Literature Review For Undergraduate Dissertation Proposal

How To Create A Good Literature Review For An Undergraduate Dissertation

There are many students who have talent in writing, but they don’t seem to create any good paper, especially when it has very specific requirements. This is because you need much more than a good topic to create something that will get the maximum grade. Even when you think you found the perfect topic, do not try to rush the process. Take your time to complete each step with extreme care and every time you finished a good piece of your paper, correct it and ask for feedback from somebody. You have here some guidelines on how to create a good literature review:

  • Choose your topic. This is the first step before starting any kind of paper. Preferably, the topic needs to be very engaging for you and your classmates. In this way, it will be easy for you to write, and interesting for them to read. Also, it is good if you have some previous knowledge on the subject so you can save some time that you would spend on extended research. Even if the topic seems a bit complicated, it is better to chose something more complex than something simple.
  • Get to know the most important pieces that analyze your topic. In a literature review, you basically discuss the most important papers or books that were published on a certain topic. For example, if the main subject of your dissertation is discrimination, in your review you will search for the most common, appreciated and informative papers and articles written by this.
  • Get to know each paper. It is not enough to mention the name, but you need also to write a few words about each piece. Do not give too many details, but just enough to make the reader understand the general ideas and the perspective from which the author approached the topic. If it’s something relevant and extraordinary, like an opinion that changed the public opinion about a topic, you can introduce it in your review.
  • Summarize the conclusion. Of course, you can’t mention the conclusion of every paper, but it will be enough to mention the expected result from your dissertation. Also, the most notable opinions that you found in your researches can be integrated here. Make sure to not reveal too much information; you need to be clear and concise, but to provoke the reader at the same time.

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Tanya Golash-Boza
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of California, Merced

Writing a literature review is often the most daunting part of writing an article, book, thesis, or dissertation. “The literature” seems (and often is) massive. I have found it helpful to be as systematic as possible when completing this gargantuan task.

Sonja Foss and William Walters* describe an efficient and effective way of writing a literature review. Their system provides an excellent guide for getting through the massive amounts of literature for any purpose: in a dissertation, an M.A. thesis, or an article or book in any field of study. Below is a  summary of the steps they outline as well as a step-by-step method for writing a literature review.

Step One: Decide on your areas of research:

Before you begin to search for articles or books, decide beforehand what areas you are going to research. Make sure that you only get articles and books in those areas, even if you come across fascinating books in other areas. A literature review I am currently working on, for example, explores barriers to higher education for undocumented students.

Step Two: Search for the literature:

Conduct a comprehensive bibliographic search of books and articles in your area. Read the abstracts online and download and/or print those articles that pertain to your area of research. Find books in the library that are relevant and check them out. Set a specific time frame for how long you will search. It should not take more than two or three dedicated sessions.

Step Three: Find relevant excerpts in your books and articles:

Skim the contents of each book and article and look specifically for these five things:

1. Claims, conclusions, and findings about the constructs you are investigating

2. Definitions of terms

3. Calls for follow-up studies relevant to your project

4. Gaps you notice in the literature

5. Disagreement about the constructs you are investigating

When you find any of these five things, type the relevant excerpt directly into a Word document. Don’t summarize, as summarizing takes longer than simply typing the excerpt. Make sure to note the name of the author and the page number following each excerpt. Do this for each article and book that you have in your stack of literature. When you are done, print out your excerpts.

Step Four: Code the literature:

Get out a pair of scissors and cut each excerpt out. Now, sort the pieces of paper into similar topics. Figure out what the main themes are. Place each excerpt into a themed pile. Make sure each note goes into a pile. If there are excerpts that you can’t figure out where they belong, separate those and go over them again at the end to see if you need new categories. When you finish, place each stack of notes into an envelope labeled with the name of the theme.

Step Five: Create Your Conceptual Schema:

Type, in large font, the name of each of your coded themes. Print this out, and cut the titles into individual slips of paper. Take the slips of paper to a table or large workspace and figure out the best way to organize them. Are there ideas that go together or that are in dialogue with each other? Are there ideas that contradict each other? Move around the slips of paper until you come up with a way of organizing the codes that makes sense. Write the conceptual schema down before you forget or someone cleans up your slips of paper.

Step Six: Begin to Write Your Literature Review:

Choose any section of your conceptual schema to begin with. You can begin anywhere, because you already know the order. Find the envelope with the excerpts in them and lay them on the table in front of you. Figure out a mini-conceptual schema based on that theme by grouping together those excerpts that say the same thing. Use that mini-conceptual schema to write up your literature review based on the excerpts that you have in front of you. Don’t forget to include the citations as you write, so as not to lose track of who said what. Repeat this for each section of your literature review.

Once you complete these six steps, you will have a complete draft of your literature review. The great thing about this process is that it breaks down into manageable steps something that seems enormous: writing a literature review.

I think that Foss and Walter’s system for writing the literature review is ideal for a dissertation, because a Ph.D. candidate has already read widely in his or her field through graduate seminars and comprehensive exams.

It may be more challenging for M.A. students, unless you are already familiar with the literature. It is always hard to figure out how much you need to read for deep meaning, and how much you just need to know what others have said. That balance will depend on how much you already know.

For people writing literature reviews for articles or books, this system also could work, especially when you are writing in a field with which you are already familiar. The mere fact of having a system can make the literature review seem much less daunting, so I recommend this system for anyone who feels overwhelmed by the prospect of writing a literature review.

*Destination Dissertation: A Traveler's Guide to a Done Dissertation

Image Credit/Source: Goldmund Lukic/Getty Images


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