Dissecting The Literature Review

The foundation of a dissertation is a thorough review of the current literature related to the problem so you can develop a plan for further investigation. Reviewing the literature should start early in doctoral studies, expand during coursework, and continue until you defend the dissertation. All the chapters in the dissertation depend on a solid grasp of the literature. Even writing a problem statement is difficult to do without understanding what is already known about the topic.

The literature review is also a task many students dread because they don't understand its importance or how to write it. The following discussion is one way you can use to organize and present a clear and complete review of the literature to give a strong reason for your planned research.

A literature review should include a brief overview of the topic area so the reader can contextualize the problem you will frame in the subsequent sections. It provides the foundation for a discussion of current studies related to the specific focus of your research. Ask the following questions to have an idea of what you should include.

What Do We Already know?

What are the key issues--the "hot topics"--scholars are investigating now? What are the challenges, the debated areas, the missing pieces of the puzzle, what we know and what remains unexplained? In the previous chapter, you set the stage by identifying a specific problem and supporting it with current evidence of its existence. You proposed a way to learn more about it and now, you are giving the rationale for the investigation. The only thing you want to hear when someone finishes reading this Chapter is, "Wow! I can't wait to see what you find!"

Who Is Affected By This Problem?

Once you have shown the reader the problem, it is time to discuss who it affects. This can be--and usually is--more than one group. We are all interconnected whether are know it or not. Problems have a "ripple" effect. You must show you understand that by discussing affected individuals, groups, or organizations. For example, in education, when bullying happens in schools, it affects everyone in the school in some way. The "shock wave"expands to those closely associated with the school and then into society. Your review should show the reader the extent of the problem and who will benefit from a better understanding of it.

Where Does the Problem Occur?

Besides knowing who is affected, tell the reader where the problem occurs. Is it localized or widespread. In the example of bullying, it probably also occurs outside the school. Knowing the extent of the problem and what is currently being done about it further contextualizes your specific focus. Using this example, your focus may be on teacher perceptions or maybe measuring the effects of some new program to reduce bullying. Seeing where your research fits in the "big picture" keeps you within the bounds of your study.

When Does The Problem Occur?

The “when” can be about time. Does the problem only occur at certain times or is it ongoing? Does the problem persist? The "when" could also be about a behavior/action sequence leading to the problem. Is there a pattern related to the occurrence of the problem? This is important in understanding the whole problem as certain situations or events may trigger.

Why Does The Problem Exist?

What makes the problem a problem? What is currently known about the problem and where are the gray areas? You already documented it’s existence so now, you are reinforcing and giving a rationale for further research. You are not the first person to research this topic; you are only examining it through a slightly different lens to add to the existing knowledge about the problem and move closer to a full understanding.

How Does This Problem Occur?

What do we know about the steps leading to the problem? How the sequence of events result in the problem can help you position your research focus in the context of the problem, to see how your research will expand the understanding of the mechanisms leading to it. What actions or conditions precede the problem?

Why Use This Approach?

Approaching the literature review from a slightly different perspective can help you do a better job of presenting a clear picture of the problem and why more research is needed. It is much more than a "book report"of the current literature. Instead, the reader will get a clear picture of where your research will fit in the larger scheme.

As you can see this is more about creating a synthesis of current scholarly works rather than an outline for the review. These questions are interconnected; it would be difficult to talk about "where" the problem occurs without mentioning the " 'who" or the "what." Synthesis is the key word here. You are not doing a book report. This is an examination of current literature to show the reader how your research will significantly add to the current understanding of the problem.


Research, research, research... then write. All good researchers know this. Writers will all tell you they spend much more time reading than they do writing. You will become an expert on your particular focus if you do the same. Try wring this approach as part of a brainstorming activity to develop the sections to include in your literature review.