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Systematic literature reviews for education and social sciences

A guide to conducting a systematic literature review in the Education discipline

Systematic reading of the literature

Systematic approach to reading

A systematic literature review requires you to read each paper you include systematically to a set of preset criteria. 

Establishing systematic reading criteria

Evaluation of papers found

Your strategic search should have left you with a significant amount of literature relating to your research question. The next step in the process is to set up evaluation criteria for what is included or excluded from the literature review.  To start with, be sure to remove duplicate papers then remove any grey literature and non-peer reviewed materials. The next step is to set up a quick set of evaluation criteria to help focus your reading, these criteria will give you a set of markers to for your reading to show you readily which papers will needed to include in your literature review, which papers could be in the literature review and which papers you do not need to read further for the literature review. To set up these criteria, note the key areas you wish to focus on in the review and note the side issues you wish to pursue, where a paper does not meet these criteria you do not need to include it in the review. We do advise that you keep these papers for future use.  This process will help to focus the reading for your literature review, as well as helping your supervisors locate gaps in your research.  

If you are unsure of how to evaluate your findings, PRISMA (Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses) has developed a checklist and evaluation process to help refine your collected research.  PRISMA is also important  If you are looking to publish the results of your literature review as many journals will require you to use the PRISMA model. To discover more about this process visit the PRISMA web site.

Systematic reading criteria

It is essential that you determine your reading assessment criteria before you begin to read the literature. Setting this criteria for the papers you read will give you; 

  • a quick tool to assess inclusion and exclusion for the literature 
  • a means to record consistent data about each research paper,
  • the means to find common ground and patterns emerging from the literature
  • a solid and consistent structure to your notes. 

It is quite likely that you have found far more research papers than you can comfortably read.  Using clearly defined reading criteria will make it easier to know when a paper does not meet your needs and can be set aside. If you are unsure of a paper's worth to the review, keep basic notes about it, to ensure you can find it again if required. 

When setting your criteria it is very important to be as descriptive as possible, use as many categories and sub-categories as you need. This will let you quickly see if a criteria has been met. When you are looking to find patterns in the literature you are better served by a large number of descriptive criteria that you can use to show with a yes or no in your evaluation, than by use less descriptive criteria and noting large amounts of text.

By tracking and assessing each paper you will not lose track of what information is in which paper, find the trends and be able to relocate papers and connect similarly themed research. This process of systematically reading will give your literature review and future research a very strong structure to build upon.

Systematic reading scenario

You are reading for a literature review that examines how an educational theory is being applied in a classroom setting.

Potential criteria to apply in assessing the literature could include:

  • the name of the theory being used in the paper
  • what setting/context the theory was used in the paper
  • how the theory is being applied in the paper
  • what type of paper this is (E.g. Research paper, case study, a review or other)
  • how was the data used in the paper gathered? what research methods were used?
  • other information/distinct features of the paper to help in assessing its value
    • author(s)
    • institution/School of authors
    • year
    • country of origin
    • type of classroom
    • type of participant - primary, secondary students etc.

It will be up to you to decide what criteria to establish; however see the example criteria below.

Emergent patterns

The systematic recording of criteria about each research paper will allow you to organise and sort this data by the various headings - eg; institution of author, country of origin, date, research method etc.  Through analysing and mapping of the criteria data, discernable patterns should start emerging in support of, or opposition to your hypothesis. Analysis of the patterns will help you determine where current research knowledge sits, and where if any knowledge gaps exist.  The outcomes of this analysis will assist in the design of future research. 

Example review guide

Example systematic reading criteria

The following example is based upon the Pickering systematic reading criteria, use as many or as few criteria as you feel you need. Use broader umbrella subject areas with more specific elements you are searching for beneath them. Set up as many criteria as you require. For presentation purposes the table is in portrait format, for personal use downloadable versions of template in both word and excel formats are attached below.


Full bibliography

  • Author (year), title, publisher etc.

Year of publication

  • Eg: 2016

Institution/school of author(s)

  • Eg: Griffith University

Country of origin, state

This is important to show where the research is taking place, will show trends and how an idea is being disseminated

  • Eg: Australia, WA

Media type

note the form the research takes, this will help show how the research is being published and disseminated

  • Book
  • eBook
  • Journal
  • Web page
  • DVD
  • Video

Literature type

  • Original research article
  • Research review article
  • Case study
  • Literature review
  • Book review
  • Book chapter
  • Conference paper
  • Trade/ practitioner article

Topic areas - broad

  • Assessment of students

Topic areas - narrower

  • Assessment of students in music
  • Practice-based assessment
  • Theory-based assessment

Key themes –

themes nominated by you to find in the literature

  • Children
  • Primary students
  • Name of theory

Theoretic framework/Theorist 

Note the frameworks used and if applicable the key theory/theorist being tested or applied in the research

  • Grounded theory
  • Feminist theory
  • Gender theory


  • Bordieu
  • Vyrgostsky
  • Bernstein

Emergent themes -  

this may inform part of your gap analysis and future direction of study

  • themes identified in the literature not initially nominated for examination

Research Methodology

  • Qualitative
  • Quantitative
  • Case study
  • Observations
  • Empirical study
  • Mixed methods

Analysis of results

  •  key results of paper
  • Key outcomes of research
  • Statistics or data

Limitation of research

  • Note the limitations of the research approach;
  • Size of study
  • Length of study
  • Nature of research
  • Location of research


  •  One sentence overview of the paper