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A How-To Guide for Research: Define

Questions to keep in mind:

  • What problem am I solving?
  • What information do I need?
  • What do I already know?
  • What else do I need to learn?

Research Questions, Search Terms and Strategy

This video was created by Purdue University Libraries. It focuses on effective search strategy, and the importace of a research question.

1. Choose a preliminary topic. Once you begin researching, you might change this slightly or completely throw it out.

2. Identify keywords and concepts, using online tools like those shown at right or using adictionary or thesaurus.

3. Develop a search strategy using your keywords.

4. Use Boolean operators (and/or/not) to refine your searching.

5. Find useful terms in your search results and retry your searches.

Your first step in any project will be to choose a topic.

But choosing a topic isn't as simple as saying "I want to write about diabetes." Searching for diabetes will return an overwhelming amount of information. So you'll need to narrow your topic and come up with the keywords you’ll need to search for books and articles on your topic…and this is before you even start research and writing!

VisuWords is an online graphical dictionary. Put in any word and watch it go!

VisuWords graphic organizer

When searching for information about your topic, whether in the library catalog or on Google, it's important to come up with an extensive list of search terms. Search terms are important concepts related to your topic. They also might be synonyms for words that mean the same thing. You need to look for different variations of words because not everyone will use the same terms to describe a topic. Think about the death penalty. If you only searched using that phrase, you would miss out on a lot of good information that refers to the same concept as capital punishment. 

Let's say you are looking for information about why the 1990s are referred to as the Dawn of the Information Age, particularly in terms of how we began to use computers to communicate. 

Step 1:  Identify the main concepts in your search.

1990s   Computers   Communicate

Step 2: Take each one of those concepts and brainstorm related words that might be useful. You might have to consult other sources for help.

Where do you find keywords and synonyms?

  • Do background research in a print or online encyclopedia or Wikipedia to come up with a list of terms. 
  • Use a dictionary or thesaurus (either print or online).
  • Do a search with these terms to find a few initial articles, and read them with an eye toward discovering new terms that might be useful.
  • Look at subject terms assigned to articles in library databases.
  • Ask a librarian or your instructor for guidance if you are having problems.

For our research question, we might come up with the following words:

1990s Computers Communicate
Nineteen Nineties personal computers


Nineties PCs

new media


home computers

24-hour news cycle


1990-1999 Internet
Internet access
the net

electronic mail

 1990's World Wide Web
web browser

cell phones
mobile phones

  America Online (AOL)

instant messaging
Buddy List


Step 3: Now that have a list, combine these terms using Boolean Operators to create searches.

SOURCE: Jefferson Community and Technical College

The video below explains what the three main Boolean Operators are and how you use them. From Lexy Spry & Emily Wixson, Chemistry Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison.


Step 4: Try combinations of these words when you go to search for information in the library catalog, the library databases and Google. Searching is a trial-and-error process, so be prepared to try a lot of different searches before you learn which ones will produce the best results.

Background research

Steps for Successful Research

Step 1: Review assignment to ensure you understand instructor's requirements

  • Topic: Has the instructor assigned a topic, either general or specific?
  • Purpose: Is this an informational or persuasive paper, an essay?
  • Length: How many pages are required?
  • Sources: Are there suggested sources, or restrictions on the number and type of sources?

Step 2: Select Your Topic

Select a topic that:

  • Interests you, or is something you want to know more about.
  • Meets your instructor's requirements.
  • Has sufficient information that is readily available.

 Gather topic ideas from:

  • A list of topics provided by your instructor.
  • Text books or assigned readings.
  • Preliminary reading in encyclopedias, newspapers or magazines.

Step 3: Refine Your Topic from broad to narrow concepts

Narrow topic by identifying ideas or concepts included in broader topic. For example:

  Broad topic: Preventative Medicine

  Narrow topics: Hygiene, diet and nutrition, vaccination, stress reduction, reproductive health, dental health

Sources to help you narrow your topic:

  • Subject terms in library catalogs, databases, or encyclopedias
  • Background research in encyclopedias, newspapers or magazine articles

Write your topic as a thesis statement, or short sentence that:

  • Defines the main idea of your paper.
  • States what you will describe or prove in your paper.

Step 4: Plan Your Search Strategy

Search strategy definition: mapping out the key ideas of your topic in order to ease the search for information.

Make a list of keywords related to your topic.

  • Main ideas
  • Synonyms or words with the same or similar meaning

Develop search terms.

  • Start with one search term, even though results may be too broad.
  • Add a second search term with a Boolean Operator.  
    • AND narrows a search; results are limited to materials that include all of the specified terms in text.
    • OR broadens a search; results are materials that include any of the search terms in the text.
  • Add additional search terms as needed

Be sure to check the Locate tab for step 5