Instructions for writing the Literature Review of your Final year project

How to write a literature review for your final year thesis project

A long time ago I wrote an article on how to pass your final year thesis project, which several studentsfound helpful. In the same vein, this post deals with a particular aspect of the final year project: the literature review.Every year I see students doing projects I find students tend to ask the same questions about their literature review. Most common are:

  • How many papers should I read?
  • How long should the literature review be?
  • Should I read books, articles, or …?
  • Is it OK to reference websites such as Wikipedia?
  • Who will read my literature review and what can I assume about their knowledge of the area?
  • When should I start the literature review and when should it be finished?

These questions crop up frequently and will be familiar to any readers who are starting their own project. However, when you fully understand the purpose of the literature and how to go about writing one, you begin to realise that these questions are actually not that important. This post is designed to help students make that transition, from not yet understanding what the literature review is for, to having a thorough understanding of its purpose and a clear idea of how to write it up.

The meaning of a final year project

A lot of students starting off their projects talk about writing a “report” at the end of their “project” and doing some “research” as part of their literature review. This is where the subtleties of the English language tend to cause a lot of confusion. “Research” can have many different meanings, and to complete a really successful final year project the first thing to do it to understand fully what is expected of you in an academic context. Even if your final year at University is the last experience you have of academic work, remember that your work will be marked according to academic criteria, and academia has quite different aims to industry.

So, to be clear: research, in an academic context, means adding something new to the body of knowledge that humans have gathered in your area of interest. Your project as a whole will be a piece of research because you will be creating something new that has not been created before. What that is exactly will depend on the field you are studying. It might be a new perspective on a piece of literature, a new proof of a theorem, a new application of a particular technology, or something else. Since you are still an undergraduate it is likely (although not necessary) that your work will be a small step forward. It is unlikely that you will produce something completely ground breaking, so don’t be intimidated by fact that your work has to be novel. That said, it may be that you produce an excellent piece of work and your supervisor may want to turn that into a technical report or conference paper with you, which would be great for your CV (or resume).

thesis is a statement of belief that is central to your research. Your dissertation will be a piece of writing that defends your thesis, based on your research. So, for example, if your thesis is regular, online tests help University students to learn new material then you will need to implement some sort of online tests for new material, design and run an experiment to test your thesis, and write it up in your dissertation. Equally, if your thesis is water causes cancer in mice then you will need to plan and run an experiment to determine whether or not this is true and write it up. Notice that you may disprove your thesis in your work. It may be that online tests do not help students learn, or that water doesn’t cause cancer in mice. This is absolutely fine, so long as your experiments give a clear answer to the question and you can show that your experiments were performed fairly it doesn’t matter whether your thesis turns out to be incorrect or correct (in so far as you have tested it). It may also be that your evaluation is inconclusive, which is also acceptable, so long as your experimental method is good and you can say exactly what further work is necessary to produce a definite result, you will be fine.

Alternatively, you might phrase your thesis as a research question. In which case, instead of having a thesis such as water causes cancer in mice you would ask the question does water cause cancer in mice and your dissertation would describe your efforts to answer that question.

The shape of your dissertation and where the literature fits in

Every dissertation is slightly different, but good dissertations will all contain the same elements. I should say that the advice given in this sections is likely only relevant to science based projects. If you are working in the arts or some areas in the humanities then the expectations of you may well be very different. Still, a good dissertation in the sciences will contain roughly the elements listed below. I say “roughly” because, depending on the exact nature of your work, it may be sensible to expand some sections into two chapters rather than one, or to coalesce some elements into a single chapter. Your supervisor can give you more specific advice on this.

  • Introduction: should introduce the reader to the broad context of the research and explain why this is an interesting area to work in. So, if your thesis is something to do with mobile computing, you might say something here about why mobile phones are important, why mobile computing is an interesting and important area, and broadly what other researchers are working on. At the end of the chapter you will want to introduce your specific research question, having said why the area you are working in (and therefore your question) is important.
  • Literature review: Now you have introduced the reader (who will likely not be an expert in your exact area) to the broad research agenda in the field, and your research question, you can start writing more specifically about your own project. In this chapter you will survey the work that other researchers have done to answer your research question, or related questions. At the end of the chapter you should briefly explain how your own work builds on and differs from the work that has gone before it.
  • Method: this chapter should describe what you did to answer your research question (or to support your thesis, if you think of it that way), and how you went about it. You should describe your work in sufficient detail that another researcher could recreate your work to check your results.
  • Evaluation: here, you should evaluate what you have done, and say what answer (to your research question) you have arrived at. It may be that in your method you describe some experiments, and this section records your results and analysis of those results. This is an important section — most students gain or lose marks in either their literature review or evaluation. Key to producing a convincing evaluation is to plan very early in the project what information you will need to write this section. More on that in another blog post.
  • Conclusions: should summarise what you have done and how you answered the research question. It may be that your work produced a very clear answer to the question, or it may be that your work points to a need for further research to clarify or confirm your answer. You should refer back to the literature review and summarise how your research differs from (hopefully improves on) the work described in the literature. Make sure you also say what research you would do if you were to continue working on your project.
  • References: a list of publications cited in the main text, in Harvard style or similar format.

