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WriteCast Episode 38: The Literature Review Matrix: What It Is, How to Use It, and How to Make It Work For You

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WriteCast Episode 38: The Literature Review Matrix: What It Is, How to Use It, and How to Make It Work For You

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© Walden University Writing Center 2017


[Introduction music]


[TEASER] BETH: If you are working with a lot of research and you find it a little bit overwhelming, this just might be the tool for you.


BRITTANY: Welcome to WriteCast: A Casual Conversation for Serious Writers. I’m Brittany Kallman Arneson,


BETH: and I’m Beth Nastachowski.


BRITTANY: In today’s episode, we are talking about one of the Writing Center’s resources for literature review research and writing: The literature review matrix.

Today, we are talking about the literature review matrix, and I should probably start by defining what this tool is. It sounds like something where we should all be dressed, I think, in long black leather coats and running around trying to escape creepy robot guys, but it is not that exciting, I'm afraid. However, it is a very exciting tool in terms of organizing your research, and we hope that we can make this discussion almost as exciting as watching The Matrix—almost. So, what the literature review matrix is—is basically just a spreadsheet. It's available in two forms on our website. You can download it in Microsoft Word form with a table built into a Word document, or you can download it in Microsoft Excel format, which is obviously already a table or spreadsheet, and it's basically just a way for anybody working on a research project to organize the things that they are reading and studying.

So, that's sort of a broad description of what the lit review matrix is, but I also want to sort of paint a little picture of what it actually looks like for our listeners, because this is an audio podcast. As we start to talk in more detail about it, I do want our listeners to be able to have a little bit of a picture in their minds of what this really looks like. If you're listening and you're at your computer or even if you have your phone on you and you have a second, to kind of follow my instructions here and go ahead and download one of the sample matrices for yourself to follow along. Now I know a lot of people like to listen in the car at the gym or whatever and you might not be able to download it right now and that's fine. That's why I'll do a little visual description, as well, but you are welcome to download it and follow along as you listen to our kind of an analysis of what the literature review matrix is and how it can be used. So, I am going to get to the lit review matrix from the Writing Center homepage and under Scholarly Writing on the drop-down menus across the top I'm going to choose the first option on the drop-down Common Course Assignments. And if I click there I can see a bunch of different common course assignments listed along the left in the brown boxes, and I am going to scroll down to where literature review is listed. And if I click there, I'll eventually get to the lit review matrix but I can also go down a little bit under the literature reviews and choose organizational tools. And you will be taken to page that features two sample literature review matrices in PDF format. So these are ones that you can't go in and edit yourself but you can see how two different researchers might use a lit review matrix to organize their research. And they look very different very. Very, very different. They have different categories, different information is being recorded, and I think this helps illustrate the fact that the literature review Matrix is going to look really different depending on what research project you're working on and what your topic is. So you can take a look at those, but then the bottom two links are to sample templates that you can fill in yourself and it just in changes you need to. So one is in Microsoft Word and one is in Excel. I’m going to just open the one in Excel, and when I open it, I get an Excel document that has all these categories across the top, in the columns. So the first few are author's last name and first initial, publication date, title of article or chapter, and then it has all kind of the other categories for a reference entry. And as you scroll across to the right you get categories like theorists, method, design, population, research questions, summary, analysis. So more detailed information about the research process and the themes that are going to be drawn out of that particular source.

So that's what it looks like, and anytime that you're engaging in a big research project you are going to be swimming in research and oftentimes it can be really challenging to keep track of all the different articles and books and web pages that you're looking at, that are related to your topic. And a literature review matrix is just a simple tool that allows you to keep track of the information that you're reading and also sort of start to process that information in different ways depending on how you set it up, and we'll get into that in a little bit more detail in a moment.  


BETH: Yeah, and to build on that too, Brittany; I wanted to emphasize here that the literature review matrix is something for anyone doing research, really.




BETH: And it probably isn’t the most appropriate if you are just working on a discussion post or reading a couple of articles for a course paper or something. But it’s probably most useful when you are working with a lot of research at any one time. So if you are working on maybe a master’s thesis or a paper that’s a final paper that you are building up to across a course, maybe you are working on a KAM, or maybe you are working on your doctoral capstone—any of those cases might be a time when the literature review matrix would be useful. And probably in other times, too, in ways we are not even thinking of. It’s really a tool that’s meant for you if it's helpful. It’s often most helpful in those cases but really it could be useful to you at any point when you are working with a lot of research. So we want to make sure to clarify that from the outset. If you are working with a lot of research and you find it a little overwhelming, this tool might just be the thing for you.


