Literature Review Process update 1

Posted: March 16, 2011 in Useful advice for students
Tags: , , , ,

I am spending Spring break working on a paper, specifically, the literature review section. So I thought I’d document my process here, in case it may help you. Maybe we can turn this blog post into an ad-hoc literature review support group.

(Speaking of support groups, I tried creating one for College of Technology graduate students. Nothing much has happened yet, but if you’re interested, join the group on Facebook. I’m planning to try again to meet over the summer.)

Back to the literature review. It sounds simple. Here are the steps, in 140 characters or fewer (fewer, not less):

Yesterday, I worked on reading articles that an undergraduate research intern had helped me collect.

As I was reading, I experienced the following:

  • elation and satisfaction at learning new things
  • panic that there’s so much more to read than I have time before the deadline (and by deadline, I mean before I die)
  • confusion about how to organize the articles into literature review sections
  • occasional tiredness and boredom, coupled with restlessness. Even though I was tired, I couldn’t stop reading, I had to pick up article after article.
  • the thought that I can’t do this before deadline, I should just give up and try a later deadline
  • the thought that I’ve done this before, and just like I miraculously met deadlines before, I will meet the deadline this time, too.

You may experience all of the above, except, maybe, the last one – if you do not have sufficient experience. What I am trying to say is that unpleasant feelings, panic, and doubts are part of the process. They don’t mean much. Just like a headache goes away, they, too, will go away. So notice the unpleasantness, label it as normal, and keep going. I wish I’d known earlier on that they are a normal part of the process.

The most difficult for me was the confusion, the fact that I could not see a structure or a way to organize articles into sections. That’s when I knew I need to take a break (go to sleep) and give my brain time to process all the new information. When I woke up this morning, I had a structure in mind, an I could hear the words for the first paragraph (which is the hardest for me to write).

Pooky helping with a literature review. Note the piles of articles in the background. Each pile became a lit review section.

This is where I am right now. My paper is about using social media in higher education. So, I’m thinking that the outline of the literature review will go something like this:

  1. Several people argue that Web 2.0 is so much better than sliced bread (cite here all of these arguments). If it’s so wonderful, how come we don’t all use Web 2.0 in our teaching? And more importantly, what evidence do we have that Web 2.0 is as really as great as these arguments claim? (This is my transition to the section about empirical studies.)
  2. Empirical studies have looked at social media tools individually. There are studies about microblogging in education and at conferences, which show that… (summarize results here). There are studies about using blogs in education which show that… (summarize results here). There are studies about wikis… There are studies about some other random tools… However, there aren’t studies that look at an integral social media solution. What happens when you combine several of these tools in education? That’s the need we are trying to address with our study.
  3. Theoretical framework: Learning outcomes, Self-determination theory, Social capital (explain all these theories and how they apply to our problem).
  4. Study goal and research questions.
  5. THAT’S IT. That’s the end of my literature review.

I am now thinking that there’s a bunch of statistics and studies about how students use the Internet and social media, and they seem to belong somewhere in the literature review, but I am not sure where. Help me out: Where do you think I should plug them in, in this structure? Or should I leave them out?

How’s your process going? What feelings are you experiencing? What are you discovering that works well for you?


  1. Sergio Flores says:

    This makes me feel so much better because I am definitely experiencing all the emotions. Specially confusion, panic…definitely panic, and stress… name it. Chances are I’ve experienced it this week. Its good to hear that its part of the process.

    The most stressful thing for me is going through article after article and coming to the conclusion that the article is either useless or just something that I cant use. So, then I start doubting and questioning myself “am I doing this right? aren’t I supposed to find alot of things to support my theories?”

    We’ll see how this turns out. I gotta go dig through my thoughts.

    • Mihaela says:

      Even if the article is useless, look at the list of references, maybe there’s something useful there. It’s a bit of detective work, but once you identify a trail, following it becomes easier.

  2. I really enjoyed reading this blog, you definitely gave me some peace of mind! But, I do feel overwhelmed by the 40 articles I have gathered. I have read about a quarter if them and I feel like maybe the topic is still too broad. Would you recommend back tracking and finding a few strong articles then branching from there or just continue on with the 40 article quest?

    • Mihaela says:

      I’d recommend giving all of them a quick look – see what they’re about, get the big picture. This will help you understand the territory. Then, you’ll be better able to decide what’s important and what not, and what 15 articles you want to focus on.

  3. narayun says:

    Quick questions! Are we supposed to submit the Lit review in class or email them to you?

  4. Mihaela says:

    You can upload it on Blackboard. I’ll create an assignment there.

  5. […] In case you missed it, here’s part 1 – my process for working on a literature review. […]