideas.
  • Drawing from evidence some conclusions, which allows you to answer the question in the essay title, or cast light on an area you are investigating.
  • You are acting a little like a judge in a court of law – weighing up the evidence and arriving at a reasonable and fair conclusion.
Critical Thinking is not:
  • Making assumptions without checking if they are fair, or truthful.
  • Making generalisations which are not supported by evidence.
    Accepting information without questioning it.
  • A straight description.
  • Giving mistaken or misleading information.
  • Saying “the writer said this”, or, “the writer said that” without giving your views on the differences between what is said.
  • Taking a negative stance.

Cottrell (2008) suggests it is helpful to develop a detective-like mind when attempting any form of critical analysis, whether this is reading, writing or listening.

Critical thinking when reading should:
  • Identify the line of reasoning in the text.
  • Critically probe the line of reasoning.
  • Question surface appearances.
  • Identify evidence.
  • Evaluate the evidence.
  • Identify the writer’s conclusions.
  • Check the evidence supports your conclusions.
Critical thinking when writing should involve:
  • Showing a clear argument.
  • Providing evidence to support your argument.
  • Reading your writing critically as well as your references.
  • Viewing your subject from a variety of angles.
  • Writing in a critical style rather than a descriptive one.
Critical listening skills should involve:
  • Asking questions – Why? How far? How much? How often?
  • Checking out the evidence – How do you know this is true? How reliable is the source?

Almost every academic activity begins with some form of analysis (that is, thinking about something). Analysis helps makes clear what you are trying to tackle. Analysis means taking things apart to see what the components are and how they fit. You should question the information, your research findings and theories that you include in your essay. You should not just accept the information or argument of the authors you read; you need to question why they say what they say constantly.

Asking why requires an answer. This involves comparing alternative views proposed by the authors you read. If you do this, you are doing analysis. The conclusion you come to, the view you take, is your opinion. However, you do all this by using supporting evidence that you gather in the research stage. All well-argued essays are able to support their argument with evidence; this is the difference between biased opinion and informed opinion.

Analysis involves
  • Standing back from the information given and examining it in detail from many angles.
  • Checking closely whether it is completely accurate.
    Checking whether a statement follows from what was said before.
  • Looking for possible faults in the reasoning, the evidence, or the way that conclusions are drawn.
  • Comparing the same issue from the point of view of others.
  • Being able to recognize and explain why different people arrived at different conclusions.
  • Being able to argue why one set of opinions, results or conclusions is preferable to another.
  • Checking for hidden assumptions.
  • Checking for attempts to lure the reader into agreement.

Critical thinking is an essential skill; one that applies to all facets of life. It allows you think rationally and connects ideas. You question ideas and assumptions rather than take them at face value. Critical thinking transforms you from a passive receiver of information to an active learner. With enough practice, you will even be able to use this skill in stressful situations.

Keep the Purpose in Mind

If your literature review is to be useful to any reader, it should highlight areas of interest in the literature, prospective gaps in the literature and research, flaws in the reasoning of an article and research carried out. Also, it should point out the threads throughout history and the current trends in research related to the subject under investigation. This means that while reading articles, thesis and books it is important to keep these goals in the back of your mind and make notes accordingly.