BRITTANY: So I was excited to talk about this topic for this episode because the literature review matrix is something I have always enjoyed using, first of all, for my own research and also teaching about. I get kind of excited about it because—well, first of all, because I like categorizing things and I am kind of nerdy that way--you know, closets and drawers but also research in spreadsheets. And so there's that, but also I think I get excited because, to me, the lit review matrix kind of allows the student or the writer to start to model synthesis thinking even at the research stage. And I think synthesis in writing is one of the most challenging things to both do and to teach how to do, and I like that the literature review matrix is kind of an in to talking about how to actually synthesize sources together and put them in conversation in writing. So I don't know, I'm, I'm pretty excited to talk about this topic this morning but I don't know, do you feel the same way Beth?


BETH: Yeah, you know, when I was thinking about this topic, Brittany, I was a little apprehensive about it at first. I have talked about the literature review matrix in different contexts with students, but it was something that when I first came to Walden and started working in the Writing Center, I didn’t really get the matrix at first.




BETH: It wasn’t something that was really just was natural for me. It wasn’t a natural way of thinking about the literature or thinking about writing a literature review. And so for me, it was more of a struggle before, to kind of get used to it. And it’s still not my natural inclination to use a tool like this. And so at first, I was a little apprehensive, but I think this will be great because I think we'll be able to think about the best way to use the tool, and I will probably get some pointers from you, so I’m looking forward to that.


BRITTANY: While I do not know about that. But I think that's really interesting, that sounds like it didn't necessarily match with the way that your brain works when you're working on a project like this, and you're totally capable of synthesizing research. So I think--I think actually it could be interesting to explore a little bit more what it is about it that doesn't work for you, 'cause I bet we have students who also feel that way or who kind of see this tool introduced and are like, this isn't seem like it be helpful to me at all. So I'm sort of curious to hear more about that from your perspective—what is it about it that is, just like doesn't seem helpful to you?


BETH: Yeah, I mean I think first off, just looking at downloading the template for the matrix that’s in Excel--




BETH: For me, one thing I do like is it starts out with those columns that talk about the information for that particular source. You as the writer would note the author, the date—you know—all the information that you would need to keep track of that source and create a reference entry for it. That seems really helpful to me, as well as like the key word search information and things like that.




BETH: But what I struggle with is I think when I reading something I really like to identify key ideas and quotes and things like that. And then take notes on those rather than overall ideas, and right now when you look at the template it has sort of like columns of that are really general and broad, like theorist and method and design. So initially for me, when thinking about that—it’s kind of hard to think how that would be useful. So if a student had a similar question, like that, about the matrix and how to use it, how do you explain how best to use it, Brittany?


BRITTANY: Yeah, oh, I'm so glad that you said that because I get this question from students a lot. And you probably do too—where they're like, well, great, but these categories don't match what I'm researching or these categories aren't you know I don't want to record the information that's pre-populated into the sample Matrix; that's not helpful information for me to keep track of. And this is what I mean when I say the Matrix can help with synthesis thinking or sort of jump-start that. The writer has control over those categories from the very beginning and that's what's great about working on like in notebook where you might run out of space to run out of, you know, lines or something like that. In an Excel spreadsheet, for instance, you can always, always add more columns, more rows, you know, more fields where you can record different information. And so I like to think about the Matrix as being really agile and nimble and sort of malleable for the reader to—


BETH: It's like a living document.


BRITTANY: Yeah, exactly. So it's not that you have to have pre-populate categories and then read the literature looking for those categories, necessarily. You can do that, but you can also do it the opposite way where you learn reading and you pull out a theme. You say, oh boy--it seems like this is really an important thread that's running through this article and also this other book that I read. I'm going to create a category in my matrix to record that theme so that I can tag both of those resources with that theme and then remember that both those authors talked about that. And that's like that first step in your literature review of organizing your information by theme rather than by author, which is a big point that we make when we teach about writing a literature review, right, is that you aren't writing one paragraph on what one author said and another paragraph on what another author said but you really are working hard to create a conversation between all the people talking about your topic and categorizing those paragraphs and sections by theme and by topic.


BETH: So, in a way, really, when I initially learned about the matrix and started looking at it, I think I was thinking about the matrix as what you are reading and what you are taking notes on as responding to the matrix. But really, what you want the matrix to be is to be responsive to what you are reading.




BETH: --where what you are reading sort of informs what the matrix looks like rather than the other way around.  


BRITTANY: Yeah, exactly right. So, the matrix is a snapshot of your research rather than your research being driven by what is in the matrix already. And I think again that's something that can be a little bit daunting for students at first. And so it may be that you as a writer start with the pre-populated categories, because I like to kind of think about the research process in two stages.

