Action Research Cycle: Write a Formal Review of Literature – Step 1 Discovery

Discover: This week you will:

1. Discover what is involved in organizing and evaluating the resources you are finding in order to outline your arguments and begin to write your review of the literature. You will begin to map your discussion, reporting as you do, by week 2 how those plans are developing so that your colleagues may assist prior to the time your rough draft of your outline is due.

2. Discover that part of comprehension and expertise is the ability to demonstrate connections between various authors. The ability to come back to a resource discovered at an earlier stage and extrapolate new ideas can be the result of taking adequate notes as you read.

3. Discover and exchange ideas about how to use the electronic tools at your disposal to benefit this search.

Outcomes and Benefits to You For Doing This Work

A solid review of the literature assures you that you have a baseline of knowledge on which to begin your own research. You will know that you have reached this plateau when you can carry on an informed discussion with an expert in your field of study. Having this base of expertise will help you focus the particulars of your study and save hours of unnecessary starts and stops during the development of your final methodology, data collection and analysis.

Another benefit is that you will catch glimpses of how other researchers approached their work, including the variables you found interesting to study. This can help you craft your final research questions as well as to suggest pre-existing instruments you may want to use. You may also see that you don’t possess the necessary skills to tackle research, giving you the opportunity to build those skills or define a new methodology (Mauch & Park, 2003).

Along those same lines you will see how others write up their work. Make special note of dissertations that you find easy to read, or which discuss their methodology in a way that makes sense. Mark them in your End Note database as documents to come back to when you start to write the same sections.

Another list you will want to note is of other questions that come to mind as you write. Should it happen, you won’t be the first doctoral student who is forced by circumstance to change topic mid stream. It is useful to have noted all those, “What if?” ideas that come to your mind as you read others work. One of them may turn out to be a better redefinition of your topic area (Mauch & Park, 2003).

Finally, you will prove, at least in your own mind that your ideas are really needed in the field. When you find yourself disagreeing with an author, or saying, “Wait, you missed a whole segment of students here,” etc. you know you are on the right track. Even if you are faced with the opposite issue – here in front of you is a report that is everything you could ever dream of, this allows you to slant your work to broaden the impact of the previous work by confirming or denying it in a new arena.

Inclusion of Multiple Sources Does it seem like all your sources are saying approximately the same thing? The short answer to this question is that multiple sources are the difference between graduate research and real expertise. Searching out nuances is the standard of the expert and when you finish your final graduate work it is your goal to take you place among those people with that standard.

The stated purpose of the lit review is to, “clarify the relationship between the proposed study and previous work conducted on the topic” (Rudestam & Newton, 2007, pg 62). Other authors mention, “Obtaining detailed, cutting-edge knowledge of your topic” (Roberts, 2004, pg 73). Therefore it is important that you have truly captured the field in your study, internationally as well as nationally and locally (thus displaying the level of influence your final study is likely to have). It is your job to convince your reader of the uniqueness and importance of your study. Remember what may be obvious to you will not have the same meaning to your committee members who specialize in different parts of the field.

The trap for students in this pressure to display knowledge across many writers is that you come to think of the lit review as a laundry list of all that you have investigated. Not true, remember that each and every book or article you cite and reference must directly correspond to your final message. For this reason you may find it helpful to write a sentence per main point that you want to make and then list the references that you may use to naturally make that point. All the others fall off to the “not used” category.

Should you be researching a particularly obscure topic you may find that you do a lot of work for little gain. In this case keep two EndNote files. One will hold those few resources that you use and the other the resources you investigated but discarded. This has two positive affects: 1) it demonstrates the amount of work you have done, and 2) discussing the list you won’t use may lead your critical friends to suggest new sources to research.

Analysis, Synthesis and Organization

More than anything else, being an educated person means being able to see connections so as to be able to make sense of the world and act within it in creative ways.

W. Cronon, (as cited by Siemens. G, 2008)

The most difficult part of a review of the literature is the organization and expression of the ideas that come from what you have read. Let’s take for instance the following pattern of research

You read book by AA. Author who make three great points about your topic you label those points X, Y and Z.

You read book by BB Author who agrees with X but adds ideas M and N to the discussion.

