a questions approach to the literature review

There are various ways to approach literature reviewing. The most common is to start by scoping the field. (See the post on Inger and my blogging paper for an example of what scoping looks like.) Once you’ve scoped, you then have to work out how to organise the summarised material into an argument that will: (1) create the mandate for the research, (2) situate the study and name the contribution, and (3) identity the ideas and approaches that the research is using. The argument is presented in the text as a set of moves, expressed as sections of the chapter, and sub-sections.

One alternative to scoping is to start from the research question and determine a set of sub-questions that will elaborate it. These guide the literature work.

I’m in the process of doing a literature review right now as the first phase of a research project. The review may well be published separately as a downloadable pdf for anyone who is interested in the topic. And I thought it might be of interest to some patter readers if I did a bit of show and tell about how I am going about this work, because I’m using the questions approach.

The research project will look at the programmes that are offered to 13 to 16 year olds who are not getting on with, and at, their local high school. These are generally called alternative programmes. Now I’ve done some research on these programmes before, and there has been research done since, as well as some government and think tank reports. There are a set of tricky issues that seem to persist, despite all this research. Not the least of these is how young people, families and schools actually know whether the alternative programmes on offer are any good. So the project I’m doing is one which will investigate whether it is possible and/or desirable to develop some kind of quality framework to help people decide whether an alternative programme is good for them – or not.

My first task is to look at the research that exists to see what has already been said about what makes for a good alternative programme, for whom, and under what circumstances. Because it might also help to know what are (said to be) ineffective programmes, I’m looking for that information too. I’m also going to be hunting for debates and differences that I’ll have to make decisions about in order to do the subsequent case studies. And because this is a paid job on a short timeline, it’s commissioned research, I need to do the literature work right from the get go. There is no time for false starts.

At present, near the beginning of the literatures work, I have the following questions that I’m using as the organisers for the review. These are:

(1) What is an alternative programme?
I know from the reading I’ve done before and also just recently that there is no agreement about this. Alternative programmes can be defined by: the young people that attend, the ‘problems’ attributed to them, the focus of the programme and the duration of the programme – and various combinations of these four. I’ll need to explain these and make a choice.

(2) Who are alternative programmes for?
This section will have to deal with what goes on in mainstream schools that cause young people to fall out with them. There is a lot of research material here, produced in various ways, from various points of view. I’ll want to highlight the texts which strongly feature the views of young people.

(3) What are the purposes of alternative programmes?
Again, there are numerous ways of thinking about this, some more helpful than others. I’ll need to sort these out and again choose a line of argument.

(4) What makes for a good alternative programme?
There is a big literature here too, and some pretty common understandings at the core about relationships, agency, flexibility and relevance in alternative programmes. But there are also differences in the literature in both terminology and content – these are important to consider. This is where I’ll also need to look at any research which is about alleged ineffective provision.

(5) What ‘systems’ are necessary for young people to access good alternative programmes?
There is recent research about this topic and most of it highlights problems in making sure young people get to do programmes that they think are valuable, and also that get them some useful credentials. And there are some very difficult questions here about monitoring systems, about how young people are described in and as data, and who has access to their data and for what purposes.

(6) What goes into a quality framework?
This is where I have a lot of hunting to do, as it’s an area that I know less well. It’d be a fine thing if other people have done the same project so I could have something to work with and against. I’m on trail of one international report right now.

Now I may eventually change these questions, add to them, and I’ll certainly develop sub-headings as I go along. But as a starter on the literature work, these set of questions are pretty helpful. They allow me to record relevant information against them from every item I read. Instead of just summarizing papers and books as in a scoping exericse, I am approaching every text with a deliberate categorising strategy. And if the questions remain largely the same after my reviewing process, even with some tweaking, then I already have the writing structure sorted out. I don’t have to make it fresh from the ground up.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in literature review, literature themes, questions and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to a questions approach to the literature review

  1. dannijean17 says:

    This could not have come at a better time for me! I’m working on a lit review at the moment for a sub section of my thesis. I’ve had some guiding questions in my mind as I’ve been reading but this has motivated me to clearly articulate them and write them down, so that I am working with more focus and direction as I read. Thank you 🙂


  2. maelorin says:

    This approach also helps write other sections as well: What does the reader need to know to engage with this work? Where does this work take us? What else might be useful, in light of this work?

    A logical sequence of questions are also helpful, because writing thousands of words looks a lot less intimidating once it’s broken down into chunks.


  3. Pingback: a questions approach to the literature review | patter | Learning Curve

  4. Nolu says:

    This is very helpful for a PhD scholar in a long period of a proposal development due for submission but still having concerns especially with regard to methodology and the literature review.


  5. Pingback: A questions approach to the literature review |...

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  7. Y. Prior says:

    Hi – I just wanted to say that this is one of my favorite posts of yours. Some one linked it to me and I have linked it to a few folks as well. Thx.

    I also wanted to say thanks for taking the time to post these helpful writings – many blessings to you for all that you give!


  8. Pingback: working with literatures #phdknowhow | patter

  9. Pingback: starting the PhD – finding the literatures you need | patter

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