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TM470 Understanding the Literature review

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One of the important components of the TM470 EMA is your literature review.

The literature review component serves a number of purposes:

  • It tells your examiner what you have read, and enables them to understand where you are coming from. In other words, what you present in a literature review enables the examiner to understand, broadly, what your project is all about. 
  • It enables you to demonstrate to your EMA examiner your research and critical thinking skills. 
  • It allows you to demonstrate your writing and communication skills. Just as your TM470 EMA is a narrative of your entire project, the literature review within that broader narrative (or story) presents a narrative  (or story) about your reading and your research.

The literature review can be primarily linked to the following TM470 learning outcome:

LO4: Gather, analyse and evaluate relevant information to complete the project successfully.

It can also be linked to the following learning outcomes:

LO3: Identify, list and justify the resources, skills and activities needed to carry out the project successfully. Identify and address any associated risks.

LO7: Communicate information, ideas, problems and solutions clearly

A really important rule of thumb is: if you use a resource in the body of your report, that resource should be introduced within the literature review section. A resource might be any number of different things, depending on what your project is all about: it might be some module materials, a textbook, an academic paper, or even some software. Also, if you have something in the references section, it should have been ideally in the literature review section (although it is okay to occasionally break that rule, if it helps with the writing and presentation of your project report).

What follows are a set of what I hope to be useful ideas about how best to complete a TM470 project literature review.

Starting the literature review

An important question to ask is: how do I start my literature search? The biggest tip I can offer is: begin with what you know. This might be the specifics about a project, or maybe beginning with some of the level 3 module materials that you have previously studied. If you have studied TM356 Interaction Design and the User Experience, for example, a really good place to start is the module materials, and the accompanying set text. The textbook contains a lot of references which you can look to, and you can find many of these resources in the university library.

The OU library is also a great place to start too. It contains a whole host of useful resources, such as eBooks, and hundreds of thousands of academic articles that have been published in academic journals. When starting out to look at a subject they have not looked at before, some researchers carry out searches of library databases using a systematic approach, making notes of what keywords they have used, and what they have found.

Another tip is: if you find an interesting paper in the OU library it is sometimes possible to find out how many times a paper or article has been referenced, and what papers have referenced the paper that you have found. Looking at the popularity of papers, and chains of referencing can enable you to find out what papers or bits of research have been influential in a subject area. Sometimes, it is also useful to look to see what other papers a particular author has written about.

A final tip in carrying out a literature search: ask your tutor! The TM470 module team try to match students and student projects with tutors who have a particular specialism. After having an initial discussion with your tutor about your project, it is completely okay to ask the question: do you have any suggestions?

Criticality

During the course of your TM470 project, you might look at a lot of resources. Whilst it might be tempting to show everything that you’re read or looked at whilst working on your literature review, please don’t. You need to be selective, and you need to do this to demonstrate your critical thinking skills. 

More information about what this means is available in the OU booklet about Thinking Critically.

In terms of TM470, it is important to ask: how does this resource influence, affect, or relate to my project? A good literature review will introduce some concepts or ideas, which are referenced. These concepts or ideas are then used or applied within the body of a report to solve a particular problem.

Resources

In TM470, there are a number of useful resources that you may have seen, that you should be aiming to revisit whilst you work on your project.

The two key bits of module materials that you must review have the title: Preparing a Literature Search, and Reviewing Literature. A recommendation is to get a printout of these resources (by using the “view as single page” option), and work through each of the activities. You should also have a listen to the Finding and using research podcast. 

From the Preparing a Literature Search resource, do pay particular attention to the four stages of a literature search. The Reviewing Literature resource offers a set of useful pointers in the introduction which helps you to look at resources. 

Regarding this second resource, the following bit of advice is important: “This template isn’t always applicable, not least because it can become monotonous to read. You will need to make your own decisions about which elements should be included and which omitted.” These two sentences relate to the point about criticality, and the need to write a literature review that is appropriate for your own project.

