Managing notes for the literature review: general advice and some of my experiences so far
As has been mentioned in previous blog posts, the literature review is a serious piece of work that needs careful planning, arranging, thinking, considering and probably piles upon piles of written notes that have been stored in various places that you probably shall not remember when coming to writing your literature review! As with anything else, what you write will depend on your discipline and your research topic, but regardless it is important to have an effective management system where you can access your notes easily and efficiently, and arrange these notes in a way that does not interrupt your flow of thinking and writing when it comes to writing your literature review. Obviously, whatever extensive amount of notes you have you are not likely to have an extensive set of notes to complete the literature review because there shall always be something else to consider as you are writing. I find that when I am writing I have new ideas come to me that are worth exploring further: this is fine, it does not interrupt the flow of writing as I note down the ideas and explore at a later time when I come out of that mode of thinking and writing.
Regardless of the research topic and the discipline it’s likely that separate sets of literature shall be explored: with mine, philosophical, theoretical and empirical sets of literature are being explored, and each command a separate set of extensive notes. As I have indicated in an earlier blog post, I am following a Theory-Practice approach to the review therefore I shall be writing about philosophical and theoretical literature first, followed by empirical. This way, I can more easily be able to associate and compare empirical findings with philosophical and theoretical discussions and evidence the need of my research and reason the findings of problems in that way. Again, it depends on what you prefer to do: you might prefer to explore empirical findings first and then match findings with philosophical and theoretical literature, and that can be just as effective. Also, you wouldn’t have to necessarily construct your notes following a set pattern of philosophical and theoretical discussions to empirical findings: you can mix it all up as much as you want it just depends on what works for you! Just make sure that you keep a separate set of extensive notes for each set of literature and make sure you manage these notes effectively. Keep things simple, and keep things logical because when it comes to writing the literature review you want to make sure that you can access your notes easily and quickly and in that logical order so that you don’t have to go searching around and forgetting where you are.
As for my own management system, my extensive notes are kept in a display book that contains about twenty plastic wallets, with each wallet relating to a particular “theme” of a particular set of literature, beginning with philosophical themes moving to empirical themes. As an example, a philosophical “theme” could be the ideas of a Philosopher, or the ideas of several Philosophers that relate to a particular phenomenon. Another example could be that empirical findings could relate to the effectiveness of a teaching method upon a particular set of learners, or the way that a particular set of learners perceive a particular teaching method. Both of these are different empirical themes that can have their own separate places inside whatever management organisation you choose to have.
Simplicity of access and logical orderings are keys to developing a simple yet effective management system of these extensive notes. Remember, you don’t need a chaotic, complicated management system as there shall be enough chaos and disorders as you produce your first set of notes!