I do think that one of the things that are missing most in the field of literature reviews are some accounts of how others did it. It’s so inspiring to see the paths that others have already taken to do something you’re about to do too!
It’s in that spirit that I started the series “How did she do it?”. My first interview was with Wendy Burleson, a teacher-librarian and Masters’ student.
This time, I got the chance to interview Maha Bali about her literature review process.
In 2013, she finished her PhD thesis. It’s entitled “Critical Thinking in Context: Practice at an American Liberal Arts University in Egypt” and you can read it over here.
When I got her over the phone, I quizzed Maha about the process of writing the literature review for her PhD. I hope you’ll enjoy reading the following text as much as I enjoyed interviewing Maha.
What’s surprising about Maha’s PhD is that there isn’t just one literature review in it, but one per chapter! Let’s hear from her how that ended up happening.
While preparing for my upgrade viva, I was doing three kinds of literature review: one for the topic of critical thinking, one for background of higher education in Egypt, and a little bit of a methodology.
But I was living in the US, and by the time I went to defend my viva, I already had done my data collection.
My thesis involved interviews with students and interviews with teachers from the faculty at my university.
I told my first supervisor I was going to present my data like this: this is the results of the students interviews, this is the results of the teachers interviews and this is my discussion.
He said: “no, why don’t you think themes across, what happened between the teachers and the students and everything and write a chapter on each theme so each theme is a story on its own about something that came out from the research”.
So, I started to write it like that.
But because each theme was a story of a very different thing all on its own, there was different literature on it.
So there’s one about the role of writing in critical thinking, one about the culture of learning, one on authentic learning experiences, etc.
As I started to learn about each of those topics, I found myself doing a literature review about each one of them.
And to be able to discuss each theme, I needed to refer to the literature and have the results somewhere in the middle of the chapter and then make the connection between those.
So that’s why I had a literature review for each chapter.
Literature searches are rarely a straightforward process. And sometimes, your literature review can take you to unexpected places…
I didn’t do all of the literature reviews at once.
I did a first literature review at the very beginning for the viva, but what happened was that I kept discovering new topics.
So I ended up reading a lot about critical logic, critical theory, which wasn’t originally what I wanted to study. But it became the perspective that I used to study my topic.
After deciding to organise my thesis by themes, each time I’d be focusing on one of the chapters, I’d go do a deeper literature search for that.
And then at some point, my supervisor told me about curriculum theory.
He was in the UK, teaching a masters of teaching in higher education, and he sent me the list of readings he was using for his masters.
I started with a couple of those readings and then I branched out much deeper and then I realised that curriculum theory was a good framework for what I was doing.
I was already almost done but this framework helped me organising how everything fit together better. Which led me to do different literature searches.
And when I was finalising my thesis, after I submitted a full draft to my supervisor, he wanted me to revise the methodology section.
I did a very big literature search for that.
At the very end of my thesis I was thinking “hmm, if I had done this earlier, I could have done a much better research job”.
I was just wondering why I hadn’t read that kind of stuff before.
So Maha’s literature reviews ended up being guided both by new discoveries she made herself while searching the literature, and suggestions made by different people around her.
But to follow up on those openings, she had to do many searches on her own. Now, she’s telling us about her search strategies.
There are a couple of books that my supervisors had recommended that ended up being really good references.
Once I got hold of those documents, I followed the references from there, read the bibliographies, found who cited those readings.
But I also had to find other ways to find references.
When I was initially doing my search, I would just type “critical thinking” into Google.
And then I found Google Scholar.
And then I found how to use Google Scholar to let me know if a book or an article was available at my university, or Sheffield university where I was doing my PhD.
And then I was living in Houston so I had access to the Houston public library.
I also discovered that my university library had an interlibrary loan option.
Before, if I met a paywall, I just didn’t even try to access the article.
But afterwards I started to know they could get it for me for free.
Then there was a point in time when I had to do a literature search and there were political issues in Egypt so the library wasn’t working at all and I actually used a lot of pirated stuff.
There were people who were posting free copies of articles or even books that weren’t freely available.
You’re not supposed to use that, but to be honest I had no other option.
I couldn’t go to a physical library and not everything was available online legally and I couldn’t request anything because there weren’t any employees at the library.
I always advise to decide early on on a strategy to keep your references organised and stick to it. But, as Maha’s experience shows, things can evolve and change as time goes on. Especially when life gets in the way!
To manage my references, I was using Mendeley.
I liked Mendeley at the time because it allowed me to connect things that were on my computer, open them from within Mendeley and highlight things or write notes.
I liked that it was automatically getting the reference information so you don’t have to do it manually.
And tagging was also very useful because before that, when I was putting things in folders in my computer, I was thinking “but this one connects to two different things”. So tagging was very helpful.
But then I had a baby and I was trying to finish my thesis while my child was still young and while she was running around after me.
She went to daycare but I was also breastfeeding her so I had to be near her at a bunch of different times.
So I stopped using my laptop. I used my iPad a lot more for reading. I would still use my laptop for writing on Microsoft Word but I would take notes on my iPad.
So I just stopped using any kind of tool to organise my references.
I also stopped using paper because my daughter would muck them up.
It was fairly towards the end of my thesis anyway so in a strange way I had much more material but I also really knew what I needed.
It was much easier to organise my stuff in my head.
It’s a very strange thing to say right now but it’s true.
I knew what I needed and I knew where it were and I could find everything.
I wasn’t organising my documents in a very organised way, I just knew where they all were on the iPad.
In the end, Maha learned many things while doing her literature reviews. Here are some of the things you might learn along too.
I definitely know how to search better now.
Using better search terms, which is very difficult to teach someone I think.
You just have to experience it? I don’t know how to teach someone to do it better.
I’m pretty sure now I can find things a lot more easily that I used to in the beginning.
I can also judge the credibility of something much better.
At the beginning of your thesis, you read everything and you think “oh, alright, of course what they’re saying is correct”.
But as you keep reading, you start to become a more critical person.
You become able to critique what you’re reading if it doesn’t fit with what you’re thinking or it can change the way you’re thinking.
One of the things that I found very useful was to find articles that were debates where people were responding to each other because that shows you how academics debate things.
What do you think of Maha’s methods and advice? Have you more questions to ask her? Tell us in the comments!