Reflecting on reading

The time has come to start writing my first literature review as a PhD researcher.

That means all this reading I’ve been doing needs to be critically evaluated, on paper, for someone else. If I do it well enough, I get to continue with my studies.

It also means I’m reading my notes from the past 5 months (has it only been 5 months?) and seeing just how far I’ve come. Not only in building my knowledge, but in curating my own thoughts.

I developed my note taking process during my undergraduate degree. Read and highlight, then read the highlighted sections and make notes. In my MA I added a critical reflection step, using italics to separate my thoughts from original quotes.

I started using this process in October last year, and the very first book I read was reduced to 44 pages of notes, peppered with my own comments. But it didn’t take me long to realise this approach would not work in the long term.

From a very practical view point, it meant that every set of notes was in the order preferred by the author, not by me. The logic was ever so slightly different for every paper, and made comparison difficult.

This approach also meant I could be lazy. I could copy and paste text, thinking ‘that’s interesting.’ It probably was, but my half formed thought as to why it was interesting or how it linked to my own work was lost. The critical reflection existed in potential only; work to be repeated next time I read my notes.

So, I came up with a system. I created a form using Excel; a form that would capture everything I thought was useful in the same order, every time.

It starts with the essentials – title, publication, author, and how I found it. Next, a section to summarise my overall thoughts, the research methodology, theory it is located in and the key words.

The main section, and most important, I have titled ‘knowledge claims’. I use two columns, copying a section of original text (or a summary) into the left, and writing a critical reflection in the right. My self imposed rule is to never leave the right column blank… if I don’t have something to say about it, then why note it down?

Finally, I’ve added sections for practical implications, identification of a research gap, acknowledged limitations, and specific questions or links to my work. I don’t always complete all of these rows; sometimes this information is too tightly wound with the overall discussion to spend time making arbitrary decisions on which section I want to use. In this case, everything goes under knowledge claims.

Each paper is given its own tab in Excel, and I’m starting to build a very useful database. Having it stored electronically means I can access it anywhere, and easily search for key words, but today I have given in to temptation and printed the ‘so far’ version. Another 45 pages, but this time organised my way, and this time my critical reflection is consistently present. I have my highlighters ready; let’s get this lit review started.


For anyone just starting their literature review or who is looking for a way to structure their work, you can download a blank version of my current template. This is what works for me, right now, and I am sure I will make changes as I become more experienced. You can, and indeed should, edit and move things so it makes sense to you. I’d love to see your ideas in the comments section if you feel like sharing.

Published by sarahjalcock

PhD researcher at the Open University with a focus on Learning Analytics, Learning Analytics Dashboards, feedback and Self Regulated Learning. Follow me on Twitter @SarahAlcock19. Author text is licenced under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike CC BY-SA

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