What is the Difference Between a Literature Review and a Term Paper?

Austrian painter Carl Schleicher's A Controversy Whatsoever on Talmud.
Austrian painter Carl Schleicher’s A Controversy Whatsoever on Talmud.

Merriam-Webster  defines a term paper as “a long essay that usually requires research and that is written by a student as part of a course or class.” In a term paper, the writer makes an argument about what the research says on a particular topic.

For example, I wrote an undergraduate term paper on marriage practices of the nobility in 17th Century France. I read a number of secondary sources and looked at some of the estate records that were compiled in volumes in the library. I came to the conclusion, surprising to me, that most members of the French nobility in the 17th Century did not marry, but were forced into the convent (women), the army or the priesthood (men). I wondered about how this contributed to the long-term consequences for French society, the consolidation of power that led to the explosion of the French Revolution.

The purpose of a literature review, however, is to lay out the scholarly conversations that are relevant to your topic. What kind of research are people doing, and what are they writing about? Where does your topic fit in?

Books on how to do research— one of my favorites being The Power of Questions: A Guide to Teacher and Student Research by Beverly Falk and Megan Blumenreich (2005)—commonly suggest that the novice writing a lit review for a research proposal identify research articles related to their topic, and pull out three or four themes that seem to emerge in reading them.

This is good advice, but it misses the point: Research is a conversation.  People who do research talk with each other, build on each other’s work, refute each other’s work, etc. The literature review is your “map” of that conversation. What you do in your literature review is show where your proposed study fits in.

I have found that graduate students don’t understand they are making a transition from being an undergraduate who consumes knowledge to a master who produces knowledge. Many students feel stymied, and bemoan, “I can’t find anything on this topic!”

“That’s great,” I say. “That means you are doing research on something we don’t already know. What are the conversations your study is related to?”

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