Active Learning and the … Lit Review??!?

A research methods class is pretty much by definition a classlong experience in active learning. Whether the grade is based primarily on problem sets or a finished research project, students are expected to learn by doing and to demonstrate their learning through completed analyses.

One of the challenges in teaching such a course, however, is ensuring that students get sufficient practice attempts at all major skills to succeed. This is particularly true for courses that rely heavily on a final paper of a type that students have never done before. Most faculty require a draft literature review prior to the submission of the final paper, often after a class meeting with a reference librarian to learn to locate and cite appropriate academic literature.

What we don’t give them a chance to practice, however, is the write-up portion of the literature review, the actual composition stage. The result is literature review drafts that read like annotated bibliographies simply strung together; each paragraph is about a separate article, with little connection between them.

The problem with getting students to practice this skill is the part where they presumably have to read the literature to be able to summarize it. My solution: write draft literature reviews that were entirely fictitious yet contain enough information for students to practice looking for common themes and connections between the pieces. Chapter 3 of my book, Empirical Research and Writing: A Political Science Student’s Practical Guide, contains three drafts of a mock literature review on which came first, the chicken or the egg. (This keeps the focus on the form, not the content.) These guide students through the process of going from a beads-on-a-string, paragraph-per-item format to a more integrated and holistic approach to the literature.

The book’s website, available at, then contains a second draft literature review for students to practice their skills. This is the chicken’s half of the story, arguments for why the chicken had to have preceded the egg. If you’ve reviewed or discussed the first part (the egg primacy half) in class, students should need about 20 minutes to write better drafts of the chicken portion; this works best with a partner or two.  When I’ve done this in class, the results are about a paragraph long. Pairs then exchange drafts and discuss what the other pair did differently.

If time permits, or as a short homework assignment, the website also contains several graduate-student-written ‘dreadful draft’ literature reviews on actual topics in American, comparative, and international politics.

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