Thesis Literature Review: The Complete Guide

thesis literature review

When writing the literature review thesis section of their papers, many students don’t know where to start. The term literature means a collection of materials or information on a specific topic or research area. This collection can include journal articles and books of academic value. But when writing a thesis or dissertation, your literature review doesn’t have to include every book or article that other scholars and experts have written on your study topic.

That’s because this section of your paper can be too broad. Consequently, the literature review section should include key sources that relate to the main debates, gaps, and trends in your research area.

On the other hand, the term review means the ability to identify: 

  • What other authors or experts have discredited, established, and accepted in your study field
  • Areas of conflict or controversy among various schools of thought
  • How your study builds upon, extends, and departs from the previous studies

Reviewing the available literature, therefore, entails more than summarizing relevant sources. It involves evaluating every source and synthesizing the sources to gain a broader view of your study field. At the field level, literature review entails discussing emerging and common approaches, notable trends and patterns, controversial areas or conflicts, and gaps in the available, relevant literature.

What is Thesis Literature Review?

In a thesis, the literature review section provides a summary, evaluation, and description of every source. A thesis literature review refers to the overview of the major sources, like writing in your topic. This review can cover sources like scholarly books, journal articles, websites, and government reports. Dissertation or thesis authors present this review as a separate section.

Essentially, this section identifies, syntheses, and evaluates relevant literature in a specific study field. It also tells the readers how knowledge in the research area has changed while highlighting what other researchers have done. It also illuminates what scholars in the field generally accept, the current thinking on your topic, and what’s emerging.

Additionally, research-based texts like doctoral theses can have a literature review section that identifies research gaps. In that case, a thesis literature review highlights the under-researched or unexplored areas of the topic. It also articulates the way the research project can address the gaps. The primary purpose of a literature review is to give readers a current, critical account of the research state on the chosen topic.

Here’s what a literature review should do: 

  • Identify areas of past scholarship.
  • Describe how each source relates to the others selected by the author.
  • Identify new methods of interpreting and shedding light on the existing gaps in the available research.
  • Place every source within the context based on its contribution to the overall understanding of a specific theory, research area, or issue.
  • Suggest the way forward for future studies.

Essentially, the literature review section is a survey of the scholarly sources on the selected topic. It critically analyzes relevant publications while explaining the findings of the author.

How to Write a Literature Review for Thesis

Writing a literature review is an essential skill that every student intending to pursue higher education should learn. That’s because most professors and educators require learners to write research papers at some point. Therefore, acquiring this skill is essential before pursuing a research career or applying for graduate school. Here are the steps to follow when writing a thesis literature review.

Find relevant literature 

The first step in the process of writing a thesis or dissertation is to define a topic. That way, you can find suitable material or literature based on your research questions and problem. But if your assignment is to write this section alone, select a focus and then develop your central question. That way, directing your research will be easier. Essentially, writing a literature review section doesn’t require you to collect original data in the field. Instead, find relevant, existing publications on which to base your research.

Select and evaluate sources 

Reading everything that other scholars and experts have written in the available sources won’t be possible. Therefore, evaluate the most relevant and useful sources for answering your research question. For instance, ask about the problem or question that the author addresses in a source. Also, understand the concept the author is defending, the models, methods, and theories they use to do so. Additionally, study the conclusions or results of previous studies, their strengths, weaknesses, and contributions to your study topic.

Explore major theories and landmark studies in your research area. However, use credible sources only. Your literature review should depend on your discipline and topic. While reading the sources, take notes to help you cite sources after writing your thesis.

Identify debates, themes, and gaps 

Before organizing the literature review structure and argument, understand the relationships and connections between different sources. Here’s what you should look for depending on your notes and reading:

  1. Patterns and trends: How do some approaches become less or more popular over time?
  2. Debates, contradictions, and conflicts: How do the available sources disagree?
  3. Themes: What concepts or questions recur in the available literature?
  4. Pivotal publications: Have some influential studies or theories changed their direction?
  5. Gaps: Have you noticed something missing in the available literature?

Such analysis will enable you to determine the most effective way to structure your literature review. It will also enable you to come up with work that will contribute to the existing knowledge.

Outline the Literature Review 

Once you’ve decided on how to structure a literature review, you can now create an outline. You have several ways of organizing your literature review’s body. Depending on how long you want this section of the paper to be, you can include several strategies. For instance, the overall structure could be thematic while you discuss every theme chronologically. You can also use different research methods or theories, depending on what you want to include in your literature review.

