Literature Review: How to Research

A literature review is a systematic search of the literature on a particular topic produced by respectable academics and scholars. In a literature review, you try to express what knowledge and ideas are available on a certain topic.

A review of literature helps you better understand previous work done by other researchers and the trends found in the area of research that you are investigating. The review can include one or more of the following:

  • a discussion of the range of work already done in the field — including the variety of questions addressed and research methods employed;
  • a synthesis of research knowledge in the field;
  • a discussion of the range of positions held by researchers in the field and of where you place yourself within that range; for example, research in literacy might include the positions of those who advocate a whole language approach compared of those who advocate a phonics approach;
  • an analysis of where research in the field is lacking, insufficient or flawed;
  • an analysis of the gaps in the literature; and
  • suggestions made by others for further research.

You could consider a literature review to be a critical analysis of multiple articles. A quality literature review, however, is more than that. It summarizes what is and is not known about a particular subject; it identifies areas of controversy and debate in the literature, but also original ideas. Last but not least, it highlights areas on the topic that require further research.

The easiest way to write a literature review is:

  • Summarize the purpose and findings of each article.
  • Write a summary that combines the findings of all the articles.

You would end up with your Introduction, at least one paragraph on each article you include, and a summary paragraph. This would be the way to carry out a short review of the literature for an assignment.

It is more common, however, that literature reviews are a component of a thesis or report. In that case, it sometimes provides the reviewer with a theoretical underpinning of the focus of their extensive piece of research. It will then connect ideas from different papers, compare and contrast points of view and conclude summarizing the main points of the review and a guide towards further research on the topic.

This is a less easy way to write a literature review and it would require an introduction, a main section in which you identify the main themes in the articles you have selected and write at least a paragraph on each theme, finishing with a conclusion in which you highlight your main points.

First Steps in Preparing Your Literature Review — Finding Articles

The first step in conducting a literature review is to identify the search terms you are going to use. You need to identify a broad term and several narrower terms. (See also Section 3)

For example, supposing my area of interest is in the learning of older adults and I want to know if there are any differences between the learning of older women and the learning of older men. I could use the search terms “adult learning” (a general term), “older adults” (a term which limits the type of adult learning I am interested in), and “women” (a term which limits the search still further). Other useful search words might be “male” and “female”.   Be sure to spend time reflecting on the possible search terms before (and while) you begin the search process.  Remember that each database may use slightly different terminology to identify subjects.  This will help you save time, and avoid having to re-search databases later in the process of writing your review.

With my search terms in hand, I go first to the Online Library icon on the Campus page – select the icon that looks like two books leaning against each other (the second icon from the left at the top of the page). Once you are in the Library, scroll down until you see EBSCO Collection. Click on EBSCO and when it asks you to choose databases, click on the boxes for Academic Search Complete and Education Research Complete. Then click on Continue.

This should bring you to an EBSCO Search page. Enter your search terms in the boxes at the top, left side. For example, I would enter Adult Learning in the first box (as the most general term) (don’t use quotation marks around the terms you enter); Older Adults in the second line (as the first modifier), and Women in the third box (as the second modifier). The boxes that say “Select field” do not need to be completed. I want the search engine to search all text and that is the default so I do not need to enter it. However, if I wanted to search for a specific author, I would put the name of the author in one of the search boxes and select Author as the field. Then I click on Search.

There will be a short pause and then the search engine will come back with a list of papers or articles that cover your search terms. When I enter Adult Learning and Older Adults, I get 592 references; when I add women, the search returns only 14 references. Each entry on the list of references includes a summary of the article and the articles are listed in the order of their relevance to the search terms.

I can limit the number of references that I get back by refining my results and clicking on limiting parameters, which are listed on the left side of the search page. If I want to review articles written since 1985, I change the date; if I want to limit the articles to only those that are available in full text, I click on Full Text; if I want to limit the search to only peer-reviewed articles, I click on Scholarly journals.

Try several searches using different search terms. To avoid getting articles that relate to children or adolescents, type the words “adult learners” (the word “adult” alone may take you to websites you do not want to visit) into the second or third line of the search protocol.

Look over the list generated. Read the brief abstracts of the papers. Select the ones that seem most relevant. You can read the full text now or select these papers and send them to your file (upper right-hand corner of the page). Later you can save this file and read the papers later, or you can send yourself a copy of the list by email. Use the Reference List at the end of each article to help you find other useful and related articles.

If an article appears to be relevant but slightly off-topic, go to the Reference List at the end of the article. Look over the list and determine if there are any useful or relevant articles that you would like to locate. To locate articles that you identify in the Reference List of an article, go back to the search protocol and type in the name of the author on the first line and the title of the article on the second line. If the search comes up empty and you really want to read that article, ask the Yorkville University librarian for assistance. Not all articles are available through our databases. Articles published within the past year are often withheld for one year. Articles that predate 1990 are often not available.

You can also search the ProQuest Database. Go back to the first library page and click on ProQuest. You cannot search the ProQuest database and the EBSCO database at the same time. ProQuest has two primary options for searching: a basic and advanced search.  The first option will be a single search box where you can conduct a ‘basic search’ using general terms, such as “Adult learning”. Then to enter a modifier; you can type in “Adult Learning” AND “Older adults”. You can also exclude some search words by entering, for example, “learning and older adults not children”.  However, you also have the option for an “Advanced” search screen that allows you to develop a more complex search process.  For example, you can search for the term “Adult Learning” in one search box as the “Subject Heading” using the drop-down box option on the right.  You can then combine that with the term “Computer Technology” in another search box, perhaps searching within only the “Abstract”.  This example means you are searching for all articles of “Adult Learning” in Subject Headings where “Computer Technology” also appears in the Abstract. The essential thing to know is that you have many different options for searching.  You have to be patient, you have to experiment, and when in doubt, contact your Librarian and/or Instructor.

If you do not want to search the ‘exact phrase’, then do not use quotation marks around any of your search terms. The use of quotation marks indicates to the search engine that you want to find articles that use your exact wording (and spelling). Without the quotation marks, the search engine will also search for synonyms.

Please note ProQuest’s time limit.  ProQuest will terminate your access in 30 minutes if you stop to do something else. You might end up losing all your entries into your file.