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Education: research guide: Systematic literature searching


Review: An article that summarises a number of different primary studies and may draw conclusions about the effectiveness of a particular intervention. A review may or may not be systematic.
Systematic review: A review of the evidence on a clearly formulated question that uses systematic and explicit methods to identify, select and critically appraise relevant primary research, and to extract and analyse data from the studies that are included in the review. Statistical methods (meta-analysis) may or may not be used.
Scoping review: A scoping review maps the body of literature on a broad topic area whereas a systematic review presents a summary of existing research answering a more specific question. A scoping review can come before a full systematic review. There are some useful definitions and comparisons of the methods in this article and more on scoping studies in this article and the related reading listed in SOLO.
Meta-analysis: The use of statistical techniques to combine the results of studies addressing the same question into a summary measure.

from: Undertaking systematic reviews of research on effectiveness: CRD's guidance for those carrying out or commissioning reviews. CRD Report 4 (2nd edition). March 2001.

Recommended resources

Systematic review

A systematic review is a summary of research that uses explicit methods to perform a thorough literature search and critical appraisal of individual studies to identify the valid and applicable evidence. An example which also explains what systematic reviews are, alternative terminology and desirable characteristics is:

Rose, H., Briggs, J. G., Boggs, J., Sergio, L., & Ivanova-Slavianskaia, N. (2017). A systematic review of language learner strategy research in the face of self-regulation. System, 72, 151–163.

A systematic review should include the preferred reporting items for systematic reviews and meta-analyses (

A systematic review is a research method, just as interviews or surveys are research methods. The key difference is whether you are collecting and analysing your own primary data, or performing a review of already published research and grey literature.

Where to start

A curated list of useful reading about doing systematic reviews in education has been produced by academic staff in our Department. 

An excellent guide to systematic reviews has also been provided by our healthcare librarians

Recommended resources

For systematic reviewing in the field of education, EPPI-Centre is the place to start, e.g. their page on What is a systematic review?

IDESR - the International Database of Education Systematic Reviews aims to become the go to web resource for locating previous reviews and registering protocols for upcoming reviews. In the first phase of development IDESR is currently focusing on language education.

The Campbell Collaboration shares the commitment of The Cochrane Collaboration (healthcare) to high standards for the conduct of systematic reviews. You can search for examples in the field of education in their free online library.

The PRESS project devised a checklist you can use to review your search strategy: 

McGowan J, Sampson M, Salzwedel DM, Cogo E, Foerster V, Lefebvre C. PRESS Peer Review of Electronic Search Strategies: 2015 Guideline Statement. J Clin Epidemiol 2016;75:40-6.

Examples of systematic reviews in education

Take a look at the Cambell Collaboration's library of systematic reviews in the social sciences:

Recent reviews by members of the Department of Education include:

Nag, S., Vagh, S., Dulay, K., & Snowling, M. (2019). Home Language, School Language and Children's Literacy Attainments: A Systematic Review of Evidence from Low- and Middle-Income Countries. Review of Education (Oxford), 7(1), 91-150. which builds on initial report:

Nag, S., Chiat, S., Torgerson, C. & Snowling, M.J. (2014). Literacy, foundation learning and assessment in developing countries: final report. Education Rigorous Literature Review. Department for International Development.

Hopfenbeck. T., Lenkeit, J., El Masri, Y., Cantrell, K., Ryan, J., & Baird, J.-A. (2018). Lessons learned from PISA: A systematic review of peer-reviewed articles on the Programme for International Student Assessment. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 62(3), 333-353. 

Macaro, E., Curle, S., Pun, J., An. J., & Dearden, J. (2018). A systematic review of English medium instruction in higher educationLanguage Teaching, 51(1), 36-76.

Other examples:

Freeman, J. & Brandi, S. (2015) Examining the impact of policy and practice interventions on high shool dropout and school completion rates: A systematic review of the literature. Review of Educational Research, 85(2), 205-248

Tutorials with a librarian

Please contact us if you would like any help with your research. We offer help with:

  • searching the education databases
  • saving and managing your references
  • setting new publication alerts
  • citation tracking
  • ...and much more

To book an appointment, please contact us on 

Education Librarian

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Catherine Scutt
Bodleian Education Library
15 Norham Gardens
Oxford, OX2 6PY
Subjects: Education

Systematic review software

It is common practice to use Excel and Reference Management Software to manage systematic reviews.

The EPPI-Centre have created specific software for systematic reviewing which individuals can subscribe to (the cost is not prohibitive).

There is also free alternative: Rayyan

Covidence is an alternative online software you can pay for: Covidence

Take a look at the Systematic Review Toolbox for other ideas, including tools to use to critically analyse the studies you find e.g. this quality assessment tool.