How to do a literature review when studying chemistry education

It’s the time of the year to crank up the new projects. One challenge when aiming to do education research is finding some relevant literature. Often we become familiar with something of interest because we heard someone talk about it or we read about it somewhere. But this may mean that we don’t have many references or further reading that we can use to continue to explore the topic in more detail.

So I am going to show how I generally do literature searches. I hope that my approach will show you how you can source a range of interesting and useful papers relevant to the topic you are studying, as well as identify some of the key papers that have been written about this topic. What I tend to find is that there is never any shortage of literature, regardless of the topic you are interested in, and finding the key papers is a great way to get overviews of that topic.

Where to search?

For literature in education, there are three general areas to search. Each have advantages and disadvantages.

For those with access (in university) Web of Science will search databases which, despite the name, include Social Sciences and Arts and Humanities Indexes. Its advantage is that it is easy to narrow down searches to very specific terms, times, and research topics, meaning you can quickly source a list of relevant literature. Its disadvantage is that it doesn’t search a lot of material that may be relevant but that doesn’t pass the criteria for inclusion in the database (peer review, particular process regarding review, etc). So for example, Education in Chemistry articles do not appear here (As they are not peer reviewed as EiC is a periodical), and CERP articles only appeared about 10 years ago, thanks to the efforts of the immediate past editors. CERP is there now, but the point is there are a lot of discipline based journals (e.g. Australian Journal of Education in Chemistry) that publish good stuff but that isn’t in this database.

The second place to look is ERIC (Education Resources Information Center) – a US database that is very comprehensive. It includes a much wider range of materials such as conference abstracts, although you can limit to peer review. I find ERIC very good, although it can link to more obscure material that can be hard to access.

Finally, there is Google Scholar. This is great as everyone knows how to use it, it links to PDFs of documents are shown if they are available, and it is very fast. The downside is that it is really hard to narrow your search and you get an awful lot of irrelevant hits. But it can be useful if you have very specific search terms. Google Scholar also shows you who cited the work, which is useful, and more extensive than Web of Science’s equivalent feature, as Google, like ERIC, looks at everything, not just what is listed in the database. Google is also good at getting into books which you may be able to view.

A practice search

I am going to do a literature search for something I am currently interested in: how chemistry students approach studying. I’m interested in devising ways to improve how we assist students with study tasks, and so I want to look to the literature to find out how other people have done this. For the purpose of this exercise, we will see that “study” is a really hard thing to look for because of the many meanings of the word. I intend it to mean how students interact with their academic work, but of course “study” is very widely used in scientific discourse and beyond.

It’s important to write down as precisely as you can what it is you are interested in, because the first challenge when you open up the search database is to choose your search terms.

Let’s start with Web of Science. So I’ve said I’m interested in studying chemistry. So what if I put in

study AND chem*

where chem* is my default term for the various derivatives that can be used – e.g. chemical.

study and chemstar

Well, we can see that’s not much use, we get over 1 million hits! By the time I go through those my students will have graduated. The problem of course is that ‘study’ has a general meaning of investigation as well as a specific one that we mean here.

Let’s go back. What am I interested in. I am interested in how students approach study. So how might authors phrase this? Well they might talk about “study approaches”, or “study methods” or “study strategies” or “study habits”, or “study skills”, or… well there’s probably a few more, but that will be enough to get on with.

(“study approach*” or “study method*” or “study strateg*” or “study habit*” or “study skill*”) AND Chem*

So I will enter the search term as shown. Note that I use quotations; this is to filter results to those which mention these two words in sequence. Any pair that match, AND a mention of chem* will return in my results. Of course this rules out “approaches to study” but we have to start somewhere.

Search2

How does this look? Over 500. OK, better than a million+, but we can see that some of the hits are not relevant at all.

search2 results

In Web of Science, we can filter by category – a very useful feature. So I will refine my results to only those in the education category.

refine search2

This returns about 80 hits. Much better. Before we continue, I am going to exclude conference proceedings. The reason for this is that very often you can’t access the text of these and they clutter up the results. So I will exclude these in the same way as I refined for education papers above, except in this case selecting ‘exclude’. We’re now down to 60 hits, which is a nice enough number for an afternoon’s work.

