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  • 5. The Literature Review
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A literature review surveys prior research published in books, scholarly articles, and any other sources relevant to a particular issue, area of research, or theory, and by so doing, provides a description, summary, and critical evaluation of these works in relation to the research problem being investigated. Literature reviews are designed to provide an overview of sources you have used in researching a particular topic and to demonstrate to your readers how your research fits within existing scholarship about the topic.

Fink, Arlene. Conducting Research Literature Reviews: From the Internet to Paper . Fourth edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2014.

Importance of a Good Literature Review

A literature review may consist of simply a summary of key sources, but in the social sciences, a literature review usually has an organizational pattern and combines both summary and synthesis, often within specific conceptual categories . A summary is a recap of the important information of the source, but a synthesis is a re-organization, or a reshuffling, of that information in a way that informs how you are planning to investigate a research problem. The analytical features of a literature review might:

  • Give a new interpretation of old material or combine new with old interpretations,
  • Trace the intellectual progression of the field, including major debates,
  • Depending on the situation, evaluate the sources and advise the reader on the most pertinent or relevant research, or
  • Usually in the conclusion of a literature review, identify where gaps exist in how a problem has been researched to date.

Given this, the purpose of a literature review is to:

  • Place each work in the context of its contribution to understanding the research problem being studied.
  • Describe the relationship of each work to the others under consideration.
  • Identify new ways to interpret prior research.
  • Reveal any gaps that exist in the literature.
  • Resolve conflicts amongst seemingly contradictory previous studies.
  • Identify areas of prior scholarship to prevent duplication of effort.
  • Point the way in fulfilling a need for additional research.
  • Locate your own research within the context of existing literature [very important].

Fink, Arlene. Conducting Research Literature Reviews: From the Internet to Paper. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2005; Hart, Chris. Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Social Science Research Imagination . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1998; Jesson, Jill. Doing Your Literature Review: Traditional and Systematic Techniques . Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2011; Knopf, Jeffrey W. "Doing a Literature Review." PS: Political Science and Politics 39 (January 2006): 127-132; Ridley, Diana. The Literature Review: A Step-by-Step Guide for Students . 2nd ed. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2012.

Types of Literature Reviews

It is important to think of knowledge in a given field as consisting of three layers. First, there are the primary studies that researchers conduct and publish. Second are the reviews of those studies that summarize and offer new interpretations built from and often extending beyond the primary studies. Third, there are the perceptions, conclusions, opinion, and interpretations that are shared informally among scholars that become part of the body of epistemological traditions within the field.

In composing a literature review, it is important to note that it is often this third layer of knowledge that is cited as "true" even though it often has only a loose relationship to the primary studies and secondary literature reviews. Given this, while literature reviews are designed to provide an overview and synthesis of pertinent sources you have explored, there are a number of approaches you could adopt depending upon the type of analysis underpinning your study.

Argumentative Review This form examines literature selectively in order to support or refute an argument, deeply embedded assumption, or philosophical problem already established in the literature. The purpose is to develop a body of literature that establishes a contrarian viewpoint. Given the value-laden nature of some social science research [e.g., educational reform; immigration control], argumentative approaches to analyzing the literature can be a legitimate and important form of discourse. However, note that they can also introduce problems of bias when they are used to make summary claims of the sort found in systematic reviews [see below].

Integrative Review Considered a form of research that reviews, critiques, and synthesizes representative literature on a topic in an integrated way such that new frameworks and perspectives on the topic are generated. The body of literature includes all studies that address related or identical hypotheses or research problems. A well-done integrative review meets the same standards as primary research in regard to clarity, rigor, and replication. This is the most common form of review in the social sciences.

Historical Review Few things rest in isolation from historical precedent. Historical literature reviews focus on examining research throughout a period of time, often starting with the first time an issue, concept, theory, phenomena emerged in the literature, then tracing its evolution within the scholarship of a discipline. The purpose is to place research in a historical context to show familiarity with state-of-the-art developments and to identify the likely directions for future research.

Methodological Review A review does not always focus on what someone said [findings], but how they came about saying what they say [method of analysis]. Reviewing methods of analysis provides a framework of understanding at different levels [i.e. those of theory, substantive fields, research approaches, and data collection and analysis techniques], how researchers draw upon a wide variety of knowledge ranging from the conceptual level to practical documents for use in fieldwork in the areas of ontological and epistemological consideration, quantitative and qualitative integration, sampling, interviewing, data collection, and data analysis. This approach helps highlight ethical issues which you should be aware of and consider as you go through your own study.

Systematic Review This form consists of an overview of existing evidence pertinent to a clearly formulated research question, which uses pre-specified and standardized methods to identify and critically appraise relevant research, and to collect, report, and analyze data from the studies that are included in the review. The goal is to deliberately document, critically evaluate, and summarize scientifically all of the research about a clearly defined research problem . Typically it focuses on a very specific empirical question, often posed in a cause-and-effect form, such as "To what extent does A contribute to B?" This type of literature review is primarily applied to examining prior research studies in clinical medicine and allied health fields, but it is increasingly being used in the social sciences.

Theoretical Review The purpose of this form is to examine the corpus of theory that has accumulated in regard to an issue, concept, theory, phenomena. The theoretical literature review helps to establish what theories already exist, the relationships between them, to what degree the existing theories have been investigated, and to develop new hypotheses to be tested. Often this form is used to help establish a lack of appropriate theories or reveal that current theories are inadequate for explaining new or emerging research problems. The unit of analysis can focus on a theoretical concept or a whole theory or framework.

NOTE: Most often the literature review will incorporate some combination of types. For example, a review that examines literature supporting or refuting an argument, assumption, or philosophical problem related to the research problem will also need to include writing supported by sources that establish the history of these arguments in the literature.

Baumeister, Roy F. and Mark R. Leary. "Writing Narrative Literature Reviews."  Review of General Psychology 1 (September 1997): 311-320; Mark R. Fink, Arlene. Conducting Research Literature Reviews: From the Internet to Paper . 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2005; Hart, Chris. Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Social Science Research Imagination . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1998; Kennedy, Mary M. "Defining a Literature." Educational Researcher 36 (April 2007): 139-147; Petticrew, Mark and Helen Roberts. Systematic Reviews in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide . Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2006; Torracro, Richard. "Writing Integrative Literature Reviews: Guidelines and Examples." Human Resource Development Review 4 (September 2005): 356-367; Rocco, Tonette S. and Maria S. Plakhotnik. "Literature Reviews, Conceptual Frameworks, and Theoretical Frameworks: Terms, Functions, and Distinctions." Human Ressource Development Review 8 (March 2008): 120-130; Sutton, Anthea. Systematic Approaches to a Successful Literature Review . Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications, 2016.

Structure and Writing Style

I.  Thinking About Your Literature Review

The structure of a literature review should include the following in support of understanding the research problem :

  • An overview of the subject, issue, or theory under consideration, along with the objectives of the literature review,
  • Division of works under review into themes or categories [e.g. works that support a particular position, those against, and those offering alternative approaches entirely],
  • An explanation of how each work is similar to and how it varies from the others,
  • Conclusions as to which pieces are best considered in their argument, are most convincing of their opinions, and make the greatest contribution to the understanding and development of their area of research.

The critical evaluation of each work should consider :

  • Provenance -- what are the author's credentials? Are the author's arguments supported by evidence [e.g. primary historical material, case studies, narratives, statistics, recent scientific findings]?
  • Methodology -- were the techniques used to identify, gather, and analyze the data appropriate to addressing the research problem? Was the sample size appropriate? Were the results effectively interpreted and reported?
  • Objectivity -- is the author's perspective even-handed or prejudicial? Is contrary data considered or is certain pertinent information ignored to prove the author's point?
  • Persuasiveness -- which of the author's theses are most convincing or least convincing?
  • Validity -- are the author's arguments and conclusions convincing? Does the work ultimately contribute in any significant way to an understanding of the subject?

II.  Development of the Literature Review

Four Basic Stages of Writing 1.  Problem formulation -- which topic or field is being examined and what are its component issues? 2.  Literature search -- finding materials relevant to the subject being explored. 3.  Data evaluation -- determining which literature makes a significant contribution to the understanding of the topic. 4.  Analysis and interpretation -- discussing the findings and conclusions of pertinent literature.

Consider the following issues before writing the literature review: Clarify If your assignment is not specific about what form your literature review should take, seek clarification from your professor by asking these questions: 1.  Roughly how many sources would be appropriate to include? 2.  What types of sources should I review (books, journal articles, websites; scholarly versus popular sources)? 3.  Should I summarize, synthesize, or critique sources by discussing a common theme or issue? 4.  Should I evaluate the sources in any way beyond evaluating how they relate to understanding the research problem? 5.  Should I provide subheadings and other background information, such as definitions and/or a history? Find Models Use the exercise of reviewing the literature to examine how authors in your discipline or area of interest have composed their literature review sections. Read them to get a sense of the types of themes you might want to look for in your own research or to identify ways to organize your final review. The bibliography or reference section of sources you've already read, such as required readings in the course syllabus, are also excellent entry points into your own research. Narrow the Topic The narrower your topic, the easier it will be to limit the number of sources you need to read in order to obtain a good survey of relevant resources. Your professor will probably not expect you to read everything that's available about the topic, but you'll make the act of reviewing easier if you first limit scope of the research problem. A good strategy is to begin by searching the USC Libraries Catalog for recent books about the topic and review the table of contents for chapters that focuses on specific issues. You can also review the indexes of books to find references to specific issues that can serve as the focus of your research. For example, a book surveying the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may include a chapter on the role Egypt has played in mediating the conflict, or look in the index for the pages where Egypt is mentioned in the text. Consider Whether Your Sources are Current Some disciplines require that you use information that is as current as possible. This is particularly true in disciplines in medicine and the sciences where research conducted becomes obsolete very quickly as new discoveries are made. However, when writing a review in the social sciences, a survey of the history of the literature may be required. In other words, a complete understanding the research problem requires you to deliberately examine how knowledge and perspectives have changed over time. Sort through other current bibliographies or literature reviews in the field to get a sense of what your discipline expects. You can also use this method to explore what is considered by scholars to be a "hot topic" and what is not.

III.  Ways to Organize Your Literature Review

Chronology of Events If your review follows the chronological method, you could write about the materials according to when they were published. This approach should only be followed if a clear path of research building on previous research can be identified and that these trends follow a clear chronological order of development. For example, a literature review that focuses on continuing research about the emergence of German economic power after the fall of the Soviet Union. By Publication Order your sources by publication chronology, then, only if the order demonstrates a more important trend. For instance, you could order a review of literature on environmental studies of brown fields if the progression revealed, for example, a change in the soil collection practices of the researchers who wrote and/or conducted the studies. Thematic [“conceptual categories”] A thematic literature review is the most common approach to summarizing prior research in the social and behavioral sciences. Thematic reviews are organized around a topic or issue, rather than the progression of time, although the progression of time may still be incorporated into a thematic review. For example, a review of the Internet’s impact on American presidential politics could focus on the development of online political satire. While the study focuses on one topic, the Internet’s impact on American presidential politics, it would still be organized chronologically reflecting technological developments in media. The difference in this example between a "chronological" and a "thematic" approach is what is emphasized the most: themes related to the role of the Internet in presidential politics. Note that more authentic thematic reviews tend to break away from chronological order. A review organized in this manner would shift between time periods within each section according to the point being made. Methodological A methodological approach focuses on the methods utilized by the researcher. For the Internet in American presidential politics project, one methodological approach would be to look at cultural differences between the portrayal of American presidents on American, British, and French websites. Or the review might focus on the fundraising impact of the Internet on a particular political party. A methodological scope will influence either the types of documents in the review or the way in which these documents are discussed.

Other Sections of Your Literature Review Once you've decided on the organizational method for your literature review, the sections you need to include in the paper should be easy to figure out because they arise from your organizational strategy. In other words, a chronological review would have subsections for each vital time period; a thematic review would have subtopics based upon factors that relate to the theme or issue. However, sometimes you may need to add additional sections that are necessary for your study, but do not fit in the organizational strategy of the body. What other sections you include in the body is up to you. However, only include what is necessary for the reader to locate your study within the larger scholarship about the research problem.

Here are examples of other sections, usually in the form of a single paragraph, you may need to include depending on the type of review you write:

  • Current Situation : Information necessary to understand the current topic or focus of the literature review.
  • Sources Used : Describes the methods and resources [e.g., databases] you used to identify the literature you reviewed.
  • History : The chronological progression of the field, the research literature, or an idea that is necessary to understand the literature review, if the body of the literature review is not already a chronology.
  • Selection Methods : Criteria you used to select (and perhaps exclude) sources in your literature review. For instance, you might explain that your review includes only peer-reviewed [i.e., scholarly] sources.
  • Standards : Description of the way in which you present your information.
  • Questions for Further Research : What questions about the field has the review sparked? How will you further your research as a result of the review?

IV.  Writing Your Literature Review

Once you've settled on how to organize your literature review, you're ready to write each section. When writing your review, keep in mind these issues.

Use Evidence A literature review section is, in this sense, just like any other academic research paper. Your interpretation of the available sources must be backed up with evidence [citations] that demonstrates that what you are saying is valid. Be Selective Select only the most important points in each source to highlight in the review. The type of information you choose to mention should relate directly to the research problem, whether it is thematic, methodological, or chronological. Related items that provide additional information, but that are not key to understanding the research problem, can be included in a list of further readings . Use Quotes Sparingly Some short quotes are appropriate if you want to emphasize a point, or if what an author stated cannot be easily paraphrased. Sometimes you may need to quote certain terminology that was coined by the author, is not common knowledge, or taken directly from the study. Do not use extensive quotes as a substitute for using your own words in reviewing the literature. Summarize and Synthesize Remember to summarize and synthesize your sources within each thematic paragraph as well as throughout the review. Recapitulate important features of a research study, but then synthesize it by rephrasing the study's significance and relating it to your own work and the work of others. Keep Your Own Voice While the literature review presents others' ideas, your voice [the writer's] should remain front and center. For example, weave references to other sources into what you are writing but maintain your own voice by starting and ending the paragraph with your own ideas and wording. Use Caution When Paraphrasing When paraphrasing a source that is not your own, be sure to represent the author's information or opinions accurately and in your own words. Even when paraphrasing an author’s work, you still must provide a citation to that work.

V.  Common Mistakes to Avoid

These are the most common mistakes made in reviewing social science research literature.

