A Literature Review is Like an Onion

Photo by K8 on Unsplash


Earlier in the summer, a number of my classmates and I had the honour to participate in a video chat with Dr. George Veletsianos (2020), faculty member of the School of Education & Technology at Royal Roads University, Canada Research Chair in Innovative Learning and Technology, and Commonwealth of Learning Chair in Flexible Learning.  He’s an extremely accomplished researcher and it was a gift to have the opportunity to engage him in conversation about his experiences.

The Question

During our conversation he was kind enough to answer many of our questions, but there was one topic that really resonated with me.  My classmate, Mike MacKay, asked Veletsianos where he should start his research into how Augmented Reality (AR)/Virtual Reality (VR) impact transformative learning.  Mike was concerned, due to the newness of this technology, that there may not be much research connecting these two concepts.  The answer was really interesting.

The Answer

Veletsianos presented the idea that performing a literature review to establish the existing knowledge on a specific topic is similar in structure to an onion (31:38).  The specific research question that you’re looking to answer could be considered the very innermost layer of the onion.  This is where you’ll be looking for previous research that specifically speaks to the topic you’re pursuing.  In Mike’s example, this would be research looking for a connection between AR/VR and transformative learning.  Once you’ve read the literature that covers your specific topic, your attention should turn to less direct, but related research… moving to more outer layers of the onion.  Again, turning to Mike’s example, rather than looking directly at the connection between AR/VR and transformative learning, it would be appropriate to look at how else AR/VR has associated with learning in general.  At the same time, it would make sense to read the foundational research on transformative learning, entirely separate from AR/VR.  In this way, you as the researcher, will develop an extremely robust understanding of the available knowledge regarding your topic, and you’ll likely be able to identify a gap in that knowledge where you can fit in and begin developing a path for your own study.


Veletsianos, G. (2020). George’s meeting. BlueJeans Network. https://bluejeans.com/playback/s/PES97xtVyEHk1N21CMu2Nf6cWuxkum7cyWE7yZV9PPdarszJA4QnOQtZNBqC2oid

One thought on “A Literature Review is Like an Onion”

  1. Yes, this is such a good analogy of how to think about the literature review for any research topic…you summarized Dr. Velesianos’ remarks well!

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