Complete the following:

  • Select the presentation that is associated with your program, and click Launch [School] Media to view The Literature Review or Course Paper.  This piece addresses how to write successful literature reviews (course  papers), including their correct structure and organization,  identifying the key challenge of the paper assignment, and properly  constructing a literature review that addresses the key challenge  successfully.
  • When you have finished studying the presentation, complete the following:
    • Locate the final paper you selected for evaluation.
    • For Self Assessment: Evaluating a Literature Review or Course Paper, click Launch Presentation.  Follow the instructions to evaluate your paper. When you have completed  the self-assessment and received a score, complete the section where  you explain how you will improve your skills. Make sure you indicate, in  the self-assessment, to have the results sent to your e-mail.
    • As you complete the self-assessment, take notes related to each  question and sub-question, related to your chosen course paper. Write a  synopsis of your assessment.

Post both your synopsis and the results page of the Self-Assessment  to the assignment area so that the instructor can view your results and  provide additional feedback as needed.

The Literature Review or Course Paper (COUN)



We’ll continue with our review of scholarly communication by focusing attention on the course paper, which is, strictly speaking, a literature review. All scholarly works, including:

· Course papers

· Comprehensive examinations

· Dissertations

contain some form of literature review for their particular topics.

In this presentation, we will examine:

· The development of the key challenge in a course paper.

· The central role of the key challenge in forming your literature review and your paper as a whole.

Of course, everything we say about your selected course paper literature review applies to the literature review, for the comprehensive examination answers, and the dissertation. Let’s begin with some definitions.

What is a Literature Review?

Aristotle thought that it was important in defining objects to say what they are not to help define what they are. Let’s look at what literature reviews are not.

Literature reviews are not reports. Reports are listings of facts about some central object (topic). A report would tell you about the object or subject of interest. Reports are organized around the information. Academic reports, generally speaking, are not primarily about drawing conclusions as a good academic paper should be. Instead, reports disseminate information without interpreting the information.

Literature reviews are purposeful writing. The purpose may vary, but generally the purpose will be a mixture of the following parts.

· Any well-written academic paper should have a point, the key challenge that you are trying to prove or argue.

· Good academic writing often presents all considered sides of an issue; Consider how this is unlike political or opinion polls. After this balanced presentation, the literature review will draw a conclusion or conclusions based upon the evidence and it will defend that position(s). This process would demand any or all of the following:

a. Analysis

b. Synthesis

c. Evaluation

· Critical thinking is the heart of good academic writing and hence also intrinsic to the literature review.

Literature reviews are meant to accomplish three very specific goals:

· To identify and describe existing research that focuses on your topic. (Notice the two levels of critical thinking called for by this goal: identify and describe, both low levels.) This will include research or theory that supports your own main idea. To strengthen your argument, utilize research and theory that contradicts, disagrees, or conflicts with your main idea. This is where the balance comes from.

· To analyze and then to evaluate how the selected literature addresses the key challenge. (Note the two levels of critical analysis called for: analyze and evaluate.) Some literature will support and further the resolution of the key challenge; other literature will not.

· Finally, to draw conclusions about resolving the key challenge based on the literature reported and reviewed.

We’ll return to these goals later. Let’s look at the basic structure of a literature review.

Basic Elements of Scholarly Communications

You’ll recall, from the previous Presentation, that all writing is structured around three basic elements:

· An Introduction

· A Main Body

· A Conclusion

The table presented earlier illustrated how these elements function regardless of the scope of the writing. Let’s look again as a refresher.

Table 1. Elements of Writing by Scale of Assignment
  Paragraph Discussion Response Literature Review/ Final Project Comps Question Dissertation
Introduction 1 sentence 1 paragraph 1–2 paragraphs 1–2 paragraphs Chapter 1
Body 2 sentences 2 paragraphs 8–10 pages 12–16 pages Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4
Conclusion 1 sentence 1 paragraph 1–2 paragraphs 1–2 paragraphs Chapter 5

As you can see in the fourth column, the literature review or course project is longer than a discussion response, but they share the same structure:

1. Introduction — Tell them what you’ll tell them!

2. Main Body — Tell them!

3. Conclusion — Tell them what you told them! (For the conclusion, the number of pages may be stipulated in the assignment.)

