In the ever-evolving landscape of education research, the approach we take toward investigating new domains can significantly influence the outcomes and insights we garner. One such approach, which we firmly advocate for, is the systematic literature review (SLR). This method stands out in its ability to navigate the complex, often chaotic nature of scientific inquiry, particularly when exploring new fields (Booth, Papaioannou, and Sutton 2012). Let’s delve deeper into why SLRs are not just beneficial but essential for researchers, especially in the context of work-integrated learning (WIL) scholarship.

A whiteboard filled with handwriting, arrows, and data

The essence of SLRs lies in their structured, meticulous approach to research. As we venture into relatively uncharted territories like WIL, it becomes crucial to first understand what is already known; this is where SLRs shine. These literature reviews serve as a powerful tool, enabling researchers to comprehensively survey existing literature, drawing out patterns, gaps, and emerging trends. This method is particularly pertinent for WIL researchers, urging them to invest more effort in deciphering the wealth of knowledge already accumulated before embarking on fresh research endeavours.

As participants in the 2022-2024 Research Seminar on Work-Integrated Learning hosted by Elon University, we embrace the SLR approach to explore a significant aspect of WIL: students’ and supervisors’ perceptions of effective supervision in placements. This investigation is critical as it affects both students and the industry, shaping the future of education and workforce readiness. Our research was guided by the question: what are the key skills industries acquire when undertaking student placement supervision, and what are the elements of effective supervision for placement students? We chose an SLR methodology and method to explore our research question because we desired to know what part of the scientific inquiry canon had already been explored before pursuing our research ideas.

We ensured that our approach aligned with good practice standards for quality SLRs as outlined by Fink (2020). Fink defines a quality literature review as a method for “identifying, evaluating, and synthesizing the existing body of completed and recorded work by researchers, scholars, and practitioners” (6). Thus, we built our work upon clearly defined stages, beginning with a precise scoping of the research question. This process was enriched by our backgrounds, expertise, and cultural perspectives in WIL. By doing so, we aimed to unearth evidence-based information about the experiences of students and supervisors in workplace placements, a critical component of post-secondary education.

This type of methodology isn’t just a literature search to support a claim; it’s a comprehensive, rigorous analysis aimed at crafting a well-reviewed and quality-assured research question. This process leads to potential new areas of discovery. For example, our exploration revealed a prevailing focus on WIL research within the healthcare and teaching professions, signalling a critical gap in WIL research in other disciplines. We also desired to make SLRs a cornerstone in the methodology of education research as both beneficial and a rigorous method of scientific inquiry.

The freestanding nature of SLRs in our study meant a focused examination of a specific topic, based on literature that met our set criteria. This criterion was developed through critical friend reviews and roundtable discussions, as defined by Healey and Healey (2023). The depth of this analysis, as Gough, Oliver, and Thomas (2013) also argue, transforms the SLR from a mere literature search into a methodology and method driven by rigor and deep analysis.

The true value of SLRs in education research is their ability to construct new knowledge. As Imel (2011) notes, a well-conducted SLR can lead to “new productive work…and represent knowledge construction on the part of the writer” (147). This is crucial in fields like WIL, where the dynamics of education and industry constantly intersect and evolve. Through SLRs, we not only synthesize existing knowledge but also lay the groundwork for new research questions and directions.

In conclusion, the SLR is more than just a research tool; it’s a mindset, a rigorous approach that demands thoroughness, critical thinking, and an openness to new ideas. For researchers in education, especially in burgeoning fields like WIL, adopting SLRs is not just beneficial – it’s essential. It ensures that our research is grounded in a comprehensive understanding of what’s already known, thus paving the way for meaningful, impactful contributions to the field. Let’s continue to embrace and advocate for SLRs in our research endeavours, recognizing their pivotal role in driving forward the frontiers of educational scholarship as an innovative practice in education research and scholarship.


Booth, Andrew, Diana Papaioannou, and Anthea Sutton. 2012. Systematic Approaches to a Successful Literature Review. SAGE Publications.

Fink, Arlene. 2019. Conducting Research Literature Reviews: From the Internet to Paper. 5th Edition. London: SAGE Publications.

Gough, David, Sandy Oliver, and James Thomas. 2013. Learning from Research: Systematic Reviews for Informing Policy Decisions: A Quick Guide. London: The Alliance for Useful Evidence.

Healey, Mick, and Ruth Healey. 2023. “Reviewing the Literature on Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL): An Academic Literacies Perspective: Part 2” Teaching and Learning Inquiry 11

Imel, Susan. 2011. “Writing a Literature Review.” In The Handbook of Scholarly Writing and Publishing, edited by Tonette S. Rocco, Timothy Gary Hatcher, and John W. Creswell, 145-60. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Three women stand together in a classroom
Team Dogwood, Elon University 2022-2024 Research Seminar on WIL (from left to right): Borghild Brekke Hauglid (Kristiania University College), Dr Rachael Hains-Wesson (University of Sydney) and Anne-Marie Fannon (University of Waterloo).

Borghild Brekke Hauglid works at Kristiania University College, one of Norway’s oldest private higher education institutions, with more than 15,000 students. She is a lecturer in organization, leadership and learning and an advisor at Center for Pedagogical Development where she guides lecturers in engaging teaching methods. 

Anne-Marie Fannon is the director of the Work-Learn Institute at the University of Waterloo. In this role, she sets the research and innovation agenda for the Work-Learn team.  Anne-Marie is actively engaged with Co-operative Education and Work-Integrated Learning (CEWIL) Canada and serves as co-chair of CEWIL’s Government and External Relations Committee. 

Rachael Hains-Wesson is an Associate Professor and Director Work-Integrated Learning Hub at the University of Sydney Business School. Rachael is a renowned leader in Higher Education in work-integrated learning (WIL), career development learning & employability, placements/internships, student-sourced placements, business practicums, and study tours.

How to Cite This Post

Hauglid, Borghild Brekke, Rachael Hains-Wesson, and Anne-Marie Fannon. 2024. “Embracing Systematic Literature Reviews in Education Research: A Path to Rigorous Discovery.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. March 5, 2024.