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RMIT University Library - Learning Lab

Structuring the literature review


Watch a series of four videos explaining how to structure a literature review.

This series of four videos is narrated by Dr Judy Maxwell from the Study and Learning Centre. The first video outlines the overall structure of a typical literature review and then discusses the key elements of a literature review introduction. The next two videos explore some of the common ways of structuring the body and deciding on a logical order. In the final video Dr Maxwell discusses how to structure your conclusion.

Note: Dr Maxwell is not longer at RMIT and the email at the end of the videos is outdated. Instead, you can contact Advice, training and support if you have any questions.

Hi. I’m Judy Maxwell from the Study and Learning Centre at RMIT University and I’m going to talk about structuring your thesis literature review. There are many ways of structuring literature reviews. Some theses can have more than one lit. review chapter, others have just a few pages as part of the thesis introduction, and others have the lit. review in segments throughout the thesis. This information is a general guide only – remember to always check with your supervisors.a look at the overall structure of a lit. review.

This is the first of the 4-part module on structuring your literature review. The objectives of this module are to understand the overall structure of a lit. review and to be able to structure the introduction to a lit. review. Let’s have a look at the overall structure of a lit. review.

The most important thing about writing a lit. review is to plan it so that it shows the relationship of the relevant literature to your study clearly and logically. The lit. review must be read as an integrated part of the story of your research, as you can see in this diagram. Your research story begins with the research question or questions; we also need to identify what’s already known about this, how you found answers, what the answers are, and finally what the answers mean.

As with all academic writing, there needs to be an introduction, a body, and a conclusion or summary. In general, most literature reviews begin broadly and narrow down the focus. We start by giving the context, narrowing it down to identify the gap in the literature where your study fits. This is then summarised and once again explicitly related to your research topic. Now let’s talk about the introduction to your lit. review.

So, what is an introduction? This needs to define the context within which your study sits very clearly through the general literature. This is where you could point out: major gaps; overall trends or prevalent themes; and mention any major areas of dissent or controversy But it needs to be done in a general way so it’s not repeated in the body. Remember, you’re just introducing the reader to the relevant literature. Also, don’t forget to let the reader know some of the main areas you’ll discuss in the body of the lit. review, and you might also want to mention the scope – that is, what you will and what you won’t cover.

Here’s an example of the introduction to a lit. review. The research topic is ‘Contesting the culture of the doctoral degree’. See how it gives the context in a general way. It becomes a little more specific here, and here These sections hint at some gaps in understanding and we can assume that they’ll be addressed more fully in the body. The last paragraph briefly outlines the body of the lit. review. You can see here how the research topic has been brought in to remind the reader of the central focus of the lit. review. Here the scope of the lit. review is identified as being mainly focused on Australian doctoral programs.

Hi. I’m Judy Maxwell from the Study and Learning Centre at RMIT University, and this is Part 2 of the module on structuring the thesis literature review. The objective of this section is to understand a range of ways to structure the body of the literature review.

The body of a lit. review often begins by highlighting the major concepts and influential studies. We also need to look for areas of agreement, tensions, inadequacies and controversy, grouping together authors who say similar things and constructing debate with others who disagree. It’s usual to gradually narrow the focus to studies closest to your own towards the end, until you identify the gap or space where your own research fits. One of the hurdles we have to overcome is to decide how to structure the body so that it tells the story of the literature that’s relevant to your study in a clear and logical way, and we’ll discuss this in a moment.

The first difficulty most writers have is to move from the chaos resulting from copious amounts of literature … …to an organised piece of writing that flows clearly.

Here’s one way many writers attempt to organise the body of the lit. review. A paragraph on one researcher’s ideas, then a paragraph on another researcher’s ideas, etc, etc. But this is not an effective way of organise the literature because all it does is tell the story of each writer, not the story of what’s known around your research topic.

