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Boost your research skills for your Built Environment dissertation

You will find out about:

  • What a literature review is.
  • Why we are asked to write literature reviews.
  • How to define your literature review.

Many dissertations include an element of a literature review.

This guide support undergraduate and MSc dissertations / projects. The dissertation brief for the undergraduate and the MSc dissertation may share common elements but there may be differing levels of complexity required. You must make sure you read and follow your assignment brief to understand what is required for your dissertation.

Before you begin, check if you are required to write a literature review and in what depth. For example, you may be required to write a more detailed literature review at MSc level than you are required to as an undergraduate student. If you are in any doubt... check before you begin!

1. What is a literature review?

Before we begin, let's define terms and outline what this section is about!

Literature reviews take on many forms at university:

  • You could be asked to write a literature review as a stand-alone document or as part of a dissertation or thesis.
  • You may also be asked to write an annotated bibliography or a critical review.

Rest assured, this section will explain what a literature review is and you are very likely to have taught sessions within relevant modules that cover literature reviews if you are required to undertake this process.

Back to terms: what is a literature review?

The Hallam Library Skills team define a literature review as:

"an extended piece of writing that should collate, link and evaluate key sources related to a chosen topic or research question. Rather than simply summarising the existing research on your chosen topic, you should aim to show:

  • Which papers can be clustered around a similar theme or topic - they may have a shared methodology, or have been carried out in the same context.
  • You will be looking for strengths and weaknesses in the research.
  • Questioning the relevance and significance of the results in relation to your topic.
  • Looking for any gaps or under researched areas.

Your writing should make these thoughts and evaluations clear to the reader, so that they have a good understanding and overview of the body of research you have chosen to investigate." 

You can find a link to the full version of the guide below.

It is always useful to triangulate date!

Here are three recommended resources about literature reviews.  Choose the format that appeals!

We now know what a literature review is and have defined the terms! Lets get on with the process!

2. Why have I been asked to do a literature review?

Literature reviews are key element within assignments like the dissertation.

You will be getting practical experience of how it may feel to write for publication as many journal articles have a literature review element. You will be learning how to select the most relevant literature and analyse content and then develop your own content and understanding based on your reading.

But what are you trying to achieve with your literature review?

You are:

  • demonstrating your search skills, how you evaluate literature and write a clear academic argument which persuades the reader why your research is needed.
  • providing a balanced and unbiased consideration of the state of knowledge within this area by considering work from a varied range of perspectives and outcomes.


The literature review should:

  • answer the question you have posed and persuade the reader with evidence that the answer you have arrived at is correct and logically convincing.
  • help the reader develop their overview of current knowledge and understanding around the subject.
  • contextualise what research has already been done on the subject and alerts the reader to any difficulties that might be encountered when researching in this area.

Are there different types of literature reviews?

That's a really good question! There are other types of literature reviews like critiques and annotated bibliographies.

This is a picture of a light bulb.                Activity 1: Take a look at the Hallam Library Skills guide to literature reviews.

Hopefully, now you understand how the term literature review can be applied in different assignments and contexts.  

Being aware of the range of literature reviews may help you understand why literature review articles you read in a range of journals can appear slightly different. These articles will also be factoring in the requirements of the journal as journals require writers to follow the guidance they provide regarding article types when submitting an article for publication.

3. Define your literature review

For the purpose of this section, our dissertation topic is around self healing concrete.

The topic is quite focused but our research question is not quite developed yet. We need to develop a question to make this into a research proposal for the dissertation. There are still quite a few questions and variables we need to consider before we can frame our question.

Currently, we do not know:

  • How much literature exists in this area.
  • What is the state of current knowledge in this area.
  • Whether there is a consensus of thought.
  • Whether there are gaps in research.
  • What the key papers are.
  • Who the key authors are.
  • Which research organisations are active in this area.

It is likely that we will need to focus or reframe our question in response to the information our searches find.

Within the literature review process, we will be constantly reflecting back and considering what does the evidence in this area recommend, suggest, support or reject and how this impacts on our literature review.

This is a picture of a light bulb.                Activity 2: Decide wisely on topic

Consider the following questions:

  • Does your topic selection meet your dissertation brief?
  • Is there enough literature to review?
  • Are there are differing viewpoints?
  • Is there a research gap?

Take a look in the Defining your topics section on the Sage Research Planner to find out more.

4. Let's find out how you are feeling about your literature review!

This is a picture of a light bulb.                Activity 3: Take this poll to measure your confidence about undertaking literature reviews.

How confident do you feel in tackling a literature review?
I'm really looking forward to this!: 5 votes (35.71%)
OK: 0 votes (0%)
Not very: 6 votes (42.86%)
I wish I didn't have to do this!: 3 votes (21.43%)
Total Votes: 14

Take a break.

Congratulations you have completed five steps.

Time to take a break - maybe time to think about what to have for tea, dinner or lunch?