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Research -- Methodology -- Study and teaching (Higher), Engineering -- Study and teaching, Research -- Methodology


Literature review is a skill assumed to be in the arsenal of all graduate students pursuing thesis options at the MS or PhD level. There are many resources on writing literature reviews, from campus writing centers to books such as Machi and McEvoy. One would also assume that this is among the very first tasks that research-oriented students would undertake. However, our brief and preliminary survey of graduate students in our electrical and computer engineering department showed that they have very little to no experience in performing literature reviews, and discussions with other faculty confirmed this observation. Unlike some other fields, such as social sciences, it also seems that engineering education programs do not place as much emphasis on the development of this skill. The most obvious use of training graduate students in literature reviews is in helping them satisfy dissertation or thesis requirements. Literature reviews, however, have other uses, such as starting a new research area by identifying holes in the existing literature or summarizing one’s own research area. Recently, it has been argued that a variant of literature review, so-called “systematic literature review” (SLR) can help students publish their first original work and transition them from novice to knowledgeable. Finally, systematic literature reviews have become a research area by themselves, although they are less common in engineering than in areas like medicine, psychology or education.

For all these reasons it is appropriate to intentionally train and educate students in performing literature reviews in general and SLR in particular. One possible approach, taken by many departments, is to design a research methods course that also covers literature review topics. Experience with other so-called soft-skills, such as technical writing, suggests that it is very important to provide a specific disciplinary context for learning technical writing “… so that students appreciate it as part of their professional engineering skills, not a skill separate from them.” Therefore, learning how to do literature reviews and SLR can best be accomplished by their incorporation in various courses across the engineering curriculum. For now, however, we will concentrate at the course-level implementation.

Recent literature in the area of software engineering has advocated using SLR as a more generic educational tool, potentially suitable even for undergraduate student use. A variation of SLR called interactive SLR (iSLR) has been published very recently arguing for some flexibility in the protocol design so that iterations on some key components can be accomplished. Satisfactory results with undergraduates were reported. Originally, the development of the iSLR protocol took several iterations and was done with small groups of graduate students.

In this report we will present a pilot study demonstrating that iSLR is a useful and practical educational tool that can and should be done in the context of a specific course problem and not as a generalized approach, as is usually done in research methods courses. We propose making iSLR part of a research-like project on a specific subject matter covered in a course. When set up in this fashion, we believe that educational benefits will include improved critical thinking and writing, increased motivation, improved life-long learning skills, better topic coverage, and increased depth of coverage. Ideally, iSLR would be introduced into the wider curriculum and would address student skills and abilities that are difficult to attain in regular coursework. The rest of the paper is organized as follows: Section II gives an overview of uses of SLR in other disciplines, especially in medicine and software engineering. Section III discusses uses of iSLR as pedagogical tool in engineering and includes implementation details. Section IV is devoted to assessment methods and results. Finally, section V discusses lessons learned, offers some conclusions, and points to future work.


Presented at the 122nd ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition in Seattle, WA.

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