Tag Archives: Education

Writing a literature review⤴


This event is one of many within the PostGraduate Research (PGR) provision at Moray House. It is aimed specifically at first year PGR students. I am thankful to John Kelly for putting this lecture on for us and for fielding Q&A at the end. This was an extremely timely and useful session. These are my own notes from the event – I am responsible for any errors or omissions. Caveat lector.

DATE/TIME: Tuesday 30 November   [13:00-15:00]
LOCATION: St Leonard’s Land, 3.25
PGR STUDENT GROUP: PGR Students - Year 1
SEMINAR: Writing a literature review
PRESENTER: Dr John Kelly
Director of PG Research

Errors in communication delayed the start of this lecture (for it was lecture rather than seminar) which turned out to be not on campus, after all. Delegates quickly sorted out sharing arrangements for laptops as we connected. Others left, presumably to catch the recording later.

John quickly offered his disclaimers for the lecture and urged delegates to check in with their supervisors to ensure the approaches they are taking are consistent with the specifics of their project and scope. What followed was presented as general guidance in sections which in practice overlap with each other.

What is a literature review?

John defined a literature review as a presentation of the literature which provides

  • a problem definition
  • overview of previous research
  • ideas on methodology (but don’t overdo this in the literature chapter)
  • evaluation or critique of existing work
  • general conclusions about work done to date

Each of the above statements imply “within the specific area of your research project” at the end. Within the Literature Review chapter there will be what John described as “flashing bulbs” which introduce ideas and people that will be significant features in the later chapters of discussion in the thesis. The opportunity exists to raise these ideas or important names in the field within the Literature Review chapter without going too deep – although it is a significant piece of writing it is not meant to dominate: after all, it is about the work that has gone before your research and it is your work that ought to dominate the thesis.

A good literature review aids the researcher’s understanding of their subject and also the relationship between your research and the existing literature. John exhorted us all to read widely, to be clear about what’s new in your work, or where gaps exists and how your work fits in to what has gone before. It is a UK requirement that PhDs are new knowledge or findings and so this should be made clear in the thesis. The literature review does this.

Summarising the purpose of the literature review, John quoted from a textbook on sports research methods:

“By the end of the literature review section in our papers, a reader should not only be able to predict the question driving a study, but clearly understand why someone would ask this question to begin with.”(Atkinson, 2012)

Planning a literature review

Although every thesis is different, the literature review component tends to be a single chapter within it. The chapter may address a number of themes, perhaps 4 or 5, and be topped and tailed with a brief introduction and a summary of the key messages. Word estimates may not be at all right for each PhD thesis but might be of the order of 5,000 words per theme.

Because the literature review chapter follows immediately on the heels of the thesis introduction chapter, it need not repeat in any detail that which went before but must offer the reader its own introduction or roadmap into the thematic sections, and some signposting out. The methodology chapter often follows the literature review chapter and so the summary of the literature review should provide a “bridge” to methodology that helps situate the literature review in the research. The opening sections of the thesis are thus structured:

  • Chapter 1 Introduction
  • Chapter 2 Literature Review
  • Chapter 3 Methodology

This is not to constrain at all, nor even tie the PhD researcher to these titles, but this is what the start of a thesis looks like, structurally.

So, how to get started? John used a “bullseye” metaphor to describe how the literature search relates to your topic. In describing the literature in your thesis, you might begin with a broad scope and progress towards the narrower focus of your very specific niche: the gap you are filling my well be very niche indeed, for so much has been been done before. Not everything! That’s why you’re doing this PhD. However, in getting started in on the literature search and the reading that goes with it, you are going to begin at the bullseye and construct search terms that are highly specific, revealing from “hits” that include all of your terms, published material very close to your specific interest. From here, you work out through layers of relevance, sketching out themes and names that you can describe and set up (see “flashing bulbs” above) in your thorough review of what has gone before and where it came from. This needs to be thorough, keep going and become the expert on the topic of your research and the fields and branches that it is part of.

In reading all of this material, there are some specific things to pay attention to. First, some questions as you read:

  • what methods were used?
  • what data did they collect?
  • what choices did they have to make and how did they make those choices?
  • what data collections techniques did they use and are they relevant to your own research?

