The Four Types of Literature Review

Updated: Jan 23

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When education leaders are faced with challenging problems of practice, they frequently turn to literature reviews to gain a quick understanding of the issue at hand. A literature review is a type of scholarly publication in which the authors have scoured the archives for all the relevant previous research on an issue and synthesized it in one spot. They are incredibly valuable tools for education leaders working to solve challenging continuous improvement problems with little time and even fewer resources. However; not all literature reviews are the same. As an education decision maker, you must understand the difference between the four common types of literature reviews so that you can make the best use of them.

Position Paper

The first type of literature review that you are likely to encounter is the position paper. Education decision makers have quick and easy access to these papers because a position paper is part research synthesis and part marketing material. In crafting a position paper, the author usually selects research that is designed to promote a particular product, solution, policy, or opinion. They then weave the information from these studies together into a convincing narrative designed to sway the decision maker in their direction.

Position papers play an important role in school governance. They are produced by vendors, advocacy groups, and sometimes education decision makers themselves to promote a specific idea or viewpoint. This type of paper is generally published by the organization that wrote it and may take the form of blog posts, white papers, or eBooks. These papers generally only hold one point of view, and that isn’t an inherently bad thing; but it should give the decision maker pause. When you are reading a position paper you are only being exposed to research that supports one side of an argument. You must take conscious steps to find research with the opposing viewpoint so that you can fully form your decision.

Theoretical Framework

A theoretical framework is the most common type of literature review around. It’s the type of literature review that you learned to write in college. When crafting a theoretical framework, the author pulls research from a wide variety of perspectives and constructs a narrative designed to help the reader understand the ins and outs of a specific theory. This type of literature review tends to be very focused in its scope.

While you can certainly find standalone theoretical frameworks, you will most commonly encounter them embedded within larger research papers. Researchers use theoretical frameworks to help lay the foundation for the research they have performed to help provide context to the reader before introducing the specifics of their study. Education decision makers should give priority to theoretical frameworks which have been rigorously conducted and published under peer review protocols. This means that the theory has been vetted by experts in the field who mutually agree that it provides a meaningful contribution.

Systematic Review

Systematic reviews are like theoretical frameworks on steroids! This type of literature kicks up the level of rigor by following an established search methodology. The methodology section is a distinct characteristic of a systematic review that indicates to the reader that this paper has undergone a stronger process. Systematic reviews generally follow a protocol where researchers identify databases and search terms and “systematically” gather research on an issue. They then summarize the studies and synthesize them into actionable information.

Systematic reviews are incredibly valuable to education practitioners and continuous improvement specialists because they provide an in-depth analysis of the research on a very specific topic, like this systematic review about called “Interventions for improving employment outcomes for persons with autism spectrum disorders.” Systematic reviews are designed to be truly comprehensive, so they give the education practitioner a good understanding of the topic. The aforementioned report summarizes 278 studies!

Systematic reviews are almost always published in peer reviewed journals. My favorite place to find systematic reviews is the Campbell Collaboration, an international research network that promotes systematic reviews in the social sciences. I highly recommend you check it out.


We have now come to the final form of literature review – the meta-analysis. Put simply, a mata-analysis is a systematic review plus math. They have taken the education field by storm in the last 8-10 years, largely due to the international popularity of John Hattie’s Visible Learning (which is actually a meta-meta-analysis). In a meta-analysis, the research pulls only research reports with statistical outcomes, then summarizes them using statistics to attempt to create a master result.

These master results are great for schools seeking to implement a new strategy or program. Education leaders must be able to set realistic goals and expectations for new efforts. When you read 20 articles about the results of a particular strategy, you get 20 different outcomes. It can be hard to synthesize that information on your own. In a meta-analysis, the research has done that work for you.

For my limited time, I always reach for systematic reviews and meta-analysis when I need to gain a quick understanding of a problem of practice. They are thorough, less biased, and give me a deep understanding of a topic without the legwork of performing my own literature review.

I hope this short article has helped to give you a better understanding of the different types of literature reviews available to education leaders and how you might use each kind to inform your continuous improvement processes. If you want to read more about specific steps for performing your own literature review, check out my free eBook, Writing a Great Literature Review. It is available in The Repository – the free members only section of this website that includes more than 30 resources to help you drive continuous improvement efforts.

Good luck on your journey friends, and let me know how I can help.