  • Sources in your literature review do not clearly relate to the research problem;
  • You do not take sufficient time to define and identify the most relevant sources to use in the literature review related to the research problem;
  • Relies exclusively on secondary analytical sources rather than including relevant primary research studies or data;
  • Uncritically accepts another researcher's findings and interpretations as valid, rather than examining critically all aspects of the research design and analysis;
  • Does not describe the search procedures that were used in identifying the literature to review;
  • Reports isolated statistical results rather than synthesizing them in chi-squared or meta-analytic methods; and,
  • Only includes research that validates assumptions and does not consider contrary findings and alternative interpretations found in the literature.

Cook, Kathleen E. and Elise Murowchick. “Do Literature Review Skills Transfer from One Course to Another?” Psychology Learning and Teaching 13 (March 2014): 3-11; Fink, Arlene. Conducting Research Literature Reviews: From the Internet to Paper . 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2005; Hart, Chris. Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Social Science Research Imagination . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1998; Jesson, Jill. Doing Your Literature Review: Traditional and Systematic Techniques . London: SAGE, 2011; Literature Review Handout. Online Writing Center. Liberty University; Literature Reviews. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Onwuegbuzie, Anthony J. and Rebecca Frels. Seven Steps to a Comprehensive Literature Review: A Multimodal and Cultural Approach . Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2016; Ridley, Diana. The Literature Review: A Step-by-Step Guide for Students . 2nd ed. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2012; Randolph, Justus J. “A Guide to Writing the Dissertation Literature Review." Practical Assessment, Research, and Evaluation. vol. 14, June 2009; Sutton, Anthea. Systematic Approaches to a Successful Literature Review . Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications, 2016; Taylor, Dena. The Literature Review: A Few Tips On Conducting It. University College Writing Centre. University of Toronto; Writing a Literature Review. Academic Skills Centre. University of Canberra.

Writing Tip

Break Out of Your Disciplinary Box!

Thinking interdisciplinarily about a research problem can be a rewarding exercise in applying new ideas, theories, or concepts to an old problem. For example, what might cultural anthropologists say about the continuing conflict in the Middle East? In what ways might geographers view the need for better distribution of social service agencies in large cities than how social workers might study the issue? You don’t want to substitute a thorough review of core research literature in your discipline for studies conducted in other fields of study. However, particularly in the social sciences, thinking about research problems from multiple vectors is a key strategy for finding new solutions to a problem or gaining a new perspective. Consult with a librarian about identifying research databases in other disciplines; almost every field of study has at least one comprehensive database devoted to indexing its research literature.

Frodeman, Robert. The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity . New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Another Writing Tip

Don't Just Review for Content!

While conducting a review of the literature, maximize the time you devote to writing this part of your paper by thinking broadly about what you should be looking for and evaluating. Review not just what scholars are saying, but how are they saying it. Some questions to ask:

  • How are they organizing their ideas?
  • What methods have they used to study the problem?
  • What theories have been used to explain, predict, or understand their research problem?
  • What sources have they cited to support their conclusions?
  • How have they used non-textual elements [e.g., charts, graphs, figures, etc.] to illustrate key points?

When you begin to write your literature review section, you'll be glad you dug deeper into how the research was designed and constructed because it establishes a means for developing more substantial analysis and interpretation of the research problem.

Hart, Chris. Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Social Science Research Imagination . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1 998.

Yet Another Writing Tip

When Do I Know I Can Stop Looking and Move On?

Here are several strategies you can utilize to assess whether you've thoroughly reviewed the literature:

  • Look for repeating patterns in the research findings . If the same thing is being said, just by different people, then this likely demonstrates that the research problem has hit a conceptual dead end. At this point consider: Does your study extend current research?  Does it forge a new path? Or, does is merely add more of the same thing being said?
  • Look at sources the authors cite to in their work . If you begin to see the same researchers cited again and again, then this is often an indication that no new ideas have been generated to address the research problem.
  • Search Google Scholar to identify who has subsequently cited leading scholars already identified in your literature review [see next sub-tab]. This is called citation tracking and there are a number of sources that can help you identify who has cited whom, particularly scholars from outside of your discipline. Here again, if the same authors are being cited again and again, this may indicate no new literature has been written on the topic.

Onwuegbuzie, Anthony J. and Rebecca Frels. Seven Steps to a Comprehensive Literature Review: A Multimodal and Cultural Approach . Los Angeles, CA: Sage, 2016; Sutton, Anthea. Systematic Approaches to a Successful Literature Review . Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications, 2016.

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Literature Review vs Systematic Review

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It’s common to confuse systematic and literature reviews because both are used to provide a summary of the existent literature or research on a specific topic. Regardless of this commonality, both types of review vary significantly. The following table provides a detailed explanation as well as the differences between systematic and literature reviews. 

Kysh, Lynn (2013): Difference between a systematic review and a literature review. [figshare]. Available at:  http://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.766364

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What is a literature review?

A literature review is an integrated analysis -- not just a summary-- of scholarly writings and other relevant evidence related directly to your research question.  That is, it represents a synthesis of the evidence that provides background information on your topic and shows a association between the evidence and your research question.

A literature review may be a stand alone work or the introduction to a larger research paper, depending on the assignment.  Rely heavily on the guidelines your instructor has given you.

Why is it important?

A literature review is important because it:

  • Explains the background of research on a topic.
  • Demonstrates why a topic is significant to a subject area.
  • Discovers relationships between research studies/ideas.
  • Identifies major themes, concepts, and researchers on a topic.
  • Identifies critical gaps and points of disagreement.
  • Discusses further research questions that logically come out of the previous studies.

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1. Choose a topic. Define your research question.

Your literature review should be guided by your central research question.  The literature represents background and research developments related to a specific research question, interpreted and analyzed by you in a synthesized way.

  • Make sure your research question is not too broad or too narrow.  Is it manageable?
  • Begin writing down terms that are related to your question. These will be useful for searches later.
  • If you have the opportunity, discuss your topic with your professor and your class mates.

2. Decide on the scope of your review

How many studies do you need to look at? How comprehensive should it be? How many years should it cover? 

  • This may depend on your assignment.  How many sources does the assignment require?

3. Select the databases you will use to conduct your searches.

Make a list of the databases you will search. 

Where to find databases:

  • use the tabs on this guide
  • Find other databases in the Nursing Information Resources web page
  • More on the Medical Library web page
  • ... and more on the Yale University Library web page

4. Conduct your searches to find the evidence. Keep track of your searches.

  • Use the key words in your question, as well as synonyms for those words, as terms in your search. Use the database tutorials for help.
  • Save the searches in the databases. This saves time when you want to redo, or modify, the searches. It is also helpful to use as a guide is the searches are not finding any useful results.
  • Review the abstracts of research studies carefully. This will save you time.
  • Use the bibliographies and references of research studies you find to locate others.
  • Check with your professor, or a subject expert in the field, if you are missing any key works in the field.
  • Ask your librarian for help at any time.
  • Use a citation manager, such as EndNote as the repository for your citations. See the EndNote tutorials for help.

Review the literature

Some questions to help you analyze the research:

  • What was the research question of the study you are reviewing? What were the authors trying to discover?
  • Was the research funded by a source that could influence the findings?
  • What were the research methodologies? Analyze its literature review, the samples and variables used, the results, and the conclusions.
  • Does the research seem to be complete? Could it have been conducted more soundly? What further questions does it raise?
  • If there are conflicting studies, why do you think that is?
  • How are the authors viewed in the field? Has this study been cited? If so, how has it been analyzed?

Tips: 

  • Review the abstracts carefully.  
  • Keep careful notes so that you may track your thought processes during the research process.
  • Create a matrix of the studies for easy analysis, and synthesis, across all of the studies.
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Writing Literature Reviews: 4. Structure Your Lit Review

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How to Structure Your Lit Review

A literature review, even when it is within a larger paper, should include an introduction, a main body section, and a conclusion.

In the Introduction Section :

  • define your topic and scope
  • explain the organization of your lit review

In the Main Section :

  • Present the literature you found related to your topic in a clear, organized way
  • Compare and contrast the literature
  • Identify problems, issues, and debates among scholars on the topic

There are many ways to organize the main section of a literature review. Here are a few ways you could organize this section:

  • Chronological - Present a condensed history of the major ideas and developments of a topic over time.
  • Thematic - Present the major theories relevant to your topic and how they agree or contrast.
  • Methodological - If there are different methods of research on your topic, you can organize your review by grouping the findings of different methodologies. Be sure to compare and contrast these methods (you are setting up an argument for your own methods.)
  • Theoretical - Organize your review by the various theories others have developed relevant to the topic, comparing and contrasting the strengths and weaknesses of each.

In the Conclusion Section :

  • Summarize your findings in the scholarly literature
  • Identify any gaps and explain briefly how you are filling that gap with your own research (if appropriate)
  • Explain how your paper/ideas/research relates to the greater scholarly literature and create a transition to the rest of your paper

Helpful Sites on Literature Reviews

Much of the information in this guide and more information can be found on the websites listed on the  Helpful Sites tab .

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  • What is a Literature Review? | Guide, Template, & Examples

What is a Literature Review? | Guide, Template, & Examples

Published on 22 February 2022 by Shona McCombes . Revised on 7 June 2022.

What is a literature review? A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources on a specific topic. It provides an overview of current knowledge, allowing you to identify relevant theories, methods, and gaps in the existing research.

There are five key steps to writing a literature review:

  • Search for relevant literature
  • Evaluate sources
  • Identify themes, debates and gaps
  • Outline the structure
  • Write your literature review

A good literature review doesn’t just summarise sources – it analyses, synthesises, and critically evaluates to give a clear picture of the state of knowledge on the subject.

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Table of contents

Why write a literature review, examples of literature reviews, step 1: search for relevant literature, step 2: evaluate and select sources, step 3: identify themes, debates and gaps, step 4: outline your literature review’s structure, step 5: write your literature review, frequently asked questions about literature reviews, introduction.

  • Quick Run-through
  • Step 1 & 2

When you write a dissertation or thesis, you will have to conduct a literature review to situate your research within existing knowledge. The literature review gives you a chance to:

  • Demonstrate your familiarity with the topic and scholarly context
  • Develop a theoretical framework and methodology for your research
  • Position yourself in relation to other researchers and theorists
  • Show how your dissertation addresses a gap or contributes to a debate

You might also have to write a literature review as a stand-alone assignment. In this case, the purpose is to evaluate the current state of research and demonstrate your knowledge of scholarly debates around a topic.

The content will look slightly different in each case, but the process of conducting a literature review follows the same steps. We’ve written a step-by-step guide that you can follow below.

Literature review guide

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Writing literature reviews can be quite challenging! A good starting point could be to look at some examples, depending on what kind of literature review you’d like to write.

  • Example literature review #1: “Why Do People Migrate? A Review of the Theoretical Literature” ( Theoretical literature review about the development of economic migration theory from the 1950s to today.)
  • Example literature review #2: “Literature review as a research methodology: An overview and guidelines” ( Methodological literature review about interdisciplinary knowledge acquisition and production.)
  • Example literature review #3: “The Use of Technology in English Language Learning: A Literature Review” ( Thematic literature review about the effects of technology on language acquisition.)
  • Example literature review #4: “Learners’ Listening Comprehension Difficulties in English Language Learning: A Literature Review” ( Chronological literature review about how the concept of listening skills has changed over time.)

You can also check out our templates with literature review examples and sample outlines at the links below.

Download Word doc Download Google doc

Before you begin searching for literature, you need a clearly defined topic .

If you are writing the literature review section of a dissertation or research paper, you will search for literature related to your research objectives and questions .

If you are writing a literature review as a stand-alone assignment, you will have to choose a focus and develop a central question to direct your search. Unlike a dissertation research question, this question has to be answerable without collecting original data. You should be able to answer it based only on a review of existing publications.

Make a list of keywords

Start by creating a list of keywords related to your research topic. Include each of the key concepts or variables you’re interested in, and list any synonyms and related terms. You can add to this list if you discover new keywords in the process of your literature search.

  • Social media, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok
  • Body image, self-perception, self-esteem, mental health
  • Generation Z, teenagers, adolescents, youth

Search for relevant sources

Use your keywords to begin searching for sources. Some databases to search for journals and articles include:

  • Your university’s library catalogue
  • Google Scholar
  • Project Muse (humanities and social sciences)
  • Medline (life sciences and biomedicine)
  • EconLit (economics)
  • Inspec (physics, engineering and computer science)

You can use boolean operators to help narrow down your search:

Read the abstract to find out whether an article is relevant to your question. When you find a useful book or article, you can check the bibliography to find other relevant sources.

To identify the most important publications on your topic, take note of recurring citations. If the same authors, books or articles keep appearing in your reading, make sure to seek them out.

You probably won’t be able to read absolutely everything that has been written on the topic – you’ll have to evaluate which sources are most relevant to your questions.

For each publication, ask yourself:

  • What question or problem is the author addressing?
  • What are the key concepts and how are they defined?
  • What are the key theories, models and methods? Does the research use established frameworks or take an innovative approach?
  • What are the results and conclusions of the study?
  • How does the publication relate to other literature in the field? Does it confirm, add to, or challenge established knowledge?
  • How does the publication contribute to your understanding of the topic? What are its key insights and arguments?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the research?

Make sure the sources you use are credible, and make sure you read any landmark studies and major theories in your field of research.

You can find out how many times an article has been cited on Google Scholar – a high citation count means the article has been influential in the field, and should certainly be included in your literature review.

The scope of your review will depend on your topic and discipline: in the sciences you usually only review recent literature, but in the humanities you might take a long historical perspective (for example, to trace how a concept has changed in meaning over time).

Remember that you can use our template to summarise and evaluate sources you’re thinking about using!

Take notes and cite your sources

As you read, you should also begin the writing process. Take notes that you can later incorporate into the text of your literature review.

It’s important to keep track of your sources with references to avoid plagiarism . It can be helpful to make an annotated bibliography, where you compile full reference information and write a paragraph of summary and analysis for each source. This helps you remember what you read and saves time later in the process.

You can use our free APA Reference Generator for quick, correct, consistent citations.

Prevent plagiarism, run a free check.

