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Literature reviews

Literature reviews

A literature review is a research task that finds, evaluates and discusses information on a particular topic. You need to analyse multiple texts, and discuss key ideas that you find in the reading.

A literature review may also identify gaps for further research. It is not a process of summarising texts separately – that is done in an annotated bibliography.

A good literature review should:

  • be well researched, planned and structured
  • discuss a relevant issue, problem or practice that relates to your subject
  • explain why your chosen topic is important
  • identify key ideas or themes in the literature
  • synthesise these findings into thematic paragraphs, using sufficient citations and correct referencing
  • demonstrate your understanding of the topic and develop your knowledge and evidence-based practice.

Literature reviews differ across disciplines, so use your assessment instructions and marking criteria as your ultimate guide.

7 steps for writing a literature review

1. Analyse the task

Read the assessment instructions and marking rubric carefully. Note how many sources you need to include in your literature review and any guidelines on selecting the literature.

Choose a topic that interests you. A topic that is important to you will help you stay focused.

2. Establish a clear research question

A good research question will help you narrow down your topic so that it is manageable. If your question is too broad, you may be overwhelmed by the reading. If it is too narrow, you won’t find enough literature.

Too broad: What factors impact on student learning?
Too narrow: What factors impact on student learning when on nursing placement in oncology wards in public hospitals?
Appropriate: What factors impact student learning when on nursing placement?

3. Search for relevant literature

Use keywords from your research question to begin searching.

In the research question "What factors impact student learning when on nursing placement?", the keywords are: student, learning, nursing and placement.

4. Read and review the literature, and take notes

When reading the literature, consider the following:

  • Is the article relevant to your topic? For journal articles, read the abstract. For other sources, scan quickly and discard if you can’t see anything useful.
  • Who is the author/s and what is their expertise?
  • Is the source credible and scholarly? Use any evaluation tools provided by your subject.
  • What is the main topic and what themes are discussed?

Pay attention to important information, such as the abstract, introduction, headings/subheadings, graphs/tables and conclusion.

Take notes using the Cornell method or a note-taking grid. Keeping notes that help you remember the content and relevance of each source is vital for writing a literature review.

5. Identify common themes or areas for further research

It's important to understand the relationships between the sources you've read. Look out for:

  • themes: what questions, ideas or topics recur across the literature? Where do authors agree or disagree?
  • areas for further research: what is missing from the literature? Are there any weaknesses?
Example of themes or areas for further research
When reading the literature for the research question "What factors impact student learning on nursing placement?", you note that:

A lot of research explores:
    1. Preparation and support
    2. Role of the educator
    3. Negative experiences as a barrier to learning

There is a lack of research on the training needs of nurses who work with students on placement

6. Plan the structure of the literature review

Before you start writing, plan how your literature review will be organised.

Literature reviews are usually organised thematically, meaning they discuss one theme after another. You can also organise your ideas chronologically (from past to present) or by methodology (e.g. comparing findings from qualitative and quantitative research).

7. Write, edit, proofread, submit

It's easy to get lost in the reading and not leave enough time for polishing your writing. Use the Assessment Planner to make a clear study plan that includes time for writing, editing and proofreading.

Structure of a literature review


The introduction should include:

  • context or background: give a brief summary of the context for your research question and explain why it is important
  • purpose (thesis statement): state the purpose of the literature review. This is a statement generated from the research question
  • scope (roadmap): outline the specific themes the literature review will focus on and give the reader a sense of how your writing is organised.
Example introduction:
[All bolded text in brackets identify parts of the paragraph and should not be included in your own writing]
The research question for this example introduction is: What factors impact student learning when on nursing placement?

[Background] Clinical placements are a universal experience for undergraduate nursing students and a mandatory component of nurse education in Australia (McKenna et al., 2019). Placements in clinical settings prepare students for professional nursing through the transfer of classroom-based knowledge into practice (Henderson, et al., 2012; Houghton, 2014). These clinical placements are integral for nursing graduates to be fit for practice and job ready (Wells & McLoughlin, 2014). [Purpose/Thesis statement] This literature review will examine some of the factors that impact student learning when on a nursing placement. [Scope] Firstly, it will discuss the importance of adequate preparation and support for students. Secondly, it will analyse the pivotal role of a qualified educator, who is commonly termed a clinical supervisor or preceptor (Flott & Linden, 2016). Finally, it will consider how less positive experiences may form barriers for students' learning (Flott & Linden, 2016; Ford et al., 2016; Kaphagawani & Useh, 2013). This review will highlight the importance of quality teaching and support practices for the learning outcomes of future nurses. 

