Over the past few years, we have had an increasing number of courses that ask 11th and 12th graders to write literature reviews, most frequently employing approximately ten sources. It turns out to be a wonderful assignment to get at the idea that scholarship is conversation, and one that I would like to see every student experience before heading off to college. It turns out you read scholarly papers a lot differently when you understand what a lit review is, and it makes the work of college much more meaningful.
In my next post, I want to share how I have arrived at teaching lit review after many years of experimentation. But this week, I want to feature the FAQ put together by Assiya Memon (’24), my first Research TA dedicated to supporting student understanding of literature reviews. Assiya’s comprehension of the genre is magical; she has an innate sense of the work, the tone, and the “moves” (as Graff and Birkenstien might say) of a strong literature review.
At the end of last year we interviewed every student on campus who had written more than one lit review in their time at our school. We asked about what they learned in class, what they figured out for themselves, and what tips they would most want to offer future students. Assiya went through those interviews looking for common themes, added a bit of wisdom of her own, and made the following tip sheet. My gratitude to this insightful TA, who personally tutored four sections of Stats and Advanced Bio students through the lit review writing process with humor and grace, even as she worked on her own college applications. (Find Google Doc version of this tip sheet here.)
The Literature Review: Reminders, Tips, & FAQs
First, a few reminders:
What claim are you making? A common misconception students have about writing a literature review is that it is similar to preparing for a debate—that you are on the hunt for sources that prove your research question right, and should leave out studies that are contradictory to that narrative. While researching, remember that you are not yet arguing the claim of your study, but rather that the study you want to conduct is relevant. Do not shy away from disagreement in the field; let your research be comprehensive and acknowledge the brilliant back-and-forths that have been had! Maybe your research question will change to reflect the existing research, or maybe it’s perfect the way it is. Keep your mind open!
Does it feel hard to find the proper professional “tone” for a lit review? Do you just “not like research”? Remember that you already exercise many of these skills in other classes! While certainly not identical, you know how to put primary sources or quotations in conversation in humanities essays, or write narrative and transition-based problem sets. Your job with the lit review is to consolidate what research already exists, trace how scholars have bounced off each other’s work, and summarize it for your readers. Treat it like putting together a discussion or relevant historical context if you get stuck!
Lastly, literature reviews are unquestionably tricky. It’s easy to get lost in the research process, the narrative flow, or the quantity of sources—regularly stepping back and checking in with teachers/librarians/peers for feedback on what you’ve written can go a long way.
➡ I’m encountering a lot of unfamiliar vocab in these studies! How much should I Google?
A: Note down any frequently-used terms that you do not understand. Remember that you’re doing a lot of research on a lot of cool new things: a librarian-approved rule of thumb is to only look up a word once you’ve seen it five times!
➡ There doesn’t seem to be much unique or original research done on my topic.
A: First, try refining your search. Talk to your teacher or a librarian if you think there are relevant studies out there that you just aren’t finding. Otherwise, it might be time to step back, recognize that there may not be enough with which to conduct meaningful analysis in a high school class, and consider widening your scope. 🙁
➡ Uh oh… system overload… too many sources…
A: It’s hard to resist overcomplicating your lit review, especially if you’re passionate about what you’re researching. Avoid spending too much of your valuable time clicking through rabbit holes; intentionally focus on what studies you need to contextualize your research question. Remind yourself that you don’t have to use every source you look into (even if they’re interesting or cool). If a source doesn’t play a meaningful role in the discussion, it might be better not to reference it! More studies referenced ≠ better lit review.
➡ But I know that my sources are important for my lit review! How do I extract their significance without spending hours pouring over entire research papers?
A: You want to get to the findings—or “main idea”—of a study. All you likely need is the what, so what, and now what* of a given article. Remember to check its abstract, intro, and conclusion. Only delve into the rest of the source if those places are missing information that you know is critical to your lit review or your understanding. Again, you have a lot of sources to parse: resist the temptation to go on too many research deep-dives!
➡ I have so, so much citing and annotation to do…
A: The best thing you can do for yourself is to start citing/annotating early. Do not put it off. It’s remarkably easy to forget where you got a specific piece of information, or what significance a certain source had. Citing is a form of source evaluation. Utilize it!
— Plus, the empirical side effects to opening a fresh NoodleTools project the night before the deadline include extreme panic and exactly no hours of sleep. You don’t want that for yourself. Try your best to get rid of those 20 open tabs and stay organized with your research!
*”What, So what, Now what” is a reflection model that my teaching colleague, Helen Shanks, adapted as a framework for high school students reading scholarly work. I guess that routine may be the topic of Part 3 of this series of blogs…. TBM