To begin organising your literature review’s argument and structure, you need to understand the connections and relationships between the sources you’ve read. Based on your reading and notes, you can look for:

  • Trends and patterns (in theory, method or results): do certain approaches become more or less popular over time?
  • Themes: what questions or concepts recur across the literature?
  • Debates, conflicts and contradictions: where do sources disagree?
  • Pivotal publications: are there any influential theories or studies that changed the direction of the field?
  • Gaps: what is missing from the literature? Are there weaknesses that need to be addressed?

This step will help you work out the structure of your literature review and (if applicable) show how your own research will contribute to existing knowledge.

  • Most research has focused on young women.
  • There is an increasing interest in the visual aspects of social media.
  • But there is still a lack of robust research on highly-visual platforms like Instagram and Snapchat – this is a gap that you could address in your own research.

There are various approaches to organising the body of a literature review. You should have a rough idea of your strategy before you start writing.

Depending on the length of your literature review, you can combine several of these strategies (for example, your overall structure might be thematic, but each theme is discussed chronologically).

Chronological

The simplest approach is to trace the development of the topic over time. However, if you choose this strategy, be careful to avoid simply listing and summarising sources in order.

Try to analyse patterns, turning points and key debates that have shaped the direction of the field. Give your interpretation of how and why certain developments occurred.

If you have found some recurring central themes, you can organise your literature review into subsections that address different aspects of the topic.

For example, if you are reviewing literature about inequalities in migrant health outcomes, key themes might include healthcare policy, language barriers, cultural attitudes, legal status, and economic access.

Methodological

If you draw your sources from different disciplines or fields that use a variety of research methods , you might want to compare the results and conclusions that emerge from different approaches. For example:

  • Look at what results have emerged in qualitative versus quantitative research
  • Discuss how the topic has been approached by empirical versus theoretical scholarship
  • Divide the literature into sociological, historical, and cultural sources

Theoretical

A literature review is often the foundation for a theoretical framework . You can use it to discuss various theories, models, and definitions of key concepts.

You might argue for the relevance of a specific theoretical approach, or combine various theoretical concepts to create a framework for your research.

Like any other academic text, your literature review should have an introduction , a main body, and a conclusion . What you include in each depends on the objective of your literature review.

The introduction should clearly establish the focus and purpose of the literature review.

If you are writing the literature review as part of your dissertation or thesis, reiterate your central problem or research question and give a brief summary of the scholarly context. You can emphasise the timeliness of the topic (“many recent studies have focused on the problem of x”) or highlight a gap in the literature (“while there has been much research on x, few researchers have taken y into consideration”).

Depending on the length of your literature review, you might want to divide the body into subsections. You can use a subheading for each theme, time period, or methodological approach.

As you write, make sure to follow these tips:

  • Summarise and synthesise: give an overview of the main points of each source and combine them into a coherent whole.
  • Analyse and interpret: don’t just paraphrase other researchers – add your own interpretations, discussing the significance of findings in relation to the literature as a whole.
  • Critically evaluate: mention the strengths and weaknesses of your sources.
  • Write in well-structured paragraphs: use transitions and topic sentences to draw connections, comparisons and contrasts.

In the conclusion, you should summarise the key findings you have taken from the literature and emphasise their significance.

If the literature review is part of your dissertation or thesis, reiterate how your research addresses gaps and contributes new knowledge, or discuss how you have drawn on existing theories and methods to build a framework for your research. This can lead directly into your methodology section.

A literature review is a survey of scholarly sources (such as books, journal articles, and theses) related to a specific topic or research question .

It is often written as part of a dissertation , thesis, research paper , or proposal .

There are several reasons to conduct a literature review at the beginning of a research project:

  • To familiarise yourself with the current state of knowledge on your topic
  • To ensure that you’re not just repeating what others have already done
  • To identify gaps in knowledge and unresolved problems that your research can address
  • To develop your theoretical framework and methodology
  • To provide an overview of the key findings and debates on the topic

Writing the literature review shows your reader how your work relates to existing research and what new insights it will contribute.

The literature review usually comes near the beginning of your  dissertation . After the introduction , it grounds your research in a scholarly field and leads directly to your theoretical framework or methodology .

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Literature Reviews

What this handout is about.

This handout will explain what literature reviews are and offer insights into the form and construction of literature reviews in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences.

Introduction

OK. You’ve got to write a literature review. You dust off a novel and a book of poetry, settle down in your chair, and get ready to issue a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” as you leaf through the pages. “Literature review” done. Right?

Wrong! The “literature” of a literature review refers to any collection of materials on a topic, not necessarily the great literary texts of the world. “Literature” could be anything from a set of government pamphlets on British colonial methods in Africa to scholarly articles on the treatment of a torn ACL. And a review does not necessarily mean that your reader wants you to give your personal opinion on whether or not you liked these sources.

What is a literature review, then?

A literature review discusses published information in a particular subject area, and sometimes information in a particular subject area within a certain time period.

A literature review can be just a simple summary of the sources, but it usually has an organizational pattern and combines both summary and synthesis. A summary is a recap of the important information of the source, but a synthesis is a re-organization, or a reshuffling, of that information. It might give a new interpretation of old material or combine new with old interpretations. Or it might trace the intellectual progression of the field, including major debates. And depending on the situation, the literature review may evaluate the sources and advise the reader on the most pertinent or relevant.

But how is a literature review different from an academic research paper?

The main focus of an academic research paper is to develop a new argument, and a research paper is likely to contain a literature review as one of its parts. In a research paper, you use the literature as a foundation and as support for a new insight that you contribute. The focus of a literature review, however, is to summarize and synthesize the arguments and ideas of others without adding new contributions.

Why do we write literature reviews?

Literature reviews provide you with a handy guide to a particular topic. If you have limited time to conduct research, literature reviews can give you an overview or act as a stepping stone. For professionals, they are useful reports that keep them up to date with what is current in the field. For scholars, the depth and breadth of the literature review emphasizes the credibility of the writer in his or her field. Literature reviews also provide a solid background for a research paper’s investigation. Comprehensive knowledge of the literature of the field is essential to most research papers.

Who writes these things, anyway?

Literature reviews are written occasionally in the humanities, but mostly in the sciences and social sciences; in experiment and lab reports, they constitute a section of the paper. Sometimes a literature review is written as a paper in itself.

Let’s get to it! What should I do before writing the literature review?

If your assignment is not very specific, seek clarification from your instructor:

  • Roughly how many sources should you include?
  • What types of sources (books, journal articles, websites)?
  • Should you summarize, synthesize, or critique your sources by discussing a common theme or issue?
  • Should you evaluate your sources?
  • Should you provide subheadings and other background information, such as definitions and/or a history?

Find models

Look for other literature reviews in your area of interest or in the discipline and read them to get a sense of the types of themes you might want to look for in your own research or ways to organize your final review. You can simply put the word “review” in your search engine along with your other topic terms to find articles of this type on the Internet or in an electronic database. The bibliography or reference section of sources you’ve already read are also excellent entry points into your own research.

Narrow your topic

There are hundreds or even thousands of articles and books on most areas of study. The narrower your topic, the easier it will be to limit the number of sources you need to read in order to get a good survey of the material. Your instructor will probably not expect you to read everything that’s out there on the topic, but you’ll make your job easier if you first limit your scope.

Keep in mind that UNC Libraries have research guides and to databases relevant to many fields of study. You can reach out to the subject librarian for a consultation: https://library.unc.edu/support/consultations/ .

And don’t forget to tap into your professor’s (or other professors’) knowledge in the field. Ask your professor questions such as: “If you had to read only one book from the 90’s on topic X, what would it be?” Questions such as this help you to find and determine quickly the most seminal pieces in the field.

Consider whether your sources are current

Some disciplines require that you use information that is as current as possible. In the sciences, for instance, treatments for medical problems are constantly changing according to the latest studies. Information even two years old could be obsolete. However, if you are writing a review in the humanities, history, or social sciences, a survey of the history of the literature may be what is needed, because what is important is how perspectives have changed through the years or within a certain time period. Try sorting through some other current bibliographies or literature reviews in the field to get a sense of what your discipline expects. You can also use this method to consider what is currently of interest to scholars in this field and what is not.

Strategies for writing the literature review

Find a focus.

A literature review, like a term paper, is usually organized around ideas, not the sources themselves as an annotated bibliography would be organized. This means that you will not just simply list your sources and go into detail about each one of them, one at a time. No. As you read widely but selectively in your topic area, consider instead what themes or issues connect your sources together. Do they present one or different solutions? Is there an aspect of the field that is missing? How well do they present the material and do they portray it according to an appropriate theory? Do they reveal a trend in the field? A raging debate? Pick one of these themes to focus the organization of your review.

Convey it to your reader

A literature review may not have a traditional thesis statement (one that makes an argument), but you do need to tell readers what to expect. Try writing a simple statement that lets the reader know what is your main organizing principle. Here are a couple of examples:

The current trend in treatment for congestive heart failure combines surgery and medicine. More and more cultural studies scholars are accepting popular media as a subject worthy of academic consideration.

Consider organization

You’ve got a focus, and you’ve stated it clearly and directly. Now what is the most effective way of presenting the information? What are the most important topics, subtopics, etc., that your review needs to include? And in what order should you present them? Develop an organization for your review at both a global and local level:

First, cover the basic categories

Just like most academic papers, literature reviews also must contain at least three basic elements: an introduction or background information section; the body of the review containing the discussion of sources; and, finally, a conclusion and/or recommendations section to end the paper. The following provides a brief description of the content of each:

  • Introduction: Gives a quick idea of the topic of the literature review, such as the central theme or organizational pattern.
  • Body: Contains your discussion of sources and is organized either chronologically, thematically, or methodologically (see below for more information on each).
  • Conclusions/Recommendations: Discuss what you have drawn from reviewing literature so far. Where might the discussion proceed?

Organizing the body

Once you have the basic categories in place, then you must consider how you will present the sources themselves within the body of your paper. Create an organizational method to focus this section even further.

To help you come up with an overall organizational framework for your review, consider the following scenario:

You’ve decided to focus your literature review on materials dealing with sperm whales. This is because you’ve just finished reading Moby Dick, and you wonder if that whale’s portrayal is really real. You start with some articles about the physiology of sperm whales in biology journals written in the 1980’s. But these articles refer to some British biological studies performed on whales in the early 18th century. So you check those out. Then you look up a book written in 1968 with information on how sperm whales have been portrayed in other forms of art, such as in Alaskan poetry, in French painting, or on whale bone, as the whale hunters in the late 19th century used to do. This makes you wonder about American whaling methods during the time portrayed in Moby Dick, so you find some academic articles published in the last five years on how accurately Herman Melville portrayed the whaling scene in his novel.

Now consider some typical ways of organizing the sources into a review:

  • Chronological: If your review follows the chronological method, you could write about the materials above according to when they were published. For instance, first you would talk about the British biological studies of the 18th century, then about Moby Dick, published in 1851, then the book on sperm whales in other art (1968), and finally the biology articles (1980s) and the recent articles on American whaling of the 19th century. But there is relatively no continuity among subjects here. And notice that even though the sources on sperm whales in other art and on American whaling are written recently, they are about other subjects/objects that were created much earlier. Thus, the review loses its chronological focus.
  • By publication: Order your sources by publication chronology, then, only if the order demonstrates a more important trend. For instance, you could order a review of literature on biological studies of sperm whales if the progression revealed a change in dissection practices of the researchers who wrote and/or conducted the studies.
  • By trend: A better way to organize the above sources chronologically is to examine the sources under another trend, such as the history of whaling. Then your review would have subsections according to eras within this period. For instance, the review might examine whaling from pre-1600-1699, 1700-1799, and 1800-1899. Under this method, you would combine the recent studies on American whaling in the 19th century with Moby Dick itself in the 1800-1899 category, even though the authors wrote a century apart.
  • Thematic: Thematic reviews of literature are organized around a topic or issue, rather than the progression of time. However, progression of time may still be an important factor in a thematic review. For instance, the sperm whale review could focus on the development of the harpoon for whale hunting. While the study focuses on one topic, harpoon technology, it will still be organized chronologically. The only difference here between a “chronological” and a “thematic” approach is what is emphasized the most: the development of the harpoon or the harpoon technology.But more authentic thematic reviews tend to break away from chronological order. For instance, a thematic review of material on sperm whales might examine how they are portrayed as “evil” in cultural documents. The subsections might include how they are personified, how their proportions are exaggerated, and their behaviors misunderstood. A review organized in this manner would shift between time periods within each section according to the point made.
  • Methodological: A methodological approach differs from the two above in that the focusing factor usually does not have to do with the content of the material. Instead, it focuses on the “methods” of the researcher or writer. For the sperm whale project, one methodological approach would be to look at cultural differences between the portrayal of whales in American, British, and French art work. Or the review might focus on the economic impact of whaling on a community. A methodological scope will influence either the types of documents in the review or the way in which these documents are discussed. Once you’ve decided on the organizational method for the body of the review, the sections you need to include in the paper should be easy to figure out. They should arise out of your organizational strategy. In other words, a chronological review would have subsections for each vital time period. A thematic review would have subtopics based upon factors that relate to the theme or issue.

Sometimes, though, you might need to add additional sections that are necessary for your study, but do not fit in the organizational strategy of the body. What other sections you include in the body is up to you. Put in only what is necessary. Here are a few other sections you might want to consider:

  • Current Situation: Information necessary to understand the topic or focus of the literature review.
  • History: The chronological progression of the field, the literature, or an idea that is necessary to understand the literature review, if the body of the literature review is not already a chronology.
  • Methods and/or Standards: The criteria you used to select the sources in your literature review or the way in which you present your information. For instance, you might explain that your review includes only peer-reviewed articles and journals.

Questions for Further Research: What questions about the field has the review sparked? How will you further your research as a result of the review?

Begin composing

Once you’ve settled on a general pattern of organization, you’re ready to write each section. There are a few guidelines you should follow during the writing stage as well. Here is a sample paragraph from a literature review about sexism and language to illuminate the following discussion:

However, other studies have shown that even gender-neutral antecedents are more likely to produce masculine images than feminine ones (Gastil, 1990). Hamilton (1988) asked students to complete sentences that required them to fill in pronouns that agreed with gender-neutral antecedents such as “writer,” “pedestrian,” and “persons.” The students were asked to describe any image they had when writing the sentence. Hamilton found that people imagined 3.3 men to each woman in the masculine “generic” condition and 1.5 men per woman in the unbiased condition. Thus, while ambient sexism accounted for some of the masculine bias, sexist language amplified the effect. (Source: Erika Falk and Jordan Mills, “Why Sexist Language Affects Persuasion: The Role of Homophily, Intended Audience, and Offense,” Women and Language19:2).

