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Successful University Writing

Practical approaches to get started with planning, writing and reviewing your work.

What is a literature review?

A literature review is a type of writing that explores, analyses and synthesises current literature around a particular topic or area of study. It can be included as part of a broader submission such as a research thesis or a report, or it may be a standalone essay assignment. It considers related texts together, comparing and contrasting them with each other.

Note that a literature review is not simply a summary of articles and sources, but rather a well-woven review of related literature. It looks for aspects of consensus and explores areas of academic disagreement within the scope of the theme or area being addressed by the review.

This guide provides general advice about the nature of literature reviews, but requirements can differ between disciplines and even lecturers, so be sure to follow individual assignment guidelines and criteria closely.

Preparing and structuring a literature review

A real challenge for students when writing a literature review is to avoid the trap of being swamped by the volume of available readings and articles. To combat this, keep in mind the following points:

  • Relevance. The review should be organised around defined concepts, issues or themes. Narrow your initial search to literature that addresses these areas. Keeping these issues in mind helps to limit the scope of the wide reading phase. Remember that in order to compare and contrast literature, it has to address related concepts and themes. 
  • Authority. Use reputable sources (e.g. library database rather than Google) to search for material that has been critically evaluated by peers, reviewed and professionally edited.
  • Currency. Check that the texts address information that is still influential in the field and reflect current thinking and  research.

Recording and planning

A useful planning and organisational tool is a literature matrix, which cross-references the main themes of the review with the literature being included. Themes should be listed on one axis and referenced against the articles on the other. As articles are read in detail one at a time, notes about them are made in the central area of the matrix. Once complete, this helps to make comparisons and synthesise the positions of the various authors along the lines of the issues and concepts. The following table is a simplified sample of this process:

Note how this matrix can be used as a scaffold to help write about each theme. It identifies areas of agreement as well as variations in how each author or article addresses each aspect. This will assist to facilitate synthesis of the areas of focus and positions presented by the various authors. In this example the matrix helps to scaffold a literature review based around the following themes:

  • a definition for formative assessment.
  • theoretical basis for formative assessment.
  • pedagogical implications of formative assessment.


Synthesis: a key academic skill

It is important to introduce the the topics and themes that will be explored in the literature review. Ensure that the introduction contextualises the themes that will be examined in terms of your research or study and present a thesis statement that argues the importance or relevance of the topics that will be reviewed.

Usually, headings and subheadings can be used to organise the literature review thematically. These will help the reader navigate the review and understand the thematic structure.


Provides a summary of:

  • themes of agreement or disagreement in the literature
  • areas where further research might be required
  • an overall perspective on the themes addressed in the literature review.

Success Now! workshops and consultations


Success Now! workshops are available live online or on campus. Register here for workshops on research and writing. You can also organise an individual consultation here to talk to a learning advisor about planning your assignments.