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Literature Reviews: What is a Literature Review?

Resources for students and faculty doing literature reviews.

What is a Literature Review?

I've been assigned a literature review. What is that, exactly? 

A literature review is an examination of the major scholarly research done on a topic or research question. The literature review, which is usually assigned within the context of a larger assignment, serves two purposes:

  • To familiarize you with the research that has been previously done on a particular question and reveal the major themes, arguments, authors, and findings in the body of research.

  • To help you to see gaps in the research and potential directions for your own research.


Watch the video below to learn more about what a literature review is.


Steely Library NKU. (2015, July 30). What is a literature review? [Video]. YouTube.

When a professor asks you to review "the literature", you are being asked to look at all of the scholarly writing that has been done on a particular topic. This includes scholarly articles, books, conference proceedings, and dissertations.

Students often assume that they only have to summarize each work they've read in order to write a literature review. This is incorrect! Your literature review should show the major themes you have uncovered in the literature and should make connections between the sources. Your literature review should also highlight any areas of agreement and disagreement among researchers on your topic. You also need to point out any gaps you have found in the literature that you want your own research to address. 

Check out this source for common errors and an example of a good literature review, and then watch the video below to learn more about what a successful literature review looks like.

UCLA Library. (2017, February 22). A literature review is more than a summary [Video]. YouTube.

Now that you know what a literature review is, you might be wondering, "how do I write one?!" Check out this article, Literature Review, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and then watch the video below to get an overview of the literature review process. 


Laurier Library. (2019, March 29). Planning a literature review [Video]. YouTube.

Different fields have different organizational methods and expectations for literature reviews. Review the literature review appropriate your topic or major below to get a sense of how to organize one.