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Writing a literature review assignment (and for instructors: providing guidance)

One of my former students asked me recently whether I had written anything on how to write a literature review, as he was asked to write one on a topic he hadn’t ever done research on (I do have a blog post on how to map an entirely new topic and write a literature review).


His request, and coming across another similar one over Twitter prompted me to reflect, first of all, if the structure of my Resources page and Literature Reviews subpage was not clear enough (I have written A TON of blog posts on the topic of reviewing the literature) and secondly, whether there was some sort of missing connection between what students are asked to do and the guidance that instructors provide. So this thread I wrote is aimed at tackling both issues.

Before I go on with my strategy to teach someone how to do a literature review, I show them two diagrams that are important to me. The first one explains how the literature review is situated within the production of a scientific paper. This process applies to any other type of research output (a book, a dissertation, etc.)

Full diagram paper with annotated bibliography and banks of rhetorical precis and databases

The second diagram that I share with my students and RAs is an overview of the different scholarly products we can generate (and their intermediate outputs): packages of rhetorical precis, sets of synthetic notes, folders filled with memorandums, annotated bibliographies, Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump tables, literature reviews (see diagram below).

Components of a Research Paper Data

In my own case, if I wanted to teach someone how to approach a new body of scholarly literature, in addition to teaching them Reading Strategies and Note-Taking Techniques, the sequence of blog posts that I would recommend they peruse (and I have used as teaching tools) would be (is):

  1. How to write a rhetorical precis
  2. How to skim/summarize an article using the AIC (Abstract, Introduction, Conclusion) content extraction technique
  3. How to develop a Synthetic Note
  4. How to write an Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump (CSED)
  5. Developing a literature review, based on 1-5
  6. Expanding a Synthetic Note into a full-fledged Memorandum
  7. Writing /robust/effective memorandums

Citation tracing forward and backward and reading analog and digital

I find enormous value in (DTP, CSED, outlines) because students and researchers alike can all get lost and bogged down in the details, missing the forest for the trees. They’re useful for me as a supervisor and for my students and RAs.

Now, for instructors – what kind of guidance do we need to give students and research assistants?

I strongly believe that it is incumbent upon us (those asking for a LR) to offer some degree of guidance. I suggest a few areas here:

What do I mean by “idiosincratic responses”? Well, we all like different scholarly products our own way. There is NO SINGLE APPROACH to writing a literature review, which is why I suggest that those requesting it write a handout or offer at least verbal or hands-on guidance on topics, key authors, etc.

Workflow: Finishing a paper

So, what does this guidance look like in practice? These tweets offer an overview of what my interaction with my PhD students looks like when we discuss LRs.

Hopefully this blog post, full with links to other posts I have written and to my Twitter thread will be helpful both for students and supervisors/professors.

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  1. Anonymous says

    I just want to thank you so much for documenting, you dont know how much you have helped

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