Reimagining literature reviews as part of undergraduate research

I am currently supervising a PhD student, and she has been working on her literature review for the last few months, building the foundations and rationale for her study. Reading her successive drafts, and seeing her voice grow and develop, has given me pause for thought in terms of how we conceptualise, teach and write this thing called a literature review, especially in undergraduate education.

There has been a growing drive in the last five years or so, certainly in South Africa, towards making research a strong focus of undergraduate curricula, across the disciplinary map. In a higher education system that wants to grow its postgraduate  student base, both in quantity and in quality, having prospective postgraduates learn how to design, manage and write about research projects while they are undergraduates is becoming increasingly valued and important. Thus, parts of research projects – in particular methodology courses and literature review assignments – are becoming more common at undergraduate level. In this post, I will focus in on literature reviews – specifically a few of the main shortcomings of how they tend to be taught and assessed at undergraduate level, and the implications for postgraduate research.

In a fairly traditional research assignment or project, the literature review is almost always the starting point. We read to map out the field, to work out who are researchers are that are working in this area and what they are (and are not yet) writing about. We read to work out what we think about the research we are interested in doing, to work out what kinds of research questions might be viable and also interesting to answer. We read to develop our own voices, and to build our credibility as we map our own research project onto the field, especially into gaps in the field we are working in. In short, we do a great deal of reading, and a great deal of thinking, scribbling, drafting and revising as we build – whether for a large or small project – the foundation and rationale for the research we plan on doing.

Once we have scoped all of this out, and have honed in on one question we can answer, we design a study, develop a theoretical framework, and proceed to generate relevant data that we can analyse and interpret in order to answer the research question. Doing all of that reviewing and reading of literature makes sense in the context of a research project as a whole, because what we do find will then speak back to that field – adding a voice and new ideas and thereby making a contribution. Without the research project as a whole (behind and) in front of the literature review, it can become a disconnected and therefore potentially unhelpful exercise, if its aim is to begin to acculturate undergraduate students into the hows and whys of doing their own research.

A literature review is less a review of existing literature – summary and compare ‘n contrast exercises – and more contextual framework for the research you propose to undertake. You are setting out, for your reader, the parts of the broader research field that are relevant to your own research – that they need to know about in order to understand why your research is necessary and important. Relevance is key. What you should not be doing is writing a long assignment showing the reader everything you have read, laboriously summarising, comparing, contrasting and synthesising the views of different authors. What tends to happen, in these kinds of review exercises, is that your research project and questions get lost in the tumult of other researchers’ projects and arguments. You lose your voice, and the relevance of all that reading is lost.

Unfortunately, most of the literature review assignment at undergraduate level I saw at the writing centre I used to manage over the last few years end up becoming exactly this kind of exercise, largely because there is no drive to understand the rationale for a research project students are invested in. Students are given a topic, perhaps a couple of the same readings with instructions to find two or three more related readings on their own, and then asked to summarise, synthesise and connect the readings in a literature review. In the better assignments, the topic will be a research question, but it is (as I have observed) difficult and puzzling for an undergraduate student to work out what they are reviewing in the literature and why, I believe because it is not their research, or because there is not project as a whole. The assignments thus do not end up helping these students learn how to do the kinds of literature review work that will be useful to them in postgraduate study.

This brings me to a second issue: postgraduate study, and the expectations of postgraduate students as compared to undergraduate students. Honours and Masters degrees are usually quite structured, and students embark on coursework before undertaking a manageable research project. The reading lists are shorter than they would be, in general, for a PhD study. But the task is, albeit on different levels, the same: you need to construct a research question, and develop a study that can be carried out in order to find an answer (crudely put). Thus, whatever existing research you read needs to be relevant to that project – it needs to help you understand your part of the field well; it needs to help you locate your proposed research in relation to existing research; it can help you work out appropriate theoretical and methodological frameworks or approaches; it defines and delimits your context and scope for the research; and it guides your reader into the rationale and need for your research. If all undergraduate students have learned is to summarise whole readings, without knowing how and what to select from them relevant to a specific project, how will they be able to accomplish the challenging task of building contextual and conceptual frameworks for their postgraduate research? If undergraduate literature review assignments are more often than not stand-alone assignments rather than initial parts of whole research projects, how will we need to adapt our supervision and mentoring practices at postgraduate level to bring students up to the levels of research and writing that are required of them?

Too often, postgraduate students who have done well as undergraduates end up feeling stupid and incompetent when they try to use what worked for them at undergraduate level in their postgraduate work, only to be told that they are not working at the right level, or in the right ways. Our work, in teaching undergraduate students the value and practice of research, is to look for clearer ways to align undergraduate and postgraduate expectations and study; to reimagine the teaching of research at undergraduate level so that it builds, cumulatively and in progressive stages, towards the capacity to continue learning and growing at postgraduate level. We cannot keep leaving it to the students themselves to work all of this out on their own, if indeed we want research, inquiry and curiosity to be much stronger and more visible in undergraduate and postgraduate curricula.

