Unit 4: Beginning a Critical Literature Review

In this unit, you begin your critical literature review with the goal of situating your research questions within the literature, establishing what is already known or believed about your topic, how the topic has been studied before and how answering your research question will add to professional knowledge.

Dr. Michael Patton explains the purpose of literature review for the research professional in terms of positioning one’s research in an intellectual tradition. He discusses common errors and pitfalls to avoid in reviewing literature and drawing conclusions about how to contextualize your research and also explains strategies for maximizing your intellectual gain from your literature review.

Laureate Education, (2014a) Conducting a Literature Review [Video, Online], (accessed: 19/11/15)


Learning Objectives

Students will:
  • Understand the process of creating a critical literature review
  • Review the literature related to research topics


A critical step in the development of a research proposal is to review literature relevant to your research topic and question. By doing this, you learn what has been published on your topic by other scholars and researchers. You also learn how the topic has been studied in the past. It is important to convey to your reader what knowledge and ideas have been established on a topic, the strengths and weaknesses of previous research and the gap in established knowledge and ideas where your research will fit. As you review the literature, you will likely refine or even re-frame your research question(s) as you learn more about your topic.

Reviewing the Literature

In an earlier unit, you began finding research literature in the area of your research topic. In this unit and the next, you will search further for relevant literature, and you will focus on critically reviewing the literature. Even if you do not ultimately pursue this topic for your Professional Project Proposal, you will gain important skills and knowledge that you can apply during that process.

A good literature review is not simply a descriptive list or set of summaries of the available material. A good literature review should do the following:

  1. Be organized around and related directly to your research topic. There are many different ways in which you might choose to organize your review: by theoretical approach; historically to provide an account of how ideas about the topic have developed over time; by methodological approach; thematically according to particular issues or concepts discussed. Often the most satisfactory approach is a thematic one. Sometimes the themes are determined in advance, before undertaking analysis of the literature. However, it is often preferable to allow the themes to merge from your analysis of the literature.
  2. Synthesize results into a critical review of what is and is not known or believed about the topic.
  3. Identify areas of controversy in the literature.
  4. Formulate questions that need further research.

Remember that reading research literature is important in identifying a problem that is academically credible. If the problem in which you are interested is not discussed in the academic literature, there is a strong possibility that you are not defining the problem in a manner that will allow you to connect it to prior studies. Knowing how to access the existing literature is thus a critical early step in research.

Reading and Evaluating Research Articles

Throughout your programme, you have read many academic journal articles, primarily with the purpose of understanding their arguments and content. In preparation for your Research Project, you will want to focus on critically evaluating findings and arguments in the literature to determine if they provide a useful basis for your own research. Understanding the organization and structure of research articles can help you better evaluate them. This section provides a refresher on the structure of research articles and how to go about reading them critically.

Most academic research articles are organized in a consistent way. After the article title and author name(s), institutional affiliation and contact information, an abstract gives a short synopsis of the article. With the abstract, there is sometimes additional indexing information in the form of Categories, General Terms and Keywords – all of which enable the reader to quickly decide if the article is of interest.

Following the abstract is an introduction, which usually supplies the background and rationale for the research. A literature review summarizes the current state of knowledge in the specific field and synthesizes findings from prior research, enabling the author to connect his or her research to prior work and establish his or her contribution to that field of knowledge.

The body of the paper describes the specific research problem or question that was addressed, and the methodological approach, methods and tools that were employed in the research. In studies in which a hypothesis was tested, the author will spell out the hypothesis and the anticipated or predicted outcome. The methodology and methods should be described in enough detail that it is clear how the data were collected and analyzed and how the results follow logically from the methods. In experimental or survey research, there should be enough information that the study could be replicated by another researcher.

The results or findings are usually the last sub-section of the body of the paper. The results should clearly address the research problem or question as set forward earlier in the article and summarize what was learned from the study. Data and analyses of data may be presented in a variety of ways, depending upon the methods and methodology employed. Any hypothesis and prediction(s) must be addressed via an appropriate analysis and the hypothesis confirmed or rejected.

The next part of the article is the conclusions. Here the researcher interprets the results or findings and develops arguments concerning what the research contributed to knowledge in the field. The author should also be clear about any limitations of the study and any questions that the study was designed to address but which could not be satisfactorily answered based on the results. Finally, the author may recommend directions for future research, which can provide a valuable source of ideas for research you may want to conduct yourself.

The paper should end with the references list of books, articles, reports and other sources cited in the paper.

How does one read and evaluate a research article? If you focus on research articles from peer-reviewed academic journals, you can be assured that one or more knowledgeable, experienced scholars in the field have already evaluated the study for quality. Once you have found a relevant article from a peer-reviewed journal, you can proceed to carefully analyze and evaluate the article itself.

A good first step in reading an article is to skim through the whole paper without taking notes or dwelling too long on any section. Even if you do not understand an argument or a formula, keep going in order to develop a mental picture of the whole paper, even if it is a bit fuzzy. This is not a detective story, so you are allowed to peek at the end. View the conclusions at an early stage to decide if they will be of value for your own research.

