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Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in STEM
Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in STEM

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5.3 Writing a literature review

Evaluation of the literature that you have found is very important to a successful project. It is through critical analysis of the literature that you will be able to place your SoTL inquiry in an overall context with the work of others.

When presenting your review, it is important to take a critical approach to your readings and use an appropriate set of references to support the points you are making in your research. However, do not fall into the trap of being over-critical; criticising is easy, and of little value; it is more important to explain how research builds upon previous findings rather than to claim previous research is inadequate and incompetent.

As Hutchings et al. (2011) note, ‘The writing process not only focuses one’s attention on one’s own work but has a marvellous way of lighting up the work of others, bringing what might otherwise go unnoticed into one’s sphere of interest and analysis’ (pp. 37–38).

A well-written literature review (adapted from Webster and Watson, 2002 and O’Leary, 2005):

  • motivates the research topic and explains the review’s contributions
  • describes the key concepts
  • delineates the boundaries of the research
  • argues the need for, and relevance of, the area of interest
  • reviews relevant prior literature in the area of interest and related areas
  • informs readers of developments in the area of interest
  • justifies propositions by presenting theoretical explanations, past empirical findings and practical examples
  • develops a plan to guide future research
  • presents concluding implications for other educators, researchers and managers
  • establishes the reviewer’s credibility.

A good literature review is much more than a simple summary of the published material on a topic theme. A successful literature review constructively informs the reader about what has been learned. In contrast to specific and critical reviews of individual papers, you should aim to tell the reader what patterns you are seeing in the literature.

Although not focused on literature review for a SoTL inquiry, two examples of literature review in the area of SoTL that you may like to look at are: the Higher Education Academy report by Fanghanel et al. (2016) and a paper by Gilpin and Liston (2009).

Activity 7 Literature review for SoTL inquiry

Timing: Allow approximately 10 minutes

For your SoTL inquiry:

  1. Plan your research by thinking about some keywords. To get an idea of how effective these keywords are, try an online search and refine them, if required. Record your experiences and a list of keywords.
  2. Select a few databases for your search and try out the keywords. Record your experiences and any resources that look useful for your SoTL inquiry.
  3. Decide on the reference management tool, if you would like to use one, and record the rationale for your decision.

If you are not currently planning to conduct a SoTL inquiry, carry out the steps of this activity for any topic and literature review that is of interest to you.

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In this section, you have seen that literature review helps to contextualise your SoTL inquiry in the early stages. It helps you learn about the chosen topic area and defines existing work in the area of your interest. In the later stages of the inquiry, literature review will allow you to put your results into the broader context of SoTL practice.

Remember that research is continuous and SoTL is an ongoing reflective practice, so the literature review is never really finished; reading and understanding the literature is an ongoing part of being a reflective SoTL practitioner.