Literature review

Whatever your subject, you will need to do a literature review (sometimes called literature search) for all assignments.  This is your reading.  You should be prepared to make notes whenever you are reading for your essays.  Reading and note taking go together.

You are looking for evidence to back up your ideas and this will be found in research done by others which they have written up in the form of journal articles or books.

You are looking for the answer to a question.  One strategy for effective reading is to always have in mind what question you are trying to answer.

You are looking for useful background information, definitions of key words and so on.

Your literature review will also show your tutor that you have researched your topic.  It is important to read not only what has been recommended by the tutor on your reading list, but also as much up to date information as you can find in your sources.  Your tutor will certainly look at your references and bibliography at the end of your paper to see what you have been reading.

Although the advice in this website separates each part from the beginning to the end of your essay, some sections overlap and you have do work on more than one part at a time.  For example, you have to do some reading to get ideas, then more reading to find your focus, then have a good idea of the essay outline, and then read for each section of the essay.  Ideally, you will have finished all your reading before writing up the draft from your extensive notes.

It is helpful to have a format for working with when reading and note taking to aid the writing up process.  We recommend using a table, probably with 3 columns, for each main outline heading.  This way helps with looking for patterns and organising the findings and whether these are common or contested.  It can help in identifying trends in the research and make the most influential theories stand out.  It can also help to develop sub-topics.  Look at the example below.  Such a table will help you analyse your research in an organised way.

Outline heading (within your essay):

Main paper’s full bibliographical reference:

1.  This source

2.  Other sources


Research – what question is being asked

In this column you are noting such points as:





supportive statements

dismissive opinion

As you make notes in column 1, note thoughts here.  What do you think?  Do you agree?

After completing columns 1 and 2, go through again and make more notes here.

What is important about the data?

What does it contribute to the overall picture?

Be brief, objective and to the point.





References to other authors





Table adapted from: Anglia Ruskin University (2009)

When writing your essay, it is not sufficient just to summarise what you have read.  The purpose of reading what others have researched is to find evidence to support your ideas.  You should be evaluating what you are reading with regard to the question you are answering in your essay.  By commenting on the strengths and weaknesses of what has been written in the field, you are demonstrating your ability to critically evaluate a text.

When reviewing the literature, you analyse or break down what the various writers are saying.  By combining the ideas, you are synthesising what has been said by considering all the information you have available on a particular point.  The next step is to make a judgement.  This is evaluation.  Critical evaluation is showing you have considered all angles of the argument, compared and contrasted the research, weighed up all the evidence.  Academic writing is not description; it is critical appraisal.