(c) Mateusz Stachowski (Stock.xchng)

WHEN THE TIME comes to write your dissertation (or sometimes even a simple research assignment), your lecturers will tell you that you need to conduct a literature review. As a rule, most students get confused because they’ve never heard of this before and naturally the unknown is scary. However, when you take a closer look, the literature review is not that scary at all. Despite the strange name, it is nothing but a critical summary of previous research on the subject. This article will make you familiar with this section of your study and show you that everything is simple once you know how to do it.


[In Part 1 we discussed what a literature review is, what it should include and how to make it critical. In Part 2, we continue to discuss the critical aspect, and then move on to the structure of a literature review and some examples of well and badly written sections of literature reviews]

[Click here to read Part 1]

C) An original contribution.

There is another aspect that you need to include in your literature review: your original contribution to the field of study. Of course, at the undergraduate level you are not expected to make ground-breaking discoveries. Even Ph.D. students who make significant discoveries during the course of their research are rare. However, it is important to mention the following points, regardless of whether you are an undergraduate or a postgraduate student:

  • How do you expect your findings to contribute to the existing theoretical framework (even if it is simply reinforcing the existing theory or ‘furnishing clues’ to new studies)?
  • How are your data and/or method going to enrich the current body of knowledge? This can simply be the fact that no one has used this kind of data or method before.
  • Consequently, what is the specific research gap you are hoping to fill?



4. The Structure of the Literature Review

As discussed above, your literature review must have the same structure as your entire academic paper: going from broad to narrow. Therefore, it follows this principle:

  • From textbooks to journals
  • From a description of the theory to a discussion of how the theory was applied by others
  • From describing how others applied the theory to a description of how you will apply it

There is another important aspect of being critical: analysing how the researchers you reference have obtained their data. In your paper you should mention the specifics of their methods because the validity and reliability of a chosen methodology also matters.

Compare your study design to those of others. Point out what the other researchers did and what the shortcomings of their studies are in relation to yours.


5. Examples of Good and Bad Literature Reviews

In this section, I will show you some good and bad examples from a typical literature review.


Smith (1992) describes a sociological experiment with 200 participants. The experiment consisted of reward and punishment as incentives for work. A group of 100 people were positively reinforced by motivational coaches. The other 100 people were constantly humiliated by an actor playing an army sergeant. The experiment showed that reward was more powerful than punishment because the group which was positively reinforced performed the given tasks better.

Why is it bad?

Because it merely describes the experiment without linking it to the current study. Your reader does not understand why you mention this, why it is relevant.

Let’s look at the good example.


Smith (1992) describes an experiment that was meant to determine whether reward or punishment was more effective to motivate people to perform tasks. His method included positive reinforcement for one group of participants by professional motivational coaches and negative reinforcement (humiliation and punishment) for the other group. During the experiment it was discovered that reward (positive reinforcement) was more effective than punishment. However, there are certain differences between the present study and that by Smith (1992).

In the present study, gaining money for performing well and losing money for performing badly is used as positive and negative reinforcement respectively. According to the study by Jameson (1989) money is not a strong motivator – praise is a stronger one. Nevertheless, the sociological profile of the participants needs to be taken into account. Jameson’s study focused on office workers, middle class employees. The present study focuses on students and the hypothesis is that money will be important for them as a motivator due to their social status and financial circumstances. However, this does not exclude the influence of praise and verbal positive reinforcement, which will also be taken into account.

(Please note that the researchers’ names and the study design are entirely made-up).

As you can see, in the example above, I am linking the previous research with my own study and this makes me look well-read and immediately tells my readers that I know what I’m talking about. In other words, I know the differences between my study and those by other researchers. I also know what they have done and exactly what I am doing. This gives me credibility, allowing me to speak more confidently.

P.S. This article is based on Vlad Mackevic’s book From Confusion to Conclusion: How to Write a First-Class Essay. You can download sample chapters of the book for FREE by clicking here or by entering your email address below.

The book can also be purchased on Amazon.co.uk in paperback and Kindle eBook formats. If you do not own a Kindle reader, Amazon provides a range of FREE applications for your computer, Smartphone or Tablet.

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