In course papers:

· The literature review is the heart of the course paper.

· The literature review is integrated into the main body of course papers.

· The Literature Review in Course Papers form (including extensive directions for constructing high quality literature reviews) is in the Resources section of this Courseroom. Use this guidance when you construct your individual literature reviews.

Literature reviews always attempt to address and resolve a key challenge. Let’s look more closely at what that is.

Key Challenge

Identifying the Key Challenge

Each course paper should be built around a key challenge that

· answers a single question ,

· argues a single thesis , or

· solves a particular problem .

Using a course final project as our example, let’s identify the key challenge. The assignment reads like this:

For your course project, you will integrate your selected theoretical framework with your research topic. This will include demonstrating how your selected school of thought aligns with your research topic, as well as how your research topic contributes to the knowledge base.

1. Study how the assignment is written; using the skills you developed previously.

2. Find the content issues. Write them down in a list.

3. Then find the levels of critical thinking, and write them down as well.

4. What are you challenged to do in the assignment?

5. Take some time to reflect on the assignment. Then write down in one sentence what the key challenge of this assignment is.

Did you write that the key challenge is:

1. “To demonstrate how your selected theoretical framework aligns with your research topic?”

2. “To show how your research topic contributes to the knowledge base?”

3. “To integrate your selected theoretical framework with your research topic?”

Feedback for answer 1: That’s part of it, but it is not the key challenge. Notice how that clause starts with the word “including.” So this element is included in the key challenge, but that means it cannot be the key challenge itself.

Feedback for answer 2: Well, in that case you’re again partly right, but you missed the key challenge. This element is opened with the words “as well as,” which like “including,” indicates a subordinate role for the clause. It is included in the key challenge, but it is not the key challenge itself.

Feedback for answer 3: Good for you! That’s it. Integrating your theoretical framework with your research topic includes a number of things, two of which are spelled out for you.

An Example of Writing the Key Challenge for This Course Paper

You can phrase the key challenge in one of three ways. By way of example, suppose a learner is interested in social-cognitive theory. Suppose further that she is very interested in doing her dissertation on caseworkers who suffer burnout while working with alcoholics, and she has come up with the following research topic statement:

Caseworkers’ burnout in alcohol treatment programs.

Recall that a key challenge:

· answers a single question,

· argues a single thesis, or

· solves a particular problem.

The key challenge only does one of these three things.

She can phrase her key challenge, then, in one of three ways — and only in one:

· As a question to be answered:  She will answer the question “What constructs of social cognitive theory can provide an understanding of caseworkers’ burnout while working with alcoholics?”

· As a thesis to be argued:  She will argue the following thesis: “The construct of social cognitive theory, self-efficacy, provides an understanding of the mechanisms of a caseworkers’ burnout while treating alcoholics.”

· Or as a problem to be solved:  She will contribute to solving the problem of therapist burnout by asking, “How can the principles of social-cognitive theory be used to reduce burnout in caseworkers working with alcoholics?”

In your introduction to the literature review (course paper), you will repeat the original assignment and then identify what key challenge you have identified for the paper. There are other points to cover in the introduction, but we’ll get to that later.

Before you move on, let’s have some more practice in how to identify the key challenge. Here is another course project assignment from a different course. Read it and reflect on the key challenge in this one.

Practice Sample Assignment:

This course provides a solid grounding in practice theory, and the purpose of the course project is to further explore and understand the many connections a theory has to your field on a practical level. For the course project, you will write a 15-page paper analyzing a chosen practice theory and its relationship to your Scholarly field. The project will consist of a detailed analysis of a practice theory of your choice. Course readings provide several theories from which to choose. In this analysis, you will connect your chosen theory to a discipline or field of practice.

To complete this project, you will be expected to:

1. Analyze a practice theory, including its assumptions, scope, and main intervention strategies.

2. Evaluate the processes of how a theory is generated, validated, and incorporated into a discipline.

3. Describe the bodies of knowledge used to derive a theory’s interventions.

4. Compare the assumptions of a practice theory with those of its underlying philosophical paradigm.

How many key challenges does this assignment offer?