On the subject of writing, a good resource to look to is the OU’s pages about Developing academic English. I also recommend The Good Study Guide, which is available to download as a PDF. Chapters that may be particularly useful when writing the literature review (and your EMA report) are Chapter 9, Researching online, Chapter 10, Writing the way ‘they’ want, and Chapter 11, Managing the writing process.

Referencing

If you use, or write about a resource in your project report, you need to make sure that you reference it correctly. In your TMAs and EMAs, there are two key bits to think about: the first is how to reference something within the body of your report (when you’re referring to something), and the second is how to provide a reference to a resource within the references section towards the end of your EMA. Another rule of thumb is: if you are writing about a resource, you need to reference it. Similarly, if you quote from a resource, you definitely need to reference it. 

The OU makes use of the Harvard referencing system, which is both comprehensive and flexible. Using this system, you can reference just about anything. Not only can you reference books and journal articles, you can also reference art works, web pages, and software. The OU has a subscription to a web resource called CiteThemRight. If you’re unsure how to reference something, do have a look at this website. 

When referencing papers or textbooks, a firm recommendation is to make sure that you also include page numbers. The reason for this is simple. Including page numbers clearly demonstrates attention to detail, and gives your EMA examiner further evidence of your depth of reading and understanding.

Finally, do make sure that you reference (and demonstrate an understanding of) earlier OU modules you have studied. This is a really efficient way to demonstrate to your examiner what topics or subjects your project relates to. You can reference any OU module material, whether it is a module website, a PDF, or printed module block. If you’re unsure about how to reference materials from any of your earlier studies, do ask your tutor.

Common Questions

Do ask your tutor any questions that you might have whilst carrying out a literature review. Here are some answers to some common questions, which might be useful.

Q: How many references should I provide?

A: There is no hard and fast rule for this, since every TM470 is different. You should choose enough resources to demonstrate the reading that you have needed to do, to complete a project that shows technical skills and knowledge you have gained during your degree studies. If pushed, I would say that a distinction quality EMA report might reference as many as 20 resources, but these resources must be important, relevant, and applied within the body of your project. In other words, your chosen resources should have influenced the work that you have done.

Q: How much time should I spend on the literature review?

A: Again, there is no hard and fast answer to this one. Some EMA reports are all about carrying out research. In a research focussed EMA, you might spend more time doing a literature review than you would for a very practical EMA. Overall, the literature review section contributes towards 20% of the overall EMA mark, but this doesn’t mean that you should only spend 20% of the time. A suggestion is to approach the literature review iteratively. For example, whilst trying to solve a technical problem, you might have to do more reading, which means that you might have to go back and to edit your literature review section.

Q: How long should the literature review be?

I’m afraid I’m going to give you a similar answer to all the others: it depends on your project! The TM470 module guidance suggests that you should be able to write everything you need to write within the 10k word limit. Given the importance of the literature review to a number of learning outcomes, I would say that the literature review is quite a substantial section within your EMA: it sets the scene, and goes a long way to demonstrating your critical thinking and problem solving skills (through the resources that you choose). Some project will have longer literature review sections than others. It should be as long as it needs to be, given the aims and objectives of your project.

Summary

This blog has shared bits of advice (and some links) that might be useful when it comes to writing your TM470 literature review.

One of the most useful bits of advice about report writing that someone gave me was: make sure it is interesting. 

Although this bit of advice related to EU project deliverables, it is just as applicable to your TM470 EMA. 

Your TM470 EMA is a technical narrative (a story) about your project. The literature review section within your report is a narrative within a bigger narrative; it is the story of your reading. It is a story which introduces resources which you will then go onto apply later on within your report. It is an important section which demonstrates the depth of your reading, and shares what you know about with the examiner.

Other blog posts that relate to the study of TM470 can be found through the TM470 blog tag.

Good luck with your literature review, and remember to make good use of your tutor, by asking them lots of questions.

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