CC Author refutes Y and Z but agrees with M and adds T.

DD Author has an entirely different idea although you see loose connections to the others. You also believe the DD has the most advanced ideas that you have read.

Students who have not analyzed, synthesized and organized their ideas will report the Author A said…. Author B said…. And Author C said…… We cannot stress enough that this IS NOT ADEQUATE FOR A LIT REVIEW! To paraphrase Hart (1998):

The aim is to show that you have mapped out the main issues on a subject; examined the use of concepts and the ways in which comparisons have and can be made, seen how complex ideas can be described; and come to an understanding on the role of methodological assumptions have had in shaping the literature that came before your study (pg. 109).

Your write up will likely contain four types of discussion: Analysis requires you to differentiate or separate resources and the ideas contained within them, one from another. Synthesis on the other hand integrates or combines separate sections of different resources together, usually reorganized to demonstrate principles that you believe to be significant in your study. Interpretation distinguishes the relationships between different types of data, theory, and arguments and hold your reader sort them out. Knowledge describes for your reader what you have learned about the situations, methods, rules, classifications, etc of the topics inherent in your study.

Your lit review will contain those four types of organization across one or many of the following.

Mapping out the issues

In the set of examples above the issues are the places where the various authors agree and disagree. You may also choose to map out the issues by using a graphic organizer to distinguish places of agreement and disagreement in any of the points of argumentation (discussed in the next section). Claims may agree or disagree across authors, as may warrants, data and the arguments we use to back up our claims. It is likely that you will go back to examine key resources more than once as you map out the issues across them.

You also may choose to map the issues in chronological, methodological or political contexts, depending on which most clearly describes the tensions inherent within your study. As an example, a study on the academic efficacy of alternative programs would have to map the issues inherent in the populations that would use the programs under study.

Examining the concepts

What are the big ideas that strike you as you read? How do they pertain as you see it to your topic? These lead to your analysis of the concepts behind or overarching your topic. An examination of the key concepts must be helpful to your research to be understood by your audience.

Part of the purpose of the review of literature is to help your reader understand what has come before as well as the key issues and concepts that are inherent in previous discussions in order to place your study in context. Look at your discussion of the concepts and ideas that has driven the work of authors in your area as your setting a firm foundation from which your reader can understand the context and importance of your work.

An analogy that may be useful is as though you have constructed a goblet out of the little bits of ideas (seen as colored glass) that you have gleaned from your reading. Once the goblet is complete you need to hold it up to the light and then discuss for your reader the ways in which the light bounces off of the different components, how you work together to form the shape, and the areas where you join to construct an object strong enough to be useful.

Describing complexity

Many times authors are studying complex adaptive issues. By definition these dismay us because they put us in the center of the tension between the ideal and reality. For instance, in perfection we might desire businesses that do everything right or schools that run perfectly. We would wish that all of the staff were happy in their work and had abundant resources at their disposal. The realities in many schools or businesses are that none of these ideals exist.

Whatever the key tensions, that surround your topic, you will need to have explored them as part of your review of the literature. This discussion is another means of ensuring your reader has adequate contextual understanding of your topic to make judgments on the efficacy of your study.

Unpacking methodological assumptions in previous studies

As you have researched your issue you have been exposed to how a variety of researchers have examined topics similar and tangential to yours. They have based their research methods on their own assumptions or understanding about how best to measure the answers to their questions. It is an appropriate discussion within a review of literature to unpack for your reader these past studies and the assumptions on which they were based. In this way, your writing will naturally flow towards your discussion of your own methodological choices in both the lit review and Chapter 3 in a dissertation or the methodology in any required research proposal.

Quantitative studies assume that enough is known about the topic and the human relationships that determine its complexities that these can be questioned across large numbers of people using a similar instrument. For years, proponents of diversity have challenged this assumption, playing on cultural differences to argue that use of language may differ among communities to the degree as to make surveys meaningless.

Qualitative studies on the other hand assume that data gathered from a few people, albeit data that create depth in understanding their personal relationships to a topic, will have significance to the whole population. Qualitative studies assume that it is important to understand the personal mechanisms within educational relationships of a few and that these can be extrapolated to the groups you represent.

