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).
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.
Reading to gain a basic understanding of a resource is sometimes called the "first pass". This pass should take about fve to ten minutes
This allows you to identify the ideas, theories, questions and controversies that underlie each piece of work.
- Category - what type of research/paper (qualitative, quantitative, experimental, implementation, analysis etc)?
- Context - how does it relate to other literature and what theoretical bases were used?
- Correctness - do assumptions seem valid?
- Contributions - how does it add to the body of literature on the topic?
- Clarity - how easy is it to read and understand? (Kheshav, 2007)
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.
- Go back to your starting points and identify points that you are more interested in.
- As you read, isolate the issues of interest. Narrow your interest further if necessary.
- Discard articles that are not relevant to these issues.
- Have you searched widely and deeply enough? Make an appointment with your librarian to check your search strategies
- Is it the cutting edge of something new? If so there may not be a lot published on the topic yet.
- Are you limiting yourself to too narrow an area? Relevant material could be just around the corner in a closely related field.
- Is it a worthwhile area of research? Check with your supervisor.
Tips for managing your reading
Tips for organising the literature
Develop key words or phrases to identify these elements in each paper and enter these in your filing system. This will help you later identify all the papers covering those elements.
Evaluate or score resources as you go by recording some type of coding system such as a +/- symbol or a numerical value to indicate its usefulness.
Critical analysis involves consideration and evaluation of the claims made by the author and determining their validity and application to your research.
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.
What are the questions investigated or hypotheses tested?
Does the question or hypothesis make sense? Is it worth investigating?
What was the design of the study?
Was the design suitable for the types of questions to be answered?
What frameworks or theories informed the study?
Could the context of the study affected the results?
How was the data analysed?
Does data analysis appear to have been done with care?
What was the sample?
Is the sample likely to be representative of the population?
What were the data collection instruments and/or procedures?
Are the data collection instruments & procedures able to measure accurately?
What were the results?
What is the significance of results?
What were the conclusions?
Which conclusions appear/do not appear to be well supported?
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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