A three-stage framework for teaching literature reviews: A new approach Teresa Smallbone and Sarah Quinton, Oxford Brookes University, England DOI:10.3794/ijme.94.337
Received: July 2010 Revised: February 2011, May 2011 Accepted: June 2011
Writing a literature review yields many academic benefits. It is an appropriate route for management students to learn academic skills, such as how to search databases and to search off line, and to improve practical and theoretical knowledge. It enables theory development unimpeded by the practical obstacles of gaining access to people and organisations to collect data. It requires the development of expertise in research methods, numeracy, attention to detail, and in the analysis and interpretation of data. Despite these benefits, the pedagogic literature has little to say about the best means of teaching students how to research and write literature reviews. This paper develops a three-stage framework for teaching literature reviews which gives explicit guidance for teachers and simplifies the process for students. The framework comprises a means of learning how to carry out a systematically informed search for relevant literature, demonstrated through examples; an approach to learning how to read and deconstruct a text in a critically informed way, through using a template with a questioning approach; and a way explaining how to reconstruct the material, using a simple metaphor to demonstrate how this is done. Keywords: literature reviews; teaching framework; academic skills; synthesis
In this paper we set out to discuss the ways in which reviewing academic literature has evolved and then outline a new approach to teaching literature reviews via a three-stage framework. A literature review is a requirement in assessed pieces of written work in management studies for many courses and institutions at both undergraduate and postgraduate level. Electronic search engines and greater access to internet-based academic secondary sources, coupled with the drive by national institutions and government requirements for increased academic output, has led to a huge expansion in the number of published academic journal articles. The task of reviewing the published literature in a particular field is in theory simpler, as much more is readily accessible through search engines, but it is also more complex as the task becomes ever larger, and the review itself more difficult to organise, write and contain. In an academic context, literature reviews should have a defined purpose and an identified audience. They must contain an in-depth analysis of past research and from it create a summary, evaluation or synthesis to build an argument and make a contribution to knowledge (see Bruce, 1994; Hart, 1998; Baker, 2000). However, writing a literature review is fraught with problems for students because they have difficulty understanding what is expected of the outcome. In our view, literature reviews are inherently difficult to write and the results are often of poor quality. Students must develop a critical standpoint in order to write a successful literature review but it may be very difficult for students to understand and engage in a critique of academic literature due to their prior educational experience or cultural expectations. Nevertheless, it is important that management students write literature reviews because it enables them to learn about rigour in research, particularly when they are unable to collect primary data. Gaining access to organisations and specific groups in the population is increasingly problematic in many discipline areas, including business and management. Changing attitudes to data privacy, reinforced by legislation, mean, for example, that simple sampling frames used in past research, such as internal company address books and telephone lists, are no longer freely available to researchers. Writing a literature review helps students to learn how to sort and categorise large amounts of disparate information drawn from many sources and re-frame it for a given purpose. None of the skills necessary for these transformations of the data is innate or can be assumed to be present in the undergraduate and postgraduate student populations. There is little consensus about how this fundamental aspect of research may be taught. In this paper we outline a three-stage framework to better prepare students for writing their Teresa Smallbone is a senior lecturer in marketing with a particular interest in consumer behaviour, research methods and effective strategies for the development of teaching and learning. Sarah Quinton is a senior lecturer in marketing with a particular interest in the use of technology for marketing by SMEs, research methods and the development of critical writing skills for students. International Journal of Management Education 9(4), 2011 1
own literature reviews.
The case for literature reviews
The benefits of literature reviews in an academic context are manifold. Literature reviews can help students to identify trends that may have emerged in a subject (Hart, 1998; Saunders, Lewis, & Thornhill, 2007) and gain a new perspective (Hart, 1998). They enable students to display their knowledge of a chosen field and what has gone before, to develop their search abilities and their ability to critique a subject area. A literature review may also be used to create an analytical framework to analyse primary data (Jankowicz, 2000). Literature reviews from one subject area can assist in delineating the boundaries of that subject, and researchers working across subjects can map different literature reviews to find an overlap. Writing literature reviews overcomes the increasing problems of access to organisations and falling public participation in surveys (Betts & Lound, 2010), which is already forcing academics to re-think their research strategies. The discipline required to read for and construct a literature review hones intellectual as well as writing skills (Leki, 1992), enabling students to demonstrate their understanding not only of the subject but also of research methods. Creating a literature review yields both practical knowledge, such as how to physically perform searches and categorise search outputs; and conceptual knowledge, such as the deconstruction of past research, transformational thinking and synthesis leading to the creation of new knowledge. The whole process involves moving to higher order critical thinking: from knowledge and comprehension to analysis and evaluation (Bloom, 1956). As a result, it helps students to develop the ability to synthesise information from a variety of sources, a skill vital for management students once in business life, while also developing their writing skills. Literature reviews in management research form a central role in developing ideas and argument, and enable management students to develop their thinking and critical abilities. The quality of the reasoning must be based on good background knowledge relevant to the context, a sound knowledge of concepts in the discipline, and of the method of argumentation in inquiry (Bailin, Case, Coombs, & Daniels, 1999). This implies that the students’ approach should be concerned with uncovering complexity, richness and controversy, so that their conclusions are contextually sound and based on multiple perspectives. There are clear pedagogic benefits in applying a more systematic approach. Following a rigorous and replicable searching process through a library or resource centre, and using key search strings while searching online, can help students structure their thinking. As research supervisors in management research now frequently question the validity and reliability of reviews, a well-documented, verifiable and logical process may reduce accusations of plagiarism and enhance the credibility of their work. It is thus an essential skill for any business and management student to be able to perform a structured search of academic literature, evaluate texts to critique the material, then construct an argument. A management graduate should be able to evaluate the quality and rigour, and determine the value of information, when reaching a management decision. An ability to write a report, underpinned by an understanding and appropriate use of relevant supporting information, is a prerequisite for a successful management career and one that is recognised by educators and employers. Thus the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA, 2007) requirements for general business and management honours degrees include demonstration of the following skills: Cognitive skills of critical thinking, analysis and synthesis. This includes the capability to identify assumptions, evaluate statements in terms of evidence, to detect false logic or reasoning, to identify implicit values, to define terms adequately and generalise appropriately. (p. 3). Similarly, employers value problem solving very highly as a skill for a business graduate (Institute of Directors, 2007). In research carried out for the Institute of Directors, 294 of the 500 company directors who responded (59%) stated that problem solving (involving thinking and analysing information) was very important.
The evolution of literature reviews
In recent years, the methodological approach to researching and writing literature reviews has come under increasing scrutiny. In the social sciences, including management, there has been much discussion about applying a more systematic approach to gathering material for literature reviews, specifically about adopting the procedures developed in medical sciences for systematic literature reviews. Recent authors have covered topics such as how to construct searches on electronic databases and issues such as which search strings to use; advice on the use of search filters (Deurenberg, Vlayent, Guillo, Oliver, Fervers, & Burgers, 2007); how to develop inclusion and exclusion criteria in the health and medical science subject areas (McNally & Alborz, 2004); and a description of the searching strategies employed by teachers (Haig & Dozier, 2003). In terms of the approach, as far back as 1989, Cooper suggested, in the preface to the first edition of his 2 International Journal of Management Education 9(4), 2011
book, that there was a systematic, objective alternative to what he described as the standard intuitive, narrative and subjective approach to reviewing existing literature, and that this new approach was gaining rapid acceptance in the social science field. The methodology of systematic literature...