Return to: How Do I Know What the Research Says?
Literature reviews are secondary sources
on research. Literature reviews describe and summarize past reports on research and/or evaluation studies. The purpose of a literature review is to provide new conclusions about the body of prior research related to a specific topic, such as the effects of summer school on student achievement. (Another term for a literature review is research synthesis
.) Literature reviews vary in method and scope, so the structure of literature reviews varies as well. Most literature reviews, however, have certain standard components.
In the introduction of a report on a research study, the author usually describes how the study relates to prior research on the topic and may refer to that as a “literature review.” Because, however, the purpose is to provide a context for the study and not to produce new conclusions based on past research, this description usually is not a literature review in the sense defined here, as a stand-alone synthesis.
- Abstract or Executive Summary – Summarizes the purpose, method, findings, and conclusions of the literature review.
Abstracts and executive summaries of literature reviews sometimes are misleading. Results from a literature review depend on how the reviewer analyzed reports on prior research. To better understand and evaluate the results and conclusions of a literature review, always read the sections in the review that explain the process used to select and analyze research studies.
- Introduction – Describes the topic and purpose of the literature review. Sometimes a research question is posed. For example, “Based on past research, does summer school improve student achievement?”
- Background – Provides background information related to the topic. The reviewer usually discusses the history behind the topic and why the topic is important in the current educational context. The reviewer also indicates how the terms in the topic are defined for purposes of the review. For example, a review of research on teacher mentoring should define what constitutes teacher mentoring.
- Method – Describes the method used to search for, select and analyze past research studies. The method is a critical component of a literature review because the results and conclusions depend on the scope of the search for past studies, the criteria used to include or exclude studies, and the method used to analyze the studies.
There are two general methods of analysis used for literature review: narrative review and meta-analysis. In a narrative review (also called a qualitative review), the reviewer interprets the studies by describing, comparing, and contrasting the studies and their results. In a meta-analysis (also called a quantitative review), the reviewer uses statistics, primarily effect sizes, to summarize the results of different studies. (See the literature review on summer school by Cooper, Charlton, Valentine and Muhlenbruck  for an example that uses both narrative review and meta-analysis.)
- Results – Provides the results of the literature review. The results section often includes a table that lists the citations for the reviewed studies and briefly describes the methods and findings of each study. In a narrative review, the author usually organizes results based on a particular aspect of the topic. For example, in a narrative review of research on summer school, the reviewer might discuss the results from studies of summer mathematics programs and of summer reading programs separately. In a meta-analysis, the reviewer also might organize results by subtopic and indicate effect sizes for the subtopics.
- Conclusions – Summarizes the results of the review and presents conclusions. The author usually discusses limitations of the review based on either the method used to review the studies or the characteristics of the studies themselves.
The validity of the conclusions of a literature review depend on whether the reviewed studies are of adequate research quality. Look for whether reviewed studies are examined for their research quality.