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Undergraduate Research

Resources for course-based undergraduate research experiences

Literature Review

What is a literature review?

A literature review is exploring research that has been done directly on the topic you have chosen. Conducting a literature review will give you the big picture of what is already known about your topic and allow you to see where there may be gaps in the knowledge. 

Conducting an Effective Literature Review

Writing a literature review can be a daunting task, but breaking down the process into steps can make it more manageable. 

Step 1: Find the literature 

Using research guides

Our University of Calgary librarians have created Research Guides that can help you identify the best resources of information for a subject. 

Using databases

You can use Databases to find sources of information such as journal articles. Make sure to filter by subject to find the best databases to search for your topic. 

Once you have found the database(s) that suits your topic best, you can do a systematic search, which can be more effective than simply typing your topic in the search bar.

Watch the following video on how boolean operators (and/or/not), quotation marks and the asterisk symbol can make your search more effective: 

Grey literature

Grey literature are materials that do not go through the traditional publishing process that sources such as journal articles do. 

Examples of grey literature include government reports, blog posts, tweets and policy statements. 

IMPORTANT Grey literature is not peer-reviewed, therefore, some may be fake news! Click here for information on how to spot fake news. 

Step 2: Find out what is being said in the literature

What are experts (and non-experts) saying about your topic? Are there themes that keep recurring in every source that you're reading? 

For example, if your research question is 'What are barriers that hinder students from participating in research experiences?', the barriers--the themes--that you might identify in the literature include time, accessibility and lack of opportunities. 

Tip: consider these themes as "buckets" so that as you continue your search and find more information, you can place pieces of information into the corresponding bucket. This will help keep your research as organized as possible. 

Step 3: Writing the literature review

Writing a literature review will look different for each subject. However, generally, it will have the following sections (Purdue Online Writing Lab):

  • Introduction - what is your topic? what will you be writing about?
  • Body - write about what you found in Step 2, making sure that it is not simply a summary, but demonstrates synthesizing and critical thinking of the information that you found
  • Conclusion - connect it to your research question 

The content of literature review can be organized in many different ways, for example (Purdue Online Writing Lab):

  • Chronological 
  • Thematic 
  • Methodological 
  • Theoretical

For more information on how you can use the literature that you have gathered effectively in your writing, check out the following guide created by the Writing Support Services at the Student Success Centre: 

IMPORTANT A literature review is not simply a summary! It is a critical appraisal of what has been done and what is already known. 

Watch the following video for a more in-depth explanation on conducting a literature review: 

Key Takeaways

  • Read literature reviews that have been written in your topic area to know what they look like; read them as a writer
  • A literature review situates your research project in your topic area 
  • Show and tell the reader why they should be interested, including the timeliness and relevance of your research