The Weak Link in the Research Process…and how to fix it.

To be successful in a graduate program, students must be able to write a clear, concise literature review with a logical flow that provides a convincing rationale for conducting the proposed research. The literature review is the foundation for identifying a research problem/question and creating the plan to address it. There are good online tutorials that explain how a thorough knowledge of the literature allows students to go from a broad perspective of a topic to that minuscule slice that will become the focus of the dissertation research. Despite all of the available tutorials, many students still struggle with this part of the dissertation and sometimes never successfully create a research proposal that is acceptable to the committee. That sometimes happens because of inadequate writing skills but another contributing cause is a lack of tools to effectively organize the research before beginning to write.


The True Value of Annotated Bibliographies

Writing an annotated bibliography is excellent preparation for a research proposal. Just collecting sources for a bibliography is useful, but when you have to write annotations for each source, you're forced to read each source more carefully. You begin to read more critically instead of just collecting information. At the professional level, annotated bibliographies allow you to see what has been done in the literature and where your own research or scholarship can fit
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Few students understand the value of an annotated bibliography. As the above description explains, it provides a way for researchers to see how their research or scholarship fits in the infinitely larger puzzle of the topic. This seems to be an area where it is assumed that the student knows what parts of an article are important and how to record them for future access. When used correctly, the annotated bibliography can become a powerful writing aid.

It was at the end of my doctoral program that I first did an annotated bibliography and never really understood the reason for doing it. I had a wonderful dissertation chair and committee so maybe they assumed that I knew how to do annotated bibliographies as part of the research process. In any case, as I began to analyze the articles to write the narratives, I realized how valuable this would have been to me had its importance been explained early in my doctoral journey. Having started my doctoral program later in life, I already had the experience needed to take notes in a way that I could later recall them when writing but that was because of many years of having done reading and research for a variety of papers combined with my understanding of electronic filing.

As a result of my experience, I required all my students to write an annotated bibliography and assumed that they knew as much as I did about what needed to be included in one. I developed a template for them to use to make sure they focused on the important parts of each article as they read and would have an electronic record that they could use to easily recall that information later in the formal writing process.

Templates…the underutilized tools for academic success

Templates are one of the most underutilized tools in the academic process. Interestingly, providing templates to students at the graduate level seems to be received with mixed emotions. Some say that using templates restricts students’ creativity yet even the dissertation structure is a form of template as is writing in APA style. I would argue that giving templates to beginning scholars helps them create the kind of research and writing habits that will make them leaders in their fields. Expecting a budding scholar to know how to do all the things that a seasoned scholar can do is like throwing a young child in the deep end of the pool and yelling, “Swim!” as a means of teaching swimming skills.

Providing a template as a guide while doing a review of scholarly work does not take the place of students’ critical analysis and synthesis of the literature related to the specific problem; it only provides a tool to keep track of each article’s key information that will then be used to do that analysis and synthesis.

What Should Be Included in an Annotated Bibliography Template?

I use tables for most of my templates as it provides a clear structure for students. At the top of the form, the student is instructed to type the citation in APA style. There are three columns for each type of information. The left column is a question about the type of information needed while the other two columns provide a place for students to write a note and put a page number for future reference. At the end of the table, there is a note to students to cut and paste quotations, including page numbers, that might be used later when writing the literature review. Below is a list of the main questions listed in the template:

  • What is the author/authors’ purpose?
  • What is the problem that is being investigated/addressed?
  • What theory/theories and/or background material support the rationale for the study?
  • What was the method used?
  • What were the findings/conclusions?
  • What were the limitations of the results?
  • What were the implications of the study?
  • What were the recommendations for further research?

Having this basic information about each source can be easier to reference later than a narrative form so each annotated bibliography becomes a source document containing everything students need to write the literature review and is also useful in other parts of their manuscript. However, there are other benefits to using a template.


Added Benefits of Using a Template for Annotated Bibliographies

Templates also provide some special features that would not be as readily available in a general narrative. A template provides a single document for each article that can be tagged and/or filed according to certain keywords and then searched. Most people associate tags with web sites or apps such as Evernote but tags are also available for computer files. Without spending a lot of time explaining tags, using tags for files allows the user to recall those files regardless of where they are stored in the computer. As I mentioned earlier, I also include in my template, a note to students to cut and paste possible quotes, including page numbers, to save time later. No need to try to remember where that special quote is located because you already have that information in the template.


Completing graduate work of any kind is a major accomplishment; completing a dissertation and earning a doctoral degree will require a major commitment of time, energy, and money. While there are no shortcuts to achieving this goal, there are ways to make the process more efficient. Making the most of the annotated bibliography is one of those ways to increase efficiency and using a template makes the process even more useful.