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Library Research Skills for College Students: Step-by-Step

A step-by-step in-depth start to finish guide through the research process.

Create a List of Search Terms (and Alternates) for Your Topic

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Figuring out the right search terms is a key part of conducting an effective search whether you are using library databases or searching the web. The process for developing good search terms is the same for both


How do I know what words to enter into a Search Box?

You may be assigned a topic to research or you may be asked to choose your own. Your topic will be your starting point in choosing search terms.note-taking icon

  • Types of search terms: 
    • keywords - a general list words related to your topic.
    • subject searches - words listed or bolded database lists
      • nouns - the names of something or someone -- people, things, places
        •  example - nouns for a topic in psychology: "depression,"  "bipolar disorder," "schizophrenia."
  • Make a list of main search terms 
  • Create a list of alternate search termssynonyms (different words that mean the same thing)
    • WHY? Different authors will use different terms that mean the same thing so If you can't find enough information using one search term, another
    • Consult a Thesaurus to find related or alternative words or synonyms.  

Searching Databases

This video below introduces basic and advanced search, strategies for developing a search, and some general research tips.

Magnifying Glass icon  Basic and Advanced Searching

Basic Searching

At different stages in your search for information you will use different search strategies. When you're brainstorming to see what is out there, do a basic search. Enter a single word or a short phrase about your topic into the database's search box. Keep it simple: "pandemic," "college education."

Skim the list of articles that appear. Are there a lot of articles on your topic idea or just a few? How hard will it be to thoroughly research and write about this topic? If there are just a few you may want to choose different search terms. Look at your notes from the encyclopedia databases for ideas. If you still get too few results, you might want to change your topic. You're only at Step 2 in the research process so there's still time.

Advanced Searching

If you are looking for more detailed information about your topic, try one of these advanced search strategies.

  • Put quotation marks " " around a phrase - "college education." This forces the database to search for the phrase "college education," not the words "college" and "education" separately.
  • Put an asterisk (*), or truncator, at the end of a word will search for everything that begins with that group of letters in most databases
    • Example: comput* will return all words starting with four letters; computing, computer, compute, etc.  
  • You can also try a question mark (?) within a word to include multiple spellings
    • Example: wom?n will find both woman and women.
  • Focus your search by using Boolean operators; AND, OR,  NOT
    • Example: pets AND cats OR dogs, NOT hamsters
  • Some databases allow you to perform proximity searches
    • Example: the following phrase, movies w/3 drugs is searching for instances when the term movies is within 3 words of the term drugs. This method works well in a Google search.
  • Consider using alternate terms, or synonyms. for words,
    • Example:  society = culture, community, civilization, etc.
  • Broaden your search. If you don't find an article on your topic don't assume it hasn't been written. You might just be using the wrong terms or might be searching too specifically to find it. Try broader terms.
  • Look carefully at the results from your search. If there is a great article, look for the subject headings (often bolded) or a list of subjects. These are database-generated terms ("machine language"). Use these terms in future searches. 

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