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Tutorial 4:  The Inquiry Context

Tutorial 4 - Resources

A.  Resources for Writing a Rich Description of your Social Setting

Writing a rich or "thick" description requires paying attention to a number of factors some of which are not immediately apparent in the setting. The idea or goal is to give your readers a sense of what features of the setting will be important for understanding your action research.

One set of resources is exploring how others have described their setting... Here are some examples from work published by the Center for Collaborative Action Research

  • In Joel Lowsky" Action Research Portfolio

  • In Karen Elinich's Action Research Portfolio (currently being moved and redesigned on the new CCAR)

  • In Chris Bigalow's Action Research Portfolio (currently being moved and redesigned on the new CCAR)











B. Resources for Reviewing the Literature around your Action Research Topic


The following section assumes your action research is being done, in part, for a graduate degree. If you are doing action research for professional development outside of a degree program, you will find useful suggestions, like using  Google Scholar as your search tool to locate research articles related to your topic.  If you read and summarize what you learn, this will give you new ideas on how to move forward. 

What is a review of the literature?
A literature review is a creative way of organizing what has been written about a topic by scholars and researchers. It is doing a favor for your readers. You are collecting and highlighting information that they might want to read. You will find literature reviews at the beginning of many essays, research reports, or theses. To write the literature review, your purpose is to convey to your reader what you have learned through a careful reading of a set of articles related to your research question. The literature review should be organized around a small set of concepts, themes, critical dimensions, and debates that are related to your research objective, and the problem or issue you are exploring. It is NOT just a descriptive list of a set of studies; it is not a set of summaries of papers arranged without structure. It is NOT an annotated bibliography.
In creating a literature review, you acquire and demonstrate your evolving expertise in an area. You will be demonstrating the following:

  • Ability to find significant articles, valid studies, or seminal writings that are related to your topic...(research skills--notice that research is different than "search" that is because it is more than searching for information).

  • Analytic ability to synthesize and summarize different views on a topic or issue. (This is repeated searching with an analytic evaluation =researching)

  • Writing skill in weaving the resources together to give a picture of past research as it relates to your specific topic.


The Purpose of a Literature Review

   Your specific goals may vary but generally, you are trying to do one, or more, of the following:

  • Ground your problem in the content of those who have struggled with the problem or issue in the past.

  • Describe how your approach will be similar or different from what has been tried in similar settings in the past.

  • Suggest new ways of solving a problem by combining or contrasting past approaches.

  • Describe a conflict that you are going to explore by trying one or more strategies.

  • Establish the need for your research.

  • Demonstrate your command over the topic

  • Identify the community of people who care about your topic or problem

     A literature review does not

  • Share details about your research site

  • Directly assert your ideas on the topic

  • Indicated what you believe should or must be done in future

The lit review is not about your ideas-- it is about summarizing the ideas of others.

Here is a good overview of a lit review for graduate students from the North Carolina State Library:













Conducting the Literature Review

  1. You will need to first identify a problem or research question. (The literature review will help you understand more about this topic or problem).

  2. You will need to identify the source of literature and good search techniques to find relevant studies or articles. You will not have time to do an exhaustive search so you should decide where you will look and how you will organize your search. A small set of the most relevant resources is what you are trying to find. You have access to an online library, and you will need to learn how to use it. You will want to find how others have attempted solutions to your problem.

  3. You will need to evaluate the results of your search. What are you reading? You should be able to distinguish between:

    • popular press articles,

    • practitioner magazines with ideas and "success stories, "

    • publications where respected leaders in the field describe their work and its implication with a wide audience

    • research journals that are peer-reviewed where new knowledge is reported and debated by a community of practice.

Did you find a small set of materials that were closely related to what you are interested in doing? Don't be worried if you find someone who has already done your study. This is a valuable resource. It will give you clues as to what you might or might not find. It is very useful--your study will be different because you are in a different setting, so don't worry. Replication is an important part of science.

  1. The hardest part is to critically analyze the literature you read. You need to abstract a set of concepts and questions, and compare items to each other discussion strengths and weaknesses. This is more than a summary.

  2. The result should be a fair and balanced treatment of a subject that helps a reader learn from your creative work.


 Finding the Literature to Review













  • Use Google Scholar and access you might have to any library electronic databases to find recent journal articles, unpublished papers, research instruments, etc. Set up the Scholar preferences to help you. (It has the option to set up library links to a nearby library if you want to do some walking, and you can set it up to download citations to work with RefWorks.)

  • Visit your library and ask the librarian to help you

  • With any search tool, choose "Advanced Search" rather than "Basic Search"

  • With Eric Educational Resources, use "descriptors" and with others, "subjects," instead of keywords, for narrowing down your searches and getting focused results. (Thesaurus tab on lets you search for descriptors/subjects and show you acronyms you may want to try.) For instrument search using, select "tests/questionnaires" in "publication types" on the advanced search view.

