Writing a literature review
Your literature review should include a critical examination of the material that you have read.
There are many factors that you need to keep in mind when reading a piece of work. Factors such as the sample size, research design, measures used, biases, extraneous or confounding variables will need to be considered.
Design a checklist that you can use as a template when evaluating written material. This will allow you to be consistent in your evaluations. Ask for input from your supervisor when designing it; you are required to reduce your own biases and a checklist is an effective way to do this.
Begin with the questions in the section on critical reading. Ask yourself how the research is relevant to your study, and how it is different from your study.
Download a literature review worksheet (176KB)
Keep in mind your audience when you write the review and do not presume that they know what you do.
When researching your topic, you will have immersed yourself (or been overwhelmed!) in the subject, so do not assume that even your supervisor or the committee is privy to the things you now know.
On the other hand, there is no need to state the obvious. If you are not sure whether to include definitions, elaboration, or expansion on certain topics, ask your supervisor for feedback.
When you begin your reading, do not over-read; restrict the size of your reading to allow you to actually get on with the review. Read articles twice: the first time to understand themes and concepts, the second time with a critical eye.
You will be required to know a great deal about the topic (especially for a PhD), but you may not have to write everything you know about it. You may be able to limit the scope of the review to include the current state of the theory as it stands to date.
How far back is far enough? That depends on the level of your research, but a rough guide for Masters Theses is about 10 years, unless a more extensive investigation is required, this last point being of particular relevance to doctoral students (Mauch & Birch, 1998).
The length of your review will vary as well as the format. Discuss with your supervisor what would be a suitable length rather than being verbose and less concise than you should be.
The review should demonstrate your ability to synthesize a body of literature. It may be better to have a briefer, more focused review than a lengthy one. Whatever you decide, discuss this issue with your supervisor.
References and further reading
Mauch, J. E., & Park, N. (2003). Guide to the successful thesis and dissertation: A handbook for students and faculty (5th ed.). New York, NY: Marcel Dekker. [Massey Library link]