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OnRamps History: For Instructors

A guide for OnRamps History Instructors on UT Austin Libraries access, information literacy and pedagogical resources.

Brainstorming Keywords


Developing a keyword strategy is important. A lot of students spend a lot of time searching, even on Google. This causes search fatigue and breeds frustration and a hatred for research. You may hear them lament, “I can’t find anything on my topic!”

Additionally, you may find that students are using only a fraction of what you know is written about a topic. This could be students giving up too early, or it could be that they are using the same search terms over and over and retrieving the same results each time. 

After doing some background research, have the student brainstorm keywords on their topic by dividing up the important concepts and organizing them into a grid. You can help them organize their thoughts by identifying the first column as the main concept, the second column as what people are arguing about, and the third column as the stakeholders, or who cares about the topic. You may have less than three columns, or more than three, depending on the topic. For example, 

Should plastic bags be banned in Austin?

                                 AND                                     AND
shopping bags                against the law                    City of Austin
OR     grocery bags                  outlaw                                  city council
          reusable bags                prohibit                                 environmentalists
                                              recycling                               consumers
                                              pollution                                plastic bag manufacturers
                                              landfills                                 HEB
                                              marine life                             Whole Foods
What do the AND and OR do? That's how you link your keywords in a database search. Such as, "plastic bags AND ban OR against the law AND city of Austin OR Mayor Steve Adler" The more ANDs you use, the narrower the search. ORs will broaden the search.     

Keyword brainstorming tip!
  • Keywords can help narrow a search. Plastic bags AND ban is a very broad search. You can limit it by adding another keyword, such as Austin or HEB. Think about keywords as a way to limit to a particular viewpoint - be it by geography or by person or group of people.

Try this!

How to Generate Keywords - This interactive tool guides you through the process of creating an effective keyword search for your research topic and then allows you to email the results to yourself and/or your instructor. You can also launch the search in the Library Catalog (to find books) or Academic Search Complete (to find popular and scholarly articles)

Google search tips

Narrow your results by using these tricks in Google

  • Search for an exact phrase by putting your search terms in quotation marks (ex: “dream act”)  
  • Search only a specific site (ex: or domain ( by typing in your search followed by, (ex: dream act
  • Eliminate results from a specific site (ex: .com) by typing in your search followed by

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