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Library Information Literacy and Research Tutorials

Information Literacy 1

Learning Objectives

By the end of Tutorial 3: Developing a Search Strategy, you should know how to:

  • Narrow or broaden the focus of your research topic. 
  • Find reliable sources for background information.
  • Identify the main concepts related to a topic.
  • Generate effective search terms.

Estimate tutorial time: 15 minutes

Your Search Strategy and Topic

What is a search strategy?

There's a lot of information out there. How can you efficiently and effectively find the most relevant sources of information on your topic? You need a plan, and a search strategy is an organized plan for gathering information. Developing a search strategy will organize your research process and help you decide where to search, how to search effectively, how to evaluate the sources you find, and even how to go about reading, incorporating, and citing your sources. A good research strategy starts with developing an initial topic and conducting background research.

Developing Your Topic

Developing your research topic takes some thought and consideration. Whenever you get to choose your own topic for an assignment, try to pick something that really interests you. You'll also want to make sure that your topic fits the scope of your assignment - that it isn't too broad or too narrow to work. 

  • Too broad: Topics that are too broad often retrieve 1) too many sources or 2) sources that are too general or "big picture" to be useful.
    Example: Drug abuse
  • Too narrow: Topics that are too narrow often retrieve 1) no sources, 2) only a few sources that are directly about your topic, or 3) sources that only indirectly address some aspect of your topic. 
    Example: The effect of drug abuse on the athletic performance of 18-year-old hockey players in Argentina

Watch the following short video to learn how to narrow or broaden your topic:

Source: “Picking Your Topic IS Research!” by North Carolina State University Libraries, licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US License.

Background Research

Your topic doesn't need to be set in stone when you start your initial research. And you don't need to immediately jump into reading dense 30-page scholarly articles related to your topic! It's usually best to spend some time exploring your general area of interest and reviewing some basic information by conducting preliminary background research or "pre-research."

  1. Existing Knowledge: What do you already know about your topic?
  2. Class Readings: Review your class readings and notes - do they include any information on your topic?
  3. Online Overviews: Begin reading online. Some common web sources like Wikipedia (a type of encyclopedia), online news articles, or the websites of groups or organizations that are interested in your topic are often written for general audiences so they'll include some context, define terms, and link to other useful sources of information on your topic. 
  4. Factual Reference Works: You can get reliable information on your topic by using the Libraries' reference databases, which are online collections of reference works like encyclopedias, dictionaries, and handbooks. Search for reference works in the library catalog, check out our Encyclopedias Research Guide, or search for a specific reference database like CREDO Reference or Oxford Reference on our Databases A-Z list. The bibliographies (the lists of references or works cited) in these sources can serve as excellent starting points for deeper research, since they include citations for more detailed, authoritative, and academic books and articles. 


Your Research Question

Use what you learn to identify important concepts or ideas related to your topic, track down other potential sources, and to create a list of search terms for future searches. Learning more about your topic will help you decide on your research question. A research question is the question around which you center your research. What issues related to your topic are researchers currently writing about or discussing? What questions do you have that you want to investigate?

Identify Main Concepts & Search Terms

Another important step in a good research strategy is to identify your topic's central ideas or main concepts. Try writing down your topic or research question and then identifying 2-4 main concepts.

Example Topic: The effect of social media use on college students’ sleep.
Example Research Question: What measures can college students take to effectively limit social media's negative effects on their sleep?

Concept 1 Concept 2 Concept 3
social media college students sleep

Once you've identified the main concepts, generate a list of search terms (or keywords and key phrases) under each concept. Consider related terms or synonyms (e.g., social media and social networks), broader terms (online behavior or internet), and more specific terms (e.g., Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, X):

MAIN CONCEPTS: social media college students sleep

social networks
cell phones

university students
young adults
sleep quality
sleep loss
sleep deprivation

In general, you can leave out these kinds of abstract terms along with connector words like "in," "of," or "on."
Notice that we didn't include the word "effect" in our search terms even though it's part of the topic. Terms that describe connections between concepts, such as "cause," "effect," "relationship," "impact," "purpose," and "trends" are ambiguous, making them ineffective search terms. The relationships are implied by searching for both concepts together.

Other Academic Support Offices

As you continue working on your assignments, make sure to check out the super-helpful services provided by The Study, The Writing Centers, and other campus offices. The Study, for example, has Peer Academic Coaches and other resources to help you strengthen your study, organization, and communication skills, while The Writing Centers' Peer Tutors help you improve your writing. 

Quiz 3: Developing a Search Strategy