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TM470 Literature review: further tips

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 16 Apr 2024, 18:21

This blog offers some more practical tips on completing the TM470 literature review section. In some ways, it follows on from an earlier blog on the same subject.

Three points are shared. The first is some techniques about how to think about and consider papers. The second presents some useful resources about academic writing. The third offers some suggestions about how to structure your literature review section.

The literature review section of your project report does a number of things. It shared with the reader something about your reading. In doing this, it helps the reader to understand what your project is all about, and what it relates to. It also primes the reader for some of the topics that will feature within the body of your report. If you use module materials, books, articles, or software, they should be referenced within the literature review section. The reader shouldn’t be surprised, and think: “where did that come from?”

If your project report is all about showing off what you are able to do, the literature review section is all about showing of what you know.

PROMPT

The PROMPT framework that can be useful when preparing a literature review. It is introduced in an online resource called Being Digital.

PROMPT is an abbreviation for: Presentation, Relevance, Objectivity, Method, Provenance, and Timeliness. It offers a structured method that can be used to evaluate any information that you find online. What follows is an edited summary of the key elements of the framework, which have been drawn from a PROMPT Checklist (PDF)

Presentation: Is the information presented and communicated clearly? Consider the language, layout and structure of the resource that you’re evaluating. Does it look ‘academic’?

Relevance: Is the article relevant to the topic you are researching? Look at the introduction, abstract or overview to find out what it is mainly about. When reading an article, to get a quick feel for it, you might also want to have a read of the concluding paragraphs. Do these relate to the aims of your project?

Objectivity: Is the article biased, or motivated by a particular agenda? Is the language emotive? Are there hidden, vested interests? In some articles, there is a section which might highlight any potential conflicts of interest, or how it is funded. This criteria is, of course, link to relevant, and to the thought of ‘does it look right?’

Method: For research articles, ask yourself whether it is clear how the data was collected. Given what you know of both the paper and the topic, were the methods appropriate and can you trust it? When evaluating a method, do have a look out for research questions. Do they match?

Provenance: Is it clear where the information has come from? Can you identify who the authors are, and who they work for? Can they be considered to be trustworthy?

Timeliness: Articles can lose their relevance. Important questions to ask are: how up to date is the material? Is it clear when it was written? Also, does the date of writing meet your requirements, or would it be obsolete? This is particularly important with fast moving areas, such as Computing and IT.

Another approach: the wheel

Ideally, the literature review chapter should be a story about your reading, sitting within a bigger story, which is your whole project. There are different ways you can present your findings: you can present it in terms of chronology (the order in which you read articles and papers), or you can structure it thematically. 

For TM470 where there is a limited word count, the thematic approach can work really well. It gives you an opportunity to highlight the connections to module materials, and then to share evidence of further reading, allowing you to show how you have ‘dug deeper’ into the subject.

A more sophisticated approach to discussing and presenting the materials that you gather during a review is expressed in the ‘the wheel approach to literatures’ blog. It adopts a model known as: And, But, Therefore.

The Wheel goes beyond what is required for TM470. You should aim at highlighting what you consider to be important, and why. The Wheel may well be helpful for students going onto postgraduate study, or students from disciplines where writing takes centre stage. The point amongst all this is: writing and structuring complex and detailed documents is a graduate skill, irrespective of what you study.

Types of literature

When working on a project that involves creating a solution to a problem, there is often a temptation to use blogs, reports or articles found on the internet. These types of articles are known as ‘grey literature’, which means they are not formally published in the way that books or academic articles are. This means they are subject to a lower level of scrutiny. When working with grey literature, a good question to ask is: is there another, more formal source? If the answers is ‘yes’, then please refer to the more formal source. By doing this, you acknowledge the articles that are contributing to academic discussions and debates that relate to a particular topic.

A good example of a resource that is really useful is, of course, Wikipedia. A reference should be something that is static and does not change over time. Since Wikipedia pages can easily change, a recommendation is to avoid using them as formal references. Instead, use them as a way to find more formal references. Look at what Wikipedia references, and then go and find those articles in the OU library.

Referencing

If something exists in the world, it can be referenced.

When writing a formal report, the most common type of references will be, of course, books and articles. You should also, of course, include clear references to module resources. Arts students can reference physical artifacts, photographs and paintings. Students studying computing and IT can, of course, reference software and technical standards.

To find out how to reference anything, visit the CiteThemRight website. The OU makes use of the Harvard referencing style, which takes the form: Author, Initial (year) Title of item, where it was published, and any page numbers (if appropriate). 

Module materials

Before preparing your literature review, it is a good idea to read through the 'Preparing a Literature Search' page. This shares four stages of a literature search, which offers a helpful framework:

  1. identifying and locating relevant materials
  2. comprehending the content
  3. abstracting the significant content, systematically recording and categorising this content and the related references
  4. synthesising the content and relating it to your project aims.

Academic writing

Every part of your TM470 project report should be written in an academic style. More information about what this means can be found by visiting the following article: Academic writing in TM470

A disclaimer: this is guidance from a TM470 tutor, rather than from a member of the module team. Always refer to the official module team guidance to really appreciate what they are looking for.

Further guidance about writing can be found in the Core Skills section of the Study Skills website and the Open Learn Write it right: seven common writing resource.

Reflections

The TM470 project module is all about showing off in a number of different ways: it is there to show off your ability to pick a sensible project idea, it is there to show off your technical skills, and it is there to show off how you go about planning a non-trivial project, and it is there is show of both your reading and your writing skills. The literature review section is a really important part of a TM470 project report, but it is very often a part of the report that isn’t done as well as it could be. It is important because it sets the scene. It tells the examiner what you know.

Here are my tips: 

  1. In your literature review, mention earlier module resources, and dig a little further.
  2. Unless you’re referring to software, do your best to use and refer to academic resources.
  3. Make sure that you spend quality time looking in the OU library and make notes about what you’ve been looking at. Use PROMPT to interrogate (or figure out) what you’re looking at.
  4. If you reference something in the literature review section, it should ideally be used or applied in the body of your report in some way or another.
  5. When you write everything up, structure your literature review in terms of themes.
  6. It is all about showing off. Because this is important do make what you write as clearly possible.

On this final point, I recently heard the following bit of advice from a fellow tutor, which was shared on an OU forum: “why choose a complicated word when a shorter word would work”. The easier your report is to read, the more secure the examiner will be in making their decisions, and awarding marks.

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