These relate to learning about how others before have worked, and perhaps how things might be done in your own project. You are not going to be passive in your reading, however, at this level you are expected to be critically engaged in evaluating the literature you find. More questions to ask as you read:

  • who wrote it and who/how was it reviewed before publication?
  • who cites this piece?
  • how recent is it and has it been overtaken by newer literature?
  • how relevant is it to your project?

Answers to these questions will help you see how they did it – what structure they used, how they wrote it, how they designed their research, what analysis methods were used and even how they chose to report their findings.

Start here

Your way in to all of this is in developing a basic understanding of the themes in your project (remember, this lecture was aimed at first year PGR students, mostly PhD students only a few weeks in to their PhDs, me included). This basic understanding can be had by first of all engaging with textbooks – often the first 4 – 5 chapters of the key texts in your domain will address the main themes. Once you have some confidence in your basic knowledge, then you can begin to go deeper by finding relevant journal articles by searching databases using keywords of concepts. Start with selecting your keywords, then pair them up. Combining more and more terms will lead you back towards the “bullseye” of your area of interest.


Narrowing scope by combining keywords

Writing a literature review

Your finished literature review needs to be a coherent and integrated account of what exists in the literature but don’t be a leave to structure, especially early on. Allow the structure to emerge organically as you read and capture “thesisable prose” in your notes. These notes are going to integrate the findings in the literature you read, in other words, you are going to highlight similarities across the literature that emerge from your reading, as well as agreements (or disagreements). The whole point of this is to enable you to identify the place where your research fits in – how it adds new knowledge or extends understanding in the literature, or fills the gaps that are there.

The structure includes connecting sections that follow the main thesis introduction and lead out to your methodology, with the main findings in the existing literature as the bulk of the chapter.

Cautions and tips

John briefly spoke about weak literature reviews which may be bland, or that list unconnected summaries. The Literature Review chapter in your thesis does not stand alone, it sets out the key themes that your discussion chapters will link back to, addressing the gap you have identified. It’s not “fire and forget”, either, and should be kept fresh throughout your PhD project as you keep your finger on the new papers that emerge in your field.

Practical tips included being clear about the scope of the information you are using: books are good for breadth, whereas journal articles are good for reliability and depth (because of the review process). The internet, as we all know, has no quality control. Anyone can publish anything they like on the internet (this present article being a case in point). Avoid the “shopping basket” approach to collecting great lists of references: the number of references cited is not proportional to the quality of your literature review. Be selective.

Top tips also include seeing how others have done it before you in your specific area. This comes from your reading but with a warning: don’t become paralysed by what’s out there already, nor seduced by what other people are doing that it distracts you from your own vision. I am fortunate in that the very first thing my supervisors did, was to have me write down that vision with a sketch plan of how I am going to do it. Formulating that vision for the project has been extremely powerful and has enabled me to be able confidently to talk to others about my project. I can state clearly what the exact point of my research is: John suggested that when PGR students can’t do this, it is because of a poor literature review. That made me feel particularly good about where I am on this journey.


  1. Atkinson, Michael. 2012. “Literature Reviews.” In Key Concepts in Sport and Exercise Research Methods, 1–245. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781446288092.

Climate Change, Environment and Sustainability: Teaching Resources⤴

from @ The IDL Network

The 26th UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow is a critically important intergovernmental meeting of world leaders and scientists if irreversible climate change is to be avoided. It is also part of a much greater and broader long-term challenge of mitigating wider environmental degradation world-wide that threatens the sustainability not just of humanity but of … Continue reading "Climate Change, Environment and Sustainability: Teaching Resources"

Not retreating⤴

from @ education

Last week we held our first Office of the Deputy Provost all day retreat. My office contains the Office of the Registrar, Learner Support Services, and the Centre for Learning Accreditation (at the moment, it will expand, more on that another time). We had games, … Continue reading Not retreating

Liked: Coding is not ‘fun’, it’s technically and ethically complex⤴

from @ wwwd – John's World Wide Wall Display

Liked Coding is not ‘fun’, it’s technically and ethically complex by Walter Vannini (Aeon)
Coding is seen as fun and glamorous, but that’s a sales pitch. In reality, it’s complicated, both technically and ethically
 Coding is not ‘fun’, it’s technically and ethically complex by Walter Vannini (Aeon)