Use evidence

In the example above, the writers refer to several other sources when making their point. A literature review in this sense is just like any other academic research paper. Your interpretation of the available sources must be backed up with evidence to show that what you are saying is valid.

Be selective

Select only the most important points in each source to highlight in the review. The type of information you choose to mention should relate directly to the review’s focus, whether it is thematic, methodological, or chronological.

Use quotes sparingly

Falk and Mills do not use any direct quotes. That is because the survey nature of the literature review does not allow for in-depth discussion or detailed quotes from the text. Some short quotes here and there are okay, though, if you want to emphasize a point, or if what the author said just cannot be rewritten in your own words. Notice that Falk and Mills do quote certain terms that were coined by the author, not common knowledge, or taken directly from the study. But if you find yourself wanting to put in more quotes, check with your instructor.

Summarize and synthesize

Remember to summarize and synthesize your sources within each paragraph as well as throughout the review. The authors here recapitulate important features of Hamilton’s study, but then synthesize it by rephrasing the study’s significance and relating it to their own work.

Keep your own voice

While the literature review presents others’ ideas, your voice (the writer’s) should remain front and center. Notice that Falk and Mills weave references to other sources into their own text, but they still maintain their own voice by starting and ending the paragraph with their own ideas and their own words. The sources support what Falk and Mills are saying.

Use caution when paraphrasing

When paraphrasing a source that is not your own, be sure to represent the author’s information or opinions accurately and in your own words. In the preceding example, Falk and Mills either directly refer in the text to the author of their source, such as Hamilton, or they provide ample notation in the text when the ideas they are mentioning are not their own, for example, Gastil’s. For more information, please see our handout on plagiarism .

Revise, revise, revise

Draft in hand? Now you’re ready to revise. Spending a lot of time revising is a wise idea, because your main objective is to present the material, not the argument. So check over your review again to make sure it follows the assignment and/or your outline. Then, just as you would for most other academic forms of writing, rewrite or rework the language of your review so that you’ve presented your information in the most concise manner possible. Be sure to use terminology familiar to your audience; get rid of unnecessary jargon or slang. Finally, double check that you’ve documented your sources and formatted the review appropriately for your discipline. For tips on the revising and editing process, see our handout on revising drafts .

Works consulted

We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial . We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.

Anson, Chris M., and Robert A. Schwegler. 2010. The Longman Handbook for Writers and Readers , 6th ed. New York: Longman.

Jones, Robert, Patrick Bizzaro, and Cynthia Selfe. 1997. The Harcourt Brace Guide to Writing in the Disciplines . New York: Harcourt Brace.

Lamb, Sandra E. 1998. How to Write It: A Complete Guide to Everything You’ll Ever Write . Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.

Rosen, Leonard J., and Laurence Behrens. 2003. The Allyn & Bacon Handbook , 5th ed. New York: Longman.

Troyka, Lynn Quittman, and Doug Hesse. 2016. Simon and Schuster Handbook for Writers , 11th ed. London: Pearson.

You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute the source: The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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  • Literature Review: The What, Why and How-to Guide
  • Strategies to Find Sources

Literature Review: The What, Why and How-to Guide — Strategies to Find Sources

  • Getting Started
  • Introduction
  • How to Pick a Topic
  • Evaluating Sources & Lit. Reviews
  • Tips for Writing Literature Reviews
  • Writing Literature Review: Useful Sites
  • Citation Resources
  • Other Academic Writings

The Research Process

Interative Litearture Review Research Process image (Planning, Searching, Organizing, Analyzing and Writing [repeat at necessary]

Planning : Before searching for articles or books, brainstorm to develop keywords that better describe your research question.

Searching : While searching, take note of what other keywords are used to describe your topic, and use them to conduct additional searches

     ♠ Most articles include a keyword section

     ♠ Key concepts may change names throughout time so make sure to check for variations

Organizing : Start organizing your results by categories/key concepts or any organizing principle that make sense for you . This will help you later when you are ready to analyze your findings

Analyzing : While reading, start making notes of key concepts and commonalities and disagreement among the research articles you find.

♠ Create a spreadsheet  to record what articles you are finding useful and why.

♠ Create fields to write summaries of articles or quotes for future citing and paraphrasing .

Writing : Synthesize your findings. Use your own voice to explain to your readers what you learned about the literature on your topic. What are its weaknesses and strengths? What is missing or ignored?

Repeat : At any given time of the process, you can go back to a previous step as necessary.

Advanced Searching

All databases have Help pages that explain the best way to search their product. When doing literature reviews, you will want to take advantage of these features since they can facilitate not only finding the articles that you really need but also controlling the number of results and how relevant they are for your search. The most common features available in the advanced search option of databases and library online catalogs are:

  • Boolean Searching (AND, OR, NOT): Allows you to connect search terms in a way that can either limit or expand your search results 
  • Proximity Searching (N/# or W/#): Allows you to search for two or more words that occur within a specified number of words (or fewer) of each other in the database
  • Limiters/Filters : These are options that let you control what type of document you want to search: article type, date, language, publication, etc.
  • Question mark (?) or a pound sign (#) for wildcard: Used for retrieving alternate spellings of a word: colo?r will retrieve both the American spelling "color" as well as the British spelling "colour." 
  • Asterisk (*) for truncation: Used for retrieving multiple forms of a word: comput* retrieves computer, computers, computing, etc.

Want to keep track of updates to your searches? Create an account in the database to receive an alert when a new article is published that meets your search parameters!

  • EBSCOhost Advanced Search Tutorial Tips for searching a platform that hosts many library databases
  • Library's General Search Tips Check the Search tips to better used our library catalog and articles search system
  • ProQuest Database Search Tips Tips for searching another platform that hosts library databases

There is no magic number regarding how many sources you are going to need for your literature review; it all depends on the topic and what type of the literature review you are doing:

► Are you working on an emerging topic? You are not likely to find many sources, which is good because you are trying to prove that this is a topic that needs more research. But, it is not enough to say that you found few or no articles on your topic in your field. You need to look broadly to other disciplines (also known as triangulation ) to see if your research topic has been studied from other perspectives as a way to validate the uniqueness of your research question.

► Are you working on something that has been studied extensively? Then you are going to find many sources and you will want to limit how far back you want to look. Use limiters to eliminate research that may be dated and opt to search for resources published within the last 5-10 years.

  • << Previous: How to Pick a Topic
  • Next: Evaluating Sources & Lit. Reviews >>
  • Last Updated: Sep 21, 2022 2:16 PM
  • URL: https://guides.lib.uconn.edu/literaturereview

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How To Structure Your Literature Review

3 options to help structure your chapter.

By: Amy Rommelspacher (PhD) | Reviewer: Dr Eunice Rautenbach | November 2020 (Updated May 2023)

Writing the literature review chapter can seem pretty daunting when you’re piecing together your dissertation or thesis. As  we’ve discussed before , a good literature review needs to achieve a few very important objectives – it should:

  • Demonstrate your knowledge of the research topic
  • Identify the gaps in the literature and show how your research links to these
  • Provide the foundation for your conceptual framework (if you have one)
  • Inform your own  methodology and research design

To achieve this, your literature review needs a well-thought-out structure . Get the structure of your literature review chapter wrong and you’ll struggle to achieve these objectives. Don’t worry though – in this post, we’ll look at how to structure your literature review for maximum impact (and marks!).

The function of the lit review

But wait – is this the right time?

Deciding on the structure of your literature review should come towards the end of the literature review process – after you have collected and digested the literature, but before you start writing the chapter. 

In other words, you need to first develop a rich understanding of the literature before you even attempt to map out a structure. There’s no use trying to develop a structure before you’ve fully wrapped your head around the existing research.

Equally importantly, you need to have a structure in place before you start writing , or your literature review will most likely end up a rambling, disjointed mess. 

Importantly, don’t feel that once you’ve defined a structure you can’t iterate on it. It’s perfectly natural to adjust as you engage in the writing process. As we’ve discussed before , writing is a way of developing your thinking, so it’s quite common for your thinking to change – and therefore, for your chapter structure to change – as you write. 

Need a helping hand?

a literature review is not brainly

Like any other chapter in your thesis or dissertation, your literature review needs to have a clear, logical structure. At a minimum, it should have three essential components – an  introduction , a  body   and a  conclusion . 

Let’s take a closer look at each of these.

1: The Introduction Section

Just like any good introduction, the introduction section of your literature review should introduce the purpose and layout (organisation) of the chapter. In other words, your introduction needs to give the reader a taste of what’s to come, and how you’re going to lay that out. Essentially, you should provide the reader with a high-level roadmap of your chapter to give them a taste of the journey that lies ahead.

Here’s an example of the layout visualised in a literature review introduction:

Example of literature review outline structure

Your introduction should also outline your topic (including any tricky terminology or jargon) and provide an explanation of the scope of your literature review – in other words, what you  will   and  won’t   be covering (the delimitations ). This helps ringfence your review and achieve a clear focus . The clearer and narrower your focus, the deeper you can dive into the topic (which is typically where the magic lies). 

Depending on the nature of your project, you could also present your stance or point of view at this stage. In other words, after grappling with the literature you’ll have an opinion about what the trends and concerns are in the field as well as what’s lacking. The introduction section can then present these ideas so that it is clear to examiners that you’re aware of how your research connects with existing knowledge .

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2: The Body Section

The body of your literature review is the centre of your work. This is where you’ll present, analyse, evaluate and synthesise the existing research. In other words, this is where you’re going to earn (or lose) the most marks. Therefore, it’s important to carefully think about how you will organise your discussion to present it in a clear way. 

The body of your literature review should do just as the description of this chapter suggests. It should “review” the literature – in other words, identify, analyse, and synthesise it. So, when thinking about structuring your literature review, you need to think about which structural approach will provide the best “review” for your specific type of research and objectives (we’ll get to this shortly).

There are (broadly speaking)  three options  for organising your literature review.

The body section of your literature review is the where you'll present, analyse, evaluate and synthesise the existing research.

Option 1: Chronological (according to date)

Organising the literature chronologically is one of the simplest ways to structure your literature review. You start with what was published first and work your way through the literature until you reach the work published most recently. Pretty straightforward.

The benefit of this option is that it makes it easy to discuss the developments and debates in the field as they emerged over time. Organising your literature chronologically also allows you to highlight how specific articles or pieces of work might have changed the course of the field – in other words, which research has had the most impact . Therefore, this approach is very useful when your research is aimed at understanding how the topic has unfolded over time and is often used by scholars in the field of history. That said, this approach can be utilised by anyone that wants to explore change over time .

Adopting the chronological structure allows you to discuss the developments and debates in the field as they emerged over time.

For example , if a student of politics is investigating how the understanding of democracy has evolved over time, they could use the chronological approach to provide a narrative that demonstrates how this understanding has changed through the ages.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself to help you structure your literature review chronologically.

  • What is the earliest literature published relating to this topic?
  • How has the field changed over time? Why?
  • What are the most recent discoveries/theories?

In some ways, chronology plays a part whichever way you decide to structure your literature review, because you will always, to a certain extent, be analysing how the literature has developed. However, with the chronological approach, the emphasis is very firmly on how the discussion has evolved over time , as opposed to how all the literature links together (which we’ll discuss next ).

Option 2: Thematic (grouped by theme)

The thematic approach to structuring a literature review means organising your literature by theme or category – for example, by independent variables (i.e. factors that have an impact on a specific outcome).

As you’ve been collecting and synthesising literature , you’ll likely have started seeing some themes or patterns emerging. You can then use these themes or patterns as a structure for your body discussion. The thematic approach is the most common approach and is useful for structuring literature reviews in most fields.

For example, if you were researching which factors contributed towards people trusting an organisation, you might find themes such as consumers’ perceptions of an organisation’s competence, benevolence and integrity. Structuring your literature review thematically would mean structuring your literature review’s body section to discuss each of these themes, one section at a time.

The thematic structure allows you to organise your literature by theme or category  – e.g. by independent variables.

Here are some questions to ask yourself when structuring your literature review by themes:

  • Are there any patterns that have come to light in the literature?
  • What are the central themes and categories used by the researchers?
  • Do I have enough evidence of these themes?

PS – you can see an example of a thematically structured literature review in our literature review sample walkthrough video here.

Option 3: Methodological

The methodological option is a way of structuring your literature review by the research methodologies used . In other words, organising your discussion based on the angle from which each piece of research was approached – for example, qualitative , quantitative or mixed  methodologies.

Structuring your literature review by methodology can be useful if you are drawing research from a variety of disciplines and are critiquing different methodologies. The point of this approach is to question  how  existing research has been conducted, as opposed to  what  the conclusions and/or findings the research were.

The methodological structure allows you to organise your chapter by the analysis method  used - e.g. qual, quant or mixed.

For example, a sociologist might centre their research around critiquing specific fieldwork practices. Their literature review will then be a summary of the fieldwork methodologies used by different studies.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself when structuring your literature review according to methodology:

  • Which methodologies have been utilised in this field?
  • Which methodology is the most popular (and why)?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the various methodologies?
  • How can the existing methodologies inform my own methodology?

3: The Conclusion Section

Once you’ve completed the body section of your literature review using one of the structural approaches we discussed above, you’ll need to “wrap up” your literature review and pull all the pieces together to set the direction for the rest of your dissertation or thesis.

The conclusion is where you’ll present the key findings of your literature review. In this section, you should emphasise the research that is especially important to your research questions and highlight the gaps that exist in the literature. Based on this, you need to make it clear what you will add to the literature – in other words, justify your own research by showing how it will help fill one or more of the gaps you just identified.

Last but not least, if it’s your intention to develop a conceptual framework for your dissertation or thesis, the conclusion section is a good place to present this.

In the conclusion section, you’ll need to present the key findings of your literature review and highlight the gaps that exist in the literature. Based on this, you'll  need to make it clear what your study will add  to the literature.

Example: Thematically Structured Review

In the video below, we unpack a literature review chapter so that you can see an example of a thematically structure review in practice.

Let’s Recap

In this article, we’ve  discussed how to structure your literature review for maximum impact. Here’s a quick recap of what  you need to keep in mind when deciding on your literature review structure:

  • Just like other chapters, your literature review needs a clear introduction , body and conclusion .
  • The introduction section should provide an overview of what you will discuss in your literature review.
  • The body section of your literature review can be organised by chronology , theme or methodology . The right structural approach depends on what you’re trying to achieve with your research.
  • The conclusion section should draw together the key findings of your literature review and link them to your research questions.