First we just have the categorization stage and the matrix can help with that. That's you just kind of getting the lay of the land of your research and starting to remember what you read, who the authors are, what year they published their research--you know--what their methodology was, just the nuts and bolts, the basics. And for that stage, the matrix pointing you to the research can be useful, because it helps you understand what happened to be reading for, when you're just trying to kind of get a sense of what's out there, and keep track of the basic information about the sources.

But as we know, that is not enough to get you to a solid lit review where you are categorizing your research by them and by topic. And so there's sort of a second piece to that where you can--you might go through and try and categorize your research first using the pre-populated fields in the matrix. But then I think you can come back and do that organization piece which is sort of not so much just thinking about what is the research that's out there and what are the basic facts about that research or even what are the basic things that that research has said, but you're thinking carefully about how to describe the pattern of that conversation over time to your reader and how to present it. And that's where I think it's the other way around—you start to notice those patterns and then you start to create fields in the matrix that reflect those patterns so that you can better put those sources in conversation with one another.


BETH: Yeah, so I mean really, along with the matrix sort of being really responsive to what you are reading—it evolves with your research process. It sort of functions differently as you go through the research process and evolves with that.


BRITTANY: Yeah, mmhmm. I think so.


BETH: That’s a great way to talk about it, I think. And I love the idea of thinking about the matrix as sort of this living document. I think initially when I looked at it, it felt very static, and I think that felt limiting to me. And so thinking as an evolving document—it really helps with that, I think. And I hope that will sort of resonant with our students, too.  


BRITTANY: Yeah, me too. This is a really hard thing to talk about in the abstract, I think. And so I do encourage any listener who is feeling like, a little confused by all of this, to dive in and start and sort of--I mean, I guess the basic take away that we want to send to our listeners is that you're in the driver's seat when it comes to these documents and the matrices, and so if you really want to record certain information and it's not part of the matrix that you download from our website, add it. Add it in. And that gives you a sense of agency to, I think, as a writer because that is what you get to make those choices about how to prevent the information to your reader which is really the kind of mindset that you want to have as you craft your literature review. And think about the order of information that you want to present to your reader.


BETH: And I would give two other tips, I think, too. As we are talking about this, you know we talked about the students that this is useful for, the wide range of students. But you know one thing I would say is if you are imagining, wow, this will be really useful for me, when in the future, I write this paper, this master’s thesis, this doctoral capstone, whatever it is. Also, consider using the matrix on an earlier paper, even if it’s not absolutely necessary. Because practicing using the literature review matrix will help you figure out how it works and how you can use it to evolve with your research process. So even if the matrix isn’t absolutely necessary to complete that particular project—using it can help you get use to that process. Just like anything else we talk about, we talk about all the time—practicing your paraphrasing and your citing skills so when you get to the sort of high stakes end capstone research that you have to do, then you are ready it. I think the same applies here, too.


BRITTANY: Right, mmhmm, absolutely.


BETH: And then…I swear I had one other thing I was going to say. Oh, I remember now. I think students sometime have trouble sort of translating, taking notes, reading, and highlighting important points or underlining important points as they are reading. And then taking that into their writing. There is sort of, like, a big jump they have to make—right—between those two things?




BETH: And the matrix acts as a nice in-between because you don’t necessarily include everything you highlight in the matrix, but you can kind of go back to your research and say, okay from what I highlighted while I was reading, to ensure I was an active reader: What is actually useful to be putting in this matrix? And then you can kind of practice paraphrasing and summarizing what you actually read into the matrix, too. So it kind of helps as in between step—between your note taking and your active reading and your actual writing that you are doing.


BRITTANY: I love that. I love thinking about it as kind of a go-between, between your research and your writing process. I think that’s exactly right.


BETH: So just a reminder—if you would like to download the lit review matrix and start using it, Brittany gave a really great explanation on how to find it through our website, at the start of the podcast, but you can also go to the top right hand corner of page on our website and search "literature review matrix" and it will be the first hit there. And just a note, too, if you are a doctoral student working on your final capstone, if you are at the proposal stage, make sure to also e-mail any questions that you have to the editors, at as well as visit the form and style website.


BRITTANY: Finally, we love to hear your feedback and your ideas for future episodes. And we are grateful for those of you who have sent feedback and ideas to us so far. And we want to remind you that you can find us on Facebook at our Walden University Writing Center page, on Twitter @ WUWritingCenter, and at our blog which is




BRITTANY: WriteCast is a production of the Walden University Writing Center. This episode was produced by me, Brittany Kallman Arneson; my co-host, Beth Nastachowski; and our colleague, Anne Shiell.