1. One key challenge.

2. Two key challenges.

Feedback for answer 1:

· If you found one key challenge, notice that there are four specific expectations. Now within those four, it’s possible to see some similarities. For instance, number 1 and number 4 could be a single key challenge: To analyze the theory, including its assumptions, and then to compare its assumptions with those of its underlying philosophical paradigm. But what about numbers 2 and 3?

· Numbers 1 and 4 focus solely on the practice theory and its underlying assumptions, but numbers 2 and 3 do not — the key challenge that might sum up numbers 2 and 3 seems to be about theory formation.

Feedback for answer 2:

· So if you found two key challenges — one about analyzing a practice theory and looking at its underlying assumptions in comparison with its philosophical paradigm, the second about the processes and materials by which a theory is formed — then you’ve got the idea here.

This exercise reveals that some questions or assignments make it difficult to follow the cardinal rule of “key challenges”: You only have one per paper.

Clearly, this exercise suggests that the instructor who wrote the assignment wanted at least two key challenges and you might argue that there are four.

One way to handle this dilemma is to integrate the key challenges.

Example: In this case, we might say the key challenge is to analyze a practice theory and its philosophical assumptions, including the body of knowledge that formed the theory as well as the processes by which it was formed and accepted into the literature.

Another approach is simple: Write as many “papers” as there are key challenges. However, you don’t actually need to write two or three or four papers; just write one but:

· Divide your main body into separate sections to deal with one key challenge at a time.

· Then, present an integration of the sub-sections in a final sub-section, bringing all your conclusions together as a whole.


Objectives of the Literature Review

A successful literature review will:

1. Identify how the key challenge has been studied in the scholarly literature;

2. Identify, describe, and evaluate each of the studies used to respond to the key challenge; and

3. Support your conclusions drawn from the literature review in response to the key challenge.

The literature review proper begins with a broad perspective — but only broad enough to provide the context your readers need to understand the key challenge. This perspective or background should only discuss articles that address the main concepts in your key challenge, not the whole field about the topic. The literature review quickly funnels down to the key challenge of the paper.

Literature Review Funnel: In this inverted triangle (or funnel), the base at the top represents the broad perspective of the literature review and the tip at the bottom represents the focus of the key challenge.

Literature Review Funnel graphic.

Examples of the “broad perspective” at the beginning

In the previous paper example, you were asked to “integrate your selected theoretical framework with your research topic.

The “broad perspective” might include articles dealing with concepts used by your selected theoretical framework (e.g., social-cognitive theory, control theory, Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, among others) to deal with your research topic, as well as a few articles (for a course paper) on the key concepts in your research topic.


· Within the “broad perspective” you write only about the main concepts in each and would not go into other theoretical frameworks, the history of the theoretical framework, or issues only tangentially related to your research topic.

· Even in the “broad perspective,” give only enough context to give your reader an understanding of the issues your paper will address.

In the example we saw earlier about the learner’s paper on social-cognitive theory and caseworkers’ burnout, the “broad perspective” would only deal with the few social-cognitive concepts she intends to use in the paper, not all the concepts of the theoretical framework, its general nature, or anything broader than what her readers need to know to understand her paper.


Organization of the Literature Review for Course Papers

The literature review, like any piece of scholarly writing, has an Introduction, a Body, and a Conclusion. In this Presentation, we’ve been using the terms “literature review” and “course paper” interchangeably, so what we’ve said before about how papers are structured applies to literature reviews as well. Let’s review what each should contain.

The Introduction to the literature review (course paper).

In a paper, also known as a literature review, the Introduction:

· States the topic of the paper and identifies the key challenge.

· Explains to the reader how the literature review is going to address the key challenge.

· States how the paper’s main body — the literature review content — will be organized:

· What are the main points?

· In what order do they appear?

· Makes a one- or two-sentence transition to the Body.

· And consists of one or two paragraphs, and rarely more than one page, in a course paper.

Main body of the literature review.

The main body is the “work space” of the paper. It accomplishes the task set by the key challenge. The main body:

· States the theoretical orientation or framework.

· Reviews literature applied to subparts of the key challenge.

