Synthesis Matrix for literature review

When I first attempted to write on this Chapter 2, which is the literature review (LR) chapter, I was feeling a bit lost as if I was floating in the ocean. The articles I found were piling up and I didn’t know what I should really do about them other than to allocate time to read them. But that was not enough still. Just reading them, of course gave me great insight and new idea but I was still struggling to put them into proper writing. I failed miserably. Nothing was written for months even though I kept on reading those articles I found. I had serious problem in putting everything together to make a story.

When I was in a workshop, I heard this  term of literature review matrix or some called it a synthesis matrix. According to the speaker, all PhD candidates (okay, I’m not! Thank God!) must produce a matrix to show their literature review work and every supervisors should demand to see it too. I was intrigued and went to search more about it.

LR is the most important part of the research (as if you still don’t know) and it can really help you moving forward or it can also act as a boulder that doesn’t let you pass. Sometimes I still feel this LR is the biggest barrier in my research life. Hehe! Why is it so hard? To me, it’s because I didn’t know the proper way to do it. I have learnt that LR is not supposed to just summarize each individual article I found. Yes, summarizing is a must skill in LR but it must be done in the right way. In LR, it requires analyzing skill while doing the summary before you attempt to do the synthesis and finally write the review.

I found some guides in creating a LR matrix and I went ahead to read the articles I found, particularly in the topic of Personal Learning Environment (PLE). Before that, I have already identified what I want to look for while reading the article. Specifically, I’m looking at the article for any mentioning of the definition of PLE, the pedagogy or principle behind PLE, the rationale for PLE, the skills required and the challenge in implementation. These subtopics or themes are the ones that I want to talk about in my Chapter 2 later. When my matrix started to fill up, it quite amazed me. I’m rather glad that I start to see some patterns in those articles I read, particularly the definition. There are many, of course but mostly mentioned about learner control or autonomy and self-regulation in learning. Whenever I’m reading an article, these are what I’m looking at and sometimes some articles would mention some cool argument or idea. If I cannot fit them in any boxes, I would put them in Other category, hoping I can reference to it later if it fits. I also started to see gap in the matrix when the articles didn’t mention any of those that I’m looking for.

Here is my on-going effort on the matrix on PLE. I have started another matrix on Pedagogy, trying to analyze the different pedagogical approaches and technology used in higher education today.

This matrix is in MS Word and the references are generated by Mendeley add-in. I also saw some doing this matrix in MS Excel.

Sadly, I still haven’t started writing my review, though I have a clear outline and idea in Chapter 2. I promise I will start writing soon enough. *Cross my heart*

20 thoughts on “Synthesis Matrix for literature review

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  1. You’ve done a good job! I like the matrix idea although I haven’t used one yet, I think I’m going to start. How many references do you think it is best to have in a single matrix?

    1. Thanks Ben. There’s no rule how many you can fit in a matrix. I’m trying to fit as many as I can find about PLE. I have started another matrix for another topic blended learning environment to fit all those articles that are talking about it. Sometimes I find it’s hard to put different things together but I guess we just have to find a way to make our argument. Next I will attempt to blog about writing the review using the matrix. Hehe!

  2. Thank you for this. I’m currently drowning in my LR and had had countless times concluded that I am hopeless and even may not have a knack for research but your post have given me some hope!… and I’m (delightfully) surprised to find out that it’s written by a fellow Malaysian as well 🙂 I’m studying abroad so when I googled for articles on writing Literature Reviews I (somehow) assumed it’s less likely that I’ll land on a post by another Malaysian.

    1. You are welcome. I’m just glad my sharing helps you. I will keep on writing so that the next time people google about literature review it will be my posts on the top. Haha! Feel free to explore my sharing here. Hope you get more inspiration to write.

  3. thanks!! this is sooo helpful…i’ve tried doing mind map and table as well but just could not pin down the important points (or maybe i’m just too afraid to do that)..this has really helped me!! kudos!

  4. Thanks Jen! I’m just about to re-start my literature review (draft #273) and have found myself drowning in the literature. This looks like a great method of getting it back down to the bare essentials again.

    1. Draft #273? Amazing yet scary. Haha! I’m glad my method can help. All the best to you. Do keep me updated how you do later. I’d love to know!

  5. Hi Jen,
    I just discovered your site and I love it. Quick question. For my lit. review, I have three major sections – English Teaching in Japan, Technology Adoption in Higher Education, and Mobile Assisted Language Learning. Would you recommend making a separate spreadsheet for each of these sections, or just keeping them all together in a longer document?

    1. Hi Daniel,

      Thank you for your feedback. I would recommend you to have separate file for each theme if you are using MS Word like I did because combining them all into one document would be too condense. If you are thinking to use Excel spreadsheet, then maybe you can use different sheet for each theme and keep them on in file spreadsheet file. However, you can also try different methods to see which one works for you. I have wanted to try OneNote next to start my literature review matrix. Do let me know how the matrix works for you after you try. Thanks 🙂

  6. Thanks so much for your reply. I will definitely keep you updated. One more question regarding Mendeley. What was you system for tagging in Mendeley? Did you tag all the articles with the themes in your matrix or did you do something else?



    PS – I have introduced your site to everyone in my program at University of Wyoming and at Ritsumeikan University in Japan where I work. We all love it!

    1. Hi Daniel,

      You are welcome and I thank you for recommending my blog. I’m really glad you all like my site. I really have plan to share more about literature review soon but I just need some time to get to that writing. Hope you all can stay tuned!

      About my tagging system in Mendeley, sadly I have a poor system for that. I don’t know why I don’t really rely much on tags to search within my article collection, though I have seen others doing it so well. At first, my tagging system was putting the “author (year)” as tag in the article where it was referred from, as cross-reference. I normally search through the references of important articles to find and read more articles that they refer to, so I just made a tag to link them. It was not very efficient and I have yet to come up with a good tagging system. Maybe I should start looking into that once I restart my literature review.

      Do you have a good suggestion on the tagging system? I’d love to hear your opinion 🙂

  7. I also appreciate for this information. I have read so widely but I could not write my literature review. However, after going through several articles online I came across this method. I must confess to you that I am now cofident in writing literature review.

  8. Hi Jen, Thank you for your post. It’s a great article that would help any PhD student to organize literature review. I’m interested in this add-in you mentioned. Is it available for a public download? If so where do I find it? Thank you.

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