If you’re ready to get started, be sure to download our free literature review template to fast-track your chapter outline.

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Literature review 101 - how to find articles

27 Comments

Marin

Great work. This is exactly what I was looking for and helps a lot together with your previous post on literature review. One last thing is missing: a link to a great literature chapter of an journal article (maybe with comments of the different sections in this review chapter). Do you know any great literature review chapters?

ISHAYA JEREMIAH AYOCK

I agree with you Marin… A great piece

Qaiser

I agree with Marin. This would be quite helpful if you annotate a nicely structured literature from previously published research articles.

Maurice Kagwi

Awesome article for my research.

Ache Roland Ndifor

I thank you immensely for this wonderful guide

Malik Imtiaz Ahmad

It is indeed thought and supportive work for the futurist researcher and students

Franklin Zon

Very educative and good time to get guide. Thank you

Dozie

Great work, very insightful. Thank you.

KAWU ALHASSAN

Thanks for this wonderful presentation. My question is that do I put all the variables into a single conceptual framework or each hypothesis will have it own conceptual framework?

CYRUS ODUAH

Thank you very much, very helpful

Michael Sanya Oluyede

This is very educative and precise . Thank you very much for dropping this kind of write up .

Karla Buchanan

Pheeww, so damn helpful, thank you for this informative piece.

Enang Lazarus

I’m doing a research project topic ; stool analysis for parasitic worm (enteric) worm, how do I structure it, thanks.

Biswadeb Dasgupta

comprehensive explanation. Help us by pasting the URL of some good “literature review” for better understanding.

Vik

great piece. thanks for the awesome explanation. it is really worth sharing. I have a little question, if anyone can help me out, which of the options in the body of literature can be best fit if you are writing an architectural thesis that deals with design?

S Dlamini

I am doing a research on nanofluids how can l structure it?

PATRICK MACKARNESS

Beautifully clear.nThank you!

Lucid! Thankyou!

Abraham

Brilliant work, well understood, many thanks

Nour

I like how this was so clear with simple language 😊😊 thank you so much 😊 for these information 😊

Lindiey

Insightful. I was struggling to come up with a sensible literature review but this has been really helpful. Thank you!

NAGARAJU K

You have given thought-provoking information about the review of the literature.

Vakaloloma

Thank you. It has made my own research better and to impart your work to students I teach

Alphonse NSHIMIYIMANA

I learnt a lot from this teaching. It’s a great piece.

Resa

I am doing research on EFL teacher motivation for his/her job. How Can I structure it? Is there any detailed template, additional to this?

Gerald Gormanous

You are so cool! I do not think I’ve read through something like this before. So nice to find somebody with some genuine thoughts on this issue. Seriously.. thank you for starting this up. This site is one thing that is required on the internet, someone with a little originality!

kan

I’m asked to do conceptual, theoretical and empirical literature, and i just don’t know how to structure it

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Approaching literature review for academic purposes: The Literature Review Checklist

Debora f.b. leite.

I Departamento de Ginecologia e Obstetricia, Faculdade de Ciencias Medicas, Universidade Estadual de Campinas, Campinas, SP, BR

II Universidade Federal de Pernambuco, Pernambuco, PE, BR

III Hospital das Clinicas, Universidade Federal de Pernambuco, Pernambuco, PE, BR

Maria Auxiliadora Soares Padilha

Jose g. cecatti.

A sophisticated literature review (LR) can result in a robust dissertation/thesis by scrutinizing the main problem examined by the academic study; anticipating research hypotheses, methods and results; and maintaining the interest of the audience in how the dissertation/thesis will provide solutions for the current gaps in a particular field. Unfortunately, little guidance is available on elaborating LRs, and writing an LR chapter is not a linear process. An LR translates students’ abilities in information literacy, the language domain, and critical writing. Students in postgraduate programs should be systematically trained in these skills. Therefore, this paper discusses the purposes of LRs in dissertations and theses. Second, the paper considers five steps for developing a review: defining the main topic, searching the literature, analyzing the results, writing the review and reflecting on the writing. Ultimately, this study proposes a twelve-item LR checklist. By clearly stating the desired achievements, this checklist allows Masters and Ph.D. students to continuously assess their own progress in elaborating an LR. Institutions aiming to strengthen students’ necessary skills in critical academic writing should also use this tool.

INTRODUCTION

Writing the literature review (LR) is often viewed as a difficult task that can be a point of writer’s block and procrastination ( 1 ) in postgraduate life. Disagreements on the definitions or classifications of LRs ( 2 ) may confuse students about their purpose and scope, as well as how to perform an LR. Interestingly, at many universities, the LR is still an important element in any academic work, despite the more recent trend of producing scientific articles rather than classical theses.

The LR is not an isolated section of the thesis/dissertation or a copy of the background section of a research proposal. It identifies the state-of-the-art knowledge in a particular field, clarifies information that is already known, elucidates implications of the problem being analyzed, links theory and practice ( 3 - 5 ), highlights gaps in the current literature, and places the dissertation/thesis within the research agenda of that field. Additionally, by writing the LR, postgraduate students will comprehend the structure of the subject and elaborate on their cognitive connections ( 3 ) while analyzing and synthesizing data with increasing maturity.

At the same time, the LR transforms the student and hints at the contents of other chapters for the reader. First, the LR explains the research question; second, it supports the hypothesis, objectives, and methods of the research project; and finally, it facilitates a description of the student’s interpretation of the results and his/her conclusions. For scholars, the LR is an introductory chapter ( 6 ). If it is well written, it demonstrates the student’s understanding of and maturity in a particular topic. A sound and sophisticated LR can indicate a robust dissertation/thesis.

A consensus on the best method to elaborate a dissertation/thesis has not been achieved. The LR can be a distinct chapter or included in different sections; it can be part of the introduction chapter, part of each research topic, or part of each published paper ( 7 ). However, scholars view the LR as an integral part of the main body of an academic work because it is intrinsically connected to other sections ( Figure 1 ) and is frequently present. The structure of the LR depends on the conventions of a particular discipline, the rules of the department, and the student’s and supervisor’s areas of expertise, needs and interests.

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Interestingly, many postgraduate students choose to submit their LR to peer-reviewed journals. As LRs are critical evaluations of current knowledge, they are indeed publishable material, even in the form of narrative or systematic reviews. However, systematic reviews have specific patterns 1 ( 8 ) that may not entirely fit with the questions posed in the dissertation/thesis. Additionally, the scope of a systematic review may be too narrow, and the strict criteria for study inclusion may omit important information from the dissertation/thesis. Therefore, this essay discusses the definition of an LR is and methods to develop an LR in the context of an academic dissertation/thesis. Finally, we suggest a checklist to evaluate an LR.

WHAT IS A LITERATURE REVIEW IN A THESIS?

Conducting research and writing a dissertation/thesis translates rational thinking and enthusiasm ( 9 ). While a strong body of literature that instructs students on research methodology, data analysis and writing scientific papers exists, little guidance on performing LRs is available. The LR is a unique opportunity to assess and contrast various arguments and theories, not just summarize them. The research results should not be discussed within the LR, but the postgraduate student tends to write a comprehensive LR while reflecting on his or her own findings ( 10 ).

Many people believe that writing an LR is a lonely and linear process. Supervisors or the institutions assume that the Ph.D. student has mastered the relevant techniques and vocabulary associated with his/her subject and conducts a self-reflection about previously published findings. Indeed, while elaborating the LR, the student should aggregate diverse skills, which mainly rely on his/her own commitment to mastering them. Thus, less supervision should be required ( 11 ). However, the parameters described above might not currently be the case for many students ( 11 , 12 ), and the lack of formal and systematic training on writing LRs is an important concern ( 11 ).

An institutional environment devoted to active learning will provide students the opportunity to continuously reflect on LRs, which will form a dialogue between the postgraduate student and the current literature in a particular field ( 13 ). Postgraduate students will be interpreting studies by other researchers, and, according to Hart (1998) ( 3 ), the outcomes of the LR in a dissertation/thesis include the following:

  • To identify what research has been performed and what topics require further investigation in a particular field of knowledge;
  • To determine the context of the problem;
  • To recognize the main methodologies and techniques that have been used in the past;
  • To place the current research project within the historical, methodological and theoretical context of a particular field;
  • To identify significant aspects of the topic;
  • To elucidate the implications of the topic;
  • To offer an alternative perspective;
  • To discern how the studied subject is structured;
  • To improve the student’s subject vocabulary in a particular field; and
  • To characterize the links between theory and practice.

A sound LR translates the postgraduate student’s expertise in academic and scientific writing: it expresses his/her level of comfort with synthesizing ideas ( 11 ). The LR reveals how well the postgraduate student has proceeded in three domains: an effective literature search, the language domain, and critical writing.

Effective literature search

All students should be trained in gathering appropriate data for specific purposes, and information literacy skills are a cornerstone. These skills are defined as “an individual’s ability to know when they need information, to identify information that can help them address the issue or problem at hand, and to locate, evaluate, and use that information effectively” ( 14 ). Librarian support is of vital importance in coaching the appropriate use of Boolean logic (AND, OR, NOT) and other tools for highly efficient literature searches (e.g., quotation marks and truncation), as is the appropriate management of electronic databases.

Language domain

Academic writing must be concise and precise: unnecessary words distract the reader from the essential content ( 15 ). In this context, reading about issues distant from the research topic ( 16 ) may increase students’ general vocabulary and familiarity with grammar. Ultimately, reading diverse materials facilitates and encourages the writing process itself.

Critical writing

Critical judgment includes critical reading, thinking and writing. It supposes a student’s analytical reflection about what he/she has read. The student should delineate the basic elements of the topic, characterize the most relevant claims, identify relationships, and finally contrast those relationships ( 17 ). Each scientific document highlights the perspective of the author, and students will become more confident in judging the supporting evidence and underlying premises of a study and constructing their own counterargument as they read more articles. A paucity of integration or contradictory perspectives indicates lower levels of cognitive complexity ( 12 ).

Thus, while elaborating an LR, the postgraduate student should achieve the highest category of Bloom’s cognitive skills: evaluation ( 12 ). The writer should not only summarize data and understand each topic but also be able to make judgments based on objective criteria, compare resources and findings, identify discrepancies due to methodology, and construct his/her own argument ( 12 ). As a result, the student will be sufficiently confident to show his/her own voice .

Writing a consistent LR is an intense and complex activity that reveals the training and long-lasting academic skills of a writer. It is not a lonely or linear process. However, students are unlikely to be prepared to write an LR if they have not mastered the aforementioned domains ( 10 ). An institutional environment that supports student learning is crucial.

Different institutions employ distinct methods to promote students’ learning processes. First, many universities propose modules to develop behind the scenes activities that enhance self-reflection about general skills (e.g., the skills we have mastered and the skills we need to develop further), behaviors that should be incorporated (e.g., self-criticism about one’s own thoughts), and each student’s role in the advancement of his/her field. Lectures or workshops about LRs themselves are useful because they describe the purposes of the LR and how it fits into the whole picture of a student’s work. These activities may explain what type of discussion an LR must involve, the importance of defining the correct scope, the reasons to include a particular resource, and the main role of critical reading.

Some pedagogic services that promote a continuous improvement in study and academic skills are equally important. Examples include workshops about time management, the accomplishment of personal objectives, active learning, and foreign languages for nonnative speakers. Additionally, opportunities to converse with other students promotes an awareness of others’ experiences and difficulties. Ultimately, the supervisor’s role in providing feedback and setting deadlines is crucial in developing students’ abilities and in strengthening students’ writing quality ( 12 ).

HOW SHOULD A LITERATURE REVIEW BE DEVELOPED?

A consensus on the appropriate method for elaborating an LR is not available, but four main steps are generally accepted: defining the main topic, searching the literature, analyzing the results, and writing ( 6 ). We suggest a fifth step: reflecting on the information that has been written in previous publications ( Figure 2 ).

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First step: Defining the main topic

Planning an LR is directly linked to the research main question of the thesis and occurs in parallel to students’ training in the three domains discussed above. The planning stage helps organize ideas, delimit the scope of the LR ( 11 ), and avoid the wasting of time in the process. Planning includes the following steps:

  • Reflecting on the scope of the LR: postgraduate students will have assumptions about what material must be addressed and what information is not essential to an LR ( 13 , 18 ). Cooper’s Taxonomy of Literature Reviews 2 systematizes the writing process through six characteristics and nonmutually exclusive categories. The focus refers to the reviewer’s most important points of interest, while the goals concern what students want to achieve with the LR. The perspective assumes answers to the student’s own view of the LR and how he/she presents a particular issue. The coverage defines how comprehensive the student is in presenting the literature, and the organization determines the sequence of arguments. The audience is defined as the group for whom the LR is written.
  • Designating sections and subsections: Headings and subheadings should be specific, explanatory and have a coherent sequence throughout the text ( 4 ). They simulate an inverted pyramid, with an increasing level of reflection and depth of argument.
  • Identifying keywords: The relevant keywords for each LR section should be listed to guide the literature search. This list should mirror what Hart (1998) ( 3 ) advocates as subject vocabulary . The keywords will also be useful when the student is writing the LR since they guide the reader through the text.
  • Delineating the time interval and language of documents to be retrieved in the second step. The most recently published documents should be considered, but relevant texts published before a predefined cutoff year can be included if they are classic documents in that field. Extra care should be employed when translating documents.

Second step: Searching the literature

The ability to gather adequate information from the literature must be addressed in postgraduate programs. Librarian support is important, particularly for accessing difficult texts. This step comprises the following components:

  • Searching the literature itself: This process consists of defining which databases (electronic or dissertation/thesis repositories), official documents, and books will be searched and then actively conducting the search. Information literacy skills have a central role in this stage. While searching electronic databases, controlled vocabulary (e.g., Medical Subject Headings, or MeSH, for the PubMed database) or specific standardized syntax rules may need to be applied.

In addition, two other approaches are suggested. First, a review of the reference list of each document might be useful for identifying relevant publications to be included and important opinions to be assessed. This step is also relevant for referencing the original studies and leading authors in that field. Moreover, students can directly contact the experts on a particular topic to consult with them regarding their experience or use them as a source of additional unpublished documents.

Before submitting a dissertation/thesis, the electronic search strategy should be repeated. This process will ensure that the most recently published papers will be considered in the LR.