Example adapted from Cant et al. (2021)


Each body paragraph focuses on a specific theme and draws on several pieces of literature. 

Paragraphs should include:

  • topic sentence: start with the theme of the paragraph
  • synthesis of evidence: make connections between multiple sources by comparing and contrasting their views. Use summaries, paraphrases and quotes, and don't forget to properly reference your sources
  • analysis or evaluation: add your own interpretation of the findings and comment on any strengths, weaknesses, gaps or areas for further research in the literature
  • link: end the paragraph by either linking back to your main topic or to the following paragraph.
Example body paragraph:
All bolded text in brackets identify parts of the paragraph and should not be included in your own writing]
[Topic sentence] Effective clinical learning commences when students are adequately prepared for placement. With good preparation, along with the experience of being welcomed and wanted, students may feel more included and arrive ready to learn. [Synthesis] This is supported by studies that highlighted the importance of preplacement student preparation (McLeod et al., 2021; O'Brien et al., 2019). The research also suggests that effective communications between university, placement facilities, educators and students, can help to facilitate a positive placement experience (Garvey et al., 2021; O’Brien et al., 2019). According to Birks et al. (2017), elements such as orientation, appointing preceptors and structuring the placement were conducive to learning. In contrast, Cooper et al. (2020) found that disinterested and unwelcoming staff were a hindrance. [Analysis] From a university perspective, students and supervisors could be better informed about students’ schedules, skills, scope of practice, curriculum and learning objectives, and how these relate to each clinical placement. [Synthesis] This would provide a richer understanding of the notions of welcoming and inclusivity that have previously been identified in quantitative studies (Doyle et al., 2017; Ford et al., 2016; Lamont et al., 2013). Furthermore, students who were prepared and accepted responsibility for striving to develop their nursing competence, were rewarded with rich learning experiences with ward staff (Kern et al., 2014). [Analysis] One strategy not mentioned in the included studies that could enhance students’ sense of belonging is for supervisors to introduce them to organisational policies and procedures. [Link] Being prepared for a specific workplace context could assist students in developing their clinical skill set and building a stronger professional identity.

Example adapted from Cant et al. (2021)


Conclusions should include:

  • restate the purpose of the review
  • summary of the main findings: remind your reader of the main points. Make sure you paraphrase your ideas, so you don’t use the same wording as elsewhere in the literature review
  • implications of the findings: suggest how the findings might be important for practice in your field
  • areas for further research: provide suggestions for future research to address the problem, issue or question.
Example conclusion:
[All bolded text in brackets identify parts of the paragraph and should not be included in your own writing]
[Purpose] This review examines some of the common themes found in the literature that help and hinder student learning on nursing clinical placements. [Summary] One of the key findings is that adequate preparation and support from academic staff improves learning outcomes. An important part of this is preparing students to manage the stress and anxiety associated with clinical placement. In fact, it is clear from the literature that all education providers, including health care organisations, supervisors, staff and ward managers, play a role in effective student learning during placement. Although these findings are encouraging, there are also elements that hinder students’ experiences. The data highlights that learning outcomes are not as good when a student is forced to learn as an observer, rather than have close and interactive engagement with a supervisor. This is sometimes due to a fear that the student would make a mistake but can also occur when there is a low staffing ratio on the shift. What is clear from this literature review is that strong and supportive role models are an important factor for student success. [Implications] This literature review provides valuable insights into the complexities that impact student learning during clinical placements. [Area for further research] However, outcomes for students could be strengthened with further research into the training needs of the nursing staff who work with students to support their clinical learning experiences.

Example adapted from Cant et al. (2021)


The conclusion is followed by a Reference list or Bibliography. Consult the Style notes page of the Academic Referencing Tool for examples.

For complete sample literature reviews with further annotations, see the Word and PDF documents below.

Pathfinder link

Still have questions? Do you want to talk to an expert? Peer Learning Advisors or Academic Skills and Language Advisors are available.


Cant R., Ryan, C., Hughes, L., Luders, E., & Cooper, S. (2021). What helps, what hinders? Undergraduate nursing students’ perceptions of clinical placements based on a thematic synthesis of literature. SAGE Open Nursing, 7, 1-20. Adapted and used under CC BY-NC 4.0 license