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Literature Review

A literature review (lit review for short) is a review of the literature (academic books and peer-reviewed articles, unless told otherwise) on a specific topic.  It is similar to an annotated bibliography. The central difference between a lit review and annotated bibliography is that a lit review is written like an essay rather than a bibliography, with analysis and critique.

If you are doing a large study, such as a thesis or independent study, your professor may expect a literature review as part of your larger essay or thesis. Sometimes, literature reviews are given as stand-alone assignments and are written as an essay. Make sure you check with your professor or TA if you are unsure. The APA and MLA manuals available in the library will guide you on the placement of your literature review in the body of your thesis or study.

In a literature review, a variety of sources on a specific topic are evaluated. Using the format of an essay (introduction, body, conclusion, full sentences, etc.), a review of the literature highlights relevant studies and findings, examines any controversies, weaknesses, or strengths, and notes gaps in the research. If you are undertaking a thesis or major research project, a literature review is often conducted to help determine how your new research will add to the scholarly knowledge on that topic. It may also be used to provide background information on that topic. Politicians often have employees who research and write “Backgrounders” on a topic to prepare them for debates and interviews with the media.

While addressing the weaknesses, strengths, gaps and other important areas on your topic, also look for themes and patterns. Organize the literature review around these themes or patterns.  The themes may be used as headings to organize your work and develop your analysis. Ensure that you are evaluating and discussing the most current research while still referring to important studies and findings from the past that set the foundation for other research and studies. In other words, it is okay to include classic studies even if they are old, but the focus should be on recent research.

An important aspect of the literature review is a discussion of how past research will direct future research in the area.  Typically, a literature review is written to demonstrate how it will direct your future research.


Do not just list the main point, strengths and weaknesses of each resource you consult. Try grouping resources together that have similar strengths and weaknesses to help your evaluation.

  • Narrow your topic.  If you try to write a review of the literature on biology, you would be writing forever. However, do not narrow your topic so much so that there is insufficient literature to write a review.

  • Evaluate each source. Is each study credible, valid, reliable, and current? What are the strengths and weaknesses of each study?

  • Compare and synthesize the sources to find themes.

  • Question. After you have written your first draft, ask yourself whether you have addressed all the areas in the research (i.e. weakness, strengths, controversies, gap, etc.) and revise appropriately.

    • Replicated studies are particularly important when findings have changed from the original study. Do not ignore this; ask yourself why the findings have changed and discussed this
  • Provide citations/documentation.

  • Include a list of references/works cited/bibliography.

Sample literature review paragraph:

An excerpt from Assessing emotions related to learning new software: The computer emotion scale, by S. Loverock and R. Kay, 8 August 2007.

The increase in the study of both emotions and learning has created considerable debate. Traditional views identify emotion and cognition as clearly separated constructs (Goleman, 1995; Lazarus, 1991a, 1991b). Others, while acknowledging that the processes are separate, argue that emotions and cognition coexist. LeDoux (1989) claimed that emotion and cognition are mediated by separate but integrated systems of the brain. Gray (1990) pointed out that the brain systems mediating emotion and cognition overlap. Taking the relationship between emotion and cognition further, there is ‘‘growing awareness that, far from being polar opposites, [emotion and cognition] are in fact inextricably connected’’ (O’Regan, 2003, p. 80). Frijda (1986) and Simon (1967) also supported the perspective that emotion and cognition are intertwined.

For more information on writing a literature/critical review, read the Critical Review Tip Sheet.