Write the literature review 

Like other academic papers, a literature review includes an introduction, the body section, and the conclusion. The content of each of these sections depends on the literature review’s objective. For instance, the introduction should establish the purpose and focus on your literature review. Depending on your literature review’s length, the body can have several subsections. For instance, you can have a subheading for every theme, methodological approach, or period. The conclusion should summarize your key findings based on the available literature. You can also emphasize the significance of the findings in the conclusion.

How to Write a Literature Review Outline

Your literature review should have a structure that compares to that of any other academic paper. Here’s how you can outline your literature review:

  1. Introduction: Start by defining the research topic while providing the literature review context. Also, establish reasons for reviewing the available literature while explaining your organization. Additionally, tell readers about the scope of your review.
  2. Body: In the body, organize your review based on methodology, themes, or period. You can also adopt a wider or general view of the available literature.
  3. Conclusion: In the conclusion, summarize the essential aspects of the available literature. Also, evaluate the state of the available literature, while identifying significant gaps or flaws in the existing knowledge. You can also outline future study areas while linking to the current knowledge.

Your literature review should have these three sections, regardless of their scope or length.

Types of Literature Review

There are many types of literature reviews from which students can choose when writing theses or dissertations. Here are the most popular literature review types.

Narrative Literature Review 

In this review, the author summarizes and critiques the literature body. Also, this review concludes the research topic while identifying inconsistencies or gaps in the available knowledge body. Conducting a narrative literature review requires a focused research problem or question.

Systematic Literature Review

This literature requires a well-defined and rigorous approach when compared to the others. That’s because it uses a detailed and comprehensive timeframe during which the author selects the literature to review. Experts divide systematic literature reviews into meta-synthesis and meta-analysis.

Argumentative Literature Review 

This approach involves a selective examination of the literature. The goal is to refute or support an argument, a philosophical problem, or a deeply embedded assumption.

Integrative Literature Review 

With this approach, the author synthesizes and critiques secondary data regarding a research topic by taking an integrated approach. And this leads to the generation of new perspectives and frameworks on the study topic. This review is the only option when a study doesn’t involve primary data collection and analysis.

Theoretical Literature Review 

As the name suggests, this approach focuses on theories on a concept, issue, or phenomena. This review plays a crucial role in establishing the existing theories and their relationships. It also helps in determining the degree of their investigation and testing of new hypotheses.

Simple Structure of a Literature Review

Many students know what a literature review should be about but they have difficulties structuring it. Well, outlining a literature review requires you to include an introduction, the body, and the conclusion of this section. However, your thesis literature review should incorporate certain components. These are as follows:

  1. The objective of your literature review
  2. An overview of your study subject
  3. Categorization of the selected sources into the ones supporting your position, those opposing it, and those presenting different arguments.
  4. Discussion of each source’s distinctiveness and similarities with others.

Structuring your literature review requires you to analyze each source or the relevant part of it critically. That way, you can understand the expertise of the author in your study field. You can also understand the argument of the author and the empirical evidence that supports it. What’s more, you can determine whether the author’s perspective is biased in a certain direction.

Tips for Writing Thesis Literature Review

Overall, the structure and content of your literature review will depend on academic conventions in your academic field and your research area. However, you can follow these tips to write a strong literature review.

  • Go beyond describing others’ opinions: Your literature review should do more than describing other writers’ opinions. Instead, it should present a critical analysis of other scholars. Your readers should understand what other writers might have missed in their work.
  • Use different techniques to structure your review: Use key debates, controversial issues, methodology, and thematic areas to structure your literature review. That way, you can make the review dynamic and coherent.
  • Be selective: You don’t have to review every book or article in your study area. Instead, select only the essential pieces and show how they relate to your current study. You will find a wide range of sources with information that you can include in your paper. However, select pieces that your audience will find relevant for your study topic.
  • Express your voice: The literature review’s primary objective is to provide a summary and critical analysis of the other authors’ viewpoints. However, critical analysis means you can express your opinion based on the available literature.
  • Don’t overuse direct quotations: Use direct quotes only when you want to emphasize specific points. Instead of heavily relying on a single author’s work, highlight its importance in research and then proceed. Rather than summarizing the work of another author, tell your readers why yours disagrees or agrees with theirs. Thus, your review should be critical.
  • Use evidence: Providing evidence in a literature review forms the essence of a literature review. Ideally, your review should refer to different sources to make a point. Therefore, back your research interpretations and arguments with evidence. Thus, your literature review should not feature baseless claims because it’s not an opinion.

Final Thoughts

A thesis literature review should highlight the overarching themes while showing that you understand the bigger picture. It should also explain your observations with sufficient supporting evidence. What’s more, you should consider the scale, scope, and design of the existing methods and trends, while critiquing and reviewing them. If some findings are impossible or difficult to compare, your review should also point this out.