What is a review of the Literature and What is its Purpose?

The literature you’re interested in reviewing for your research is simply the major published works about your area of interest. You won’t use it to try to prove anything or support any preconceived ideas you might have; you’re only interested in identifying and presenting what is already known about the problem area you are investigating. While the term “review of literature” generally refers to the second chapter of a dissertation proposal, keep in mind that the ROL isn’t the only time you need to refer to the literature as you write your dissertation proposal.

For example, a large part of what you need to know about writing a good problem statement, with its supporting background and significance, will come from what you read. As you are writing your ROL, you’ll also find the literature is essential in guiding the research method of your study, planning your data analysis, analyzing your data, and presenting your results.

We’ll see that the formalized review of literature serves three purposes.

First, it establishes the context of our study and is a prerequisite for establishing “generativity,” or the ability for your study to contribute back to the field of literature. Keep in mind, you’re not conducting your research in a vacuum; you ultimately want what you find out about a given problem area to be part of the literature that future researchers can use to support their studies.

Second, as Ollhoff (2011) said, the review of literature is a paper about what is already known about the research problem that you’ve identified and want to investigate. By reviewing the literature, you’ll come to understand the history of your area of inquiry, be able to identify the key theories and researchers, identify ideas for new research, and build a strong theoretical foundation for your study; in short, you will become a subject matter expert. Obviously, this requires a significant amount of reading but you have to be selective; many beginning researchers try to include everything they read into their ROL and that can soon become problematic. In order to help avoid this issue, many professors have their students compose explicit statements describing rules they will use while searching (e.g., the types of journals, a date range they might focus on, specific key words related to the topic they might use). This allows the student to help better focus the review of literature before it begins. Further along in this chapter, we’ll discuss how you can further identify, evaluate, and synthesize what you read. Doing these things will allow you to develop a clear, relevant, and well- written literature review.

The third purpose of the review of literature is for identifying appropriate research strategies, data collection instruments, and procedures. For example, a student just finished her dissertation wherein she focused on the lived experiences of doctoral students in online programs. As part of her literature review, she found a very similar study during which the authors looked at attrition from online undergraduate programs. While she couldn’t replicate their study completely, my student was able to get ideas for the general approach to such a study, ideas for interviewing participants, possible problems she might encounter, and suggestions for collecting and transcribing interview data. In another case, one of my graduates focused on student anxiety in educational teleconferencing. As part of his review of literature, he found several references to an anxiety survey that was easily accessible, administered, and scored. In other cases, I’ve had students who weren’t able to locate a suitable test or survey for the data they wanted to collect; because of that, they’ve used the literature to guide them in developing a sound, valid research tool. As I mentioned much earlier, because the research questions are the methodological point of departure, it is imperative that you use your ROL to identify the tools you’ll need to develop a strong, valid research method that will help you answer those questions.