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Cecile Badenhorst MA (UBC), PhD (Queen’s) is an Associate Professor in the Adult Education/Post-Secondary program in the Faculty of Education at Memorial University.  Her research interests are post-secondary, higher education and adult learning experiences, particularly graduate research writing, academic literacies and qualitative research methodologies. In this 2-part guest post she explains her approach to teaching postgraduates about literature reviews.

By Cecile Badenhorst

After many years of running workshops on “How to write literature reviews”, I realized that postgraduate students often left with a few useful tools but without that deep understanding of what was required. Without a doubt, the literature review is one of the most challenging genres students face. It is also one of the most challenging genres to teach. How do you explain in an hour or two a process that takes years of practice, feedback and revision to hone and refine? Recently, I conducted research on literature reviews with the specific aim of helping me to teach this genre to postgraduate students (Badenhorst, 2017; forthcoming). In this and the following blog post, I will explain what I’ve learned. In Part I, I’ll explain the useful tools and in Part II, I’ll explain what’s missing from most pedagogies on literature reviews.

Why are literature reviews so complex?

Literature reviews demand a range of academic literacies from writers. These include analysis, synthesis and evaluation of critically selected texts, constructing a coherent, consistent and valid argument by interweaving source texts with the writer’s own ideas, and contributing to their discourse community (audience) with some measure of originality. What we want students to achieve is the shift from knowledge-telling to knowledge-transformation in their literature reviews. Knowledge-telling might involve using an approach that includes copying directly from source texts, including too many citations, and representing texts with numerous and lengthy direct quotations. Often this approach is used as a way for novice writers to become familiar with the genre. Knowledge-transformation, however, requires the student to do something with the source documents. Here, the writer takes source texts and uses them in innovative ways to link ideas, concepts, arguments and perspectives and to promote his/her own argument. However, as Cumming, et al. (2016) show, the transition from knowledge-telling to knowledge-transformation is far from automatic; without explicit pedagogy, some students do not make the move.

What basics do students need to know about literature reviews?

First, students need to understand the basic genre. Genres are accepted conventions of both content and form. Explicitly teaching what goes into a literature review can help students to assess their own writing and make active decisions on how much they want to conform to the genre or how much they want to deviate. Table 1 provides an example of how the genre of literature reviews can be explicitly explained to students.

Literature review Genre component
Introduction Aim of review
Establishes why this subject is interesting/relevant
Scale or scope of review
Describes what is included/excluded
Contains definitions
Explains the organization of the review
Contains meta discourse (signposting for the reader)
Body Describes methodological frameworks of research read
Contains conceptual evolution—describes concepts over time
Contains themes—discusses themes in the debates
Links themes together at some point
Conclusion Contains a conclusion that relates back to purpose, aim and objectives
Key points of review and themes are summarized
Evaluation of current state of literature
Key gaps are identified
Outlines area for future research

Table 1 Literature review genre components (Jesson, et al., 2011)

Second, students also need to know that there are many ways to use citations. Most often students are taught the conventions of referencing. For example, they are taught how to write a reference in APA style; or they are taught how to cite to avoid plagiarism. However, experienced literature review writers also use citations as a way of performing an academic identity within a discipline. This complexity in citing is often invisible to novice writers because they have fewer opportunities to explicitly ‘see’ these citation patterns. Academics use citations to persuade, to present an argument and to convince readers to accept their work. Through referencing, the writer aligns with particular perspectives, draws on specific authorities and thereby develops credibility. Referencing and citation practices, then, help establish an epistemological framework which is embedded in the context of the discipline or the readers. Academics use citations to connect, through their texts, to the available academic cultures (Hyland 2008). For example, using an author to lead a sentence (as in “Jones (2017) argues…”) foregrounds the authority of an author and indicates to the reader that this author is significant in some way. Grouping citations (as in “(Ballen, 2015; Dix, 2014; Jones, 2017)”) shows breadth of reading and synthesis, while suggesting that none of this literature is significant enough to the writer’s study to earn an author-prominent sentence. Grouping citations positions the writer as knowledgeable and shows evidence of synthesizing the literature. Feak and Swales (2009) cover the many different ways to use sources and to cite.

In this blog post, we’ve looked at the basic knowledge students need to have to write literature reviews. They also need time to practice and to receive ongoing feedback. In the next post, we’ll look at how to teach students the layers of complexity that go into writing a literature review.