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Choosing a Topic and Writing a Literature Review. Brendan A. Rapple, Ph.D. The Literature Review. Purpose of a Lit. Review to Get familiar with background/history of problem. Identify possible ways to study the problem. Assess strengths and weaknesses of previous studies.

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Choosing a topic and writing a literature review
Choosing a Topic and Writing a Literature Review

Brendan A. Rapple, Ph.D.

Boston College Libraries

The literature review
The Literature Review

Purpose of a Lit. Review to

  • Get familiar with background/history of problem.

  • Identify possible ways to study the problem.

  • Assess strengths and weaknesses of previous studies.

  • Develop conceptual framework & rationale for present study.

  • Acquaint you with new sources of data.

  • Help avoid needless replication of previous research.

  • Help you to define your topic. Etc. Etc

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Phase 1 specifying the research question
Phase 1Specifying the Research Question

  • If research question is specified too broadly or defined too vaguely or abstractly, one may be overwhelmed with information.

  • If research question specified too narrowly or defined too concisely or concretely, one may miss out on peripheral and more general info.

  • If topic is very current, there may be few scholarly books and articles.

  • Certainly choose a “good” topic, one that interests you. But make sure that it’s “doable”, manageable.

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  • Breadth of Topic.

    Too broad a topic may be unmanageable, for example

    • "The Education of Girls"

    • or "The History of Universities"

    • or "Computers in Schools."

  • On the other hand, too narrow and/or trivial a topic, e.g., "My Favorite Teacher", is uninteresting and extremely difficult to research.

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    Defining a research topic
    Defining a Research Topic

    Unlimited Topic (TOO BROAD)

    • “Life and Times of Sigmund Freud”

    • “The School Principal in the Modern School System”

    • “The History of Down Syndrome”

    • “Special Education as a Field of Study”

      Slightly Limited Topic (STILL TOO BROAD)

    • “An Examination of Different Emphases in the Psychological Views of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung”

    • “Improving the Effectiveness of the School Principal”

    • “The Teaching of Children with Down Syndrome in Boston’s Educational Institutions”

    • “Special Education in Boston Schools”

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    More appropriate manageable topics
    More Appropriate/Manageable Topics

    • "An Analysis of the Relationship of Freud and Jung in the International Psychoanalytic Association, 1910-1914”

    • "Texas school principals knowledge and perceptions of bullying: A descriptive study of bullying in seventh and eighth graders in Houston, Texas”

    • “Temperament and behavior problems in young children with Down syndrome at 12, 30, and 45 months”

    • “The link between funding a mandated program (special education) vs. a non-mandated program (regular education) in two Massachusetts' public school districts during the 1980s”

    Possible problems in choosing a topic
    Possible Problems in Choosing a Topic

    • A topic that is not manageable in terms of:

      • time

      • resources

      • energy

      • travel

      • researcher's knowledge and experience (e.g. do you speak Chinese?)

  • Choosing a topic that will not keep your interest, enthusiasm.

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    Definition of terms
    Definition of Terms

    • Title of Thesis/Dissertation:

      “Christianists, Islamists, Theocons: Harbingers of Apocalyptic Violence”

    • Clearly there are some “problem” words here.

    • We must know how the RESEARCHER defines the term.

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    Limitations of study
    Limitations of Study

    • Important to specify precisely what you intend to do.

    • Important to know what you do NOT intend to do.

    • Limitations may be of:

      • time

      • personnel

      • gender

      • age

      • geographic location

      • nationality

      • (and potentially numerous others)

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    Phase 2 locating and accessing information
    Phase 2 Locating and Accessing Information

    Some Difficulties -- Leading to Anxiety:

    • not understanding information;

    • overwhelmed by amount of info.;

    • not knowing if certain info. exists;

    • not knowing where to find info.;

    • knowing where to find info. but not having key to access.

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    Phase 3 evaluating the information
    Phase 3Evaluating the Information

    When reading each article, book, chapter etc one might ask such questions as:

    • What fundamental beliefs are expressed in each item? Does the author have an ideological stance?

    • What is being described? Is it comprehensive or narrow?

    • What is being predicted? Does it predict outcomes satisfactorily?

    • How applicable, transferable, or generalizable is the information?

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    Contextual and perceptual implications
    Contextual and Perceptual Implications

    • Who posed the research question?

    • Who funded the research study?

    • What were the political, economic, and social conditions of the time and place of the research study?

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    Phase 4 recording the information
    Phase 4Recording the Information

    We all have different ways of recording info., making notes etc.

    But particularly useful is the Web-based bibliographic citation management tool RefWorks


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    • Web based tool for automatically formatting your paper.

    • Allows you to store, organize and keep track of citations.

    • References can then be inserted into papers.

