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EDUC.6922: Qualitative Research Methods for Practitioner Scholars

Literature Review: Six Steps to Success

You do not have to read this entire book. Read Steps 4 and 5.

Sample literature review

Often, when we begin to think about researching the literature, it helps to begin with an example of a literature review. See an example in the Course Readings page of the guide.

Search Education Research Complete

If you cannot access the above video, you can watch it here

Search ERIC

If unable to view, go to:

Using Cabell's to Find Impact Data

If you cannot access the above video, you can watch it here

Resources for Working with Data

This link is the ICPSR's Data Fair 2018 YouTube page with many videos relating to shared data. Videos include how to access shared data, ethics on using shared data, transparency, etc. If you are interested in metadata from the US Census or related to the ACA, you should be aware of these resources. 

Finding a Journal

If you know the title of the journal you want, go to the library homepage and click on "EJournal by Title."

To browse journals, go to The Qualitative Report Guide to Qualitative Research Journals for an alphabetical list. When you click on the description, you'll get a description of the journal. If the journal is not accessible for free, you can then look up the journal by title in the UML library on "Ejournal by Title." 

Reviewing the Literature

Researching the Literature


In all types of research -- qualitative, quantitative, or mixed methods -- a review of the existing literature is required to clarify and evaluate the work that has already been done. A literature review may be a standalone text or a section preceding original research. A good literature review must be more than mere summary of others’ ideas, more than a travelogue describing the articles you’ve visited. Your review should identify connections, inconsistencies, gaps, or outright contradictions as you evaluate researchers’ work and conclusions. A literature review also recommends where additional research is needed to illuminate the topic or solve the problem.

What to look for

The abundance of scholarly research available is both a blessing and a curse: on the one hand, we have ready access to databases full of the 200,000+ articles published each year; on the other hand, we have to sort through those 200,000+ new articles published each year and millions of prior articles to find those that are most relevant to our work. Fortunately, the digital tools that provide access to all those articles also provide means for us to narrow our search. The UML library offers numerous databases for research. View the videos to learn how to access journal articles and how to narrow down your search.

For your literature review, you will want to find the seminal research that represents the foundation of scholarly discourse about your topic or problem, the key research that represents important or well-respected ideas and turning points, and the most relevant recent articles illuminating the current state of research in the field. How do we find the seminal and key research amid millions of articles? It may be helpful to read the most recent literature first for two reasons: 1) The recent work will have likely summarized or reviewed previous work, so you can get a sense of what already exists and how others have responded to it; and 2) If you aren’t sure what the seminal texts are in the field, you can often identify important early works because they are mentioned by multiple later researchers. As I will explain later, it is essential to then read those key texts yourself rather than accept other researchers’ evaluations.


Qualitative research takes many forms, so the literature you find is likely to reflect diverse methods and various philosophical paradigms or approaches. The same topic may have a very different “take” if written as an ethnography rooted in critical theory, for example, than as action research based on principles of pragmatism. Which is best? Over time, methods and approaches have gone in and out of favor, becoming privileged (i.e. more likely to be published) or rejected. In Chapter 1 of Qualitative Research, Savin-Baden and Major describe “moments” of development in qualitative research in increments as narrow as merely five years. Because of the shifting paradigms and disagreements over the “best” strategies for qualitative research, it becomes essential for scholars to look carefully at the literature itself rather than descriptions or interpretations of the literature. Avoid relying on secondary sources and other researchers’ descriptions because even a scathing critique may indicate a disagreement in philosophical approach rather than an invalid conclusion.

Validity is an important consideration as you evaluate the literature. Maxwell (1992) explains that in reviewing original qualitative research, the reviewer must consider descriptive validity, theoretical validity, interpretive validity, and generalizability.

Descriptive validity is concerned with whether the original data is described accurately. Without access to the original transcripts or primary raw data, you must have a certain level of trust in the original researcher’s work. In selecting literature to review, we can infer valid, high-quality description through the original researcher’s transparent explanations about data collection, processes, methods, and authenticity in describing participants and stakeholders.

Theoretical validity refers to the researcher’s accuracy in explaining the phenomena, its main concepts, and the relationships. Researchers should identify their approach clearly so that the reader can consider whether the original data is consistent with the original researcher’s theories and constructs.

Interpretive validity relates to whether the original data is interpreted correctly, with the researcher’s interpretation matching the participants’ perspective. Considering that the reader cannot second-guess the original researcher’s interpretation out of context and in the absence of the raw data, interpretive validity must be assessed indirectly. One way to assess interpretive validity is to assess the clarity of the original researcher’s positionality, background, and the impact of their values or beliefs on shaping the research outcomes.

Generalizability in both quantitative and qualitative research refers to whether trends can be extracted from the data. In quantitative research, generalizability refers to whether the results of an experiment will be similar in the larger population. However, because qualitative research is so context dependent, the concept of generalizability for qualitative studies refers to whether trends can be extracted from the accumulated research. For educational research, for example, generalizability refers to whether case findings can predict conditions under which learning should or should not occur.

  • generalizations from qualitative research is controversial, especially since the criteria for what is considered “good” qualitative research varies and because contexts for qualitative research cannot be replicated. Rich description of study participants and contextual information can help you determine whether trends can be drawn from the studies you choose for review.

Writing the Literature Review

The process of planning and writing a literature review requires thoughtful evaluation of which sources to include, which aspects to highlight in those sources that you do include, and how much meaning each source provides to the overall review. Reading research that approaches the same topic from different methods and philosophies gives us, as scholars, a more well-rounded understanding of the issues.

In the undergraduate writing manual They Say, I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing, Graff and Birkenstein urge students to “enter into a conversation” with the text(s). Consider the most interesting and relevant aspects of the research literature and respond by evaluating how it all fits together (or doesn’t) and how the research connects to your own ideas.

Please read Torraco’s article on integrative literature reviews for guidelines and examples. 

Please read Sandelowski's article on qualitative metasynthesis.