Coding is seen as fun and glamorous, but that’s a sales pitch. In reality, it’s complicated, both technically and ethically

It’s better to admit that coding is complicated, technically and ethically. Computers, at the moment, can only execute orders, to varying degrees of sophistication. So it’s up to the developer to be clear: the machine does what you say, not what you mean. More and more ‘decisions’ are being entrusted to software, including life-or-death ones: think self-driving cars; think semi-autonomous weapons; think Facebook and Google making inferences about your marital, psychological or physical status, before selling it to the highest bidder. Yet it’s rarely in the interests of companies and governments to encourage us to probe what’s going on beneath these processes.

Clear well explained short and powerful article. via both Scripting News and Memex 1.1.

Perhaps we need another term for the coding like activity than can be a lot of fun for folk that have the skills that Walter Vannini explains coders need. I have a lot of fun dabbling in AppleScript, bash and JavaScript without the discipline and study necessary to be a coder.

Kids in school can have this sort of fun too, perhaps helping in maths and in skills like problem solving, working together and practical skills. Scratch and micro:bits can be a a lot of fun in a primary classroom.

How to do a literature review⤴


Getting an effective literature review down is important for several reasons, not least of which it will immerse you in the topic or field you are looking at and give you a decent grip on what is known about it, and what isn’t. This is enough justification for doing a literature review – to become an expert on a subject – but there are other motives, such as being able to convince others that you know what you’re talking about; that your proposed research or study is worth investing in; that you are serious and committed to a proposed project; that there are new frontiers yet to explore.


For social sciences, literature reviews are often associated with new research to show how and where it fits in with what has been done before: they locate the research within a field of study, providing context, and identifying areas that need to be strengthened or filled.

How they work

To get started with your own literature review, find 4 to 6 literature reviews and look at what they look like. Deconstruct them to see how they work: a literature review should identify a research question that provides the central topic of interest; it should provide the “hook” that explains why the research is relevant, interesting, timely or important; it should cite important people who are writing in the field; as the author of the review establishes authority, they note the gaps in the literature that the proposed new research addresses. When writing about what the literature says, it’s not necessary to write everything that is known – a good literature review will keep tightly focused on the research question (and within the word count).

Getting started

A sketch or visual representation can help organise thinking and develop understanding when writing a literature review. Steps to this are:

  • find the literature (e.g. Google Scholar), noting how well cited they are
  • screen (scan) about 20 articles to check they are on the topic.
  • within those articles, look for themes – of agreement or disagreement, cultures, or contexts

Take a large piece of paper and draw what you have found – a hierarchy, spider diagram, or anything visual that helps you make connections, connect authors to themes – show gaps in a different shape. Now look for what’s missing in the chart – step back to do this, and use your common sense to see the overall shape, structure and connections in the literature as well as the gaps.

The written literature review is a description of the chart that will make way to introduce your research proposal. Beyond this initial review, going deeper will require more finding, and reading, of papers, books and articles.

A good literature search is systematic, starting with background reading: from the question, title or broad theme, do some background reading to get a good grasp of the theories and concepts in the topic. Use text books and encyclopaedia to get under way. From this, work up feasible draft titles and identify the search terms and their synonyms. For each key term, list alternative terms and related terms to help your search.

Now you are ready to try your resources for finding literature: many universities have unified search tools such as DiscoverEd but you will need to find more specific sources relevant to your field. Your library will have a databases A-Z or listed by topic which will help you make a list of resources to search for literature.

You will need to develop a good technique for asking the search engine in a way that yields helpful results. Logical combination of terms (like AND, OR) and using wild cards are required, and will be determined by the search tool you are using. Read the help pages and learn how to work the tool properly before spending hours with it.

Finally, as you find papers and articles to read, try to organise them logically: identify and prioritise the important papers (e.g. those that everyone else cites); group them by sub-topic or theme; push peripheral papers aside until you need to draw them into your research or thesis. A good reference manager like Mendeley is invaluable for keeping track and organising what you find. It then makes the task citing and referencing extremely straightforward.