  • Selecting documents for inclusion: Generally, the most recent literature will be included in the form of published peer-reviewed papers. Assess books and unpublished material, such as conference abstracts, academic texts and government reports, are also important to assess since the gray literature also offers valuable information. However, since these materials are not peer-reviewed, we recommend that they are carefully added to the LR.

This task is an important exercise in time management. First, students should read the title and abstract to understand whether that document suits their purposes, addresses the research question, and helps develop the topic of interest. Then, they should scan the full text, determine how it is structured, group it with similar documents, and verify whether other arguments might be considered ( 5 ).

Third step: Analyzing the results

Critical reading and thinking skills are important in this step. This step consists of the following components:

  • Reading documents: The student may read various texts in depth according to LR sections and subsections ( defining the main topic ), which is not a passive activity ( 1 ). Some questions should be asked to practice critical analysis skills, as listed below. Is the research question evident and articulated with previous knowledge? What are the authors’ research goals and theoretical orientations, and how do they interact? Are the authors’ claims related to other scholars’ research? Do the authors consider different perspectives? Was the research project designed and conducted properly? Are the results and discussion plausible, and are they consistent with the research objectives and methodology? What are the strengths and limitations of this work? How do the authors support their findings? How does this work contribute to the current research topic? ( 1 , 19 )
  • Taking notes: Students who systematically take notes on each document are more readily able to establish similarities or differences with other documents and to highlight personal observations. This approach reinforces the student’s ideas about the next step and helps develop his/her own academic voice ( 1 , 13 ). Voice recognition software ( 16 ), mind maps ( 5 ), flowcharts, tables, spreadsheets, personal comments on the referenced texts, and note-taking apps are all available tools for managing these observations, and the student him/herself should use the tool that best improves his/her learning. Additionally, when a student is considering submitting an LR to a peer-reviewed journal, notes should be taken on the activities performed in all five steps to ensure that they are able to be replicated.

Fourth step: Writing

The recognition of when a student is able and ready to write after a sufficient period of reading and thinking is likely a difficult task. Some students can produce a review in a single long work session. However, as discussed above, writing is not a linear process, and students do not need to write LRs according to a specific sequence of sections. Writing an LR is a time-consuming task, and some scholars believe that a period of at least six months is sufficient ( 6 ). An LR, and academic writing in general, expresses the writer’s proper thoughts, conclusions about others’ work ( 6 , 10 , 13 , 16 ), and decisions about methods to progress in the chosen field of knowledge. Thus, each student is expected to present a different learning and writing trajectory.

In this step, writing methods should be considered; then, editing, citing and correct referencing should complete this stage, at least temporarily. Freewriting techniques may be a good starting point for brainstorming ideas and improving the understanding of the information that has been read ( 1 ). Students should consider the following parameters when creating an agenda for writing the LR: two-hour writing blocks (at minimum), with prespecified tasks that are possible to complete in one section; short (minutes) and long breaks (days or weeks) to allow sufficient time for mental rest and reflection; and short- and long-term goals to motivate the writing itself ( 20 ). With increasing experience, this scheme can vary widely, and it is not a straightforward rule. Importantly, each discipline has a different way of writing ( 1 ), and each department has its own preferred styles for citations and references.

Fifth step: Reflecting on the writing

In this step, the postgraduate student should ask him/herself the same questions as in the analyzing the results step, which can take more time than anticipated. Ambiguities, repeated ideas, and a lack of coherence may not be noted when the student is immersed in the writing task for long periods. The whole effort will likely be a work in progress, and continuous refinements in the written material will occur once the writing process has begun.

LITERATURE REVIEW CHECKLIST

In contrast to review papers, the LR of a dissertation/thesis should not be a standalone piece or work. Instead, it should present the student as a scholar and should maintain the interest of the audience in how that dissertation/thesis will provide solutions for the current gaps in a particular field.

A checklist for evaluating an LR is convenient for students’ continuous academic development and research transparency: it clearly states the desired achievements for the LR of a dissertation/thesis. Here, we present an LR checklist developed from an LR scoring rubric ( 11 ). For a critical analysis of an LR, we maintain the five categories but offer twelve criteria that are not scaled ( Figure 3 ). The criteria all have the same importance and are not mutually exclusive.

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First category: Coverage

1. justified criteria exist for the inclusion and exclusion of literature in the review.

This criterion builds on the main topic and areas covered by the LR ( 18 ). While experts may be confident in retrieving and selecting literature, postgraduate students must convince their audience about the adequacy of their search strategy and their reasons for intentionally selecting what material to cover ( 11 ). References from different fields of knowledge provide distinct perspective, but narrowing the scope of coverage may be important in areas with a large body of existing knowledge.

Second category: Synthesis

2. a critical examination of the state of the field exists.

A critical examination is an assessment of distinct aspects in the field ( 1 ) along with a constructive argument. It is not a negative critique but an expression of the student’s understanding of how other scholars have added to the topic ( 1 ), and the student should analyze and contextualize contradictory statements. A writer’s personal bias (beliefs or political involvement) have been shown to influence the structure and writing of a document; therefore, the cultural and paradigmatic background guide how the theories are revised and presented ( 13 ). However, an honest judgment is important when considering different perspectives.

3. The topic or problem is clearly placed in the context of the broader scholarly literature

The broader scholarly literature should be related to the chosen main topic for the LR ( how to develop the literature review section). The LR can cover the literature from one or more disciplines, depending on its scope, but it should always offer a new perspective. In addition, students should be careful in citing and referencing previous publications. As a rule, original studies and primary references should generally be included. Systematic and narrative reviews present summarized data, and it may be important to cite them, particularly for issues that should be understood but do not require a detailed description. Similarly, quotations highlight the exact statement from another publication. However, excessive referencing may disclose lower levels of analysis and synthesis by the student.

4. The LR is critically placed in the historical context of the field

Situating the LR in its historical context shows the level of comfort of the student in addressing a particular topic. Instead of only presenting statements and theories in a temporal approach, which occasionally follows a linear timeline, the LR should authentically characterize the student’s academic work in the state-of-art techniques in their particular field of knowledge. Thus, the LR should reinforce why the dissertation/thesis represents original work in the chosen research field.

5. Ambiguities in definitions are considered and resolved

Distinct theories on the same topic may exist in different disciplines, and one discipline may consider multiple concepts to explain one topic. These misunderstandings should be addressed and contemplated. The LR should not synthesize all theories or concepts at the same time. Although this approach might demonstrate in-depth reading on a particular topic, it can reveal a student’s inability to comprehend and synthesize his/her research problem.

6. Important variables and phenomena relevant to the topic are articulated

The LR is a unique opportunity to articulate ideas and arguments and to purpose new relationships between them ( 10 , 11 ). More importantly, a sound LR will outline to the audience how these important variables and phenomena will be addressed in the current academic work. Indeed, the LR should build a bidirectional link with the remaining sections and ground the connections between all of the sections ( Figure 1 ).

7. A synthesized new perspective on the literature has been established

The LR is a ‘creative inquiry’ ( 13 ) in which the student elaborates his/her own discourse, builds on previous knowledge in the field, and describes his/her own perspective while interpreting others’ work ( 13 , 17 ). Thus, students should articulate the current knowledge, not accept the results at face value ( 11 , 13 , 17 ), and improve their own cognitive abilities ( 12 ).

Third category: Methodology

8. the main methodologies and research techniques that have been used in the field are identified and their advantages and disadvantages are discussed.

The LR is expected to distinguish the research that has been completed from investigations that remain to be performed, address the benefits and limitations of the main methods applied to date, and consider the strategies for addressing the expected limitations described above. While placing his/her research within the methodological context of a particular topic, the LR will justify the methodology of the study and substantiate the student’s interpretations.

9. Ideas and theories in the field are related to research methodologies

The audience expects the writer to analyze and synthesize methodological approaches in the field. The findings should be explained according to the strengths and limitations of previous research methods, and students must avoid interpretations that are not supported by the analyzed literature. This criterion translates to the student’s comprehension of the applicability and types of answers provided by different research methodologies, even those using a quantitative or qualitative research approach.

Fourth category: Significance

10. the scholarly significance of the research problem is rationalized.

The LR is an introductory section of a dissertation/thesis and will present the postgraduate student as a scholar in a particular field ( 11 ). Therefore, the LR should discuss how the research problem is currently addressed in the discipline being investigated or in different disciplines, depending on the scope of the LR. The LR explains the academic paradigms in the topic of interest ( 13 ) and methods to advance the field from these starting points. However, an excess number of personal citations—whether referencing the student’s research or studies by his/her research team—may reflect a narrow literature search and a lack of comprehensive synthesis of ideas and arguments.

11. The practical significance of the research problem is rationalized

The practical significance indicates a student’s comprehensive understanding of research terminology (e.g., risk versus associated factor), methodology (e.g., efficacy versus effectiveness) and plausible interpretations in the context of the field. Notably, the academic argument about a topic may not always reflect the debate in real life terms. For example, using a quantitative approach in epidemiology, statistically significant differences between groups do not explain all of the factors involved in a particular problem ( 21 ). Therefore, excessive faith in p -values may reflect lower levels of critical evaluation of the context and implications of a research problem by the student.

Fifth category: Rhetoric

12. the lr was written with a coherent, clear structure that supported the review.

This category strictly relates to the language domain: the text should be coherent and presented in a logical sequence, regardless of which organizational ( 18 ) approach is chosen. The beginning of each section/subsection should state what themes will be addressed, paragraphs should be carefully linked to each other ( 10 ), and the first sentence of each paragraph should generally summarize the content. Additionally, the student’s statements are clear, sound, and linked to other scholars’ works, and precise and concise language that follows standardized writing conventions (e.g., in terms of active/passive voice and verb tenses) is used. Attention to grammar, such as orthography and punctuation, indicates prudence and supports a robust dissertation/thesis. Ultimately, all of these strategies provide fluency and consistency for the text.

Although the scoring rubric was initially proposed for postgraduate programs in education research, we are convinced that this checklist is a valuable tool for all academic areas. It enables the monitoring of students’ learning curves and a concentrated effort on any criteria that are not yet achieved. For institutions, the checklist is a guide to support supervisors’ feedback, improve students’ writing skills, and highlight the learning goals of each program. These criteria do not form a linear sequence, but ideally, all twelve achievements should be perceived in the LR.

CONCLUSIONS

A single correct method to classify, evaluate and guide the elaboration of an LR has not been established. In this essay, we have suggested directions for planning, structuring and critically evaluating an LR. The planning of the scope of an LR and approaches to complete it is a valuable effort, and the five steps represent a rational starting point. An institutional environment devoted to active learning will support students in continuously reflecting on LRs, which will form a dialogue between the writer and the current literature in a particular field ( 13 ).

The completion of an LR is a challenging and necessary process for understanding one’s own field of expertise. Knowledge is always transitory, but our responsibility as scholars is to provide a critical contribution to our field, allowing others to think through our work. Good researchers are grounded in sophisticated LRs, which reveal a writer’s training and long-lasting academic skills. We recommend using the LR checklist as a tool for strengthening the skills necessary for critical academic writing.

AUTHOR CONTRIBUTIONS

Leite DFB has initially conceived the idea and has written the first draft of this review. Padilha MAS and Cecatti JG have supervised data interpretation and critically reviewed the manuscript. All authors have read the draft and agreed with this submission. Authors are responsible for all aspects of this academic piece.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

We are grateful to all of the professors of the ‘Getting Started with Graduate Research and Generic Skills’ module at University College Cork, Cork, Ireland, for suggesting and supporting this article. Funding: DFBL has granted scholarship from Brazilian Federal Agency for Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (CAPES) to take part of her Ph.D. studies in Ireland (process number 88881.134512/2016-01). There is no participation from sponsors on authors’ decision to write or to submit this manuscript.

No potential conflict of interest was reported.

1 The questions posed in systematic reviews usually follow the ‘PICOS’ acronym: Population, Intervention, Comparison, Outcomes, Study design.

2 In 1988, Cooper proposed a taxonomy that aims to facilitate students’ and institutions’ understanding of literature reviews. Six characteristics with specific categories are briefly described: Focus: research outcomes, research methodologies, theories, or practices and applications; Goals: integration (generalization, conflict resolution, and linguistic bridge-building), criticism, or identification of central issues; Perspective: neutral representation or espousal of a position; Coverage: exhaustive, exhaustive with selective citations, representative, central or pivotal; Organization: historical, conceptual, or methodological; and Audience: specialized scholars, general scholars, practitioners or policymakers, or the general public.

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Neal Haddaway

October 19th, 2020, 8 common problems with literature reviews and how to fix them.

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Literature reviews are an integral part of the process and communication of scientific research. Whilst systematic reviews have become regarded as the highest standard of evidence synthesis, many literature reviews fall short of these standards and may end up presenting biased or incorrect conclusions. In this post, Neal Haddaway highlights 8 common problems with literature review methods, provides examples for each and provides practical solutions for ways to mitigate them.

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Researchers regularly review the literature – it’s an integral part of day-to-day research: finding relevant research, reading and digesting the main findings, summarising across papers, and making conclusions about the evidence base as a whole. However, there is a fundamental difference between brief, narrative approaches to summarising a selection of studies and attempting to reliably and comprehensively summarise an evidence base to support decision-making in policy and practice.

So-called ‘evidence-informed decision-making’ (EIDM) relies on rigorous systematic approaches to synthesising the evidence. Systematic review has become the highest standard of evidence synthesis and is well established in the pipeline from research to practice in the field of health . Systematic reviews must include a suite of specifically designed methods for the conduct and reporting of all synthesis activities (planning, searching, screening, appraising, extracting data, qualitative/quantitative/mixed methods synthesis, writing; e.g. see the Cochrane Handbook ). The method has been widely adapted into other fields, including environment (the Collaboration for Environmental Evidence ) and social policy (the Campbell Collaboration ).

a literature review is not brainly

Despite the growing interest in systematic reviews, traditional approaches to reviewing the literature continue to persist in contemporary publications across disciplines. These reviews, some of which are incorrectly referred to as ‘systematic’ reviews, may be susceptible to bias and as a result, may end up providing incorrect conclusions. This is of particular concern when reviews address key policy- and practice- relevant questions, such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic or climate change.

These limitations with traditional literature review approaches could be improved relatively easily with a few key procedures; some of them not prohibitively costly in terms of skill, time or resources.

