Literature Review Essentials: Curate Information
The aim of this blog post is to get you feeling comfortable with beginning the literature review process. First, we will talk about why synthesis is an important skill to practice in your literature review. And second, we will discuss how to curate your mountains of information that will contribute to a successful literature review.
Synthesis: A Foundational Literature Review Skill
I find literature reviews particularly daunting because their purpose is to synthesize information, and the word “synthesize” – in and of itself – is a little intimidating.
To synthesize means to create a comprehensive whole from many different parts. For the sake of metaphor, let’s say we have two friends, Sam and Taylor. To create synthesis in a literature review, you want to examine what Sam and Taylor have in common and in what ways they differ, and you want to explain those similarities and differences to your readers.
In your investigation, you might find some interesting themes about Sam and Taylor’s cuisine preferences. You might want to tell your readers that, “While Sam and Taylor both enjoy Indian food, Sam’s favorite is Italian, and Taylor’s favorite is Filipino. ” Then, tell your readers about Sam and Taylor’s affinity for Indian food and why/how they developed this affinity. Why, too, do they have their different preferences?
The point of synthesis is not to summarize Sam's likes and dislikes in one paragraph, and then to do the same for Taylor in another paragraph. Synthesis is all about finding connections and themes that tie your two topics together, and explaining these themes to your readers.
Curation: Gathering Information to Inform Your Synthesis
The next step in your process is to select the articles you are going to evaluate for your literature review. You might feel a bit overwhelmed with all of this new information at your fingertips. But don’t despair. With some simple organizational strategies and a clear idea of what you hope to accomplish with your review of the literature, you can move seamlessly between the information gathering step to the information curating step. Once you have gathered the articles you will include in your literature review from the Walden University Library’s helpful resources, follow these steps as you go to save time and avoid headaches later.
Step 1 - Preread Articles:
A. Read the article’s abstract to gain a general understanding of the article’s contents.
B. Read the paragraph before the methodology section. In this paragraph, researchers will generally state their hypothesis, reiterate their research questions, or summarize their purpose for research.
C. Scan all the headings throughout the article. This will give you an idea about the outline followed in the article, and a better understanding of the subtopics the researchers chose to investigate in their research.
D. Read the first few paragraphs under the last heading. These paragraphs often state major findings.
Step 2 - Get Organized:
A. Group your articles into categories that correspond to different themes you plan to present in your review.
B. It may seem old-fashioned, but colored post-it notes can help you keep track of different themes in your text. Stock up on post-notes or on highlighters, or become familiar with your Word processor’s tools for highlighting text in different colors. Beth has some great tips for refining your note-taking techniques.
C. Download and fill in your Literature Review Matrix. This organizational resource will help you make note of important information from each of your sources that will come in handy later in your literature review process. This step is time consuming now, but it will help you save time later.
Step 3 - Answer Questions:
A. What theoretical or conceptual framework was posed in this article? What are the key definitions and areas of exploration?
B. What were the research questions and hypotheses?
C. What methodology did the researcher follow? Is this a qualitative or quantitative study?
D. What did the analysis reveal? Were there any surprising finds?
E. What did the researchers conclude? Was their hypothesis correct? Were all the research questions answered?
F. What are the implications for future research? Did you identify gaps in research? Tim has some great tips to help you identify gaps in research.
G. What are the implications for practice in this field?
As you read and evaluate your sources, keep handy your Literature Review Matrix and fill it out as you go. Take your research one article as a time, and know when it’s time to take a break. Your highlighters will be waiting for your return. In this blog post, you've learned about synthesis and about how to organize the information you'll use to build your literature review. Do you feel comfortable? If you have any more questions about these steps in the literature review process, I would love to hear them!
Join us next week for Jes’ post about organizing your literature review, and learn what to do with all the information you plugged in to your literature review matrix.
Nicole Townsend is a writing instructor in the Walden University Writing Center. She has worked in writing centers for ten years, with an interest in individualizing support for diverse student populations. While Nicole also enjoys editorial work and teaching English as an adjunct professor, her passion is for the foundation of collaboration embedded in writing center best practices.
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