Teaching How to Write a Review of Literature

My educational task was threefold.  First, I had to offer a definition of “Review of Literature.”  Obviously, students will best understand a concept after it is defined.  Second, I discovered that offering a mere definition would not provide the students the required insight in order to write such a paper.  A typology of formats needs to be developed, presented and employed.  A typology of reviews of literature coupled with a definition would provide a firm foundation for understanding the concept.  Third, students need reinforcement.  That is, they need an assignment in which they employ the definition and typology to prepare them to write a Review of Literature.

The Definition

At the beginning of our class discussion of reviews of literature, students are informed that this type of manuscript is a common part of scholarly activity.  It is an essential part of most dissertations and thesis within all professional and academic programs of a graduate education.  At this point, a definition of “review of literature” is offered:

            A review of literature is a manuscript or a section of a manuscript that is a systematic exploration of material written on the research being addressed.  Since the “research question” drives the structure of the literature review, there are no formulas or systems for writing one.  However, there is a typology we can use to organize our thoughts.


A definition alone is not adequate in conceptualizing the purpose and function of review of literature.  Thus, students are offered a typology that can be employed for systematically categorizing this form of scholarly literature.

            A critical issue is immediately apparent.  Readers will acknowledge that all dissertations and thesis do not include a traditional review of literature.  Some employ literature as data.  These strategies require a great deal of creativity of the researcher who already has a profound understanding of a review of literature.  In my more naïve days, I thought that Picasso’s abstract art was a joke.  After some study, I realized that he had a profound understanding of the human condition and was able to clearly portray it on canvas.  He did not begin his artistic life with such profound insight or style.  Like Picasso, they must be encouraged to begin their scholarly journey at an entry level.  The typology is an effort to get students started.


The Typology

  1. Historical – Reviews the historical context of the literature leading up to the study presented.  This method is most helpful when virtually nothing is written on the subject.  Essentially, it examines the literature that leads to the new and/or innovative idea for the research being presented.  Saylor (1972) and Locklear (1985) are examples.

  2. Typology Development – In this approach, the author examines the literature in order to develop a typology.  This approach can only be used when a great deal is written on the peripheral of the subject matter, but not specifically on the subject itself.  Typology development is best employed as a method of crystallizing or organizing ideas.  Although the work of Marson (1983) is not a dissertation or thesis, the article offers a good example of this approach.

  3. Framework Review – When an author is attempting to address a well researched subject from a perspective hitherto never employed, one can review the various theoretical explanations of the phenomena being studied.  The review of literature is employed to critique past theories and to substantiate the framework being used within the presented research [see Schmalleger (1974) as an example].

  4. Identification of concepts – An author reviews the literature to extract concepts in order to employ these ideas within the body of research (Bowman, 1983).  This type of review of literature is best employed when conducting qualitative research.  Here, the researcher need not know the specific direction of the research.  The review of literature becomes a critical guide.

  5.  Problem Solving – Primarily concern is not about research, but how problems have been solved.  Here, the researcher reviews how others have solved a particular problem and suggests that these solutions may [or may not] have merit for the particular research being presented.  Used most often in engineering.  For social work, strong (1991) is an example.

  6. Summary – Some authors summarize the work of others.  This approach may appear to be like a series of abstracts and is limited to topics in which there is a great deal written.  Rimberg (1959) is an example.

  7. Theoretical – Here the review of literature focuses on data or findings.  The data or findings are reviewed within the context of a theory.  The theory that is being employed to interpret the data is not necessarily the same theory used in the articles being reviewed [see Marson (1991) as an example].

  8. Identification of Dependent Variables – Focus is solely on the conclusion of past authors.  Initially it may appear like the Summary model [discussed above], but the Conclusion model normally does not seem like a series of abstracts.  Instead of addressing the totality of past literature, the Conclusions model highlights the outcomes of past studies (i.e., dependent variables).  This model is particularly helpful to focus on variables that produced the best explanations [see Roscigno (1996) as an example].

