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Journal ArticleDOI

Writing the Literature Review: Graduate Student Experiences.

19 Jul 2020-The Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education)-Vol. 11, Iss: 1, pp 1-17

AbstractDifficulties with academic writing tasks, such as the literature review, impact students’ timely completion of graduate degrees. A better understanding of graduate students’ perceptions of writing the literature review could enable supervisors, administrators, service providers, and graduate students themselves to overcome these difficulties. This paper presents a case study of graduate students at a secondary campus of a Canadian research university. It describes survey data and results from focus groups conducted between 2014 and 2015 by communications faculty, writing centre staff, and librarians. The focus group participants were Master’s and Doctoral students, including students situated within one discipline and those in interdisciplinary programs. The questions focused on the students’ experiences of writing the literature review as well as the supports both accessed and desired. Data analysis revealed four themes: (a) literature review as a new and fundamental genre; (b) literature review for multiple purposes, in multiple forms, and during multiple stages of a graduate program; (c) difficulties with managing large amounts of information; and (d) various approaches and tools are used for research and writing. Using an academic literacies approach, the paper addresses implications for campus program development and writing centre interventions and furthers research into graduate students’ experiences of writing literature reviews.

Topics: Academic writing (61%)

Summary (4 min read)


  • Graduate student experiences, also known as Writing the literature review.
  • The Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 11(1).
  • A better understanding of graduate students’ perceptions of writing the literature review could enable supervisors, administrators, service providers, and graduate students themselves to overcome these difficulties.

Literature Review

  • The literature review is a “keystone genre” (Badenhorst, 2019, p. 263) that facilitates graduate students entering into disciplinary (and interdisciplinary) conversations (ChatterjeePadmanabhan et al., 2019) and asserting “disciplinary identities and alignments with specific groups” (Kwan, 2007, p. 54).
  • In order to identify directions for pedagogical and support practices for this genre, it is essential to undertake longitudinal research on graduate student experiences of writing literature reviews to understand the diverse types of challenges they face, the complexity of their discursive context, and the role of identity in their transition from novice to expert researchers.
  • To better understand the academic literacies and discursive contexts related to literature review writing and to inform pedagogical and support practices, several researchers have analyzed citation patterns in literature review corpora.
  • Pedagogical practices should include discussions about the constructions of “truth” in terms of source and student standpoints, the ongoing performance of identity, and the negotiation of subject positions when reviewing the literature (Badenhorst, 2018a, p. 133).
  • Moreover, Badenhorst et al.’s (2015) call for “sustained, disciplinary embedded writing pedagogies that allow graduate students to negotiate academic literacies over time” (p. 2) further complicates some of the typical interventions that institutions undertake to support their graduate students.


  • The study design was a mixed methods case study, which included an initial quantitative survey and subsequent qualitative focus group interviews.
  • Purposive sampling was used for both the online quantitative survey and subsequent focus groups.
  • Six in-person focus groups were completed between April 2014 and November 2015.
  • After the final round of coding was finished, the two principal Walter & Stouck: Writing the Literature Review: Graduate Student Experiences Published by Scholarship@Western, 2020 5 researchers completed the data analysis and finalized the themes.


  • This paper focuses on the survey results associated with writing literature reviews and accessing supports.
  • In the survey, when asked to self-identify areas for writing improvement from a list, 45.3% of survey respondents selected Literature Review and 39.1% selected Synthesizing and Analyzing (key activities during the literature review) as areas for improvement for their writing.
  • Library search engines and databases (50%) were the most commonly used research strategy, followed by Google (14%) and Google Scholar (14%).
  • Librarian consultations (5%) and recommended reading lists (3%) were the least used.

Literature Review as a New and Fundamental Genre

  • In response to the early focus group questions about past and present writing tasks and experiences, several participants identified the literature review as new to them at some point in their second undergraduate professional degree or graduate degree programs.
  • After signaling their lack of experience with this genre, most participants almost immediately followed up with statements that revealed its ongoing importance as a fundamental genre for their subsequent graduate work.
  • Because for their courses the authors never had to write that much scientific or, like, literature reviews for the courses.
  • Participant B then mentioned looking at numerous academic writing blogs “to get a handle on that process,” and stated “I continue to follow that to this day actually.”.
  • They still talked about literature reviews in a way that suggested this genre was fundamental and they were in fact struggling with writing them.