So what are some of the ways in which we can structure the body of the lit. review? Here are some common structures that might provide the most logical way for your study, although it’s important to remember that some lit. reviews also use a combination of structural approaches.

It can be structured around a couple of topics – this is common in research that examines the relationship between two variables. For example, in this simple lit. review, the topics are evident in the overall research topic: this researcher needed to look at the literature that discussed models of use and models of demand.

Another way to do it is chronologically. This is useful when the emphasis is on the development of practices or theories over time. It’s usually ordered from more distant to more recent.

For example, this lit. review moves from the antecedents of building regulation (2.2) through Settlement, to Federation, to post-Federation and ends after World War II. You might notice that this lit. review doesn’t have an identified introduction or conclusion. However, the first section functions as an introduction and there is much contextual information in the sections before 2.2, when the chronological information begins. The last paragraph of the final section also functions as a conclusion and identifies the link between the lit. review and the research topic.

You could also structure your lit. review through different theories. Here’s a good example of using a combination of structures. Notice that there are 2 lit. review chapters; Chapter 2 discusses a variety of theories relevant to the research topic and debate, while Chapter 3 is structured around themes.

Another way of doing it is through methodologies. This lit. review discusses qualitative and quantitative studies separately. It also has a meta-analysis, which is common in disciplines such as psychology.

The most common way to structure the lit. review body, though, is around themes or concepts. Here’s an example of a series of themes, moving from a general understanding of knowledge, to knowledge management, to the more specific ICT in knowledge management and associated issues and concerns.

Themes are most often arranged from those more general to the more specific. But at the same time that it’s moving from the general to the specific, it’s also becoming more conceptually dense. More concepts are being discussed, and all with a greater intensity and narrowing of focus. This is further explained in the practice activity in Part 3. The key thing here is to never let sight of your own research topic – ALL of the literature has to relate to it in some way.

Hi. I’m Judy Maxwell from the Study and Learning Centre at RMIT University. Welcome to the 3rd part of the module on structuring a thesis literature review. Part 2 of this module showed many possible structures for the body of the literature review, but we didn’t discuss the issues involved in deciding on the order of the sections and sub-sections within the structure. The objective of this session is to understand the kind of questioning and reasoning that could lead to a clear and logical structure. To do this, I’m going to take you through the process that I used, outlining some of the many issues I had to resolve. Of course, you’ll have to make your own decisions about how you’ll order your literature review, but this resource should indicate the type of reasoning that can be useful in this process. Remember that you can pause the video at any time to help you think through the process.

My PhD analysed the culture of the doctoral degree and doctoral candidates’ experiences, and I felt that a thematic structure would be the most effective way to tell the story of the research around my topic. After a long, iterative process of reading the literature and identifying and adjusting themes, I decided that these themes were relevant to the study. But this order doesn’t tell the story of the literature in a logical order. What’s needed is to show some sense of hierarchy. The process of developing a hierarchy begins by looking for connections. In this case, it seemed that some of these themes were more distantly related to the study and, following the general to specific idea, these needed to go first. Pause the video and have a go at identifying these.

How did you go? It’s not always as easy as it looks. I started by realising that these five themes helped to contextualise the study and needed to go first. But there’s an obvious problem here with having recent innovations first, and the more general development of the doctoral degree last. The themes needed to be reordered to show the context more logically. The development of the doctoral degree has a historical focus so it seemed logical to discuss this first.

Definitions are usually also discussed at the beginning, and maybe this could have gone before the development, but in this case I placed it after it because the definition is complex - there are many types of doctoral degrees. And because this research is based on three different doctoral degrees, this theme is clearly more specific to the research topic than the general history of the doctoral degree in Australia. I decided to put the value of the doctoral degree right after defining it, because it’s contested in a similar way to the definition. Recent innovations were discussed next because they’re more closely related to the study topic. And only then could I discuss the tensions and contradictions in these recent innovations. Now let’s have a look at the themes that are more closely related to the study topic. I realised that the themes seemed to fit into three logical groups. One is to do with supervisors – these themes both relate to this. Another is more directly related to candidates’ experiences. And the third group relates to other issues in doctoral study.

