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Editor’s Note
: This month Brent Muirhead addresses graduate students about Internet resources for literature review. The overwhelming volume of information, more than ever, requires an organized approach to define, plan, search, study, record, and organize relevant resources. He recommends a combination of Internet and traditional library resources to demonstrate “careful and reflective investigation of research studies and vital information resources.”

Literature Review Advice

Brent Muirhead


The rapid expansion of available information has created new opportunities and challenges for today's research students. Academic and public libraries have developed sophisticated electronic resources to better manage knowledge to make it more accessible to researchers. The literature review process is often a major challenge for graduate students who must learn to effectively work with computer technology and manage larger volumes of available information. The focus of this discussion is to share practical advice for assisting individuals with the literature review process.

Research Skills

Contemporary graduate schools expect students to have expertise in a specific academic discipline and this knowledge base serves as a vital part of their degree program.  Recently, there have been some changes made in graduate curriculums involving their expectations for skills, competencies and professional capabilities. Today, there is a greater emphasis on transferable skills (i.e. making presentations) to better equip graduates for a wider range of careers and research demands.

The tremendous expansion of electronic information resources has increased research opportunities exponentially. This fact makes it even more important that students are properly prepared to use the new technologies. In the United Kingdom, the Economic and Social Council (ESRC) has created a set of guidelines and proposals to help graduate educators improve their research training and encourage quality research projects. The ESRC has identified two basic types of skills required for researchers:

1. Core skills and abilities- while the differences make subject disciplines distinctive, there exists a common core of skills and attitudes which all researchers should possess and should be able to apply in different situations with different topics and problems.

2. Ability to integrate theory and method- research for all disciplines involves an understanding of the interrelationship between theory, method and research design, practical skills and particular methods, the knowledge base of the subject and methodological foundations (Hart, 1998, p. 5).

Graduate degree programs are an excellent place to develop and refine research skills. Hart (1998) states "it is important that research education and training does produce researchers who are competent and confident in a range of skills and capabilities and who have an appropriate knowledge base" (p. 6). Students create projects that demand having effective skills in conducting a literature review, developing a research design, writing and presenting their study. Therefore, it is vital that students must have a sound knowledge of the entire research process to produce research that demonstrates quality work. The concept of scholarship should include competent investigations and it should transcend multiple activities while also involving a diversity of skills and activities. The process requires knowing how use one's imagination and creativity to read and interpret arguments, organize ideas, make connections between academic disciplines and effectively write and present ideas. The scholar must maintain a mindset that is open to new and innovative research methods and they should be willing to experiment with information and ideas. The skill of integration is a vital element in scholarly work. According to Hart (1998) "integration is about making connections between ideas, theories, and experience. It is about applying a method or methodology from one area to another: about placing some episode into a larger theoretical framework, thereby providing a new way of looking at the phenomenon" (p. 8). Integration demands individuals becoming disciplined at being systematic and reflective in their investigation endeavors. It requires being patient while re-examining and interpreting knowledge and being open to new perspectives on existing theories.

Graduate students should develop a research plan that helps them focus on developing skills that foster integration in their work and they should realize this may take time and substantial effort. Personally, people will often ask me how I acquired six graduate degrees and I related that I diligently studied for 8-10 hours a day for the past 20 years! It is encouraging to realize that studies on those who are associated with being a genius reported that they were very hard working individuals. Howe (1999) observes, "like ordinary men and women, major authors have had to invest large amounts of time and effort in order to become unusually skilled. Their heavy dependence on training and preparation is one of the many aspects of the human experience that creative geniuses share with other people" (p. 175).

The Literature Review Process

Reviews can vary greatly in their scope and depth of material examined. Therefore, the selection of study topic is a key factor and students are advised to be careful to avoid selecting topics that transcend the requirements of their degree programs. A primary reason for studying the literature is to demonstrate familiarity with research in the field and establish credibility for the individual's current investigation. The literature review is based on the assumption that research should build upon the work conducted by other researchers who are part of a larger intellectual community (Neuman, 1997).

The literature review helps the student to understand the historical context of their subject while focusing on current research efforts. Students will learn to identify areas of concern and become aware of any specific issues that have been neglected. A student might decide to change their topic if they realize that a more important topic needs to be studied and they can effectively address it within their degree program. The literature review can help students develop a framework for their own study by noting what others have done with their particular research design such as the data-collection techniques. Additionally, reading the literature will provide an overview of the major theories and ideas that have guided previous researchers. Students must have a good working knowledge of the key concepts in their field of study to develop an appropriate vocabulary for writing and communication of ideas (Hart, 1998).

The review of the literature should be done in an organized manner to effectively cover the material related to the research problem. The wise researcher will often conduct a review using sequential steps including the following:

  • analyze the problem statement.

  • search and read secondary literature.

  • select the appropriate index for a reference service or database.

  • transform the problem statement into search language.

  • conduct a manual and/or computer search.

  • read the pertinent primary literature.

  • organize notes.

  • write the review (Introduction to educational research, 2003, p. 73).

