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MDCH630 - Designing Medical Education Research

This guide is designed to assist you with literature reviews of all types related to medical education research. Approaches, both quantitative and qualitative, are discussed, with links to relevant resources and tools.

About Literature Reviews

A literature review is both a process and a product. As a process, it involves searching for information related to your topic, to familiarize yourself with the relevant research and to identify issues and gaps in the research. If you're conducting the literature as part of a dissertation, research proposal or background for another study, you're seeking to identify the key authors and key arguments that are relevant to your topic, not to exhaustively read everything written on the subject.

More complex literature reviews, such as systematic reviews, scoping reviews, and qualitative meta-syntheses are study designs in their own right, with more rigorous and systematic methods than may be employed in a standard narrative review. This guide covers the various types of review.

What is a literature review?

  • "Literature reviews are systematic syntheses of previous work around a particular topic" -- Card, Noel A. "Literature Review." In Encyclopedia of Research Design, edited by Neil J. Salkind, 726-29. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2010. 
  • Note the term "syntheses" - most literature reviews go beyond mere summarization and involve a certain level of analysis
  • While most literature reviews are written to introduce a particular research study, some types of literature reviews, such as systematic reviews or qualitative meta-syntheses, are research methods in and of themselves.

Why do a literature review as part of a dissertation or larger project?

  • To broaden your own knowledge of the research area
  • To clarify and focus your research question
  • To situate your research in the context of related research, and identify gaps in the literature that your research may address
  • To improve your methodology by learning what tools and approaches other researchers have used

Source: Barron, Lee. "LITERATURE REVIEW." In The SAGE Dictionary of Social Research Methods, edited by Victor Jupp, 163-64. London, England: SAGE Publications, Ltd., 2006.

Why do a systematic or other synthesis review?

  • To aggregate and meta-analyse or synthesize in a systematic way the results of previous studies, usually with the goal of seeking evidence to inform decisions (systematic reviews and meta-analyses)
  • To map the existing literature and identify gaps and research needs (scoping/mapping reviews)
  • To critique, interpret or generate theory (qualitative meta-synthesis)

How comprehensive/systematic should it be?

  • A review conducted as part of a larger project should aim to be representative rather than exhaustive.
  • More systematic reviews generally aspire to exhaustive or at least highly systematic searches of available literature

Read more about looking for relevant literature for a dissertation: Maxwell, J. A.. (2006). Literature Reviews of, and for, Educational Research: A Commentary on Boote and Beile's "Scholars before Researchers". Educational Researcher35(9), 28–31. 

Read more about the differences between different synthesis review designs and methods: Gough, D., Thomas, J., & Oliver, S. (2012). Clarifying differences between review designs and methods. Systematic Reviews, 1(1). doi:10.1186/2046-4053-1-28