SMHS Literature Review

Learn to write a systematic review of literature.

How do I start?

There are numerous ways to organize the material in a lit. review. For example, one might organize the selected readings by

  • different theoretical approaches
  • specific concepts or issues
  • different methodologies employed
  • level of support or otherwise that they lend to one’s own hypothesis/theory.

Such methods are generally better than organizing chronologically or by author. The latter often result in a boring review or one lacking clarity or direction.

Example Outline

It is common to organize one’s lit. review thematically. For example, one might organize a review on standardized testing in schools according to the following themes or issues:


  • History of standardized tests

  • Different types of standardized tests

  • Rationale of standardized tests

  • Role of high stakes tests

  • Standardized tests and the law

Standardized Tests in Practice

  • Testing at elementary school

  • Testing at secondary school

  • Statistics

Critics and Proponents of Standardized Tests

  • Testing of students with disabilities

  • Testing of minority students

  • Testing of students from different social backgrounds

  • Gender differences in testing

  • Case for bias

  • Case against bias

  • Teachers’ perspectives

  • School administrators’ perspectives

  • Students’ perspectives

  • Introduction should contain some of the following:
    • Your purpose for writing the review
    • Overview of the problem
    • What is the scope of your review
    • Talk about the amount of literature you found
  • Body of the review should contain some of the following:
    • Themes
    • Chronological order
    • Advancements of theories 
    • Questions related to topic
  • Conclusion should contain some of the following:
    • Summarize your findings
    • Expose gaps in knowledge
    • Provide a rationale for future research


  • Remember your audience when writing
  • Avoid too much jargon
  • ​Be concise; don't go off on tangents; stay focused on your thesis statement
  • It’s usually a good idea to keep your paragraphs short.
  • Subheadings should be used to clarify the structure. They break up the material into more readable units as well as give the reader a place to "dive in" if he /she doesn't want to read all of the material.
  • It’s often a good idea to write the first draft straight through and quickly – this can help preserve continuity and give coherence. Once you have text down on paper (or on a computer) it’s often far easier to make needed revisions.
  • Don't cite references that you haven't read.
  • Be prudent in the number of studies you discuss and cite. Referring to almost everything on the subject is useless.

Common errors

  • a failure to focus by going off on tangents
  • failure to cite essential pertinent studies
  • failure to maintain a coherent, logical flow
  • weak organization
  • poor language, grammar etc.