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Index of Assignments

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Process Subgenre

Literature reviews serve a variety of purposes, and may appear as a section of a larger project, or as a component of a larger project. The lit review’s function is to explain the current state of professional knowledge about a specific issue. In order to do that, it needs to show not only what “we know” about an issue, but also what remains unresolved—where there are gaps in the knowledgebase, or divergent results from different studies. As a stand-alone project, the lit review’s goal is often to lay the groundwork for evidence-based recommendations for practice, policy-making, or research activity. As a functional component of a larger project, the lit review section’s goal is to lay the groundwork for a new data-collection activity, or for a specific course of practice- or advocacy-oriented activity; it might appear within projects of almost any genre. It is also worth noting that the subgenre of the lit review is a different thing from a systematic review of the literature, which is a specialized version of the academic journal article.



The audience will be those interested in the subject matter, and therefore the same audience as the primary project in which the lit review appears. Usually the audience will be familiar with the general terms, but specific technical terms may need definition, preferably by reference to sources that the audience will trust (not dictionaries and encyclopedias, but rather articles or books by other academics in the same field). Audiences often use lit reviews to gauge how thorough, adequately grounded, and up to date a project is, so the section needs to earn not only their attention, but also their respect. We need to establish good ethos by covering appropriate sources, and doing so fairly, without skewing the discussion.



There is no set argument that every lit review needs to make, but in general, it should make claims about what we know about a given issue, and what still remains open for debate. This means that, unlike the annotated bibliography, the lit review should proceed by theme or domain of knowledge, and should not merely explain or analyze one study after another. The argument in the lit review should also be organized according to the needs of the present project. For stand-alone lit reviews that aim to offer best practices, or for lit reviews that appear within practice- or advocacy-oriented projects, we may want to organize the argument around possible approaches to a problem. For lit reviews that appear within larger data-collection projects (like empirical journal articles), we will likely want to emphasize gaps in the knowledgebase more strongly, so that our methods section can show that our study clearly adds to the established knowledge on the topic.



In general, literature reviews should draw almost exclusively on peer-reviewed academic articles. Occasionally we may need demographic data, and for that we should draw upon reliable public data, but this is often clearly established in the introduction, so we may not need it here. We should rely upon unpublished or preliminary research data only if no previous studies have directly addressed our research question—and even then, we should usually draw upon conclusions based on research on closely-related studies as well.


Theoretical Writing

Because the lit review mainly synthesizes and analyzes academic journal articles, it is hardly ever appropriate to discuss our own practice experiences, so the voice here should be professional and impersonal. Likewise, we should be advancing an argument on the basis of empirical conclusions or empirically-verified theories, so the argument should offer conclusions based on our analyses, not our personal opinions or professional preferences. Because the lit review often aims to sort out best practices from unverified practices, or to establish what we still do not know about a topic, it is often useful to make specific scholars or theorists active players within an academic conversation. Broad gestures like “studies have shown” can often be helpful as topic sentences for paragraphs, but within paragraphs, references to authors are preferable (e.g. “Johnson (2010) argues that…” or “Morales et al. (2009) found that…”).


Lit Review: This is simply a variant, casual spelling of the genre’s name.

“Research Paper”: Assignments titled “research paper” are often literature reviews in disguise: they often ask us to review the literature on a topic and make recommendations. This is one of the reasons that the “research paper” is not here considered a distinct genre of its own.

Note: Exact requirements may vary from instructor to instructor and from assignment to assignment!

So check the instructions carefully!

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