Literature Review as Multiple

  • These difficulties graduate students encounter may stem from literature reviews serving multiple purposes, taking multiple forms, and appearing in multiple stages of a graduate program.
  • Participant E began the exchange with, I don’t feel that what I wrote and what [my supervisor] wants is the same as the lit.
  • And then when [my supervisor] read it, he had me take it all out.
  • And so he’s now got the new draft with no opinion in it.
  • The participants’ confusion and struggle with description versus opinion and summarizing versus synthesizing/appraising further complicates their navigation of the multiple purposes, forms, and expectations of the specific types of literature reviews they are writing at various stages of their graduate program.

Difficulties with Managing Large Amounts of Information

  • Another key theme that emerged, despite not being explicitly addressed in the focus group questions, was that the participants had difficulties managing large amounts of information when researching for and writing literature reviews.
  • The first comments related to this theme occurred early on in the first focus group and appeared across all but one focus group.
  • And that’s always been my challenge, because I tend to amass way more data than I need for the literature review.
  • In another focus group, there was a robust discussion about managing sources, notes, and data, with Participant D summarizing a personal strategy in detail for the others and at the end declaring: “It’s a blizzard, it’s a blizzard out there.”.

Various Approaches and Tools are Used for Research and Writing

  • It is interesting that Participant C envisioned a shared repository in the final focus group because another theme that emerged during data analysis was that participants were using various approaches and tools for literature review research and writing.
  • As the participants described their approaches, the iterative nature of this work became evident across all focus groups.
  • In another focus group, Participant D shared that “My process is really messy,” and described going in circles during the writing process.
  • Walter & Stouck: Writing the Literature Review: Graduate Student Experiences Published by Scholarship@Western, 2020 9.

Supporting Literature Review Writing

  • In addition to the survey questions about writing tasks and the focus group questions about writing the literature review, other survey and focus group questions were formulated to collect data about the services and supports that participants were accessing during their graduate programs.
  • One of the most helpful supervisor supports mentioned across focus groups was guidance for finding key research for literature reviews.
  • One participant mentioned using YouTube and other online videos.
  • Students wanted more relevant examples of writing to align supervisor and student expectations for the writing of particular genre documents, including the literature review.
  • Focus group participants were positive about existing services and supports, but they explicitly identified more peer support as a pressing need for all of their academic writing tasks.


  • The focus group participants’ identification of the literature review as a difficult new academic writing task is not surprising, and the scholarship on writing them is filled with negative adjectives (see, for example, Badenhorst, 2018a, 2018b, 2019) and disabling metaphors (see, for example, Kamler & Thomson, 2014).
  • The participants may be still positioned—by both themselves and their supervisors—as “onlooker[s]” rather than as “agents who use and evaluate the research of others, in order to make a place for their own work” (Kamler & Thomson, 2014, p. 37).
  • The complexity of literature review writing is also exacerbated by both its iterative nature, for example Wisker (2015) quipped that “developing a literature review is an iterative process masquerading as a foundational process” (p. 73), and the complicated nexus of reading, researching, and writing that it entails (Chen et al., 2016; Kwan, 2008).
  • Finally, it is unsurprising that library, supervisor, and writing centre support for graduate writing formed a large part of the conversations in the focus groups, and these types of supports have been discussed extensively in the literature.
  • It is also unsurprising that the most requested support by participants was for peer to peer support because this type of support facilitates community formation, identity-construction, and enculturation into academic literacy and discourse practices.

Conclusions and Implications

  • In response to the themes that emerged from this study, particularly because the authors were able to gather data throughout the course of students’ entire graduate programs, the graduate writing centre at their institution has sought increased institutional collaboration to support graduate student research and writing throughout their graduate programs and has introduced new programs and services.
  • Not specifically for writing literature reviews, they similarly have recommended that “instructors partner with writing specialists for certain tasks” (p. 13).
  • It is difficult to get permission to distribute the types of initial literature reviews students are completing.
  • In addition to these tangible supports for literature review writing undertaken in response to the study results, the research identified an area for further study.
  • Specifically, the participants’ experiences suggest a need for faculty and institutions to recognize and better understand the multiple, ongoing processes of identity construction occurring during the writing of literature reviews.

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  • ...In another study at an educational institution in Indonesia, a qualitative study, using document analysis and interviews, was carried out by Ninik (2019)....


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