Reading and writing

Keep notes of the key points of the papers you are reading, and keep them organised. Try in your notes to capture “thesisable prose” that you can use easily in your essay or thesis. Keep in mind the structure of your review: is it time-based, or thematic? Organise your notes in the same way, making connections. Remember your drawing if it helps you sustain a vision of the structure and relationships.

When writing, try to avoid being descriptive: your authorial voice ought to be heard in the discussion as you build it, with a clear view of the evidence that has given you your stance. Also, prune out anything irrelevant or superfluous to your research question.


Keep your research question clearly in view when approaching and completing the literature review. Make a visual representation of relevant themes and their structure. Use that to structure the review and develop it as you read. Prune, check for your stance, and the evidence for it.


As well as drawing on my own experience in initial teacher education, and information from the IAD at the University of Edinburgh, I have also used the following in writing this post.

White, C. (2018). How to Conduct an Effective Literature Review. In SAGE Research Methods Video: Practical Research and Academic Skills. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781526442734

Faculty Librarians. (2012). Doing a literature search : a step by step guide. March, 1–21.

The Problem of Educational Theory⤴


This was an online seminar offered by my own Institute, presented by Stefan Siegel, a doctoral student from Augsberg. The seminar was introduced by Professor Gert Biesta from ETL and attended by delegates from Edinburgh and overseas.

Stefan began with a quick survey of delegates to get the feel of how we feel about educational theory: is it a distinct discipline in its own right, or is it interdisciplinary, and challenged us to name an educational theory. I feel that educational theory is clearly distinct from others, and not a sub-field of (say) psychology. He was able to immediately share the analysis of the audience responses. He went on to discuss his research and thesis before setting out the agenda.

Theorising education

Development of educational theory has proceeded differently in the Anglo-American context than “Continental”. In the former, it is viewed as interdisciplinary, whereas in the latter, it is more a field in its own right, referred to as Pädagogik, established in the 1920s in Germany. Its roots being in philosophy, it evolved to make use of more quantitative methods. Problems discussed focused initially on the certainty of definition in German educational theory. Stefan’s narrative went on to examine terms, including theory and education, and discussed the challenge of defining these things. Stefan made frequent reference to Biesta (2013) – other works, of course, but this popped up quite a lot.

The talk progressed towards a definition of educational theory and considered the strengths and shortcomings of defining educational theories according to how narrow these definitions are.


A rich conversation developed in considering the questions that help to define a field theory or discipline. The consideration of the terms used on the continent was helpful for me, including terms that combine more than one, such as teaching and learning, in German Lehren und Lernen. Perhaps it is just a semantic point and there’s no difference other than hearing one term when two are said.


The problem with language is that it doesn’t belong to anyone, so it can be used and abused by everyone with impunity. Within education, in my experience, this results in the hijacking of common terms for new purpose: the first time I came across this was in my probationary year when I had to endure a talk on enterprise education, which I argued at the time, had absolutely nothing to do with enterprise the way I understood it from over 20 years in commerce and industry. There are plenty of others: inclusion, for example, ultimately even education, teaching and learning. See Biesta (2005) for a discussion on the latter.

What is clearer to me now is the understanding that a theory is inextricably linked to the questions it attempts to answer. The terms of the question are where the focus and clarity are required in their definition in order to make sense of what the theory means.


Biesta, G. (2013) ‘Giving Teaching Back to Education: Responding to the Disappearance of the Teacher’, Phenomenology & Practice, vol. 6, no. 2, pp. 35–49.

Biesta, G. (2005) ‘Against learning. Reclaiming a language for education in an age of learning.’, Nordic Studies in Education = Nordisk Pedagogik, Nordic Educational Research Association (NERA), vol. 25, no. 1, pp. 54–66 [Online]. DOI: 10.1177/00187267030568002.

Care is a sustainability practice⤴

from @ education

I haven't written a lot about my new role and just what exactly I've been getting up to over the last year, mostly because it has seemed so trivial compared to all of us trying to get through this bloody pandemic. However, it's been over … Continue reading Care is a sustainability practice