Student conceptions of literature reviews


Christine Bruce has described six generalised conceptions of literature reviews based on her research with many students. Read the following six conceptions. Which one(s) are closest to your own?

As you read, please bear in mind that you should not think of individual students as having particular conceptions. Rather, they use one or more of the conceptions of which they are aware at any particular time. You might like to think of your job as a supervisor as helping them to expand their repertoire of conceptions and encouraging them to think about their literature review as more than simply an exercise in searching for references.

Literature review as a list

In this conception the literature is seen/understood as a listing/collection of items representing the literature on the subject. The focus is on discrete items, such journal articles, books and newspapers, and the list may include one or more elements of a bibliographic citation, a description of each item (critical or non-critical), relevant keywords and journals.

Typical student responses:

  • a list of articles relevant to the topic being researched, should be in the form of a bibliography
  • comprehensive list of all the research literature
  • concise summaries of the literature
  • an exhaustive collection of literature – each item on the list is discussed and evaluated

Literature review as a search

In this conception the literature review is seen/understood as the process of identifying relevant information/literature. The focus is on the act of finding or looking for literature which may involve going through a source of some kind (e.g., journal article, technology) to identify useful information.

Typical student responses:

  • exploration of relevant materials for relevant materials
  • finding the maximum amount of relevant and up to date information, from as many sources as possible
  • finding relevant literature/abstracts/keywords/etc.
  • involves use of multiple searching techniques

Literature review as a survey

In this conception the literature review is seen/understood as an investigation of past and present writing or research in one or more areas of interest. The focus of the researcher is on the literature, the knowledge-base or discourse of the discipline(s), including research methodologies. This investigation of the literature may be active (critical/analytical) or passive (noncritical/descriptive).

Typical student responses:

  • means a look across past and current information
  • a look at what else has been written about the subject
  • a look at the literature on a particular subject
  • examining current knowledge in a particular field
  • a critical appraisal

Literature review as a vehicle for learning

In this conception the literature review is seen/understood as having an impact on the researcher. The focus is on the researcher and his/her gain in knowledge or understanding. There may be an element of using the literature review as a sounding board for checking ideas or testing personal perceptions.

Typical student responses:

  • to check our own observations, to broaden our concepts, to obtain an historic perspective
  • to obtain more knowledge regarding anatomy, physiology, etc.
  • introduction to the subject area
  • gaining an understanding of the theory behind the research
  • to gain background information
  • to understand the dimensions of a subject
  • is an initial study of a topic, an attempt to familiarise myself with the basics and the authors

Literature review as a research facilitator

In this conception the literature review is seen/understood as relating specifically to the research being or about to be undertaken. The focus is on the researcher’s work in one or more of its various stages, from identifying a topic, supporting a methodology, providing a context, to changing the direction of the research. The literature review is conceived as supporting, influencing, directing, shaping or changing the student’s research.

Typical student responses:

  • a dynamic process with feedback into the research project
  • helps me find a suitable topic
  • a lit review might change many of the researcher’s original ideas and plans
  • it is applying knowledge to my current research
  • is part and parcel of the thought process to achieve the goal of the study
  • is the backbone of the research and is ongoing throughout

Literature review as a report

In this conception the literature review is seen/understood as a written discussion of the literature drawing on investigations previously undertaken. The focus is on framing a written discourse about the literature which may be established as a component part of the thesis or other research report.

Typical student responses:

  • the writing of the literature review seems very daunting
  • I understand the literature review to mean a report on two general areas of published literature – generalised background, more specialised literature.


This resource is based on research and scholarship by:
Associate Professor Christine Bruce
Faculty of Information Technology
Queensland University of Technology.

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