It is likely that most chapters will be roughly the same size, although the introductory chapter and conclusions are usually slightly shorter than the others. Try to let the lengths of each chapter be guided by the amount of useful and important information you have to convey to the reader, don’t impose artificial word limits on yourself.

Summaries and synthesis: what should go in your literature reviewPoor literature reviews often take the same form — they tend to be a (usually short) list of papers that the student has read, briefly summarised. This is not really what is expected and will not gain high marks. Another common mistake is to review literature that has been used to inform some part of the practical work of the project, rather than to review work that has answered the same or related research questions. To do better, your writing needs to not only summarise the prior art in your area, but also synthesise what is in the literature. In fact, synthesis is one of the key skills that we expect to see from final year students.

So, what is synthesis? The main idea is that you should have understood the literature you have read and, more importantly, you should show that you understand the relationships between items of literature. That means what came first in your field, how it influenced later work, how each step forward in the research improved upon what came before it, and so on. Ideally, you will present your own view of the work you are describing. This partly means that you should be critical of the literature you read, and say where the shortcomings of the work are, and how the work could be improved upon (in particular how your work will improve on the prior art). Also, you might have your own view on where your area of research is likely to go in the future.Critiquing the work of others is something that is often new to students in their final year. One of the most frequent mistakes I see from students is to criticise the style of the papers they read, rather than the research that those papers describe. Avoid writing things like “this paper is not well written” or “this paper is hard to understand”. A literature review should really be a review of the research work that has gone before you, not a literary criticism of the style that other authors adopt.

Practical matters: how to start, how to finish and how to do the bit in the middle

Reading and understanding the work of others is a lifetimes work for professional researchers, it is not something that starts and stops on particular dates, according to a Gantt chart. Your final year project will have a hand in deadline, so you need to be a little more circumscribed about how work.

Ideally, you should be reading some literature in your field very early on in your project, to help you choose a good topic and write an initial research proposal. I would suggest that you consider this to be the starting point for your literature review and keep on reading and adding to your writing all the way through your project until you hand in your final dissertation. To do this, I suggest you do two things. Firstly, keep a careful log of what you read in a format you find easy to work with. This might be a a log book on paper, or it might be a file on your computer, whatever works best for you. Each entry should include the title of the work you have read and enough information about the authors and so on that you can find the publication again. You should then summarise the work in the paper, including the research question answered by the work, the nature of the answer and the methodology of the research (i.e. what the authors actually did). This will give you a couple of advantages — you won’t forget anything you read because you have a record of it, your literature review can be written from your notes and if you are asked any awkward questions in a viva you can refer back to your log. Secondly, as soon as you feel you have read enough to understand the broad context of the literature, start writing it up formally as your second dissertation chapter. This should really be within two or three months of your starting date. Then, as the project progresses and you read more, you can integrate your new reading into your already drafted chapter. This might seem like a lot of effort early on, but when you come to write up your work, you will be incredibly grateful that your most time consuming chapter has already been written, when it was fresh in your mind, leaving you free to write up the later sections of your work.An example of good writing

Now you know what a literature review is for, how it fits into your dissertation and how to go about writing your own, it would probably be useful to see an example of (part of) an example review. The paragraphs below give such an example and the text [in italics] is some commentary to explain how each part of the writing contributes towards the start of a good thesis chapter. When you read this, don’t worry too much about the subject matter, just try to concentrate on the style of writing and the structure of the text.

The area of pervasive, or ubiquitous, computing was founded by Wieser (1991) [ referenced] who predicted that computers would one day be integrated into everyday objects and interact with people seamlessly. Although few such products are available today Weiser’s work has led to the creation of a number of research areas, including ambient intelligence (Eli and Epstein 1998), smart dust (Khan et al, 1999) and the Internet of Things (Brickley et al, 2001). [Sets the historical context of the area and defines related areas.]

An early application of pervasive computing was the active badge location system, described by Want et al (1992), in which users and objects were tagged with an “active” badge which could locate and identify them. This system was based on ultrasound locationing, whereas later systems might use RFID technology to achieve the same effect. [describes how the field has changed over time] Uses of the active badge system included routing phone calls, email alerts and so on to the physical location of the receiver. [contextualises the fundamental research]


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