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Study Skills

Literature review assignments

'If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.' Sir Isaac Newton

All scholars refer to the work of other scholars in their writing. In this way, they participate in a type of academic conversation that helps to build knowledge in their discipline. As a student, you also participate in this conversation by referencing the experts in your field. Literature reviews are one type of assignment that develops your ability to do this.

This material aims to help undergraduate and postgraduate coursework students who need to write a short literature review as a university assignment. If you are a research student, visit Writing a literature review in Research Communication.

This page will help you to: 

  • understand the purpose of literature review assignments 

  • follow the steps to write a literature review assignment. 

  • ask questions to evaluate the literature 

  • organise notes for literature review assignments 

  • structure your literature review assignment 

  • use appropriate language to report on and critique literature. 

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Before you continue, reflect on your previous writing experiences and the feedback you have received. How would you rate your ability in the following skills? Rate your ability from ‘good’ to ‘needs development’.  

Reflect on your answers. Congratulations if you feel confident about your skills. You may find it helpful to review the materials on this page to confirm your knowledge and possibly learn more. Don't worry if you don't feel confident. Work through these materials to build your skills. 

Introduction to literature review assignments

This section gives a simple overview of literature review assignments. It includes their purpose, a process for writing a review, questions for evaluating literature, and a method for organising your notes.

An overview of literature reviews as an assignment

Learn more about literature reviews as an assignment by watching this video: 

Reflect on what you have learned in the video about literature reviews as an assignment. Select the best sentence out of each pair to create a summary of the main points. 

The purpose of literature review assignments

What's the difference between an essay and a literature review? 

  • An essay examines a topic: you discuss the topic and the literature is used as evidence to support your ideas.

  • A literature review examines the literature of a topic: you discuss what has been published on that topic. In fact, we can say that the literature is the topic. 

Before you begin your literature review, you should try to understand the purpose of the task.  

  1. Read the instructions carefully.  

  2. Consider how the task helps you meet the unit learning outcomes. 

  3. Consider how the task might help you to build your knowledge or complete later assessments. 

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Reflect: Why do you think your lecturer has set the literature review task? Is it:

  • a stand-alone assignment? Lecturers create these tasks to help you get to know the important literature in your field. 

  • a step in a long project? Lecturers create these tasks to ensure you have understood the literature that you will need for a longer or more complex project later.

In brief, when writing a literature review, you must show your understanding of the literature.  

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Steps to writing a literature review

The following steps can guide you through the process of writing a literature review. You could download this PDF so you can tick off each step as you finish it.

 

Step 1 

 

Read the instructions very carefully to ensure you understand task requirements. You should check, for example: 

  • What is the aim of the literature review? 

  • What type of sources are you expected to include? For instance, should they all be peer-reviewed? When should they have been published? 

  • How many sources are you expected to include?  

  • Which referencing style should you use? 

Step 2 

Analyse the topic very carefully to ensure you understand the scope of the task. 

Step 3 

Conduct research to find potentially useful texts. The subject guides in the library can help you get started. 

Step 4 

Select appropriate sources. Visit the Library page on evaluating sources to help you. 

Step 5 

Record the bibliographic details of the sources you find. Use the required reference style to do this. If you are not sure which style is needed, ask your lecturer. 

Step 6 

Create a spreadsheet or matrix for your notes, so you can retrieve and compare your sources easily later. 

Step 7 

Evaluate and critically read the sources you have found. 

Step 8 

Make notes into your spreadsheet of the key points, the strengths, and the weaknesses of each source.  

Step 9 

Reflect on what you are learning from your reading.  Ask yourself: 

  • What are the similarities and differences between the sources? 

  • How does the research agree and disagree? 

  • What questions are still unanswered? 

Step 10 

Use your learning and your reflection to categorise your notes under headings and sub-headings and write a plan for your literature review. 

Step 11 

Put the original sources away and use your plan and notes to write your first draft. 

Step 12 

  • Edit and proofread your draft.  
  • Check your citations. 
  • Rewrite your review before submission. 

