Tips for Strong Evidence Writing

In past blog posts, I’ve talked about the MEAL plan, and the importance of using evidence (the e from MEAL) from empirical research; However, in literature reviews there are specific skills related to presenting that evidence that you need to add to your writing tool belt. These include writing sentences that show rather than tell, and writing densely cited sentences to show the larger landscape of a topic.

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Show Versus Tell

In courses, you likely cited studies very generally to help you make a point. However, when you write about studies in the background section of your prospectus or within the literature review, you should avoid generalized references that tell about studies and instead show the evidence by sharing details about the study and specific results. Therefore, the following phrases should not be used in a literature review.

  • Researchers have found….
  • Research states….

In a previous post I shared this formula:

In this (methodology) study + data collection methods/participants = results.

Here are some ways this formula can be used.

Telling: Researchers found that boys were more likely to fail geometry than were girls (Smith & Wesson, 2015).

Allow Data to Show (Better): In a quantitative study of urban high school sophomores, Smith and Wesson (2015) found that girls (n = 135) were nearly twice as likely as boys (n = 110) to fail geometry (p < .05).


Tell: Feedback in learner-centered courses is better received and more likely to be perceived as effective compared to students in traditional courses (Pereira, Flores, Simao, & Barros, 2016).

Show (Better): To explore self-regulated learning, Pereira, Flores, Simao, and Barros (2016) collected survey data from 605 undergraduate Portuguese students, and found that feedback in learner-centered courses was better received and more likely to be perceived as effective compared to students in traditional courses.


Tell: Students often don’t understand the connection between feedback they receive and how to apply that to future assignments (Hepplestone & Chikwa, 2014).

Show (Better): In a UK study that used Twitter, private journals, and interviews to capture undergraduate student perceptions of feedback received from professors, Hepplestone and Chikwa (2014) found that while students often have trouble with how to apply assignment feedback, if they receive feedback early they improve in subsequent assignment submissions.


These detailed sentences show the reader more about the study and provide stronger evidence for the point within the paragraph than simply adding a citation at the end of a sentence. Let the data of empirical research be the evidence. For the background section of a prospectus, the sentence should be followed by another that explains how it fits into the big picture of your proposed study. Does it use the same conceptual framework? Is it a similar study but with a different population? Do the results clarify the problem you are addressing in your study? Does the study help identify the gap in the literature (PhD) or gap in practice (EdD)? In  literature review writing, evidence sentences should be followed by a synthesis or sticky sentence to interpret or link the ideas within the paragraph.

Citation Dense Sentences 

Another really important way to provide evidence is to cite many different authors in the same sentence in order to show the “landscape” of a topic. Here is an example of what I mean.

Teacher problem-based learning (PBL) perception studies frequently acknowledged that learning the role of the facilitator in PBL is challenging whether this approach is implemented in college (Breunig, 2017), adult education (Kim, 2015) high school (Cook & Weaver, 2015) middle school (Martelli & Watson, 2016) elementary (Nariman & Crispeels, 2016) or with special populations such as ELL, gifted, or students with disabilities (Hovey & Ferguson, 2014).

Here’s what I want you to notice:

  • The citations are found within the sentence, not all lumped together at the end. This allows the reader to know which studies are related to what type of learners.
  • All of these studies found similar results, hence why they are cited together. However, it is not necessary to write show sentences (as described above) for each. This citation dense sentence should be followed up with additional support that will either pull out the pertinent elements of the cited studies, focus on one of those groups of learners, or strategically situate the proposed study in context of the previously done studies.

Although these citation dense sentences can contain a bit more about each study as the next example shows:

A review of recent studies revealed that problem-based learning (PBL) has been successfully implemented with a variety of culturally diverse and underserved students such as inner city children attending Saturday school (Catapano & Gray, 2015), Hispanic college students who developed career connections with local businesses (West & Simmons, 2012), and vocational high school students in Taiwan labeled as low achievers showed exceptional gains in problem-solving (Chiang & Lee, 2016).

There are three different scenarios in which you should be writing these citation dense sentences. The first is when you are writing to “talk around the donut hole.”  In your dissertation, you need to show a gap (the donut hole). These sentences help you establish what IS known (the donut) as a way to help identify what is not yet known (the hole). These sentences might be in body paragraphs within the literature review, or they may be in the final gap paragraph of a level 1 heading. The second, is to establish evidence-based norms within the topic. If there is a lot of research establishing a certain element within your topic, these sentences allow you to show the scope of the consensus across a topic and allow you to more quickly focus on the narrower topic related to your study. But similarly, citation dense sentences might also help you establish contrasting findings across the literature. Third, this type of sentence will be helpful in chapter 5 in the interpretation of the findings, section as you situate your findings in context of what is already known.

Here is another densely cited sentence that uses the citations to succinctly identify studies that link systematic feedback to various other variables.

As a systemic feedback process, PBL assessment can drive deeper learning (Eristi, 2016; Panadero, 2013; Pantiwati & Husamah, 2017; Sáiz-Manzanares, Segura, Calderon, & Antona, 2017), promote student self-regulation and autonomy (English & Kitsantas, 2013; Hao, 2016; Rahimi, 2015) and allow for differentiation which can enable teachers to track the development of higher order thinking skills (HOTS) for all students (Bender, 2012; Hovey & Ferguson, 2014; Martelli & Watson, 2016).

These citation-dense sentences have the advantage of giving your reader confidence that you know your topic broadly, not just related to your narrow focus, and that you understand the scale of issues within your discipline.

Can you find either of these types of sentences in your own dissertation writing?

(Thanks Susan for letting me cite from your literature review.)

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