Characteristics of exemplary literature reviews

Exemplary literature reviews are as thorough and systematic as the research they are reviewing. Although the degree of completion of your literature review at the proposal stage is a matter of deliberation with your committee, in most cases it is important that the literature review in a proposal accomplishes the following:

According to Jackson (1980), effective literature reviews should do the following (any of these may be more or less helpful for your own purposes):


1. Define and delimit the topic. Your review should include a careful definition of your topic, and describe carefully what your topic will not include. For example, you may state that your topic includes attribution retraining, but not locus of control research, and state the reason for this.

2. Review previous reviews. What have previous reviews of the literature concluded? How will your literature review differ?

3. State procedures for obtaining relevant literature. If your review is unbiased, it should include systematic procedures for obtaining relevant literature, procedures that could be replicated by someone else who would then obtain the same literature. This demonstrates that you have attempted to find all relevant research, not just the most easily obtained research, and that you have not been deliberately selective (using only that research that reinforces your own opinion) or inadvertently selective (using certain journals because they are known to you, not realizing they only present one perspective). Search criteria can include:

4. Describe common independent and dependent variables. This will show how different studies are interrelated.

5. State criteria for evaluating outcomes (this is most relevant for intervention research). If you say a particular treatment was "effective", what are your criteria for saying so? Author’s conclusion? Statistical significance? Criterion measure? Some other metric of your own?

6. Examine covariation of study outcomes with study characteristics. This is a mouthful, but it means, an educational treatment was effective (outcome), but only with elementary and not secondary students (study characteristics).

7. Support conclusions of the review with data presented in the review. Sometimes authors review an enormous amount of literature, then just conclude what their biases were in the first place! When you make specific conclusions at the end of a review, you should clearly state how and from what data sources you reached your conclusions.

Remember the gaps or limitations in the literature reviewed can directly provide your own research question!! Often, the "Discussion" section of relevant research articles provides implications for future research, which may provide ideas and justification for your own proposed research.

*see Jackson, G.B. (1980). Methods for integrative reviews. Review of Educational Research, 50, 438-460.