Finding your way through the literature review maze

When I began the process of reading for my thesis, my supervisor showed me her notebooks. Opening the first page she showed me her intricate system of coding- a grid of concepts and page references for sections of the exercise book. She had a lot of these books, her system working for her and enabling her to quickly produce papers as she simply turned to her grid and could instantly locate the references she wanted to find. I was overwhelmed with this approach at the start of my PhD – for one thing, how could I know that the coding I might put in a grid would be worthwhile? What would happen if I amassed pages of notes on concepts that turned out to have no use to me whatsoever?  

I attended a graduate studies workshop on writing the literature review and didn’t pay much attention – I thought writing the literature review was a long way off, so I didn’t really absorb the messages. Instead I sucked up information about how people made notes on what they were reading. One recently finished student talked about writing summaries of each reading after he finished it and of the ideas that seemed most relevant to his work. I liked this idea and it probably influenced the beginning way that I went about organising my reading.  

I began with notebooks where I was making notes on EVERYTHING I was reading. I was trying out organising notes in themes, having a notebook with yellow post it indexes for key areas of my reading. Along with this I had notes scrawled all over PDF copies of journal articles and I was keeping these in folders.   I didn’t really have a cohesive approach to the way I was going about this at first. I just kept reading and then finding something else that I wanted to read, another reference in the reference list that I just had to follow up before I could start writing. Now I know that this idea that I had to read a bit more before I could start writing is the great procrastinator’s trap – but at the time I thought it was just the path of a dedicated student- trying to amass a body of knowledge before beginning writing. It’s totally at odds with the advice I now give my own students, telling them to write early and often as a way of formulating ideas, identifying gaps and providing the basis for useful rewriting.

I didn’t really have in mind any idea of how I was going to structure my literature review when I did my first draft- I knew I was going to have to bring together the literature about emotion and teachers’ work, but as I took notes I didn’t have any grand sense of how this was going to all hang together.  In my research journal I had written “I wrote my own brief summaries which hopefully I can link together to make my lit review” (5/2/10). I took myself down to my parent’s place at the beach, figuring that the sound of the sea would provide all the inspiration I needed to get the lit review done.

My first draft was just what I had made note of in my journal – it was just summaries of what I had read. All I did was trace the arguments of what other people had done and said and I had no sense of bringing this together in a way that would become a critical synthesis of the field of research, something my supervisors pointed out when they sent it back to me.

I looked at their comments and looked at my theme notes and folders of readings and everything just seemed disjointed. I was also at a point where I wasn’t confident enough in being able to bring the critical element to the literature review. I remember thinking, how can I critique this work when I still have so much to learn? Gradually though I came to see that this ability to synthesise my reading and critically engage with the literature would be a key part of my development as a researcher.

One of the key steps I made on the journey to rewriting my literature review was to map the concepts I was going to engage with. I began with a big sheet of paper and started drawing bubbles of concepts/ themes that I wanted to explore in my literature review. Once I had done this I turned to Inspiration as a tool for mapping, and created concept maps that contained questions I was going to explore and the key texts and key quotes that I needed to explore in order to engage with the field of research I was entering.

The key questions I found useful in constructing my literature review concept maps were:

What is the broad field of research I am working within? What have been the key developments in that field?

How am I defining key terms related to my research field? What literature have I drawn on in the development of my definitions?

What is the literature telling me about the current research in my field? What are people working on and why? How does my own work fit in relation to what is currently being done?

What are the key methodological and theoretical frameworks people are drawing from? How do these relate to my work?

What are the gaps in the literature? How does my own work address these gaps and contribute to the body of knowledge?

The conceptual mapping I did enabled me to then work towards a structure for my literature review enabling me to provide a broad overview of the field of study before moving on to examine what previous studies had discovered, and the gaps that exist in the field, along with an indication of the ways in which my work was going to contribute to the body of knowledge we had.

Using each map enabled me to rewrite each section of my review with a greater sense of purpose. Rather than just being a descriptive summary of all I had read, it enabled me to synthesise my reading, evaluate what I was reading and most importantly, to relate what I was reading to my own research question. The next draft wasn’t perfect, but it was much more focused than my initial attempt and got me further on the rewriting journey.

So that’s a brief description of how I started to work my way through my literature review, how will you begin your lit review journey?




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