If you believe that the paper will be of value, start reading it afresh from the beginning, but now do not skim: read it for a full understanding and evaluation. In some cases you might need to stop reading and search for supplemental information from other sources (mentioned in the References section of the paper) or search for your own set of sources.

For your analysis of the paper, it is recommended that you also keep a record of the answers to some or all of the following questions:

  1. What is the main topic of the article?
  2. What was/were the main issue(s) the authors said they wanted to discuss?
  3. Why did the authors claim the research was important?
  4. How did the authors claim they were going to evaluate their work and compare it to that of others?
  5. How does the author’s work build on the work of others or connect to other research in the field?
  6. What simplifying assumptions do the authors claim to be making? Did the authors specify any limitations to their research and results? Are the limitations acceptable or do they diminish the value of the work?
  7. What did the authors actually do? What were the results?
  8. What are the conclusions, and are they supported by the paper’s findings or results?
  9. Are the conclusions of value? To you? To others as a direction for future research?

By considering the answers to these questions for a number of research papers, you should be able to strengthen your research proposal by considering how your study will connect to or build upon the research presented in them.

Organizing Relevant Literature

You will soon find that the amount of reading you do is very large, and you might lose or misplace information. Therefore, it is important to be organized. Recommended strategies include the following:

  • Maintaining a database of all the books and papers you read. Stored data should at least include title, author, place of publication and place where the document itself can be found. A spreadsheet (such as Microsoft Excel) can be a useful tool for such a database.
  • Using a reference management system. A useful tool for collecting and arranging references in your research is reference management software such as EndNote.

One approach to organizing your critical literature review is to identify perhaps three or four themes from your reading and to write a section of your critical literature review on each theme. Many different methods for going about this process are described in the research methods literature. However, it is important that each theme should relate to several different studies in your review, and it is likely that each study in your review will appear in more than one of them.

Dig Deeper


The following readings are provided for you to dig deeper into the subject area.

Module Text

Punch, K.F. (2009) Introduction to Research Methods in Education. London: Sage.

Chapter 6, ‘Literature Searching and Reviewing’ (Document attached)


Over this unit and the next you will work on a critical literature review that will become your Unit 5 Project for this module.

Shared Activity: Beginning a Critical Literature Review

This fourth unit offers one assessment – an online discussion or ‘Shared Activity’, taking place on the discussion forum. This is worth 10% of the overall module grade. Your initial post should be completed by Day 7 of this unit.

Your literature review will evaluate both the content and methods of published research on a topic of your choosing. This Shared Activity is intended to help you gain skills in the early stages of your literature review, searching for and identifying relevant peer-reviewed articles, drawing from a small selection of articles the information needed for your literature review, identifying the theoretical frameworks used in the selected articles and finding some themes relevant to your research. These skills take practice to develop – this exercise is not intended to lead to a finalized research question or methodology. However, conducting this kind of literature review in your area of interest will greatly support your work towards your Professional Project Proposal.

To prepare for this Shared Activity:

You are required to make an initial post to the Shared Activity by Day 7.

  • Review this unit’s learning resources. (check documents attached)
  • Review the instructions provided for the Unit 5 Project. (check document attached as Unit 5 Assignment)
  • Consider the topics you identified for the Unit 1 Shared Activity (check document attached as M 6 Unit 1 SA Group A). Choose one for the purposes of this Shared Activity and your Unit 5 Project.
  • Review the two or three research questions you formulated in relation to this topic in the Shared Activity for Unit 2 (check document attached as U 2 SA K).
  • Conduct an initial literature search focused on the topic you chose. Note the search terms that you used. Identify at least six articles in peer-reviewed journals which are related to your topic and which are contrasting in terms of either methodological approach or the research setting.
  • Note what the researchers have said about the topic, and how they have addressed the topic; in particular: how they have framed their research questions, how they have presented and discussed previous research literature, how they dealt with any identified ethical issues, the methodological approach used, how they used and analyzed data, and what were the key findings.
  • As appropriate, refine your own research questions based on your literature review.
  • It is likely that you will need to extend or refine or redirect your subsequent searches. Consider how you will do this.

To complete this Shared Activity:

By Day 7:

Write a 500-word post: (old submissions of Unit 1, 2 and 3 are attached as guidance for this assignment of Unit 4)

  • Post a statement of your chosen topic and your research questions as they are at present, and a brief summary of how you conducted your initial literature search, the search terms that you used, where you searched and how you might extend or refine your literature search in subsequent searches.
  • Summarize the main similarities and differences between the three or more articles that you have chosen and studied, explaining how and why these articles are relevant to your topic and research questions.
  • Explain any difficulties or problems that you foresee, and describe how you might organize your literature review, based upon what you have read so far. Describe briefly any emerging themes or areas of apparent controversy you have identified from the papers that you have read so far.

Be sure to include references to all sources, including your learning resources, in Harvard Referencing Style.

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