Students should create a specific plan to systematically investigate the literature that effectively covers both electronic and print sources of information. One part of the plan should contain a basic record keeping system that will help organize work accomplished to develop leads for future research and avoid loosing valuable data. For instance, students can save articles on the Internet with their web browser. This will make much easier to locate the next time the article is needed. Also, it is wise to create a basic set of questions to quickly scan the importance of an article. Locke, Silverman and Spirduso (1998, pp. 148-149) recommend starting with asking five basic questions of the research article:

  • What is the report about?

  • How does the study fit into what is already is known?

  • How was the study done?

  • What was found?

  • What do the results mean?

Reviewing the literature will require developing a methodology to analyze and critically appraise the quality of the writer's work. Students can begin by creating a descriptive summary of their studies to provide a basic overview of the material. The next step in the review process involves analyzing articles to better understand the reasoning underlying the author's work. Hart (1998) notes that "you are aiming to make explicit the nature of the connections between the methodology choices an author has made and the data they have collected through to the interpretations they have made of their data" (p. 56).

Identifying the style and structure of the author's reasoning will require looking at the article in a more in depth manner. Students must explore issues such as methodological assumptions, aims and purposes of the research and evidence presented. For instance, knowing the purpose of the author's work does help to categorize the article. Creswell (2002) relates that a research project may:

  • address gaps in knowledge by investigating an area of research that fills a void in existing information.

  • expand knowledge by extending research to new ideas or practices.

  • replicate knowledge by testing old results with new participants or new research sites.

  • add voices of individuals to knowledge, individuals whose perspectives have not been heard or whose views have been minimized in our society (p. 4).

The critical analysis of articles is one of the more demanding aspects of the literature review but it helps the student discern the quality of work produced within the field (Hart, 1998).  Students should strive to demonstrate their careful and reflective investigation of research studies and vital information resources. Their discussion should reflect a vivid awareness of theories and arguments that acknowledges both their strengths and weaknesses. A balanced review will affirm the usefulness and merits of a theory while exploring areas that need improvement. Research criticism must be based on understandable arguments that effectively identify inadequate or flawed evidence. Additionally, students will sometimes be able to use aspects of different writers work to develop their own synthesis of ideas and offer new perspectives on their subject matter.

Reviewing the literature requires patience and diligence to carefully select and examine research studies.  Gall, Borg and Gall (1996) highlight seven common mistakes that people can make during the review process:

The Researcher

  • Does not clearly relate the findings of the literature review to the researcher's own study.

  • Does not take sufficient time to define the best descriptors and identify the best sources to use in reviewing the literature related to one's topic.

  • Relies on secondary sources rather than on primary sources in reviewing the literature.

  • Uncritically accepts another researcher's findings and interpretations as valid, rather than examining critically all aspects of the research design and analysis.

  • Does not report the search procedures that were used in the literature review.

  • Reports isolated statistical results rather than synthesizing them by chi-square or meta-analysis methods.

  • Does not consider contrary findings and alternative interpretations in synthesizing qualitative literature (pp. 161-162).

Graduate students can sometimes error in their approach to studying the literature. Students will strive to read everything remotely related to their topic and waste time on trivial articles and materials. A good literature review will stress only the most important and relevant documents. Also, individuals can spend all of their time reading and fail to write about their project. Usually, most people would choose reading over writing because it tends to be less demanding than writing. Students need to be reminded that writing is another way to reflect upon ideas and foster a better understanding of information relationships (Language Center, 2004).


A solid review of the literature will communicate a sense of purpose in every article, report and book examined. The reader will not be informed by long lists of studies that appear to be randomly strung together. In contrast, readers appreciate reviews that are well organized, reflective and that highlight the most important studies. Students who become skilled at investigating research will produce authentic reviews that demonstrate creative insights and promote scholarly work (Hart, 1998; Neuman, 1998).


Introduction to educational research (2003). Custom electronic text for the University of Phoenix. Boston, MA: Pearson Custom Publishing.

Creswell, J. W. (2002). Educational research: Planning, conducting, and evaluating quantitative and qualitative research. Upper Saddle Creek, NJ: Pearson Education.

Gall, M. D., Borg, W. R., and Gall, J. P., (1996). Educational research: An introduction (6th ed.). White Plains, NY: Longman Publishers.

Hart, C. (1998). Doing a literature review. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Howe, M. J.A. (1999). Genius explained. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Language Center (2004). Writing up research: Using the literature. Asian Institute of Technology. Available:  http://www.clet.ait.ac.th/EL21LIT.htm

Locke, L. F., Silverman, S. J., and Spirduso, W. W., (1998). Reading and understanding research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Neuman, W. L. (1997). Social research methods: Qualitative and quantitative approaches. Needham Heights, NJ: Allyn & Bacon.

About the Author


Brent Muirhead has a BA in social work, master's degrees in religious education, history, administration and e-learning and doctoral degrees in Education (D.Min. and Ph.D.).

Dr. Muirhead is the area chair for the MAED program in curriculum and technology for the University of Phoenix Online (UOP) and teaches a variety of master level courses. Also, he mentors faculty candidates and serves on dissertation committees in UOP's Doctor of Management degree program. He is an Associate Editor for Educational Technology & Society and recently was a visiting research fellow to Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, Scotland. He may be reached via email: bmuirhead@email.uophx.edu.


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