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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Literature reviews and how to do them: an SRHE webinar in the time of Corona

by Akmarzhan Nogaibayeva

For some PhD students attending conferences, research seminars and so on means getting a break from research and it means leaving the library or the lab. During the pandemic everyone has started working remotely and has become only virtually accessible. Cancelling planned face to face events to avoid social contact has made our life extremely quiet and isolated. However, this unusual situation has given me time to reflect on the importance of attending conferences, seminars and other events related to my field. Since the lockdown I have had the chance to attend webinars organized by SRHE. I was lucky to listen to talks on different topics and this  opened new ways of thinking about a topic, giving me access to new ideas that I had previously never thought about. This blog reflects on a webinar I attended recently on ‘Undertaking Literature Reviews’ which took place on 29 April 2020, hosted by SRHE. Even though I had attended a seminar on Literature Reviews (LR) two years earlier, during my first year of study, I still had some remaining questions: What type of review did I carry out in my study? And, Where does my voice come into my review? Hoping to get answers to these questions from the presenter as well as from other researchers I was happy to attend the online webinar without wasting time travelling long distances.

Before the start of the webinar we were provided with slides and articles to discover different approaches to the literature review, which can either shape the chapter for the proposed study or provide a background for an academic article. The material suggested three broad approaches: narrative, systematic and theoretical. The Narrative approach is a review that tries to tell a story, reviewing the extant literature as a way of attempting to summarise what has been written on a particular topic. The systematic approach is a way of reviewing literature by using more objective criteria with a goal of summarising enormous amounts of research, scientifically tracking them for quality control. The theoretical approach is a review that covers the history of different meanings given to key terms in a study that has accumulated evidence in regard to concepts, theories or phenomena. The overall aim of the LR is to persuade other scholars in the field of your command of the relevant literature. My own original LR had been a narrative review in a more traditional way that most doctoral researchers tend to follow, mixing concepts and case studies, organising them under big themes followed by subthemes. I chose this approach to show the research committee what I know about my topic. This type of  narrative LR helped me to understand my topic by focusing precisely on the context of my research and in establishing  the theoretical framework of  the study.  

From the beginning of the seminar I noticed how the presenter warmly welcomed attendees, letting them introduce themselves by asking the reasons for attending this webinar and their expectations. Even though we were all connected online maintaining physical distance, by introducing ourselves and reflecting on the question ‘why we are attending this online seminar’ we softened the boundaries. Participants came from different backgrounds: experienced supervisors; university lecturers; PhD students like me; and people interested in pursuing a PhD in the future. They all had different reasons to join this online event; some of them had professional interests and wanted to get some suggestions for dealing with their own students` questions; some like myself were undertaking doctoral research of their own and were returning to LR in that context. The webinar description on the website was a clear prospectus: by attending this webinar we would be able to answer questions on the objectives of LR, examine epistemological assumptions about LR and engage in discussion by comparing the types of LR.

The facilitator of the webinar, Dr Michael Hammond (Warwick), started his talk by inviting participants to think about the question, ‘Why do we do LR?’ The answer to this question was a major theme that would guide us through the whole seminar. One answer was that it is a way of knowing where you fit in. The LR must not only demonstrate that I understand debates and conversations, but how my research will contribute to the field. In other words I should be able to create an argument as to why my work is relevant to my field by evaluating conversations surrounding my work describing their weaknesses and strengths.

We also discussed finding the gap that our research addresses, and the importance of finding models of methodology to orient oneself – in carrying out a literature review can you find a study that follows a methodology that you want to use? A literature review should be a critical examination of what has come earlier. I was inspired by thinking about the value and status of literature and we all got the chance to ask questions. One participant wanted to understand where the researcher’s voice comes in the review and shared her view that the voice of the researcher comes from what you choose to cite. Another participant raised the question of what to do if the researcher finds that an existing literature review has already covered the things that you want to discuss. The presenter explained you can re-present past reviews in ways that are more relevant for your particular research question but there was always the opportunity to update any review. 

Later we were invited to discuss LR in  groups. It was an enjoyable experience, with Zoom creating space for individuals to share their views and experiences of doing reviews. After a while we returned to our main group space. I felt because of this that online events could follow some of the processes common to face to face working. Thanks to the questions raised during the discussion and by sharing my own experience I gained more understanding of LR and had some answers to the questions that I had in my mind.

In conclusion the presenter showed us ways of organising the literature review by using different tools like Endnote and Mendeley. I noticed how the facilitator of the webinar could present his own thoughts, reflecting back again to the questions posed at the beginning of the seminar. As a doctoral researcher I had found answers to my own questions. This event helped me to reflect on my own literature review, carried out two years ago. When I return to it again I will have in the front of my mind the question of how my work will add to the knowledge in my field. 

When I first started writing my LR I tried to briefly point out debates and conversations in what has been published about my topic. As my research is looking at the use of technologies in language teaching and learning I discussed the use of technologies chronologically, organizing them under themes, basically looking at the key ideas and theoretical approaches. However, after attending this webinar I have understood the importance of organizing the LR from the beginning around the key ideas and concepts or theoretical approaches. As the presenter explained, making an example of his students` work, organizing your LR from the beginning might be very useful in setting up a coding process of your interview analysis at the later stages of your proposed work.


Akmarzhan Nogaibayeva is a third-year PhD student at the University of Warwick, researching language teachers` ICT use through the lens of ecological theory, in higher education in Kazakhstan.


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Why write?

By Joy Jarvis

Why do we write? The University of Hertfordshire’s in-house journal, LINK, ‘aims to support academics and professionals in contributing to the understanding and development of educational practice’. This means it supports and promotes academic writing, and my recent article for LINK on pedagogic frailty suggests a place to start when thinking about why we write. We might of course need to think about REF, but there are other sorts of writing that might be equally valuable. Is ‘REFability’ valuable beyond what it achieves in terms of university scores? Why did we write before the REF? Those of us who have been in universities for many years do remember that time!

The pedagogic frailty article was written to give information about something important for university leaders and managers to consider. It aimed to Continue reading