  • For locating measurement tools, to use in your efforts to collect evidence, try using such terms as "measures" "instruments" "research instruments," "scales," "questionnaires" or"surveys."

  • If you cannot find a copy of the full text of an article, try sending a note to the author. Most universities have a convention so with the university name and some checking into the convention, you generally can find the author's email.

  • A networking site built around research - Researchgate - might also be helpful. You can often find authors and ask them to send you full-text copies of their articles. 

  • Depending on your research topic, here are some links that might be helpful!


Read and Taking Notes with a Clear Purpose

At first, you will be reading to understand the materials. But then you should start to look for major concepts, conclusions, theories, arguments, etc. that surround your topic. Be attentive to similarities and differences as you explore similar studies. Here are some guidelines for note-taking. You can use a software program such as endnotes (expensive) or RefWorks (free), Zotero (free), Papers (inexpensive), or note programs like Evernote (free), or SOHO notes (inexpensive).


Or you might want to set up a template in excel or a form in Google Docs that links to a spreadsheet (see form and spreadsheet example) or use a table in word. 







Here are some ideas for what you might track

  1. Who is the author and what institution do they come from?

  2. What is the problem or issue that is central and how is it defined? Look at the language used as it will reveal a great deal about the perspective of the author. Who is the audience and what do you think the purpose of the writer is?

  3. What literature did the author use to define the problem? Is there a theoretical perspective on learning or on technology?

  4. What is the goal of the writer? Is the paper a celebration of an activity or an effort to understand what happened and why?

  5. Can you identify the author's theoretical framework? Look for what theories are cited in the literature review, and they relate to any studies cited.

  6. Examine the relationship of the literature relevant to the problem/issue in the article. How did this person approach the problem?

  7. Without an extensive background in research, it may be difficult to evaluate the design but think about the methods. If you were to follow the same procedures would you find the same results (reliability) and do you think that the methods used helped to understand what was taking place (validity)?

  8. You may be reading articles that suggest a method or a project and provide an inspirational account of the process. Look to see if the writer also can reflect on what things did not work as well. If everything was perfect, you might not be reading the whole story. Look for discussions of problems or setbacks which suggest a balanced discussion of the project.

  9. Examine the logic of the argument and how it relates to the question that you are asking.

  10. How does the article help you think about your issue or questions? How was it helpful and what was missing?

  11. Are there any possible quotes that you might use in your paper...(see below for my guideline for when to and when not to use a direct quote.) Remember to include the page number for the citation (author's last name, date, page number)

  12. If you are submitting your work to a university, you will need the reference citation in a specific format (often APA). (HINT: I put in the authors' names, date, and "references" in the search box of a browser to find a listing in references that I can copy).


Creating the Structure of your Review

A literature review has an overall structure or organization, and there is an organization at the paragraph or section level. First, some advice for the overall structure is provided, followed by advice on how to write at the paragraph level.

1)  Overall Structure
You will need to decide how to organize the lit review, and there are many different ways of doing this. Keep in mind that anytime you have a list of things, the order should be meaningful. So if you decided on a number of sections that you want to include, think about how they are related.

  • Do the readings fit together as elements of a model or parts of a theory?

  • Do the issues move from large scope to a small focus?

  • Is time an important factor in organizing the material?

  • Have advancements in technology, for example, affected the interpretation of the studies?

  • Is the location of the research relevant to the findings?

  • Is there a set of reoccurring themes in the literature that you can use as a frame?

  • Is there an ongoing debate with one or more sides?

  • Will your reading be familiar with your topic, or do you need to do some definitional work?

The answers to these questions will help you think through the structure.

As you start to read, start thinking of how you will organize what you are reading. Pay attention to how others do this. If one article describes five crucial issues, another lists three, and two other articles discuss issues that are not mentioned in the first two, you might come up with a composite list of what you think are the four or five most important issues and use these to organize your review. If you are looking at a technological tool interacting with a community, you might want to look at how this tool was introduced and what we know about its success in different contexts. Your action research might include two topics, for example, you might be looking at a problem, and a tool that you think will help with the solution of the problem. You might then use the first part of the lit review to discuss a brief history of the problem-- how do we know that the problem exists? For example, if you are looking at issues of student engagement, what does the research say about student engagement, and perhaps you find three important themes? And suppose your action research involves using a technology tool, say video productions or zoom. The second part of your lit review might be studies that suggest these tools are linked to increasing student motivation. So what are some possible structures for the lit review?


  • Broad to Narrow-You widen the lens dealing with broad issues and then focus on your specific problem. The problem could be described first in general society, then in education, in schools, and finally in the classroom perhaps focusing on research that looks at how the problem affects the teacher-student relationship.

  • Chronologically - You use the time of the study to organize the findings - this is good if our ideas have taken a real shift. For example, it might be relevant to look at findings before and after a policy like No child left behind.