    • Footnotes and bibliography can be generated in a variety of formats such as APA, MLA.

      RefWorks Tutorial

      • step by step instruction

      • Details on setting up your account and using RefWorks remotely

      • Importing records from specific databases

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    Phase 5 organizing the information
    Phase 5 Organizing the Information

    • When writing a Lit. Review the researcher must

      • categorize

      • compare

      • make connections among various forms and sources of information

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    Perhaps she groups findings according to whether they provide
    Perhaps She Groups Findings According to Whether They Provide

    • strong support . . .

    • medium support . . .

    • low support to her own hypothesis/theory

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    Perhaps she groups the material chronologically
    Perhaps She Groups the Material Chronologically Provide

    • e.g. a Lit. Review on the topic: “The Free School Movement, 1967--1972: A Study of Countercultural Ideology”might be divided chronologically as follows:

      • Material published in the

        • 1960s

        • 1970s

        • 1980s

        • 1990s

        • 2000-2006

  • But this is quite an arbitrary approach – it may not be particularly informative.

  • If one does use a chronological method, a “trends” approach with the date periods might be more useful.

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    Perhaps she groups the material thematically
    Perhaps She Groups the Material Thematically Provide

    • Organizing about topics or issues rather than passage of time often the best method.

    • Again, a lit. review of the topic “The Free School Movement, 1967--1972: A Study of Countercultural Ideology”might consider such themes as:

      • Views of parents, teachers, students, and political activists.

      • Aims of the schools.

      • Types of school, curricula, textbooks, pedagogies.

      • Ideological basis of the free school movement.

      • New Left; the civil rights movement; student protests; the antiwar movement; other societal, cultural and intellectual contexts.

      • Divisions within the movement.

      • Critics of the movement.

      • Collapse of the movement.

      • Views on the movement’s legacy.

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    Another example of a thematic organization
    Another Example of a Thematic Organization Provide

    • A lit. review on aspects of standardized testing might be organized according to the following themes or issues:


      • History of Standardized Tests

      • Different Types of Standardized Tests

      • Rationale of Standardized Tests

      • Role of High Stakes Tests

      • Standardized Tests and the Law

        Standardized Tests in Practice

      • Testing at Elementary School

      • Testing at Secondary School

      • Statistics

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    Choosing a topic and writing a literature review

    Critics and Proponents of Standardized Tests Provide

    • Testing of Students with Disabilities

    • Testing of Minority Students

    • Testing of Students from Different Social Backgrounds

    • Gender Differences in Testing

    • Case for Bias

    • Case against Bias

    • Teachers’ Perspectives

    • School Administrators’ Perspectives

    • Students’ Perspectives

      Alternative Assessment Methodologies

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    Perhaps she groups the material methodologically
    Perhaps She Groups the Material Methodologically Provide

    • Less attention focused on the content of the material.

    • Rather more attention is paid to the "methods" used by the researcher.

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    How does one treat each article book
    How Does One Treat each Article, Book? Provide

    One might include comments on

    • methods of analysis employed

    • quality of the findings or conclusions

    • major strengths and weaknesses

    • any other pivotal information

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    Many similar studies
    Many Similar Studies? Provide

    • Describe most important one and simply say that the results were confirmed in the other studies listed.

    • Still, to include only germane studies, you must examine many.

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    Essential Provide

    • To aim at an INTEGRATED treatment that explains why the studies and theories cited are important to your work.

    • To avoid a series of abstracts, one per paragraph.

    • To keep reader constantly aware that the literature reviewed is related to the research problem.

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    At end of review reader should be able to conclude
    At End of Review, Reader Should Be Able To Conclude: Provide

    "Yes, of course, this is the exact study that needs to be done at this time to move knowledge in this field a little further along."

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    Lit review tips
    Lit. Review -- Tips Provide

    • Begin with most recent studies and work backwards.

    • Don’t try to read EVERYTHING in its entirety.

      • If the report/article has an abstract, read it first.

      • Before taking notes, skim the document to get to the most relevant part.

      • Most important part of a scholarly book is the index.

  • Write out complete bibliographic citation for each work. Add library call no.

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    Choosing a topic and writing a literature review

    • Indicate carefully any direct quotations and your paraphrases.

    • Generally, paraphrase is better than lengthy quotation.

    • Avoid "grandfather" citations. Return to original source.

    • Don't cite references that you haven't read.

    • Use headings and subheadings for clarity.

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    Choosing a topic and writing a literature review

    • Evaluate carefully everything you read. Just because a famous scholar argued something, that doesn't mean that you have to accept it uncritically.

    • Lit. Review can be time consuming -- usually too much rather than too little to survey (especially in science and in technology).

    • Not a list of everything ever written on subject – it is not an annotated bibliography.

    • Important to know when to stop the research

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