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Study Skills

Writing a literature review

The purpose of the literature review is to locate the research project, to form its context or background, and to provide insights into previous work. (Blaxter, Hughes & Tight, 2006, p. 122)

The literature review can be a chapter of your thesis or a section in your journal article where you identify the theories and previous research which have influenced your choice of the research topic and the methodology you are choosing to adopt. It is your opportunity to be engaged in conversations with researchers in your area while showing that you have understood and responded to the relevant and important body of knowledge underpinning your research.  

This page will help you to: 

  • understand the purpose of a literature review  

  • identify different types of literature and what is included in the review  

  • plan a literature review  

  • structure and write a literature review. 

Introduction to Literature reviews

This section will introduce the literature review, outline the purposes of the literature review and discuss the main types of literature.

Self evaluation


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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. 

What is a literature review?

Literature = a collection of published information/materials of academic value (such as books, journal articles etc.) on a particular topic area 

Review = critical analysis and evaluation  

Literature review = critical analysis and evaluation of the sources in a specific research area 

Table with features of lit review
study skills task icon

Test your understanding of what is considered a literature review.


What is the purpose of a literature review?

A literature review: 

  • provides a historical background for your research 

  • gives an overview of the current context in which your research is situated by referring to contemporary debates, issues and questions in the field 

  • includes a discussion of relevant theories and concepts which underpin your research 

  • introduces relevant terminology and provides definitions to clarify how terms are being used in the context of your work 

  • describes related research in the field and shows how your work extends or challenges this, or addresses a gap in the work in the field 

  • provides supporting evidence for a practical problem or issue which your research is addressing, thereby underlining its significance.

(Ridley, 2008, p.17) 

What are the main types of literature?

There are several types of literature: contextual literature, methodological/ theoretical literature and related literature.  

Click on the hotspots below to see the definition of each type.

Contextual literature sets the background for your study. It usually appears in the Introduction or Literature Review, depending on the structure of your thesis or journal article.  

Only you can decide what contextual sources are relevant to your work. To stay on track, always be conscious of what you are reading, how much you are reading and why.  

Example 1: Contextual literature  New Zealand, like Finland and Singapore, has followed world trends and moved much of its ITE into universities. Indeed, over the last two decades, its universities have merged with the previous six independent state-funded colleges of education, a movement also seen in countries such as Norway, South Africa and Australia (Hill & Haigh, 2012). Gunn, Berg, Hill and Haigh (2015) noted that this transition has expanded the role of TEs to embrace both practice and scholarship as
Example 2: Contextual literature  Significant challenges and changes occuring in higher education have in recent years had a direct impact on the nature of research degree education and its leadership (Boud & Lee, 2009). This has been accompanied by policies and strategies that focus on increasing the number of research higher degree graduates and accommodating a diversity of students'professional and educational backgrounds (Pearson, Evans, & Macauley, 2008). As part of this, doctoral graduates are increas

Theoretical literature can also refer to methodological literature in some disciplines. The difference between theoretical and methodological literature might be slim.  In some disciplines such as humanities, the term theoretical literature is more common, but in other disciplines such as health and natural sciences, the term methodological literature is more common. Methods are about how you do something; theories are about how you think about something (Belcher, 2019).  

Example: Theoretical literature  An exploration of how social problems have been conceptualised reveals many broader trends within twentieth century sociology (Rubington and Weinberg, 1995). Social consructionism has its philosophical roots in phenomenonology (e.g. Schutz, 1973; Berger & Luckmann, 1966; Douglas, 1970), ethnomethodology (e.g. Garfinkel, 1973), and symbolic interactionism (e.g. Goffman, 1959). Together they call into question the taken-for-granted nature of reality and see the world as a prod

As you can see in the example, the sources inform us of the philosophical origins of social constructionism, situating the research historically in the field of sociological theory. 

In your literature review, you could: 

  • introduce theory 

  • provide a historical account of the theory or theoretical framework  

  • discuss the usefulness of the theory or theoretical framework for your research and  

  • compare it with other theories. 

Related literature: when you refer to the work of others, it is important to know why you have selected certain work in your literature review and to provide an adequate summary of their work. The length of the summary for each work depends on the purpose of each citation. 

Here is an example of the related literature.

study skills task icon

Test your understanding of different types of literature. 

Note: It is not always straightforward to distinguish between contextual and related literature as what has been found in previous studies helps set the context of the research. However, one important note is that contextual literature is more 'background’ while related literature is on the same topic and exposes the niche/ gap that your work will fill.

Planning for a literature review

This section outlines the process of writing a literature review. It also provides tips and tools to create a reading matrix, synthesise sources, and effectively critique literature.  

The literature review writing process


The literature review writing process:  Step 1: Select a topic  Step 2: Search the literature  Step 3: Select and categorise the sources  Step 4: Critique the literature  Step 5: Write the review  Does your review address your topic?


Preparing a reading matrix

It is important to make notes about the sources for your literature review as you read. This note-taking process helps you identify main themes, make connections among sources and construct your critical evaluation  

You can use an Excel spreadsheet, a Word document or any software that you are familiar with. Here is an example: 

a spreadsheet

You can download your own copy of the reading matrix. 

The matrix helps you to gain an overview of related literature and synthesise the sources. You could use the 'filter’ function in Excel to categorise the work.  