  • Advancements - This is similar to chronological, but it is tied to specific advancements that happened. Dealing with technology, there might be a story where the availability of different tools made a significant difference in the way your topic was studied. So for one-to-one computing, as the technology changes, this takes on a different meaning. Early studies might have been with desk computers, then with laptops, followed by handhelds devices, and most recently tablets like the iPad.

  • Debates - Often the community has more than one view. So for example, is online learning more or less effective than classroom learning? Often you can lay out one thesis, followed by an antithesis, and then a synthesis. So the thesis might be that online learning is better. You would start with evidence that supports this. Then you would summarize research that challenges the thesis and provides an antithesis. Finally, you would discuss research that attempts to explain why some people find an effect and other people don't. For example, you might point out that in research studies of the same teacher in the face-to-face setting and the online setting is not a fair comparison because in one setting the teacher is highly experienced and in the other a novice, thus the comparison is not valid.

  • Thematic Organization based on a model, theory, or set of dimensions- There might be a framework you are using, like structural, functional, or organizational factors. A theory might predict a number of different outcomes and the theory could be used to organize the lit review. There may be some agreement in the literature about a list of important dimensions. For example, Bransford et al. in How People Learn, describe teaching as having four properties, learner-center, content-center, assessment-centered and community-centered. So you could use these four dimensions to organize teaching in a certain domain. There are organizational frames in many books or articles that could help you organize material.

  • Geographic - It could be that you are dealing with a topic that has been explored by people in different locations in different ways. For example, if your topic was global education, you might be looking at how it is viewed from two or more countries which then becomes the way you organize your research.

Sections you might need to include within your literature review

  • Your logic model

  • Your learning theory

Your logic model or theory might provide some clues for how to organize the lit review. BUT REMEMBER--

The lit review is not about what you are planning to do. Is about the context of your problem in the work of others.
Everything in the lit review is in the past tense as you are summarizing what has been done. Avoid the use of future tense.
Research does NOT prove things beyond a reasonable doubt. Instead, it gathers evidence to support assumptions or suggest outcomes, or predict what is likely to happen. Avoid the use of definitive verbs like MUST, SHOULD, NEVER, or CAN'T, and try to use more tentative words like suggested, advised, assumed, or countered.

2) Writing each Paragraph

In a lit review, your opening sentence is a claim. You make claims that are related to the problem you are exploring based on what you have read in the literature. So if your readings suggest that collaboration in the classroom is of value, you might start with this claim. The claim can be of your own making, or you can share a claim that was made by another writer. In this case, I am going to start with my own claim.


  • The social capital that the students bring to the classroom is one of the most valuable underused educational resources schools have available.

So now I need to provide evidence that will support this claim. What would work as evidence?

  1. Large-scale studies

  2. Case studies or examples

  3. Expert opinion

If I have a list of studies, great, if not I may need to go looking. I might use "peer learning" or collaborative learning, school, peers. What I would be looking for are studies that help me make the case that students have knowledge or skills that could enhance learning in the classroom. Once I have that evidence, I am ready to make my warranted summary. For this claim, it might be that we need to change the classroom to allow more participation by students or more peer collaboration with each other.

3) Organization of a section

The paragraph structure could also be the structure of a section. I could expand the claim into a paragraph by explaining what I mean by social capital and how I see this as a resource. If I can find others that say similar things, I might add their voices to amplify the claim. Then I could use a paragraph to explain each piece of evidence and finally a paragraph to make and explain my warranted summary claim.

Another way of writing a section is to present a set of linked claims. In this case, each linked claim is connected to the next in some logical way (see the suggestions above for different forms of organization).


 Graduate School Writing Guidelines


  • Demonstrates a clear understanding of the material/subject.

  • Adequately paraphrases and limits reliance on direct quotes (see more about this below in the next section)

  • Demonstrates critical thinking by objectively interrogating (vs. reporting) literature theories throughout the paper.

  • Engages in synthesis.

  • Deftly applies theory to real-life situations.

  • Uses specific examples rather than vague ideas.


  • The overall structure of the paper is clear, and easy to follow.

  • The thesis statement is evident at the beginning of the paper.

  • Ideas are presented in a logical order that the reader can easily follow.

  • Transitions provide logical connections between ideas.

  • Paragraphs are coherent with clear topic sentences and relevant supporting examples.


  • Language is clear and succinct; rarely employs unnecessary wording.

  • A variety of sentence structures are used, and the student avoids repetition and monotony of rhythm.

  • Writing is adequately formal, and avoids colloquialisms.

  • Writing is not flowery, sentimental, or metaphorical.

  • APA format is used.

  • Active voice rather than passive voice is used.


  • The paper is free of run-ons, comma splices, etc.

  • Punctuation is consistently used correctly.