· Critiques the literature.

· Synthesizes the literature, and

· Draws conclusions about resolving the key challenge of the paper.

The Conclusion of the literature review.

The conclusion, like all conclusions in scholarly writing, “tells them what you told them.” The conclusion:

· Restates the topic of the paper and the key challenge.

· Revisits the explanation of how the literature review addressed the key challenge, in other words, it restates the conclusions drawn about resolving the key challenge in the main body.

· Provides implications and applications of findings addressed in the literature review.

· A very high quality conclusion identifies issues for further study and exploration the learner intends to carry out to deepen her knowledge.

· Consists of one or two paragraphs (rarely more than one page) in a course paper.

Section 1

Three General Sections of the Main Body of the Literature Review

Writers are free to organize the main body of their literature reviews as they see fit, provided the literature review accomplishes the primary goal of leading to a resolution of the key challenge. We’ll discuss three general sections of the literature review.

Section 1: Theoretical orientation for the paper.

Identify, discuss, and integrate a relevant theoretical perspective or framework for responding to the paper’s key challenge.

· Essentially, the theoretical orientation or perspective is the point of view from which you write the paper. As such, it allows you a number of advantages:

· You do not have to consider other variables or concepts that are outside the theory.

· You know automatically which concepts and variables are important — they are the key concepts of the theory.

· You do not have to consider competing theories — although you probably will identify them and give your reasons for not choosing them as your theoretical framework.

· In this section of the literature review, you will cite the major references to support and describe the theoretical orientation related to the key challenge.

b. Let’s take a simple example: You want to study self-esteem. What theoretical framework will you adopt? Well, you are a helping professional, so it will have to be related to your professional and specialization area.

b. If you are in a clinically based program you might want to understand the impact of a particular type of therapeutic intervention on self-esteem. You would scour the literature on that idea to see who has come up with a theory about it, and you’d adopt that theory as your framework.

b. Or if you are in a non-clinically based program, you might want to know more about how self-esteem is impacted by workload demands in caseworkers. You will scour the literature to find a theory about that.

b. In either case, once you have your theory in hand, you don’t need to worry about all the other millions of things you could study about self-esteem. Theoretical frameworks act as lenses to screen out extraneous concepts and to help us focus in on a single aspect of complex phenomena.


Practice Deciding on a Theoretical Framework

Let’s look again at the course paper assignment we discussed previously:

For your course project, you will integrate your selected theoretical framework with your research topic. This will include demonstrating how your selected school of thought aligns with your research topic, as well as how your research topic contributes to the knowledge base.

For the sake of this exercise, assume that the learner’s research topic is “how burnout develops in caseworkers who work with chronic alcoholics,” and that the learner has chosen social-cognitive theory as her preferred “theoretical framework.” We can assume, then, that the key challenge takes the form of a question:

“How can social-cognitive theory be used to understand how burnout develops in caseworkers who work with chronic alcoholics?”

Reflect on this key challenge question for a moment. What might be the theoretical framework you could adopt to answer the key challenge?

Answer: This should be an easy one, because the answer is built explicitly into the key challenge: Your answer should be one of the main theories in humanistic psychology, such as Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory. (There are dozens of good theories in humanistic psychology. The reason humanistic is not the “theoretical framework” is because it is not a theory itself, but a school of thought that encompasses many theories.)

Now, assume that you are approaching the final paper assignment as given earlier and repeated here:

For your course project, you will integrate your selected theoretical framework with your research topic. This will include demonstrating how your selected theoretical framework aligns with your research topic, as well as how your research topic contributes to the knowledge base.

Use your own research topic developed earlier and reflect on the following:

· First, choose a theoretical framework to apply to your research topic.

· Next, rewrite your research topic statement to incorporate the theoretical framework you’ve selected.

· Finally, reflect on your selection and the multitude of theories that might apply to your actual topic.

Section 2

Section 2: Literature applied to the key challenge.

· Organize the subparts of the key challenge and address the literature reviewed for each subpart. These subparts will be the main points of the response to the key challenge. For instance, in the key challenge for the previous final project, there seem to be four subparts:

· The preferred theoretical framework;

· The research topic;

· How the theoretical framework aligns with the research topic;

· How the topic will contribute to the knowledge base.