 

Evaluating the literature

An important skill for writing literature reviews is the ability to critically evaluate sources. If you are unsure how to do this, ask yourself a series of questions to guide your thinking.  

Selecting credible sources  

The CRAAP test offers a series of questions about currency, relevance, authority, accuracy and purpose to help you choose good quality sources.  

Download and print this useful document from the CDU library so you can refer to the questions while you are researching.  

Evaluating_Information_the_CRAAP_way.pdf 

Evaluating research 

Introduction and literature review 

  • Is the hypothesis or aim of the research clear?  

  • Do the researchers clearly show that their study is meeting a need or filling a gap in our knowledge? 

  • Do the researchers show how their study builds on previous research? 

Method 

  • Is any theoretical framework explained and justified? 

  • Is the study design made clear? For example, is it a randomised controlled trial? A longitudinal study? A systematic review? 

  • Is a rationale given for the chosen method? 

  • Is the research ethical? 

  • How detailed is the methods section? Are any steps missing or unclear? For example, how big is the sample? Is enough information given about participants? 

  • Do the researchers explain how they control variables? 

Results 

  • Are data analysis tools identified? 

  • Are the steps in the data analysis explained and justified? 

  • Are the results relevant to the aim? 

  • Are the results explained? 

  • Do tables and graphs support the explanation? 

Discussion and conclusions 

  • Are claims or conclusions supported by the results? 

  • Do the researchers discuss the extent of their success in testing the hypothesis or meeting their aim? 

  • Do the researchers discuss the limitations of their study? 

  • Does the discussion section contribute to scholarly debate on the topic? 

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Over to you:

 

Review a text  you have selected for your own literature review.

  • Does it pass the CRAAP test?
  • How would you evaluate the quality of the research?
Organising your notes

The first step to structuring your literature review is organising your notes effectively. One way to do this is to keep notes in a spreadsheet. The advantages of spreadsheets are that you can: 

  1. choose your headings and refine them as you learn more about the topic 
  2. use the search function to identify key words from common ideas in the texts 
  3. include hyperlinks to the original documents. 
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Read these notes on a student spreadsheet for a literature review on attitudes to bottled water. Click on the hotspots to identify where the student has: 

  • included the citations for each source 

  • created columns to note important information such as method, findings and conclusions 

  • included initial critiques of sources 

  • noted where references share similar or contradictory ideas 

  • started to note common concepts that can be used to categorise the references 

 

Note-taking is quite personal; that is, you need to devise a method that works best for you. If you use spreadsheets, you may adapt your spreadsheet to the requirements of each assignment. Here is a spreadsheet that you can download and adapt:

 

 

 

Structuring your literature review

Like essays, your literature review will follow a standard thee-part structure: introduction, body and conclusion. The following section will help you organise each part. 

Introducing your literature review
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What do you know about writing introductions? Test your knowledge here: 

Now, analyse this sample introduction.

If you need to review effective introductions, visit the Essays page. 

Organising the body of your literature review assignment

Students who are new to literature reviews may write the body like a list of summaries.  A list of summaries makes your review look like a shopping list of sources.

Literature review written like a shopping list

Remember: a literature review is not a list of summaries!  You need to categorise, organise and synthesise the literature to write a coherent text that draws links between the research. 

synthesised literature review

If you would like to learn more about this, visit the blog patter by Pat Thomson. These images were adapted from ideas on this page.

Some common organisational methods include: 

 Geographical organisation      Compare studies focusing on different geographical regions   Chronological organisation      Organise the literature by time: start with early research and move towards the most recent research about your topic.      Thematic organisation      Group or categorise the content into common topics and sub-topics.      Methodological organisation      Compare the results that emerge from studies that used different research methods.