  9.  Evaluative/Procedures – These approaches are usually accomplished simultaneously – but not necessarily.  The Evaluative model critiques quality of previous research.  Here, the researcher makes an effort to employ past studies as a spring-board to improve the quality of the research being presented.  The Procedures approach reports on the various research methodologies that have been employed to address a research topic.  Evaluative and Procedures are place together because if a researcher is going to address procedures, he/she is most likely to critique them.  Foulk (1984) is an excellent example that includes both evaluation and procedures.

  10. Identification of Independent Variables – Literature is examined to address how variables (usually independent variables) have been used in previous research.  This model is best used when one is replicating past research.  Such a review generally focuses on the development of new variables or more robust strategies for operationalizing variables.  Marson (1976) is an example.


Bowman, J. R. (1983).  The organization of spontaneous adult social play.  Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Ohio State University, Columbus.

 DeBord, J. B. (1989).  Paradoxical interventions: A review of the recent literature.  Journal of Counseling and Development, 67(7), 394-396.

 DePoy, E. & Gitlin, L. N. (1994).  Introduction to Research: Multiple Strategies for Health and Human Services.  St. Louis: Mosby.

 Foulk, R. C. (1984).  Child maltreatment: An examination of models of causation and the issues of standardized measurement.  Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Ohio State University, Columbus.

 Katzer, J., Cook, K. E. & Crouch, W. W. (1991).  Evaluating information: A guide for users of social science research.  New York: McGraw-Hill.

 Krathwohl, D. R. (1988).  How to prepare a research proposal: Guidelines for funding and dissertations in the social and behavioral sciences.  Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press.

 Locke, Lawrence F., Spirduso, W. W. & Silverman, Stephen J. (1987).  Proposals that work: A guide for planning dissertations and grant proposals.  Newbury Park: Sage Publications.

 Locklear, V. S. (1985).  A Cross cultural study to determine how mental health is defined in a tri-racial county in southeastern.  North Carolina Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Ohio State University, Columbus.

 Madsen, D. (1992).  Successful dissertations and thesis: A guide to graduate student research from proposal to completion.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

 Marlow, C. (1997).  Research Methods.  Pacific Grove, Calif.: Brooks/Cole Publishing Co.

 Marson, S. M. (1991).  The utility of a Marxian framework for sociology of aging.  Unpublished doctoral dissertation, North Carolina State University, Raleigh.

Marson, S. M. (1983).  Human sexuality and aging: Problems and solutions.  The Journal of Social Work and Human Sexuality, 1(3), 95-108.

 Marson, S. M. (1976).  Identifying variables related to successful treatment in an alcoholic inpatient rehabilitation facility.  Unpublished master’s thesis, Ohio State University, Columbus.

 Miller, J. I. Taylor, B. J. (1987).  The thesis writer’s handbook: A complete one-source guide for writers of research papers.  West Linn, Or.: Alcove Pub. Co.

 Rimberg, J. (1959).  The motion picture in the Soviet Union: 1918-1952: A sociological analysis.  Published doctoral dissertation, Columbia University, New York.

 Roscigno, V. J. (1996).  Race, place, and reproduction of educational disadvantage: The Black-White cap and local structures of opportunity.  Unpublished doctoral dissertation, North Carolina State University, Raleigh.

 Rubin, A. & Babbie, E. (1997).  Research Methods for Social Workers.  Pacific Gove, Calif,: Brooks/Cole Publishing Co.

 Saylor, J. (1972).  Intelligence, personality, and demographic correlates of orientation and mobility skills, personal-social skills and vocational skills of blind persons.  Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Ohio State University, Columbus.

 Schmalleger, F. (1974).  The sociology of dreams.  Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Ohio State University, Columbus.

Strong, J. (1991).  A study of the Pitt County mental health center adolescent substance abuse program: Aftercare follow-through and client outcomes.  Unpublished master’s thesis, East Carolina University, Greenville.