· Provide an overview of the research and theory relevant to the key challenge.

The subparts of the key challenge provide a logical outline for the literature review and explain how conclusions are drawn from the literature to respond to the key challenge. Organizing the section according to the main aspects (subparts) of the key challenge will provide a fundamental logic to follow. And remember what the literature review is designed to accomplish and you will have a good structure for each subpart of your literature review.

Forgot what the literature review is designed to do? Here’s a reminder:

· Identify how the key challenge has been studied previously.

· Identify, describe, and evaluate each of the studies reviewed in terms of how they respond to the key challenge.

· Support your conclusions (drawn from your review of the literature) about how to resolve the key challenge.

Note: At this point, decide if you are developing an outline or utilizing reverse outlining? If you select outline, then you should develop your outline now.

Section 3

Section 3: Critique and Synthesis of the literature.

Synthesize and critique the literature to draw a few substantive conclusions on which to base the response. Integrate a critique of the research methods into the literature review. Why integrate the research methods?

Think back to the activities on dissecting research articles. You are dissecting research articles here. You take them apart and you inspect each element:

· The abstract

· The background introduction,

· The methods, and the findings

The purpose is to determine if each section stands up to critical scrutiny.

You will find that some articles have findings that are useful in resolving your particular key challenge — but they have too small a sample to apply to the large population or their data collection methods don’t fit their research question! You will mention them in the literature review because their findings fit so well, but you’ll dismiss them in your critique and in the end, you won’t use them in drawing your own conclusions about the key challenge.

The critique of research methods addresses:

· the rigor of the studies’ designs,

· sampling errors,

· the size of samples,

· the quality of research instruments, or (in the case of qualitative research, the competence, credibility, and transparency of the researcher), and

· the appropriateness of statistical or other analytic procedures.

When you’ve finished your critical evaluations of the articles, you’ll probably still have a few that stand up to the test and provide useful ideas about how to resolve your key challenge. Now you will synthesize those disparate studies and findings into a coherent set of concepts to apply to the key challenge. This is one of the places where true creativity comes into the scholarly writing process.

The synthesis of your research findings discusses the following:

· Larger themes illustrating the response to the key challenge.

· Inconsistencies weakening the response to the key challenge.

· Patterns in the findings relevant to the response to the key challenge.


All in all, if you combine the three goals of the successful literature review with the information we just reviewed, you will be well on your way to creating successful literature reviews (and course papers). Start small. Don’t tackle a 50-article review in your early course papers.

Use 10 or so articles and follow the simple organization:

· State the topic and the key challenge of the paper, and state the theoretical orientation or framework you are adopting for the paper.

· Describe the articles you have found that address the key challenge.

· Evaluate them both from a content standpoint (is their logic sound? Do they cover the issues they claim to cover?) and from a critical evaluation of methods standpoint. Show why you are keeping some articles and why you are discarding others.

· Draw conclusions about how you will resolve the key challenge based on the articles you present.

· Apply this process for each subpart of the key challenge, and then conclude with a synthesis that describes your proposed resolution of the key challenge.

Write every paper this way, until you develop it into a habit. Don’t strive for originality, creativity, or shock value in your course papers. Don’t try to impress your instructors. Instead, practice these skills over and over, in postings, in your responses to your colleagues, and in your papers. If you do so, by the time you reach the comps, these skills will be second nature and you will be able to devote your attention to the content, confident that you have mastered the technique of scholarly writing. Having practiced time and again, you will be ready for the comprehensive exam and the dissertation.


· Narveson, R. (2011). Literature reviews and annotated bibliographies. Unpublished manuscript, Department of Psychology, Capella University, Minneapolis, Minnesota.


Subject Matter Expert:

Jana Whiddon, Phd, LMHC, ACS

Interactive Designers:

Estelle Domingos, Marc Ashmore

Interactive Developers:

Justin Lee, Peter Hentges

Instructional Designers:

Jae Johnson, Suzanne DeFoe, Mo Yang

Project Managers:

Alan Campbell, Julie M-Courts Greunke

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