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RHE 398T Help Materials

These pages support instructors of RHE 306 and RHE 309 to teach information and digital literacy skills.


Search Strategy

What to know about keywords and search strategy

Students are not proficient searchers. You might see:

  • students searching their topics as they would in a Google environment ("Should colleges have fancy gyms on campus?")
  • students being rigid in their keyword searches and not finding sources - This is the result of them brainstorming keywords before doing research and not in response to research.

How you can help:

  • Let students know that developing a search strategy requires research and is informed by research. You don't know how stakeholders and experts talk about a topic until you immerse yourself in the topic.
  • Encourage organization (see Activities tab)
  • Walk them through an example to teach them how to ask questions about their topic and to dig up a rich keyword strategy from research (suggestion below)
  • Many students searched library databases in high school. Have them lead a demo in class and open the discussion to suggestions from classmates.

Go through an example with your class:

  • Write your sample controversy down on the board. Our broad topic example is: Food and housing insecurity impacts student success in college. Let's narrow this together.
  • Underline key concepts (food insecurity, housing insecurity, student success, college).
  • Brainstorm broader, narrower and related terms for each of the key concepts.
  • Note: this is a good opportunity to talk about paper scope - what should students be tackling in the number of pages assigned? Often, they approach this like writing a book. Reel them in.

college students
(examples, broader and narrower terms)

food or housing insecurity
(synonyms and examples of how students are affected)
student success
(related terms and how we measure success)
UT / Texas State, etc. hunger / health grades / GPA / academic performance
community college students low income graduation rate
undergraduates / graduate students homelessness retention
underrepresented groups / first generation / dreamers on campus / off campus housing time to completion
  • Take this opportunity to discuss how using value-laden terms will help them find viewpoint articles. Our topic doesn't have any, but think about an example like, 'undocumented worker' vs. 'illegal alien' and how those terms reflect a value.
  • If students are writing about local issues, discuss how keywords related to location may help. This may be the part that makes or breaks their topic. Work with students on choosing topics that have a local relevance.
  • Introduce a stakeholders column. Who cares? This helps them hone in on perspective, which allows them to identify expertise and publication. 
  • Explain that students need to use AND and OR to connect topics. Explain that AND narrows a search by requiring both words to be in the results and OR broadens it by allowing for any of the words connected by OR to be in the results. Demonstrate in a database:

  • Tips:‚Äč
  • Students are often looking for an article that lays out all the pros and cons of their controversy (basically, their paper in article form). Explain that they will need to find viewpoints from both sides and then synthesize their sources into their paper.
  • Explain to them that searching for terms like pro/con or for/against will not work since there are rarely the words people on either side of an issue use to describe themselves (pro-life/pro-choice rather than pro-abortion or con-abortion; collective bargaining and right to work rather than for or against unions)
  • Do not use terms like: effects of, reasons why, causes of, etc. as they are imprecise. Instead, steer students into thinking about specific measurable effects, such as rates of graduation or GPAs, or even satisfaction with something (mental health support services, access to gyms, etc.)

Any database in the Choosing a Controversy page will be helpful. The below are a great starting point:

This interactive tool guides students through the process of creating an effective keyword search for their research topic and then allows students to email the results to themselves and their instructor. Students can also launch the search in the Library Catalog, Academic Search Complete, or JSTOR.

  • Whole class exercise: Demonstrate the utility of background information for identifying aspects of a controversy and generating keywords. Show a background source such as Gale Virtual Reference Library or Opposing Viewpoints in Context. Look through an entry together and have students identify the aspects and keywords as a class. You can open the online How to Generate Keywords for your Research Topic tool in a different tab, and ask your students give you keywords to fill it in. (links to bold appear below)

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