Synthesizing the Literature

word cloud about mixing and separating with words like mix, blend, meld, detach

Writing a literature review is hard work if you want to do it well. A good literature review does not just describe what different researchers have done or what others have claimed, but synthesizes findings from multiple studies and authors into a concise summary. The purpose is not to fully detail what others have done in relation to the topic , but to give an overview of the extant literature on a given topic (McMillan & Schumacher, 2010). Students who begin writing literature reviews often describe one study, then move on to the next. It can take a lot of practice to learn to pull together the literature into summary statements. I finally developed a strategy that works for me and I will share it here.

This strategy begins with careful note-taking, which I will cover in another post. These notes then need to be indexed so that they can be organized by construct or theme, rather than by author or study. I do this in a couple of different ways. If I take notes in a Microsoft Word document, then I will read through my notes, highlight passages, and then use the comment feature to add one or more keywords. To see an example of this, take a look at my notes on studying non-returning college students. You will see that I highlighted passages, then used Ctrl+Alt+M on my keyboard to add a comment, such as findings, variables, sample, response rate, or student characteristics.

If I take notes using, I tag my highlights or annotations with keywords. In the example below, I highlighted a passage that said, “Three calls were made to each student over a period of around 4 weeks” (Aldridge & Rowley, 2001, p. 58), then used the annotation tool to leave myself a note that said, “multiple attempts to reach students in the evening hours”. To index this note, I added a tag “response rate”.

On the main page of your account, you can click on a tag to filter your annotations to just show the ones you have tagged with that label. In the example below, I clicked on “stereotype threat” and was able to see that I have three articles where I took notes using that tag. By reading through the notes I took from these three sources about stereotype threat, I was able to make a summary statement about this construct and cite three supporting works. allows me to take notes and synthesize all in one, but it does not allow me to re-open files that were annoted on my local machine. Not all of my sources are available online, so sometimes I need to take notes in Word.

After indexing my notes in Microsoft Word using the commenting feature, I then create synthesis tables to sort and organize these notes. Click here to see my synthesis tables for the study of non-returning students. For example, as shown in the figure below, I copied my notes and quotations from articles about sampling and recruitment in studies of non-returning students into a table with the citation in the first column, details about their sample in the second column, details about recruitment strategies in the next column, the study method used, and their completion rate in the last column. With all of this data in a table, I was able to sort it and collect information about studies that used common methods.

When reporting on sampling strategies, I was able to pull together information from this table to state, “Some universities survey all first year students after the semester has begun and then correlate this data with high school statistics to provide early warning systems (Nelson & Thomas, 2012) or compare the data ex post facto between the students who return the next year and those who do not (Bennett, 2003; Coghlan et al., 2005; Heverly, 1999). “

Putting all of my notes into this table format helped me to see that response rates varied based on the method selected and the recruitment strategies used. I summarized this information in the following paragraph.

Recruitment strategies for encouraging students to complete participation in these studies varied widely along with their completion rates. Online surveys tended to have the lowest completion rates at a low of 7% for a school who contracted with a calling center to email and call non-returning students (Ninon, 2013) to a high of 28% when an announcement was sent in email, posted to the learning management system, and announced by instructors (Willcoxson et al., 2011). Surveys given during class time had a better return rate between 54% and 66% (Bean, 1980; Bennett, 2003), and phone surveys were even more successful in collecting data from a range of participants with participation rates between 48% and 86% (Aldridge & Rowley, 2001; Coghlan et al., 2005; Heverly, 1999; Institutional Research, 2007). The phone interviews that had the highest response rate (Coghlan et al., 2005) used a recruitment strategy of sending a letter from the Chancellor’s office to a stratified random sample of freshmen explaining the purpose and the importance of their participation, letting them know that they would be entered into a drawing for a $250 gift card for completing the interview. Phone calls were conducted primarily in the evenings on weekdays and included two rounds of interviews, with the first round conducted in the spring and the second round of just non-returning students in the summer.

In addition to the sampling and recruitment strategies table, I also made tables to organize my notes on why students report that they leave college, characteristics of students who leave, and interventions that have been tried. As I incorporate these notes into the literature review, I highlight them to keep track of which ones have been included and which are remaining.

If you would like to read the full literature review, you can access it online here: The Study of Non-Returning Students: A Review of the Literature. Learning to organize your notes can be very helpful in writing a high quality literature review. By indexing your notes using simple tools like the comment feature in Word or the tag feature in, you will be able to categorize your notes by theme or construct. Pulling together all of your notes on one topic will allow you to summarize the literature effectively, synthesizing what other research says. This will strengthen your literature review.

Do you have suggestions for writing a literature review? Leave them in the comments below.


Aldridge, S., & Rowley, J. (2001). Conducting a withdrawal survey. Quality in Higher Education, 7(1), 55–63.

McMillan, J. H., & Schumacher, S. (2010). Research in education: Evidence-based inquiry (7th ed). Pearson.