The First Step to Conducting Your Literature Review

The moment has finally arrived when you have your research question in hand or topics that you are interested in learning more about and now it’s the time for the sometimes dreaded – literature review.
A literature review is the process of studying what has already been written about a particular topic. This is a key component of any research project. However, how to proceed with doing the review depends entirely on the type of research that you are doing. Identifying the type of research is the most common step missed during the literature review process, which can have detrimental effects down the road.

Research is normally categorized into two main types: qualitative or quantitative. Generally, literature reviews for quantitative research are usually conducted at the beginning of the process. However, qualitative research is an iterative process and frequently requires reviewing literature multiple times during that process.

So the primary question you should ask yourself before committing your time and energy to the review or reviews is “How should I conduct my research in order to answer my questions?” The list below can help you determine whether to use quantitative, qualitative, or perhaps a combination of both methods (sometimes referred to as “mixed method”) to answer these questions:

  Qualitative Quantitative
Purpose To understand and interpret social interactions To test hypotheses, look at cause and effect, and make predictions
Group studied Smaller, not randomly selected Larger and randomly selected
Variables Studies  the whole, not variables Specific variables studied
Type of data collected Words, images, or objects Numbers and statistics
Forms of data collected Can include open-ended responses, interviews, participant observations, field notes, and reflections Data based on precise measurements using structured and validated data-collection instruments
Type of data analysis Identifies patterns, features, themes Identifies statistical relationships
Role of the researcher Researcher is part of the process – tends to become subjectively immersed in the topic Research is separate and tends to remain objectively separated from the topic
Scientific method Interpretive:Exploratory or bottom-up Measurable:Confirmatory or top-down
View of human behavior Dynamic, situational , social, personal Regular and predictable
Most common research objectives Develops theory: Explores, defines, or develops an approach to the problem. Goes deeper into issues of interest, explores nuances Tests theory:Describes, explains, predicts
Focus Complex and broad Concise and narrow
Research environment Studies behavior in a natural environment Studies behavior under controlled environment
Final report Report rich narrative with individual interpretation. Basic element of analysis is words and/or ideas. Report statistical analysis. Basic element of analysis is numbers.


References and links

 Johnson, B., & Christensen, L. (2008). Educational research: Quantitative, qualitative, and mixed approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Lichtman, M. (2006). Qualitative research in education: A user’s guide. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.


About the Author:


Cognitive Performance Group, LLC is a woman-owned small business with offices in Orlando, Florida, and Cleveland, Ohio. It was founded by Dr. Karol G. Ross, Jennifer K. Phillips, and William A. Ross. The three CPG Principals developed the concept for a company to support cognitive performance improvement in industry and government. (more...)

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