Now I at least had some rough organisation, but then I needed to check the order of these three groups. These are more general issues in doctoral practice so, following the general to specific idea, I put them before the more closely related issue of candidates and supervisors. Because the main focus of the study is candidates’ experiences, these needed to go last. Then I needed to review the order within these three groups.

In the first group it didn’t seem to matter which order these were put in (and sometimes, there really is no logical way of ordering themes). However, the literature around these themes showed that the factors impacting on successful completion relied on an understanding of student diversity. Writing issues is a little more specific to the research and seemed to work best at the end of this group.

In the themes related to supervision, again, at first there didn’t seem to be any reason for any particular order. However, the literature revealed a strong argument that the practice of supervision is under-theorised, so it worked better this way around.

Now we come to the last group and, this time, there was no particular reason for changing this order other than my preference for discussing the positives before the negatives.

So now I had a list of themes in a clear and logical order. But there’s another issue I had to think about. Although I had created three groups of themes, there was nothing to hold the groups together, so I needed to create headings for them. And then I needed to show the hierarchy between the headings and the subheadings by indenting the latter. And then, of course, I needed to have an introduction at the beginning and a conclusion or summary at the end. And in this case, I decided on a section explicitly relating the literature to the study.

In a final check, though, I realised that all the themes and sub-themes from ‘Issues in doctoral practice’ to the end are all issues in doctoral practice, but the hierarchy doesn’t show this. I needed to show all of the remaining themes as a sub-set of ‘Issues in doctoral practice’ by indenting them.

Hi. I’m Judy Maxwell from the Study and Learning Centre at RMIT University and this is Part 4 in the series on structuring a thesis literature review. The objective of this section is to identify the elements of a typical literature review conclusions or summary section.

Now you’ve put the body into a logical order, it’s time to ask ‘So what!’ In the conclusion or summary you discuss the significance of the key literature and evaluate the body of knowledge generally. You can do this by summarising the key literature and major contributions, and identifying general inconsistencies and gaps in the lit. Once again, don’t forget to relate this to your research question or problem.

Now let’s look at a couple of examples of lit. review conclusions. You can see here where the major contributions of significant research have been identified. Then the gaps in research are identified, and finally, the lit. review is related to the present study by showing how the gaps will be filled. Here’s another example of conclusions. The first paragraph summarises the major research in a general way. This is made more explicit in the second paragraph, and the last paragraph rounds off the chapter with a hint of what’s next: Bourdieu’s ideas are explained in the very next chapter.

Because the literature is summarised, there are no citations in either this or the previous example, and it’s important not to bring in any new lit. into the conclusions. One or two examples of key literature are sometimes cited, but this would already have been discussed in the body. There’s also no discussion of gaps or inconsistencies in the literature here, because in this case the last section of the body of the lit. review has fully discussed these.

Following on from the previous example, here are first three paragraphs from the section before the conclusion section. You can clearly see that each paragraph discusses the gap in the literature, and that each of these is related to how the current study will attempt to address these gaps. It also identifies the main focus of the literature and justifies the current study by highlighting a key concern in the literature.

So what now? The best way you can get a feel for what’s possible in your lit. review is to read others, particularly from the same subject area. You’ll find other databases of theses in your library. If you’re an RMIT student, a good starting place is the guide to finding and obtaining thesis. Here are also some other online resources you might find useful.

Here are some guiding questions to help you when you read other theses. This brings us to the end of the presentation. Now it’s up to you to put this into practice in your own lit. review. To get a complete picture of how to structure your thesis lit. review, it’s important to look at each of the four parts of this module, but remember that writing conventions differ between disciplines, and you still need to be guided by your supervisor. We wish you well in your studies.