 

Remember: these are not the only ways you can organise your literature review. You may combine these organisational methods or create a new method of your own.  One way to decide on the best way of categorising your literature is to create visual organisers. For example, you could use:  

Venn diagrams 

Notice how some of the citations from the spreadsheet for the literature review on bottled water are categorised in this venn diagram. 

venn diagram

Mind maps 

Notice how some of the citations from the spreadsheet for the literature review on bottled water are categorised in this mind map. 

mind map
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Imagine you have found another source for a literature review on bottled water. Where would you put this source in the visual organisers?

 

When you write the body of your literature review, you will use skills that are described in other Study Skills pages.  

Matrices 

 

When you have decided on your categories, you could create a matrix to write your paragraphs. You can learn more about this in Synthesising sources into your writing. 

Paragraphing 

 

Like essays, the body of your literature review is divided into paragraphs that focus on one main idea presented in the same order as the introduction outline. If you need to review effective paragraphing, visit the paragraph page. 

Paraphrasing, summarising and generalising 

To use your notes to discuss the literature, you will need to put them in your own words when you paraphrase, summarise and generalise. 

Referencing 

 

Be very careful with referencing. The referencing style that you use depends on the expectations of your lecturer, so always check first. 

 

Concluding your literature review
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What do you know about writing conclusions? Test your knowledge here: 

Now read this sample conclusion to identify the elements.

 

If you need to review effective conclusions, visit the Essays page. 

The language of literature review assignments

If literature reviews are new to you, you may be unsure how to express yourself when you critique or synthesise the literature. The following materials focus on clear and appropriate language choices. 

Critiquing the literature

Some students feel concerned about critiquing literature. They confuse critique with criticism and think they don’t know enough to criticise published experts.  

However, critiquing the literature is more than criticism. It involves strategies such as: 

  • identifying important researchers or research papers 

  • comparing and contrasting the research 

  • identifying research with similar findings (or generalising

  • identifying strengths or limitations in the research 

  • showing how a research paper contributes to our knowledge 

  • identifying gaps in our knowledge of a topic. 

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Read these literature review extracts and identify the critique strategy the student has used.  Drag the number of the critique strategy next to the most appropriate extract.

This document has some useful language that may help you express these strategies in your own literature review. Download it and put it on the wall near your desk while you are writing.

 

Language for critiquing the literature: adjectives and verbs

When you are describing the strengths and limitations of a research paper, you must use appropriate adjectives and verbs. You should also consider their strength. 

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Imagine you want to select an adjective to complete this sentence: 

In this ________ study on dolphins, Smith (2022) attempted to... 

Categorise these adjectives according to their strength. 

Now, imagine you want to select a verb to complete this sentence: 

However, Smith’s study __________ the link between dolphin mortality and pollution (2022).   

Categorise these verbs according to their strength. 

Remember, you may make strong language choices, but you must:

  • be careful to match the strength of the language with the strength of the praise or criticism
  • always maintain a respectful tone.

Pay close attention to the language choices in published literature reviews in your discipline.

Verbs to report on research

When you cite the research in your literature review, you may use two citation types: 

Research prominent 

Humpback dolphins are generally shy and avoid boats (Johnson, 2018). 

Researcher prominent 

Johnson (2018) states that humpback dolphins are generally shy and avoid boats. 

  • In general, research prominent citations are most used. This is because our focus is on the research, not on who did the research.  
  • We use researcher prominent citations when we wish to mention the researcher. This may be because their work is particularly noteworthy, or it is important for your assignment.  Researcher prominent citations are more common in the Humanities and Social Sciences than in the STEM disciplines. 

If you use researcher prominent citations, you will use a reporting verb. These verbs describe: 

Function 

Example verbs 

Example verbs in use 

goals 

aim, intend, attempt 

Van Dam and Cook (2001a) aimed to establish a link between vessel noise and acoustic communication between humpback dolphins. 

activity 

discuss, investigate, study, focus on, explain, theorise 

Van Dam and Cook (2001a) investigated the link between vessel noise and acoustic communication between humpback dolphins. 

results 

show, reveal, demonstrate, indicate, suggest, state 

Van Dam and Cook (2001a) have shown that vessel noise can have a negative impact on acoustic communication between humpback dolphins. 

opinions 

argue, posit, believe emphasise, suggest, state 

Van Dam and Cook (2001a) argue that vessel noise should be reduced in humpback dolphin territory. 

