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Literature Reviews

Understanding, analysing & synthesising

Preparation of a literature review requires that you read a large volume of material, much of which will probably be new to you. You then have to turn this mass of words and ideas into a coherent final product. 

Understanding, analysing and synthesising information for most of us is an evolving process that sees us move backward and forward between the functions as our knowledge deepens. 

It can be helpful to use the 'three pass' reading system to help you develop understanding and critically analyse your articles. Each pass of the paper builds on previous reading and increases your understanding and critical analysis, making it easier to synthesise (Kheshav, 2007).

A note on theme

Keep an eye out in the understanding and analysing processes for emerging themes or patterns within the resources you've collected. Identifying themes is very important, as they will help you synthesise your information and form the basis of your literature review.


Understanding is a process of comprehending an intended meaning.

Understanding your resources will require you to uncover information and ideas within each resource and to clarify each's intended meaning.

Understanding - the first pass

Reading to gain a basic understanding of a resource is sometimes called the "first pass".  This pass should take about fve to ten minutes

Skim the literature

This allows you to identify the ideas, theories, questions and controversies that underlie each piece of work.

Key questions to ask

​Make sure to take note of anything that catches your attention (your "aha!" or "fancy that!" moments) when reading your resources. These may help you focus your question and give your research direction.

Details of exactly how the various questions were tackled, as outlined in methods and results sections, can wait for a later reading of the paper.

Reading - more great resources


Analysing = To take apart, examine in detail & identify strengths & weaknesses.

Critical analysis involves consideration and evaluation of the claims made by the author and determining their validity and application to your research.

Analysing - the second pass

The second pass is to help you grasp the content and main findings of the paper and could take up to an hour per paper.

At a deeper level than before you are

  • looking at what assumptions are leading to the way something is investigated.
  • looking for genuine differences in theories as opposed to semantic differences.
  • gaining an understanding of why the field developed in the way it did.
  • not only looking at findings but are looking at how others have arrived at their findings.
  • gaining a sense of where it might be going.

Questions to ask

In depth examination - the third pass

The third pass is all about the fine detail. This pass will take the longest.

By the end of this pass, you should have a thorough understanding of each paper.

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