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Practical Searching

The Research Cycle

A search strategy is an organized method to retrieve information about a specific topic. It is often referred to as the Research Cycle.

Use the techniques described below to become a better researcher.

Keyword Searching: In databases and search engines, it is possible to do a broad search for information by typing in a term which you feel describes your topic and using it as a keyword. Every occurrence of your keyword from all the searchable fields will be found. The searchable fields could include the full-text of an article or an entire web page.

You may retrieve a large number of hits. Look carefully at a couple of the relevant hits to get ideas for other terms which could help you refine your search. Keyword searching can be time consuming and exhausting because it is such a broad method of searching.  Remember: Finding too much information is just as problematic as finding too little information.

How can you refine a search? The best thing about databases is that they contains records with fields that can be sorted, arranged, and searched. When confronted with many results in a first broad keyword search, you can  narrow your search by limiting it to specific fields, like the subject field.

Searching Subject Headings: Subjects are created from a "controlled vocabulary" by a human after carefully reading or looking at the item. Each item will have only a few subject terms which must be chosen from a list of allowable subject headings, a controlled vocabulary. If you find one book or article that meets your needs, look at the subject assigned. It may not be what you expect. Often these are highlighted links.

Research as Inquiry

Research as Inquiry refers to an understanding that research is iterative and depends upon asking increasingly complex questions whose answers develop new questions or lines of inquiry in any field. One thing leads to another. It is important to stay open to the process and to new ideas.

Research to Learn!

Always do your preliminary research first. Do it BEFORE you finalize your the topic and BEFORE you create a thesis or a final research question. Collect sources that you can read and use for guidance along the way.

Most students erroneously think that in order to do research you just have to dream up a topic, research it, then dump what you get into a paper.  In fact, research, reading, and writing are combined processes and inform each other. You may continually revise your topic as you write and research.

The reading you do in the beginning of a research process has two specific purposes:

  1. It helps you to narrow your topic by finding out how much information is out there and, therefore, what is do-able within the page-limits you have been assigned.
  2. It helps you get an idea of which specific aspects of your topic you will want to do more detailed reading about.

Where to Start

Wikipedia is great to start your research!

Not only will it give you history on the topic, it usually lists alternate names and spellings,quick facts, controversies, and similar topics. Read an entry to identify keywords and concepts that you can search for in the research databases.

Best of all, most entries include reference citations and helpful links. Check out their sources!


Also check out encyclopedias and other reference sources.

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