  • The paper has been proofread: no misspellings.

  • Grammar is at the graduate level—appropriate use of articles, effective word choice, consistent verb tense, and subject-verb agreement.

  • Vocabulary is adequate for the graduate level. Academic language is used throughout the paper.


Quotes, Citations & References

A literature review is a well-structured essay and NOT a list of summaries of what you read. Think of it as pulling together the voices of key people to help others learn the relevant positions or problems related to your research question.
When should you use a quote and how should you reference the work of others? You use a direct quote ONLY for one of these three reasons...

  1. ARTFUL WORDS The text is so wonderfully written that no matter how hard you try to put it in your own words something critical is lost. You cannot paraphrase it. Use the quote and be sure to include the author, publication date, and page number.

  2. FROM THE EXPERT -The importance is not the words but the fact that a certain person said them. For example, a politician might make a statement that has meaning because of WHO said it. The words might be less than poetic, but the reason for the quote is to tie the words to the author. Again you need to indicate the source and if it is cited in an article from another source, the correct way to list it is. (Bush, 2004 cited in Steward, 2004, p35).

  3. CONCEPTS AS PROPERTY The quote contains a phrase or concept that you want to tie to a person. For example "communities of practices" (Lave and Wenger, 1991)

But beware of writing in the words of others because you are afraid to interpret the text. This is a common mistake in graduate student writing. You have a right to make sense of the writing. And with a citation, you can paraphrase the results of the study using some of the words that are in the study. Don't be afraid to put it in your own words.

Now there are a number of ways to cite the person --Suppose you want to quote Riel for the phrase/idea --"Technology is shared minds made visible" are four different ways of doing this.


  • Riel emphasizes the collaborative history of technology by defining it as "shared minds made visible" (Riel, 2000,15).

  • Riel described technology as a way of making shared minds visible (Riel, 2000).

  • Technology is a way of making shared minds visible (Riel, 2000)

  • Technology mediates the collective work of people through time and space (Cole, 1980; Riel 2000).

In a literature review, you might use any of these. But the more you are able to share your understanding of the work of others, the more valuable your writing will be.

Finally, you will read materials that are NOT part of your literature review. Don't include things in your references just because you read them. Remember that part of the creative work is deciding what is relevant. It is not how many references you have, but the quality of the references that we are looking for.


Common Writing Problems and How to Avoid Them


  1. Use past tense instead of the future tense: Lit reviews are written in the past-- it is all about what had been done, what has been found. There will be time later to give your readers your advice for the future. Any advice should be in the word of others and shared in the past tense. For example, " All students should have rich experiences that will help them learn (Dewey, 1905) in a literature review might be expressed in the past tense this way: "Dewey (1905) suggested that teachers should make use of new technologies to give students rich experiences to learn from." 

  2. Give evidence rather than superlatives: In research reports, the writer accepts the burden of giving evidence more often than opinion. If you think that a book or event was fabulous, tell the reader why you came to this interpretation and see if you cannot get the reader to think the same thing based on the evidence and not your assessment.

  3. Avoid making sweeping claims - Avoid the temptation to say "Research proves... " Rarely does research prove anything beyond a reasonable doubt. In most cases, phrases like "this research suggest...", "There is substantial evidence in favor of...", or "The consensus among a number of researchers is that..."

  4. Suggest courses of action instead of using imperatives such as "must" or "should." A common error is to get overly confident about what some group of people must do or even should do based on the evidence. If you are reporting on what an author said should or must be done, that is fine. But a lit review is not a place for you to assert "the 5 most important things a leader should do." Of course, if they come from the research summarizing them is great. For example, "in reviewing all of these studies, I found seven clear recommendations for engaging students in learning" is great. This is different from saying "All teachers must always make sure to ..." which does not fit in the lit review. You will have a chance to share your ideas later in the report.


Some advice from other universities can be found on youtube.

David Peak does a great job of describing the literature review and the process of writing it.


Some valuable links for citations

APA Style Guide and information
SAGE Journal advice on APA style
David's Citation Machine

More Advice on writing the lit review

Preparing Literature reviews, by Ling Pan)
Practitioner Research: the Purposes of Reviewing the Literature within an Enquiry by Rae Stark, University of Strathclyde, Scotland

In might also be helpful to refer to the Activity Theory Model for creating your description of the setting. The intersecting triangles with Action, Outcome, Community, Tools, Roles and Rules, can provide a way to think about elements of the setting that are important to capture. Each of the twelve triangles in this figure focus on a different set of overlapping interactions.  Often just the focus on each of these six elements of an activity system is helpful for creating an effective description.

Often researchers do not use real names to identify either the context or the players. Instead they describe a school in central Texas that will be called a generic name like Valley High.  The important factors are what type of school it is, who attends, what are the challenges and accomplishments of the school. 

Rich Description
Literature Review
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