How to ensure the value of literature reviews for students

Have you…

  • taken part in a research project lately?
  • or read a peer-reviewed article?

You certainly came across a literature review, from basic background searches for writing an article to a systematic review or even a meta-analysis. Literature reviews are an essential exercise in research. They allow us to keep building on facts and evidence that preceded us. We get to know the current state of knowledge and what has been done or tried in pursuit of science.

Though, as important as they are, literature reviews are cumbersome to execute. And in my experience, the burden mostly falls on students and research assistants.

Now, it’s one thing to have work done in exchange for compensation. It is another to consider the work done as a valuable experience – widespread currency in academia and internships.

How can we ensure the literature review is indeed a learning experience for our students and research assistants?

The real value of lit reviews for students

Here’s what to do (and not do) to fulfill your promise to deliver a valuable experience when you say the following:

“You will gain a thorough understanding on the topic”

Not really when:

  The student doesn’t use the results of the literature review
  The topic is broad, not well defined or simply not in the student’s work interests
  The literature review (collection, screening, and data extraction) has to be performed in a short period of time
  The professor / supervisor is not available for questions or discussion

But it could work if:

  There is a tangible outcome for the student: for instance, analyzing and reporting results in a thesis or paper for a class
  The topic of interest is useful to know in the student’s field
  The student has enough time to perform the literature review, the subsequent analysis and report on it
  The student can reach out to faculty members for questions, discussion and advice (and maybe a letter of recommendation)

“You will learn how to conduct scientific research”

Not really when:

  Tracking the literature review’s progress is not rigorous, intentional and systematic
  Little training or learning opportunities are offered for the student to better grasp difficult issues in literature reviews: developing a comprehensive list of keywords, searching in the right databases, finding and using grey literature, assessing and promoting inter-rater agreement
  The student is not directly responsible for the research output and/or it has little value to her/him
  The professor / supervisor is not available for questions or discussion

But it could work if:

  The supervisor and the student are using the right tools to conduct the literature review (ex: clean Excel workbook for screening, a reference manager)
  Training is offered and, if possible, during work time: access to librarian and informationists, workshops, ecourse, paid training
  The student has to create an output that is valuable for her/him: co-author on a manuscript or official report, capstone paper, thesis
  The student can reach out to faculty members for questions, discussion and advice

“You are contributing to advance this project [and Science]!”

Not really when:

  The student does not get to see the overall research effort to which her/his work contributes to
  The student cannot use the results for his own career advancement in Academia

But it could work if:

  The student is engaged in (or at least gets to see) the overall scope of the project
  Co-authorship or acknowledgment in a manuscript is offered (and directly dependent on an agreed level of effort from the student)
  Presentation of the results at a conference, a seminar or in a university class is offered


Can you think of more examples?

I will follow this post up with some tools and templates academics can use to make literature reviews feel less daunting, flow better, and be an enriching experience to offer to students and trainees.


Check out what Modus Operandi can do to help you manage your projects.