Quantitative and qualitative studies read very differently and come to separate types of conclusions. Again, in order for your reader to understand your topic and the others who have studies it you need to help them understand these subtleties.

The bottom line here is: READ AND MAKE NOTE OF THE METHODOLOGY USED IN THE STUDIES YOU READ. From those notes you can more easily design your own methodology.

Argumentation

What is an argument? How do we analyze those of others or make one ourselves? The principles of argumentation have not changed much since the Greeks and Romans. Stephen Toulmin (1958 later cited and redefined by Hart, 1998) laid out a simple structure that breaks an argument into four types of information:

1. Claim – an arguable statement.

2. Evidence – data used to backup the claim

3. Warrant – the link between the evidence and the claim (since a then b)

4. Backing – the context and assumptions that support the validity of the warrant and the evidence (because)

Let’s say that we want to make the claim that our new program increased the motivation of our staff. We have evidence that shows that the staff who attend our program do better with customers than those who do not attend our program. Whether or not others will believe our claim will hinge on the degree to which we: a) link the staff motivation to the evidence of their customer service records and b) back up the assumption with stories or other research that support our conclusions.

Much of our experience of the world is determined by personal and cultural taste, our context and values. These may all cause people to disagree with our claims, creating situations where the evidence, warrant and backing will receive close scrutiny. For this reason a solid argument can be made for predetermining the type of claim being made and the likely weakness in each.

Type of Claim

Potential Weaknesses

Claiming Facts

The facts you state cannot be verified or are incorrect. Claims of fact do not rely on warrants or backing (other than citing your sources). An example here would be a report on the numbers of computers in the school.

Claiming Values

Relies on the other person agreeing with the basic judgment involved. Disagreement will lead to either denial or counterclaim such as “No, because…” or “Yes, but perhaps…” To build on the previous argument a person might make a claim that the school needed more computers because of the value of technology in the world today.

Claiming Policy

Relies on a normative statement of what ought to or not be done. You often use claims of values as support, laying the argument open for debate on two fronts, that of the value or of the need for the policy. A claim in this category might be that schools should provide laptops for students in order to properly prepare them for the future.

Claiming Concept

Relies on a personally derived definition. Disagreement will cause the argument to be countered by proposing an alternative definition. It is likely that the choice of words is highly interpretive. In education topics may include the advisability of retaining a student or the desirability of standards based high stakes testing.

Claiming Interpretation

Propose how data are to be understood. Disagreement mounts an alternative interpretation. For some small schools have shown themselves to be at an advantage in improving students achievement, for others these same data can be interpreted in an alternative manner.

Figure 1 based on Table 4.3 from Hart, 1998, page 90

Warrants are the assumptions on which the arguments are based, tying the claim to the evidence that supports it. Like claims, these can be stated or unstated, but if stated a counter argument must take the warrant into account. As an example to the extent that we believe that the purpose of business is to make money, then we can lay claim for greater emphasis placed on financial records and auditors reports.

Limitations to the argument may be stated clearly as in, “A limitation to this study is…..” Qualifiers may point to limitation without the same amount of clarity. Therefore, the savvy researcher is on the lookout for words such as probably, some, many, too, or generally. If and when you find literature that, while it agrees with your general arguments, relies on claims that are easily refuted or qualifies its claims, it is best to keep searching.

Finally, illustrations used to back up arguments. Specific instances, like irrefutable data do much to convince an audience of the validity of a claim. As Hart (1998) points out, “Concrete illustrations are usually much more convincing than hypothetical or generalized scenarios. However, the main and most common form of backing (in a review of the literature) is the legitimacy conferred on an argument through the use of academic style.”

References

Hart, C. (1998). Doing a literature review: Releasing social science research imagination. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publishing.

Mauch, J. E., & Park, N. (2003). Guide to the successful thesis and dissertation: A handbook for students and faculty. New York: Marcel Dekker.

Roberts, C. M. (2004). The dissertation journey. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Rudestam, K. E., & Newton, R. R. (2007). Surviving your dissertation: A comprehensive guide to content and process (Third ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publishing Inc.