Proposals and Beyond
The (surprising) benefits of doing a lit review
By Eleanor Hasse and Rita Lewis
Literature reviews are essential to grant writing, but many consider them a nuisance. Hastily researched and deposited into the narrative, they may or may not synchronize with the rest of the text.
But treated as an integral part of your efforts, a lit review can help design, justify, and support your project—strengthening your proposal. Here, we break down the basics and the benefits. You may never put off doing a lit review again!
As its name implies, a lit review is an examination of the literature (e.g., research studies, professional articles, evaluation reports) relevant to your project. Larger grant proposals often require one. It’s your analysis of the literature and how it relates to your work.
For example, if your project involves expanding an intervention to a new population, you would examine studies on the intervention’s effects on your proposed population. If those studies are lacking, you could find research on similar interventions or similar populations. You’re trying to establish justification for your approach.
Many start a lit review when they’re seeking new funding. But you shouldn’t wait until you’re writing a proposal to collect literature and find research that supports your project. It should be an ongoing process that informs your project design, not something you pass off to the grant writer at the last minute.
Why are lit reviews so important?
- They help in designing effective interventions and projects. Existing research documents approaches that have, and haven’t, succeeded.
- They support all aspects of a program. For example, existing cognitive science may support intervention design, previously studied programs may support a proposed curriculum, and other research may support a measurement tool in your evaluation.
- A lit review allows you develop a strong theoretical framework, building on others’ work and convincing funders of the promise of your approach.
- Most important, a lit review that substantiates your approach to the project can convince the grant reviewer(s) that you’ve designed your project on a solid foundation of research.
Most of what you need is online. Google Scholar is a widely used search engine for scholarly literature; if the full-text article isn’t available, try a university library or your local library, which may subscribe to a journal database (e.g., EBSCOhost’s Academic Search Complete).
The U.S. Department of Education provides a number of resources, including:
- Evaluation reports
- What Works Clearinghouse, with rated reviews of studies on various educational topics (e.g., technology, literacy), summaries of intervention reports, and reviews of recent research
- ERIC, an online library of education research
- The Institute of Education Sciences’ publications search
In general, look for recent, high-quality articles with a similar population to your (proposed) participants, including:
- Studies that meet the U.S. Department of Education’s standards of evidence for experimental design. (NOTE: While you may be applying to a different federal agency, the Department of Education has a lot of good information about what constitutes solid research.)
- Evaluation reports of programs similar to yours.
- Conference papers and presentations. Principal investigators may share their data if asked, especially when it helps their program’s dissemination goals. Be sure to get the correct citation.
Keep an annotated bibliography as you go, organizing it in a file using EndNote, RefWorks, Excel, Word—any software with a search function. Proposal instructions may dictate citation style; if not, use an online citation tool such as EasyBib, or a style guide such as APA style (for the social sciences) or Chicago (an all-purpose style).
Although your grant writer may write the lit review section of the proposal, the project team (you) should be familiar with the literature and choose the best articles to include. Send your grant writer correct citations and explain briefly how the articles support the proposal.
The knowledge you gain from doing a lit review will be important in discussions with potential funders, administrators, and partners, and the effort will pay for itself many times over!
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