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Health Professions Education for Doctoral Students: Reviewing the Literature

This guide is designed to assist HPED doctoral students in their research and dissertations.

What is a Literature Review?

“A review of the literature consists of reading, analyzing, and writing a synthesis of scholarly materials about a specific topic. When the review is of scientific literature, the focus is on the hypotheses, the scientific methods, the strengths and weaknesses of the study, the results, and the authors’ interpretations and conclusions. A review of the scientific literature is fundamental to understanding the accumulated knowledge about the topic being reviewed."

Garrard, J. (2017). Health sciences literature review made easy: The matrix method. Burlington, MA: Jones and Bartlett Learning. p. 4.

More Information

This handout from The Writing Center at UNC Chapel Hill, walks through the literature review process; from understanding what a lit review is, to constructing a thesis statement, to thinking about how to organize your review.​

This video from the North Carolina State Libraries offers a thorough 10-minute introduction to literature reviews.  It's a great resource if you still aren't sure how to approach your lit review.

Search Strategies

For a review of the literature, you want to conduct a comprehensive search to identify as many sources as possible on your topic.  

Be sure to take notes on your search process -- otherwise it's easy to lose track of what you've already tried.

Database Searching

Search health sciences and other disciplinary databases (i.e. CINAHL, MEDLINE, ERIC) for keywords related to your topic.  (See the Articles on Your Topic page of this guide for tips and resources).

Having trouble?  Make an appointment with a librarian to discuss databases, keywords, and search strategies.

Citation Searching

When you find a relevant article, use it to identify other potentially relevant articles:

Look at its references to identify other relevant articles that you haven't found.

Use Google Scholar, Scopus, or Web of Science to identify more recent articles that have cited that one.

Structure of a Literature Review

When you're writing a literature review, you won't just summarize all of the articles that you've found on your topic.  

Instead, you'll synthesize the evidence.  This means that you'll look at the state of the evidence as a whole, telling your reader what it means when you put it all together.

Rather than reviewing your sources one at a time, you'll organize your lit review by concept, chronology, methodology, etc. -- whatever makes the most sense for your topic.

example of a lit review that goes source-by-source    image of a lit review structured by concept

Still not sure what it means to synthesize the evidence?  Check out the handout and video in the What is a Literature Review? section of this page for more information.

The Matrix Method

What is the Matrix Method?

The Matrix Method is an organizational system that guides you through the literature review process from start to finish, outlined in the book Health Sciences Literature Review Made Easy by Judith Garrard (see citation below).  It is “intended to teach you how to read a paper, organize the review using the Matrix Method, analyze it, and create a narrative synthesis” (p. 31).

How can I access Garrard’s book?

Garrard, J. (2017). Health sciences literature review made easy: The matrix method. Burlington, MA: Jones and Bartlett Learning.