In our recent paper in Nature Ecology and Evolution , we highlight 8 common problems with traditional literature review methods, provide examples for each from the field of environmental management and ecology, and provide practical solutions for ways to mitigate them.

There is a lack of awareness and appreciation of the methods needed to ensure systematic reviews are as free from bias and as reliable as possible: demonstrated by recent, flawed, high-profile reviews. We call on review authors to conduct more rigorous reviews, on editors and peer-reviewers to gate-keep more strictly, and the community of methodologists to better support the broader research community. Only by working together can we build and maintain a strong system of rigorous, evidence-informed decision-making in conservation and environmental management.

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our  comments policy  if you have any concerns on posting a comment below

Image credit:  Jaeyoung Geoffrey Kang  via unsplash

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About the author

a literature review is not brainly

Neal Haddaway is a Senior Research Fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute, a Humboldt Research Fellow at the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change, and a Research Associate at the Africa Centre for Evidence. He researches evidence synthesis methodology and conducts systematic reviews and maps in the field of sustainability and environmental science. His main research interests focus on improving the transparency, efficiency and reliability of evidence synthesis as a methodology and supporting evidence synthesis in resource constrained contexts. He co-founded and coordinates the Evidence Synthesis Hackathon (www.eshackathon.org) and is the leader of the Collaboration for Environmental Evidence centre at SEI. @nealhaddaway

Why is mission creep a problem and not a legitimate response to an unexpected finding in the literature? Surely the crucial points are that the review’s scope is stated clearly and implemented rigorously, not when the scope was finalised.

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#9. Most of them are terribly boring. Which is why I teach students how to make them engaging…and useful.

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Literature Review - what is a Literature Review, why it is important and how it is done

The research process.

  • Evaluating Literature Reviews and Sources
  • Tips for Writing Literature Reviews
  • Writing Literature Review: Useful Sites
  • Citation Resources
  • Other Academic Writings
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Finding sources (scholarly articles, research books, dissertations) for your literature review is part of the research process, a process that is iterative--you go back and forth along the process as new information is gather and analyze until all necessary data is acquire and you are ready to write. The main steps in this research process are:

a literature review is not brainly

Searching : While searching take note of what other keywords are used to describe your topic  and use them to do more searches

– Most articles include a keyword section – Key concepts may change name through time so make sure to check for variations

Organising : Start organizing your results by categories/key concepts or any organizing principle that make sense for you. This will help you later when you are ready to analyze your findings

Analysing : While reading, start making notes of key concepts and commonalities and disagreement among the research articles you find.

– Create a spreadsheet document to record what articles you are finding useful and why. – Create fields to write summaries of articles or quotes for future citing and paraphrasing .

Writing : Synthesize your findings. Use your own voice to explain to your readers what you learn about the literature your search; its weaknesses and strengths; what is missing or ignore

Repeat : at any given time of the process you can go back to a previous step as necessary

There is no magic number regarding how many sources you are going to need for your literature review, it all depends on the topic and what type of the literature review you are doing:

► Are you working on an emerging topic? You are not likely to find many sources, which is good because you are trying to prove that this is a topic that needs more research. But, it is not enough to say that you found few or no articles on your topic in your field. You need to look broadly to other disciplines (also known as triangulation ) to see if your research topic has been studied from other perspectives as a way to validate the uniqueness of your research question.

► Are you working on  something that has been studied extensively? Then you are going to find many sources and you will want to limit how far you want to look back. Use limiters to eliminate research that may be dated and opt to search for resources published within the last 5-10 years.

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The Library, Technological University of the Shannon: Midwest

  • Open access
  • Published: 21 May 2024

Health profession education hackathons: a scoping review of current trends and best practices

  • Azadeh Rooholamini   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-9638-7953 1 &
  • Mahla Salajegheh   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0003-0651-3467 1  

BMC Medical Education volume  24 , Article number:  554 ( 2024 ) Cite this article

Metrics details

While the concept of hacking in education has gained traction in recent years, there is still much uncertainty surrounding this approach. As such, this scoping review seeks to provide a detailed overview of the existing literature on hacking in health profession education and to explore what we know (and do not know) about this emerging trend.

This was a scoping review study using specific keywords conducted on 8 databases (PubMed, Embase, Scopus, Web of Science, ERIC, PsycINFO, Education Source, CINAHL) with no time limitation. To find additional relevant studies, we conducted a forward and backward searching strategy by checking the reference lists and citations of the included articles. Studies reporting the concept and application of hacking in education and those articles published in English were included. Titles, abstracts, and full texts were screened and the data were extracted by 2 authors.

Twenty-two articles were included. The findings are organized into two main categories, including (a) a Description of the interventions and expected outcomes and (b) Aspects of hacking in health profession education.

Hacking in health profession education refers to a positive application that has not been explored before as discovering creative and innovative solutions to enhance teaching and learning. This includes implementing new instructional methods, fostering collaboration, and critical thinking to utilize unconventional approaches.

Peer Review reports

Introduction

Health professions education is a vital component of healthcare systems to provide students with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to provide high-quality care to patients [ 1 ]. However, with the advent of innovative technologies and changing global dynamics, there is a growing need to incorporate new educational methods to prepare medical science students for the future [ 2 ].

Although traditional methods can be effective for certain learning objectives and in specific contexts and may create a stable and predictable learning environment, beneficial for introducing foundational concepts, memorization, and repetition, however, they may not fully address the diverse needs and preferences of today’s learners [ 3 ]. Some of their limitations may be limited engagement, passive learning, lack of personalization, and limited creativity and critical thinking [ 4 ].

As Du et al. (2022) revealed the traditional teaching model fails to capture the complex needs of today’s students who require practical and collaborative learning experiences. Students nowadays crave interactive learning methods that enable them to apply theoretical knowledge in real-world situations [ 5 ].

To achieve innovation in health professions education, engaging students and helping them learn, educators should use diverse and new educational methods [ 6 ]. Leary et al. (2022) described how schools of nursing can integrate innovation into their mission and expressed that education officials must think strategically about the knowledge and skills the next generation of students will need to learn, to build an infrastructure that supports innovation in education, research, and practice, and provide meaningful collaboration with other disciplines to solve challenging problems. Such efforts should be structured and built on a deliberate plan and include curricular innovations, and experiential learning in the classroom, as well as in practice and research [ 7 ].

The incorporation of technology in education is another aspect that cannot be ignored. Technology has revolutionized the way we communicate and learn, providing opportunities for students to access information and resources beyond the traditional education setting. According to the advancement of technology in education, hacking in education is an important concept in this field [ 8 ].

Hack has become an increasingly popular term in recent years, with its roots in the world of computer programming and technology [ 9 ]. However, the term “hack” is not limited solely to the realm of computers and technology. It can also refer to a creative approach to problem-solving, a willingness to challenge established norms, and a desire to find new and innovative ways to accomplish tasks [ 10 ]. At its core, hacking involves exploring and manipulating technology systems to gain a deeper understanding of how they work. This process of experimentation and discovery can be applied to many different fields, including education [ 11 ].

In education, the concept of “hack” has become popular as educators seek innovative ways to engage students and improve learning outcomes. As Wizel (2019) described “hack in education” involves applying hacker mentality and techniques, such as using technology creatively and challenging traditional structures, to promote innovation within the educational system [ 12 ]. These hacking techniques encompass various strategies like gamification, hackathons, creating new tools and resources for education, use of multimedia presentations, online forums, and educational apps for project-based learning [ 9 ]. Butt et al. (2020) demonstrated the effectiveness of hack in education in promoting cross-disciplinary learning in medical education [ 13 ]. However, concerns exist about the negative connotations and ethical implications of hacking in education, with some educators hesitant to embrace these techniques in their classrooms [ 7 , 14 ].

However, while the concept of hack in education has gained traction in recent years, there is still a great deal of uncertainty surrounding its implementation and efficacy. As such, this scoping review seeks to provide a comprehensive overview of the existing literature on hacking in health profession education (HPE), to explore what we know (and do not know) about this emerging trend. To answer this research question, this study provided a comprehensive review of the literature related to hacking in HPE. Specifically, it explored the various ways in which educators are using hack techniques to improve learning outcomes, increase student engagement, and promote creativity in the classroom.

Methods and materials

This scoping review was performed based on the Arksey and O’Malley Framework [ 15 ] and Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) statement to answer some questions about the hacking approach in health professions education [ 16 ].

Search strategies

The research question was “What are the aspects of hacking in education?“. We used the PCC framework which is commonly used in scoping reviews to develop the research question [ 17 ]. In such a way the Population assumed as learners, the Concept supposed as aspects of hacking in education, and the Context is considered to be the health profession education.

A systematic literature search was conducted on June 2023, using the following terms and their combinations: hack OR hacking OR hackathon AND education, professional OR “medical education” OR “medical training” OR “nursing education” OR “dental education” OR “pharmacy education” OR “health professions education” OR “health professional education” OR “higher education” OR “healthcare education” OR “health care education” OR “students, health occupations” OR “medical student” OR “nursing student” OR “dental student” OR “pharmacy student” OR “schools, health occupations” OR “medical school” OR “nursing school” OR “dental school” OR “pharmacy school”) in 8 databases (PubMed, Embase, Scopus, Web of Science, ERIC, PsycINFO, Education Source, CINAHL) with no time limitation. (A copy of the search strategy is included in Appendix 1 ). To find additional relevant studies, we conducted a forward and backward searching strategy by checking the reference lists and citations of the included articles.

Inclusion and exclusion criteria

Original research reporting the different aspects of hacking in health professions education and published in English was included. We excluded commentaries, editorials, opinion pieces, perspectives, reviews, calls for change, needs assessments, and other studies in which no real interventions had been employed.

Study identification

After removing the duplicates, each study potentially meeting the inclusion criteria was independently screened by 2 authors (A.R. and M.S.). Then, the full texts of relevant papers were assessed independently by the 2 authors for relevance and inclusion. Disagreements at either step were resolved when needed until a consensus was reached.

Quality assessment of the studies

We used the BEME checklist [ 18 ], consisting of 11 indicators, to assess the quality of studies. Each indicator was rated as “met,” “unmet,” or “unclear.” To be deemed of high quality, articles should meet at least 7 indicators. The quality of the full text of potentially relevant studies was assessed by 2 authors (A.R. and M.S.). Disagreements were resolved through discussion. No study was removed based on the results of the quality assessment.

Data extraction and synthesis

To extract the data from the studies, a data extraction form was designed based on the results of the entered studies. A narrative synthesis was applied as a method for comparing, contrasting, synthesizing, and interpreting the results of the selected papers. All outcomes relevant to the review question were reported. The two authors reviewed and coded each included study using the data extraction form independently.

A total of 645 titles were found, with a further four titles identified through the hand-searching of reference lists of all reviewed articles. After removing the duplicate references, 422 references remained. After title screening, 250 studies were considered for abstract screening, and 172 studies were excluded. After the abstract screening, 73 studies were considered for full-text screening, and 177 studies were excluded due to reasons such as:1. being irrelevant, 2. loss of data, and 3. language limitation. 22 studies were included in the final analysis. The 2020 PRISMA diagram for the included studies is shown in Fig.  1 . The quality was evaluated as “high” in 12 studies, “moderate” in 7 studies, and “low” in 3 studies.

figure 1

PRISMA flow diagram for included studies

The review findings are organized into two main categories: (a) Description of the interventions and expected outcomes and (b) Aspects of hacking in health profession education.

Description of the interventions and expected outcomes

The description of the studies included the geographical context of the interventions, type, and number of participants, focus of the intervention, evaluation methodology, and outcomes. Table  1 displays a summary of these features.

Geographical context

Of the 22 papers reviewed, 11 studies (45.4%) took place in the United States of America [ 7 , 19 , 20 , 21 , 22 , 23 , 24 , 25 , 26 , 27 , 28 ], two studies in Pakistan [ 13 , 29 ], one study performed in international locations [ 30 ], and the remainder being in the United Kingdom [ 31 ], Germany [ 32 ], Finland [ 33 ], Australia [ 34 ], Austria [ 35 ], Thailand [ 36 ], Africa [ 37 ], and Canada [ 38 ].

Type and number of participants

Hacking in HPE interventions covered a wide range and multiple audiences. The majority of interventions targeted students (17 studies, 77.2%) [ 7 , 13 , 20 , 21 , 23 , 24 , 25 , 26 , 27 , 29 , 30 , 31 , 32 , 33 , 36 , 37 , 38 ]. Their field of education was reported differently including medicine, nursing, engineering, design, business, kinesiology, and computer sciences. Also, they were undergraduates, postgraduates, residents, and post-docs. Ten interventions (45.4%) were designed for physicians [ 13 , 19 , 21 , 24 , 25 , 26 , 28 , 29 , 33 , 35 ]. Their field of practice was reported diverse including psychology, radiology, surgery, and in some cases not specified. Eight (36.3%) studies focused on staff which included healthcare staff, employees of the university, nurses, care experts, and public health specialists [ 13 , 22 , 26 , 28 , 29 , 30 , 32 , 35 ]. Interestingly, nine of the hacking in HPE interventions (40.9%) welcomed specialists from other fields outside of health sciences and medicine [ 13 , 19 , 22 , 25 , 26 , 28 , 29 , 33 , 35 ]. Their field of practice was very diverse including engineers, theologians, artists, entrepreneurs, designers, informaticists, IT professionals, business professionals, industry members, data scientists, and user interface designers. The next group of participants was faculty with 5 studies (22.7%) [ 7 , 23 , 32 , 34 , 36 ]. An intervention (4.5%) targeted the researchers [ 27 ]. The number of participants in the interventions ranged from 12 to 396. Three studies did not specify the number of their participants.

The focus of the intervention

The half of interventions aimed to improve HPE (12 studies, 54.5%) [ 7 , 13 , 21 , 23 , 24 , 26 , 28 , 30 , 31 , 32 , 34 , 38 ], with a secondary emphasis on enhancing clinical or health care [ 19 , 22 , 25 , 29 , 33 , 35 , 36 , 37 ]. Two studies highlighted the improvement in entrepreneurship skills of health professions [ 19 , 20 ]. One study aimed to improve the research skills of health professionals [ 27 ].

Evaluation methodology

Methods to evaluate hacking in HPE interventions included end-of-program questionnaires, pre-and post-test measures to assess attitudinal or cognitive change, self-assessment of post-training performance, project-based assessment through expert judgment and feedback, interviews with participants, and direct observations of behavior.