Based on this reading matrix, you can then build a theme-based matrix that provides a clearer overview of the thematic categories and the relation of different sources. Below is an example of a theme-based matrix. 

theme based matrix

 You can also create a visual map of the sources as in this fictional example below.

visual map of sources
Critiquing literature

Critiquing literature is critically evaluating the literature. Your evaluation can be negative or positive. To critique effectively, it is important that you read a piece of work deeply. This involves:  

  • comprehending 

  • analysing  

  • interpreting 

  • evaluating.  

Critiquing literature involves synthesising your sources, justifying why you think those are the  strengths and weaknesses of the paper, identifying the weakness or rejecting a point of view,  identifying the strengths of the paper, relating the paper to your study, identifying gaps,  comparing and contrasting different sources, strategically selecting your reference sources.  A critique is not criticism

 As you can see, critiquing literature involves synthesising sources. Please refer to the section on synthesising sources into your writing here for tips on how to synthesise sources effectively.  

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Test your understanding of the strategies to critique.


Structuring a literature review

This section introduces you to the structure of the literature review in a thesis and a journal article. It also provides you with different ways to organise the body of your literature review.  

Structure of the literature review section in your journal article

The literature review in your article can be in a separate section or woven into the introduction section. Generally, these are the steps you could follow to form the introduction/ literature review section in your article.

Introduce the problem and set the context (broad context)  First, fit your specific topic into the big picture. Contextual literature.  Set the specific context (specific focus, location, method etc.)  Next, narrow down your context, topic, method, etc. Contextual and theoretical literature.  Analyse past research. Identify gaps in the research.  Then, discuss what it known and what is missing. Related literature.  Introduce your research aims and question.  Finally, introduce your research objectives and e

Let's look at an extract from the article on Detecting contract cheating: examining the role of assessment type. Here the literature review is interwoven with the introduction.  

Source: Harper, R., Bretag, T & Rundle, K. (2021) Detecting contract cheating: examining the role of assessment type, Higher Education Research & Development, 40:2, 263-278, DOI: 10.1080/07294360.2020.1724899 


Structure of the literature review chapter in your thesis

Your literature review chapter will generally include three main parts: the introduction, the body and the conclusion.

Structuring a lit review  Introduction of the chapter  · Background/context  · Scope  · Significance of the topic  · Aim of the chapter  · Outline of structure  Body of the chapter  The body of your chapter can be organised  according to the following categories:  · Chronological  · Thematic  · Conceptual  · Geographical (Distant to close)  · Combination of above  Conclusion of the chapter · Summary · Emphasising how the review ties in with your own research · Reiterating the gap · Introducing what will be

This structure and content will vary across disciplines and research projects.  


Introducing your literature review in your thesis

The introduction section of your literature review chapter provides brief information about the context, scope, and significance of the topic, as well as state the aim and outline the chapter.  

This is an example: 

This chapter introduces the key theories and literature that frame this research and addresses  the concepts underlying the research question ‘What methods are feasible, reliable and  appropriate for quantifying cultural values for First Nations peoples?’ It starts by exploring the  central concepts of culture, cultural capital, values, and value through different disciplinary  lenses and about their application to First Nations peoples. Given the potentially broad  disciplinary readership, this multidiscip


Organising the body of your literature review in your thesis

The body of your literature review can follow different structures. 

Look at the explanation and examples of the chronological, thematic, geographical and combined approaches to structuring the literature review below  

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Test your understanding of different approaches to structuring the literature review .


Concluding your literature review in your thesis

The concluding section of your literature review chapter will provide a summary of the chapter, highlighting how the review ties in with your own research and recommending directions for future research. 

This is an example:  

This chapter has provided an overview of the literature related to the construct of  ELP in the SLA literature and in higher education. In terms of theorisation, there is  no currently agreed-upon model of AELP although it is understood from the  perspective of the communicative competence frameworks in SLA as well as the  conceptual models from the higher education context. The literature indicates concern over the ELP outcomes of EAL students and the impact of them both at university and beyond graduation


Writing a literature review

This section introduces you to the important features of a literature review. It also explores the language of critique and demonstrates how to express your voice as a writer.  

Important features of a literature review

Each literature review usually has the following features: 

  • They are descriptive.

  • They are interpretative.

  • They respond with critique.

  • They demonstrate the writer's voice.

Watch this video to learn more about these features.


Language of critique and foregrounding the writer's voice

Here are some language tips that you could apply to enhance the critical voice and highlight your own voice in the literature review .

study skills task icon

Test your understanding of the evaluative language that is used to enhance the critical voice.



Working on your literature review

Use this template to plan your literature review. You may put the information in a different order in your own writing.  

The template will help you gain an overview of contextual, theoretical and related literature relevant and important to your work. You can download it and save it as a Word document once you have finished.  

References used in this material 

Belcher, W. L. (2019). Writing your journal article in twelve weeks: A guide to Academic Publishing Success.  The University of Chicago Press 

Blaxter, L., Hughes, C. & Tight, M. (2006). How to research. Open University Press 

Humphrey, P. (2015). English language proficiency in higher education: student conceptualisations and outcomes. [Doctoral dissertation, Griffith University] 

Machi, L. A & McEvoy, B. T. (2012). The literature review: six steps to success. Corwin 

Ridley, D. (2008). The literature review: A step-by-step guide for students. SAGE Publications. 

Woods, M. G. (2021). Culture Counts: A choice modelling approach to quantifying cultural values for First Nations people [Doctoral dissertation, Charles Darwin University]. 

Reflect on your learning


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


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.  

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