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How-To Guide for Research

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 a dictionary 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.

VisuWords is an online graphical dictionary you can search to find related words. This can be helpful when choosing a research topic or looking for more keywords.

VisuWords graphic organizer

When searching for information about your topic, it's important to come up with an extensive list of search terms. Search terms are important concepts related to your topic. You need to look for different variations of words because different authors will use different terms to describe a topic.


  • death penalty OR capital punishment OR execution OR death row

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, nineteen nineties, nineties, 90s, '90s, 1990-1999, 1990's
  • Computers, PCs, home computers, internet, world wide web, www, America Online (AOL)
  • Communicate, communication, new media, email, e-mail, 24-hour news cycle, electronic mail, cell phones, instant messaging, Buddy List, AIM, ICQ

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

Boolean Operator Description

Both operators do the same thing. Requires all terms to appear somewhere in the document, in any order.

Example: curriculum AND high school


Includes any page with at least one of the terms.

Example: curriculum OR high school

NOT / -

Both operators do the same thing. Excludes documents containing whatever follows it.

Example: high school NOT elementary

high school - elementary

Quotation marks

Requires all terms within the quotation marks to appear in the order written. Creates a highly specific phrase.

Example: "high school curriculum" would only search for this phrase, rather than the words individually.


Step 4: Try combinations of these words when you go to search for information in 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.

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