Hacking in HPE interventions has resulted in positive outcomes for participants. Five studies found high levels of satisfaction for participants with the intervention [ 21 , 31 , 32 , 33 , 37 ]. Some studies evaluated learning, which included changes in attitudes, knowledge, and skills. In most studies, participants demonstrated a gain in knowledge regarding awareness of education’s strengths and problems, in the desire to improve education by enhancement of awareness for technological possibilities [ 7 , 13 , 19 , 21 , 23 , 30 , 32 , 33 , 34 , 35 , 38 ]. Some studies found improving participant familiarity with healthcare innovation [ 19 , 22 , 24 , 25 , 26 , 33 , 36 , 37 ]. Some participants reported a positive change in attitudes towards HPE as a result of their involvement in hacking interventions. They cited a greater awareness of personal strengths and limitations, increased motivation, more confidence, and a notable appreciation of the benefits of professional development [ 20 , 21 , 29 , 34 ]. Some studies also demonstrated behavioral change. In one study, changes were noted in developing a successful proof-of-concept of a radiology training module with elements of gamification, enhancement engagement, and learning outcomes in radiology training [ 28 ]. In a study, participants reported building relationships when working with other members which may be students, faculty, or healthcare professionals [ 7 ]. Five studies found a high impact on participant perceptions and attitudes toward interdisciplinary collaboration [ 22 , 26 , 27 , 36 , 38 ].

Aspects of hacking in health profession education

The special insights of hacking in HPE included the adaptations considered in the interventions, the challenges of interventions, the suggestions for future interventions, and Lessons learned.

Adaptations

The adaptations are considered to improve the efficacy of hacking in HPE interventions. We found that 21 interventions were described as hackathons. Out of this number, some were only hackathons, and some others had benefited from hackathons besides other implications of hacking in education. Therefore, most of the details in this part of the findings are presented with a focus on hackathons. The hackathon concept has been limited to the industry and has not been existing much in education [ 39 , 40 ]. In the context of healthcare, hackathons are events exposing healthcare professionals to innovative methodologies while working with interdisciplinary teams to co-create solutions to the problems they see in their practice [ 19 , 22 , 24 , 25 , 30 , 41 , 42 ].

Some hackathons used various technologies for internal and external interactions during the hackathon including Zoom, Gmail, WhatsApp, Google Meet, etc [ 37 ]. . . Almost all hackathons were planned and performed in the following steps including team formation, team working around the challenges, finding innovative solutions collaboratively, presenting the solutions and being evaluating based on some criteria including whether they work, are good ideas with a suitable problem/solution fit, how a well-designed experience and execution, etc. For example, in the hackathon conducted by Pathanasethpong et al. (2017), the judging criteria included innovativeness, feasibility, and value of the projects [ 36 ]. Also, they managed the cultural differences between the participants through strong support of leadership, commitment, flexibility, respect for culture, and willingness to understand each other’s needs [ 36 ].

Despite valuable adaptations, several challenges were reported. The hackathons faced some challenges such as limited internet connectivity, time limitations, limited study sample, power supply, associated costs, lack of diversity among participants, start-up culture, and lack of organizational support [ 13 , 19 , 25 , 28 , 30 , 34 , 37 ]. Some interventions reported the duration of the hackathon was deemed too short to develop comprehensive solutions [ 37 ]. One study identified that encouraging experienced physicians and other healthcare experts to participate in healthcare hackathons is an important challenge [ 26 ].

Suggestions for the future

Future hackathons should provide internet support for participants and judges, invite investors and philanthropists to provide seed funding for winning teams, and enable equal engagement of all participants to foster interdisciplinary collaboration [ 37 ]. Subsequent hackathons have to evaluate the effect of implementation or durability of the new knowledge in practice [ 19 , 28 ]. Wang et al. (2018) performed a hackathon to bring together interdisciplinary teams of students and professionals to collaborate, brainstorm, and build solutions to unmet clinical needs. They suggested that future healthcare hackathon organizers a balanced distribution of participants and mentors, publicize the event to diverse clinical specialties, provide monetary prizes and investor networking opportunities for post-hackathon development, and establish a formal vetting process for submitted needs that incorporates faculty review and well-defined evaluation criteria [ 22 ]. Most interventions had an overreliance on self-assessments to assess their effectiveness. To move forward, we should consider the use of novel assessment methods [ 30 ].

Lessons learned

Based on the findings of hackathons, they have developed efficient solutions to different problems related to public health and medical education. Some of these solutions included developing novel computer algorithms, designing and building model imaging devices, designing more approachable online patient user websites, developing initial prototypes, developing or optimizing data analysis tools, and creating a mobile app to optimize hospital logistics [ 25 , 26 , 27 , 36 ]. Staziaki et al. (2022) performed an intervention to develop a radiology curriculum. Their strategies were creating new tools and resources, gamification, and conducting a hackathon with colleagues from five different countries. They revealed a radiology training module that utilized gamification elements, including experience points and a leaderboard, for annotation of chest radiographs of patients with tuberculosis [ 28 ].

Most hackathons provide an opportunity for medical health professionals to inter-professional and inter-university collaboration and use technology to produce innovative solutions to public health and medical education [ 7 , 23 , 26 , 30 , 37 , 38 ]. For example, one study discussed that hackathons allowed industry experts and mentors to connect with students [ 37 ]. In the study by Mosene et al. (2023), results offer an insight into the possibilities of hackathons as a teaching/learning event for educational development and thus can be used for large-scale-assessments and qualitative interviews for motivational aspects to participate in hackathons, development of social skills and impact on job orientation [ 32 ].

The participants’ willingness to continue working on the projects after the hackathons was also reported in some papers [ 13 , 29 , 33 ]. One study highlights the potential of hackathons to address unmet workforce needs and the preference of female surgeons for small-group discussions and workshops [ 24 ]. Craddock et al. (2016) discussed that their intervention provided a unique opportunity for junior researchers and those from developing economies who have limited opportunities to interact with peers and senior scientists outside their home institution [ 27 ].

Dameff et al. (2019) developed and evaluated a novel high-fidelity simulation-based cybersecurity training program for healthcare providers. They found significant improvements in the knowledge and confidence of participants related to clinical cybersecurity after completing the simulation exercise. They also reported high levels of satisfaction with the training program [ 21 ].

This scoping review provided a detailed overview of the existing literature on hacking in health profession education and explored what we know (and do not know) about this emerging trend. Our results emphasized the increasing pattern of utilizing hacking in HPE for enhancing teaching and learning, problem-solving, and product generation. Our findings revealed that elements of hacking in HPE can include; innovation, creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration. Innovation is a critical element of hacking in education that holds different meanings for different disciplines. Those involved in HPE consider innovation to create new tools and resources [ 7 , 28 ], hackathons [ 13 , 19 , 20 , 22 , 23 , 24 , 25 , 26 , 27 , 28 , 29 , 30 , 31 , 32 , 33 , 34 , 35 , 36 , 37 , 38 ], gamification [ 28 ], and simulation-based training [ 21 ].

This study by introducing a different perspective or a new application of hacking that has not been explored before allows for a broader understanding of hacking and its potential positive applications in HPE. Although it does mention “hacking,” it does not refer to the malicious or illegal activities often associated with the term [ 43 , 44 ]. The results of this study indicate incorporating hacking into HPE aimed at improving education and enhancing clinical or healthcare had positive outcomes in learning, attitudes, knowledge, and skills. Embracing hacking in HPE revolutionizes traditional teaching methods, promotes interdisciplinary collaboration, leverages cutting-edge technologies, and cultivates a culture of lifelong learning, ultimately enhancing clinical outcomes and the healthcare system as a whole [ 13 , 20 , 21 , 22 , 26 , 27 , 28 , 30 , 31 , 32 , 33 , 34 , 36 , 37 , 38 ].

This study reveals that hackathons are more prominent in the United States of America (USA) education system compared to other countries due to the culture of innovation and entrepreneurship [ 7 , 19 , 20 , 21 , 22 , 23 , 24 , 25 , 26 , 27 , 28 ]. It is important to note that while hackathons are more prominent in the USA, they are also gaining popularity in other countries [ 13 , 29 , 30 , 31 , 32 , 33 , 34 , 35 , 36 , 37 , 38 ]. This mindset directly contributes to designing effective interventions and driving innovation across different countries and regions around the world. In comparison to other educational interventions, in hacking within education studies, the geographical context, the focus of the intervention, and outcomes can play a significant role in shaping the educational intervention. The relationship between them can be explained through Socio-cultural theory which emphasizes the influence of social interactions and cultural factors in learning and development [ 45 ]. According to this theory, factors such as cultural values, societal norms, availability of technological resources, access to educational opportunities, and collaboration with local communities all play a role in shaping the outcomes of hacking in education. In light of the findings, creating a positive impact on education through “hacking” as innovation requires adaptations and overcoming challenges. Adaptations could involve modifying traditional teaching methods, incorporating new technologies into the learning process, or adopting new pedagogical approaches, such as project-based learning or blended learning [ 40 ]. Adapting education through hacking means finding innovative solutions to improve teaching methods, student engagement, and overall learning outcomes [ 46 ]. Challenges refer to the obstacles or barriers that educators, leaders, or organizations may face when trying to implement innovative changes in education could be related to resistance to change, lack of resources or funding, bureaucratic hurdles, or simply the complexities of navigating a rapidly changing educational landscape [ 47 ]. Therefore, driving positive change requires leading with creativity, perseverance, and collaboration [ 48 ]. In this way, different leadership and management approaches and models can help to create change. For example, studies show that Kotter’s 8-Step Change theory can be considered a guide for educators to lead innovation in education through hacking [ 49 ].

With a clear definition of innovation, the next is to consider how to systematize and embed a culture of innovation within the educational organization. An important component of this strategy is tying innovation to professional, school, and university priorities. Innovation is a human-centered endeavor and requires key stakeholders’ engagement to identify challenges and opportunities. Our findings emphasized that while meeting with multiple stakeholders is critical, developing other champions of an innovation focus is essential. Consider resources available in developing internal and external advisory members, local entrepreneurs, or leaders in innovation roles. Other strategies can be used to guide the design and development of innovation programs including co-design sessions, focus groups, and the use of external consultants.

Faculty members are the main actors of change and the most effective source of creativity in education. They have a significant role to play in driving change in education by preparing the ground for creativity, adapting to new changes, and stimulating change within the classroom. They can create a positive and innovative learning environment that benefits both students and the entire organization [ 50 , 51 ].

For many faculty members, innovation will be a new area of inquiry. Hence, based on our findings we recommend to the planners and organizers of faculty development programs to design and implement some programs about innovation in the teaching and learning process considering these three key elements: building knowledge, acquiring skills in applying rigorous innovation methodologies to identifying and solving problems, and generating opportunities to participate in innovation activities can way to develop an interest in innovation and elevate it as a school goal and priority [ 51 , 52 ].

Overall, these findings demonstrate that the hackathon effectively met its objectives in the case of HPE by promoting interdisciplinary collaboration, building relationships, facilitating learning, developing innovation, knowledge acquisition, practical problem-solving skills, cross-disciplinary tools for teaching and learning, and inquiry-based learning. In addition, findings reveal the positive outcomes of hackathons in HPE including increasing confidence levels as innovators, enhancing awareness of technological possibilities for future healthcare givers, improved familiarity with healthcare innovation and teaching entrepreneurship, improving engagement, and learning outcomes in training, high participant satisfaction, and increased motivation with the program. Also, Hackathon in HPE emphasizes the role of multidisciplinary teams and technology in solving medical education problems and encourages disciplinary collaborations to improve data collection and analysis [ 7 , 13 , 19 , 20 , 21 , 22 , 23 , 24 , 25 , 26 , 27 , 28 , 29 , 30 , 31 , 32 , 33 , 34 , 35 , 36 , 37 , 38 ]. A potential gap of knowledge in this study is the lack of research on the long-term impact and sustainability of hacking in HPE. While the study highlights the positive outcomes of incorporating hacking into education, it does not delve into the long-term effects or address the potential challenges in maintaining and sustaining these innovative practices. Additionally, there is limited mention of the assessment methods used to measure the effectiveness of hacking in education, which could be an area for further investigation.

Some limitations of this study are including, this comprehensive study includes a straightforward research question, a predefined search strategy, and inclusion and exclusion criteria for studies that summarize all relevant studies, allowing for a detailed understanding of the available evidence. This had some limitations when it came to collecting eligible articles. Since this review extracted only published research, there are educational interventions that are reported at conferences but have not yet been published in the literature. The moderate quality of full-text studies is indeed a limitation of this study. Future research should consider including higher-quality full-text studies to enhance the robustness of the findings.

Although we searched for articles using general keywords, these were limited to hackathon keywords. Further research is needed to conduct hackathons in HPE to drive sustained innovation and crowd-source solutions. First, research should investigate how to enhance faculty and student engagement and retention to foster hackathons in HPE. Second, a multidisciplinary study is crucial to strike a balance between embracing innovation and evaluating its impact to ensure its successful integration into the education system. Third, future research could focus on exploring the long-term impact, sustainability, and assessment methods of incorporating hackathons in HPE.

Hacking in the health profession educational context refers to the positive applications in teaching and learning that have not been explored before. Embracing hacking requires adaptations, overcoming challenges, and driving change through creativity, perseverance, and collaboration. The goal of hacking in health profession education is to create a more dynamic, adaptable, and effective educational system that meets the needs of all learners and prepares them for success in the rapidly evolving 21st-century economy.

Data availability

The datasets used and/or analyzed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

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Acknowledgements

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This study was conducted with the financial support of the Vice-Chancellor for Research and Technology of Kerman University of Medical Sciences (project number: 402000210).The role of the funding body was to provide support for data collection and analysis.

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AR and MS formulated the research idea, extracted data, and performed the analysis of the data, wrote the manuscript, and edited the draft of the paper. All authors approved the final manuscript.

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Rooholamini, A., Salajegheh, M. Health profession education hackathons: a scoping review of current trends and best practices. BMC Med Educ 24 , 554 (2024). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12909-024-05519-7

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  24. Health profession education hackathons: a scoping review of current

    Background While the concept of hacking in education has gained traction in recent years, there is still much uncertainty surrounding this approach. As such, this scoping review seeks to provide a detailed overview of the existing literature on hacking in health profession education and to explore what we know (and do not know) about this emerging trend. Methods This was a scoping review study ...