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CME6850: Capstone in Community Engagement (Nemon)

Writing a Literature Review

Writing a Literature Review

What Is a Literature Review? 

A literature review is a survey of scholarly articles, books, or other sources that pertain to a specific topic, area of research, or theory. The literature review offers brief descriptions, summaries, and critical evaluations of each work, and does so in the form of a well-organized essay. Scholars often write literature reviews to provide an overview of the most significant recent literature published on a topic. They also use literature reviews to trace the evolution of certain debates or intellectual problems within a field. Even if a literature review is not a formal part of a research project, students should conduct an informal one so that they know what kind of scholarly work has been done previously on the topic that they have selected. 

How Is a Literature Review Different from a Research Paper? 

An academic research paper attempts to develop a new argument and typically has a literature review as one of its parts. In a research paper, the author uses the literature review to show how his or her new insights build upon and depart from existing scholarship. A literature review by itself does not try to make a new argument based on original research but rather summarizes, synthesizes, and critiques the arguments and ideas of others, and points to gaps in the current literature. Before writing a literature review, a student should look for a model from a relevant journal or ask the instructor to point to a good example. 

Organizing a Literature Review 

A successful literature review should have three parts that break down in the following way: 


  1. Defines and identifies the topic and establishes the reason for the literature review. 
  2. Points to general trends in what has been published about the topic. 
  3. Explains the criteria used in analyzing and comparing articles. 


  1. Groups articles into thematic clusters, or subtopics. Clusters may be grouped together chronologically, thematically, or methodologically (see below for more on this).
  2. Proceeds in a logical order from cluster to cluster. 
  3. Emphasizes the main findings or arguments of the articles in the student’s own words. Keeps quotations from sources to an absolute minimum. 


  1. Summarizes the major themes that emerged in the review and identifies areas of controversy in the literature. 
  2. Pinpoints strengths and weaknesses among the articles (innovative methods used, gaps in research, problems with theoretical frameworks, etc.). 
  3. Concludes by formulating questions that need further research within the topic, and provides some insight into the relationship between that topic and the larger field of study or discipline. 

Synthesis Visualization

In the four examples of student writing below, only one shows a good example of synthesis: the fourth column, Student D. (Click on the image below to see larger)

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