Thinning

Let’s move on to the next phase – an initial survey of your findings. For this phase, you need to operate some form of meticulous record keeping, or you will end up repeating your efforts at some future date. It’s also worth remembering what we are looking for: approaches people have used to develop chemistry students’ study skills. In my case I am interested in chemistry and in higher education. It is VERY easy to get distracted here and move from this phase to the next without completing this phase; trust me this will just mean you have to do the initial trawl all over again at some stage.

This trawl involves scanning titles and then abstracts to see if the articles are of interest. The first one in the list looks irrelevant, but clicking on it suggests that it is indeed for chemistry. It’s worth logging for now. I use the marked list feature, but you might choose to use a spreadsheet or a notebook. Just make sure it is consistent! Scrolling through the hits, we can very quickly see the hits that aren’t relevant. You can see here that including “study approach” in our search terms is going to generate quite a few false hits because it was picked up by articles mentioning the term “case study approach”.

I’ve shown some of the hits I marked of interest below. I have reduced my number down to 21. This really involved scanning quickly through abstract, seeing if it mentioned anything meaningful about study skills (the measurement or promotion of study skills) and if it did, it went in.

marked list 1

Snowballing

You’ll see in the marked list that some papers have been cited by other papers. It’s likely (though not absolutely so) that if someone else found this paper interesting, then you might too. Therefore clicking on the citing articles will bring up other more recent articles, and you can thin those out in the same way. Another way to generate more sources is to scan through the papers (especially the introductions) to see which papers influenced the authors of the papers you are interested in. You’ll often find there are a common few. Both these processes can “snowball” so that you generate quite a healthy number of papers to read. Reading will be covered another time… You can see now why about 50 initial hits is optimum. This step is a bit slow. But being methodical is the key!

A point to note: it may be useful to read fully one or two papers – especially those which appear to be cited a lot – before going into the thinning/snowballing phases as this can help give an overall clarity and context to the area, and might mean you are more informed about thinning/snowballing.

A practice search – Google Scholar

What about Google Scholar? For those outside universities that don’t have access to Web of Science, this is a good alternative. I enter my search terms using the Advanced search term accessed by the drop down arrow in the search box: you’ll see I am still using quotation marks to return exact matches but again there are limitations for this – for example strategy won’t return strategies, and Google isn’t as clever. So depending on the hit rate, you may wish to be more comprehensive.

Google

With Google, over 300 hits are returned, but there isn’t a simple way to filter them. You can sort by relevance, according to how Google scores that, or by date, and you can filter by date. The first one in the list by Prosser and Trigwell is quite a famous one on university teacher’s conceptions of teaching, and not directly of interest here – although of course one could argue that we should define what our own conception of teaching is before we think about how we are going to promote particular study approaches to students. But I’m looking for more direct hits here. With so many hits, this is going to involve a pretty quick trawl through the responses. Opening hits in new tabs means I can keep the original list open. Another hit links to a book – one advantage of Google search, although getting a sense of what might be covered usually means going to the table of contents. A problem with books though is that only a portion may be accessible. But the trawl again involves thinning and snowballing, the latter is I think much more important in Google, and as mentioned scopes a much broader citing set.

Searching with ERIC

Finally, let’s repeat with ERIC. Putting in the improved Web of Science term returns 363 hits (or 114 if I select peer-reviewed only).

Eric search

ERIC allows you to filter by journal, and you can see here that it is picking up journals that wouldn’t be shown in Web of Science, and would be lost or unlikely in Google. You can also filter by date, by author, and by level (although the latter should be treated with some caution). Proquest is a thesis database, so would link to postgraduate theses (subscription required, but you could contact the supervisor).

eric filters

The same process of thinning and snowballing can be applied. ERIC is a little frustrating as you have to click into the link to find out anything about it, whereas the others mentioned show you, for example, the number of citations. Also, for snowballing, ERIC does not show you the link to citing articles, instead linking to the journal webpage, which means a few clicks. But for a free database, it is really good.

Which is the best?

It’s interesting to note that in the full search I did using these three platforms, each one threw up some results that the others didn’t. I like Web of Science but that’s what I am used to. ERIC is impressive in its scope – you can get information on a lot of education related publications, although getting access to some of the more obscure ones might be difficult. Google is very easy and quick, but for a comprehensive search I think it is a bit of a blunt instrument.  Happy searching!

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