Lessons learned and lessons shared: writing advice from writing tutors

This was a fun post to devise and also to write. In a recent staff meeting I posed the question: ‘what advice would you give yourself about writing if you could go back in time to yourself as an undergraduate student, or yourself starting out with your postgraduate degree?’ This is what we came up with, and we would like to share it with all of you. There are 20 pieces of advice, in no particular order:

1. Procrastination is not always a bad thing. Taking a break from a piece of writing and doing other things can lead to greater clarity when you can go back to it with fresher eyes.

2. Critical friends are an essential part of the writer’s ‘toolkit’. It’s scary to ask for feedback but if you ask the right people and take their advice, it will help you to grow as a writer.

3. Revisions almost always take longer than you think they will. Make notes about how much time writing takes you, and learn from this when you plan future writing tasks and revisions so you can plan your time realistically and avoid frustration.

4. Learn how to use the MSWord shortcuts and tools well. They can save you lots of time and make the technical side of writing less stressful.

5. Don’t underestimate the importance of giving yourself time to think. Thinking is an essential part of doing good writing – the thinking you do before, during and also after you produce a piece of writing all enriches the writing process and the writing itself.

6. For postgraduates, grounding yourself solidly in the field in which you are doing research before you start coming up with research questions is helpful. Read, read and then read. And make good notes!

7. Develop a system that works for saving your files and readings so that you can approach your writing tasks in an organised way. This saves hours looking for files and source documents that could be spent writing and revising.

8. Keep a journal – take note of where your notes come from: which reading were you writing about and what is the full reference. Create a good system for keeping track of your references, and use the journal to assist you in writing summaries in your own words of the relevant points and arguments made by different authors.  This will help you to be more organised, and also to write more comfortably in your own ‘voice’.

9. Save your drafts with separate file names, and develop a logical system for doing this (like Draft1_Eco paper_date). This helps you to keep track of your own development as a writing, and can also be encouraging when you see how far you have come. At postgraduate level especially, saving multiple drafts means you can cut chunks of good writing out of a final draft but still have them saved to use in a conference paper or journal article where they may be more relevant.

10. Keep the topic you are writing about clear in your mind while you are reading and writing; this will keep you on track and make sure that you don’t read  and write about irrelevant or off-topic ideas and information which will confuse you and your readers.

11. Every day should be a writing day, especially for MA and PhD students. All the small bits of writing add up, even if you are scribbling informally in a journal about ideas you have had. A paper, a thesis, a dissertation – these are all written one paragraph at a time.

12. Read, read, and also read! Start reading on a topic you are writing about as early as you can before the due date and read carefully, making notes as you go. Try to summarise the main ideas and arguments that are relevant to the topic you are writing about or to your research questions. Confident writers are readers.

13. Use the work of writers and thinkers you admire and whose work you are using in your own papers and research to help you find a writing voice or style that is relevant in your field and also feels comfortable for you. Find your ‘writing heroes’ in other words :-).

14. Make sure you understand the key arguments you are drawing on in what you are writing well before you get tangled up in the writing. This can help you to stay on topic and write clearly. Often, especially with theory, depth is better than breadth, but this can also depend on your field.

15. Writing is not a ‘paint-by-numbers’ exercise, which is often what makes it hard to ‘teach’. You need to find your style of writing by writing as often as you can and getting feedback from an advisor you trust, like a tutor, a lecturer, a peer or a supervisor.

16. Writing is not a skill, it’s a practice. You only get better at it if you practice it, and you can only practice by doing it. Writing for yourself every day, in a research or reading journal, can help you to grow in your thinking and writing.

17. Planning is an important part of writing so don’t skip this step. Make time to develop and plan or a basic structure for your essay or chapter before you write, so that you have something to guide you.

18. Save your writing in more than one place. Email it to yourself, or sign up for a cloud service like Dropbox or Google Drive (among others) so that you never have to be let down by a computer than crashes or a flashdrive that gets lost or breaks.

19. Writing can be difficult, and when you are working on a big piece of writing like an MA or PhD thesis it can also be lonely. Find yourself cheerleaders who can encourages and motivate you, even if they can’t help you with your writing.

20. Writing shouldn’t always be a chore. Writing should also be an activity you can enjoy. If you find academic writing, or any writing, tough, try to look for the bits you do enjoy and use that feeling to help you through the bits that are less enjoyable. There is almost always some part of writing you can enjoy, even if it is just handing in a finished final draft! 🙂