You may notice that some of the example verbs (like state) perform more than one function. 

Your choice of reporting verbs can help you demonstrate your critique of the research.  Read these two sentences. Which one shows most confidence in the results of the research? 

  • The study by Anderson et al. (2017b) suggests the reduced distribution of humpback dolphins is due to habitat degradation. 

  • Anderson et al. (2017b) state that the reduced distribution of humpback dolphins is due to habitat degradation. 

Many readers would feel that b. shows the most confidence.  

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Read the following sentences and pay attention to the verb in bold. Can you identify the function and the level of confidence? 

If you want more revision on reporting verbing, visit Useful language for annotated bibliographies.

Applying your learning

Reflect on what you have learned in this material and consider how you can use it in your own work.

Avoiding common issues with literature reviews

When you write a literature review assignment, you may have some challenges. Common challenges include:

  • not knowing how to get started 

  • feeling overwhelmed by the amount of reading you need to do

  • finding too much or not enough literature in your searches.

  • keeping track of the literature you find 

  • not knowing how broad or how narrow to make your review 

  • knowing which texts are relevant to the topic 

  • knowing which researchers and texts are important in the field 

  • not knowing how to organise the literature review 

  • not understanding complex research articles.

Read this advice to help you manage your literature review successfully. 

Advice for success 

  1. Review the task instructions and reread your lecture notes. 
  2. Visit the relevant subject guides in the library website. 
  3. Consult a librarian about search techniques. 
  4. Start by reading tertiary sources (like textbooks) for an overview before searching for primary sources (like journal articles). 
  5. Create a spreadsheet to store notes and categorise the literature. 
  6. Create an online filing system to store the articles you download. 
  7. Create an organisation plan or mind map and then refine it as you learn more. 
  8. Use a bibliographic management tool, like Endnote
  9. Review texts by reading the abstract, key words and headings before deciding to read them. 
  10. Use appropriate reading skills, like skimming and scanning, before reading intensively. 
  11. Check how often the research articles you find have been cited by others. 
  12. Write the aim and scope of the review, put it on the wall near your desk and refer to it often to keep yourself on track 
  13. Remember that while you do the literature review, your understanding will improve and change; as your knowledge grows, it is normal to reread articles for new understanding. 

 

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Now, imagine you are facing these challenges. Match each challenge with the most helpful strategies.

Useful strategies
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1

Develop your skills by reading widely. 

  • Learn to read critically. Ask yourself a series of questions to guide your thinking while you read. Remember, you usually need to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the texts you read. 

  • Pay specific attention to how scholars in your field refer to the work of other scholars. 

  • Highlight the language used for critique. Consider: What elements do published scholars critique and how do they express themselves? 

2

To develop your language, you could:  

  • when doing your unit readings, highlight the language that writers in your discipline use to summarise and critique published research  

  • use a site such as the Manchester Phrase Bank, which is one useful source of language to help you express yourself when you refer to or critique sources in your literature review. 

3

Exchange a draft literature review with a peer and give each other feedback.  

  • Does it conform to the task instructions?  

  • Is the content appropriate for each paragraph in the annotations? 

  • Is the language clear and appropriate? 

4

Be very careful with referencing. The referencing style that you use depends on the expectations of your lecturer, so always check first. 

 

 

Next steps
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1  

Revisit the self-analysis quiz at the top of the page. How would you rate your skills now?    

2  

Remember that writing is a process and mistakes aren't a bad thing. They are a normal part of learning and can help you to improve.  

If you would like more support, visit the Language and Learning Advisors page. 

We value your opinion. Please complete this form to share your feedback on these materials.

Did you know CDU Language and Learning Advisors offer a range of study support options?

https://www.cdu.edu.au/library/language-and-learning-support

 

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