Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Helping students write a literature review – Part I | DoctoralWriting SIG


Helping students write a literature review – Part I


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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

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

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.

Helping students write a literature review – Part I | DoctoralWriting SIG

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