Every year in mid-June, students on our Master of Science in Public Policy and Human Development (MPP) are finally ready to immerse themselves in their Master’s thesis. Digging into the materials, it quickly becomes clear: a good Master’s thesis starts with a good literature review. But what exactly does that mean? And more importantly, how do you write a good literature review?
Access all our SMART toolkits here.
During the programme we train our students to develop a research proposal, but that may have happened months ago during the research design class. For sure, some will have notes from those classes. Yet I know from experience of teaching research methods, that at the time the literature lecture is delivered, the content may not seem very difficult. Theory is very different from practice, of course, and what sounds easy in theory may not be so easy to bring to fruition. Students are often stuck with a topic that they are interested in, carefully selected with their supervisor who already committed to help them take this last step. So now it is up to the student — in practice. But how and where to start?
As you’d expect, our Master’s programme guides all our students on how to write their thesis and how to do their literature review. But having dealt with various individual students over the last few years, at a certain point I realised that ‘the right time’ to teach content for one student is not necessarily the right time for all students. Some benefit a lot from our research design classes offered in class, while others may not be ready to digest that material when it is offered. And in the end, all students will need to write a thesis.
Additionally, the material offered in a one or two hour class – which is generally the time devoted to literature review within the full research methods course – may not be enough for some students to prepare them for actually writing one. They may need more guidance and small instruction steps to assist them with a task as complicated and multifaceted as writing a literature review. In order to help our Master’s students deal with this problem, in a way that serves each and every of them and is available at all times, I developed an online toolkit — the ‘Structured Literature Review’.
The toolkit builds on a lot of information available. As almost every academic institution teaches research methodology, many institutes also share content openly. Our own Maastricht University Library for instance has excellent online support on how to search for good literature. Literature management software providers also offer excellent instruction videos on how to use the software to store and organise your literature – which is essential for proper referencing afterwards. And many lecturers on this topic share their lectures publicly on YouTube – in many cases, good lectures with good advice. So the job of developing this toolkit was in the first place a task of reviewing what material was already available, and deciding how to structure that content in such a way that the toolkit would become a standalone service to the students.
Once the toolkit was finished, I soon realised that it may also be useful for policymakers enrolled on our Evidence-Based Research Methods training course, as well as for PhD students in their first year (in Maastricht or elsewhere). I therefore advise my students to review this toolkit as part of the class programme. Now, with open access provided by Maastricht University’s Blackboard platform, we are ready to share the materials with anyone and everyone who may want to use them.
Will this work reach a critical mass of people? That’s hard to say at this point. Providing materials in open access, free of charge, does not mean that the materials are also needed and used by students or practitioners. And it is yet to be seen that the structure we chose for the toolkit – a narrative linking out to other resources – is interesting enough for the students to spend their precious time on. Nor does it mean that other thesis supervisors, or research methods teachers will find this tool useful for their own classes. Nonetheless, we hope and trust that they will see value.
Access all our SMART toolkits here.
Deze publicatie kwam tot stand in het kader van de Regeling open en online hoger onderwijs van het Ministerie van OCW, onder begeleiding van SURF (www.surf.nl).
This publication was provided within the open and online higher education framework of the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, supervised by SURF (www.surf.nl)
The structured literature review toolkit was funded with financial support of SURF.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
Flickr / CD360