Michigan State University

TE 808: Inquiry into Classroom Teaching & Learning

Alternative forms of classroom inquiry to improve teaching and learning of subject matter. Social context of teaching and learning, pedagogy, and teaching effects. Social and academic outcomes for diverse learners.

How to Search: Defining Topics and Key Terms

You have to know what you're looking for in order to find it!  Before you begin your search, you must have a clearly defined topic that is neither too specific nor too broad. 

If your topic is too specific, it is possible that you won't find any results because no one has published on your topic. If your topic is too broad, you will be overwhelmed with tons of results making it difficult to focus your paper.

Once you have chosen your topic, develop a list of keywords that you can use as search terms. This involves thinking of synonyms and related terms.

Topic: The effects of social media use on scientific inquiry in high school students.


social media scientific inquiry high school students
social networks scientific research secondary education
Twitter scientific analysis  
Facebook scientific methodology  

Remember to be flexible in your searching: try different keyword combinations and use new terms as you find them.

As you begin research on a new topic, a good place to start is by looking up your topic in a reference resource like an encyclopedia. Click to the Reference/Background Information tab for more information.

Advanced Searching

After you have defined your topic and developed your search terms, the next step is to combine keywords together to create a search query. Remember that when you are searching online, you are making a command to a database.

Boolean Logic

Boolean searching is a system of logical operations used to search computer databases. It is named after George Boole, a nineteenth century mathematician. There are three commands (aka operators) recognized by most search engines: ANDORAND NOT. Think of a Venn diagram. 

The AND command returns documents that contain both words used in the search.

Example: dropouts AND teenagers

Boolean AND Venn Diagram

The OR command returns documents that contain either the first word or the second word. It expands the search and is usually used to find all of the documents on a subject that can be called two or more different keywords.

Example: teenagers OR adolescents

Boolean OR Venn Diagram

The AND NOT command excludes documents that contain terms. It is usually used when a word can have two meanings and you want to screen out documents based on a particular meaning.  For example, the word "java" can refer to both a computer programming language and a type of coffee.

Example: java AND NOT coffee

Boolean AND NOT Venn Diagram

To chain together a set of commands, parentheses are used to clarify the order of operations, just like a mathematical equation. Alternately, the advanced search screen of many databases will help you group your search terms together appropriately without having to enter in parentheses on your own.

Example: (teenagers OR adolescents) AND dropouts

Boolean set of commands venn diagram

If you are still having trouble understanding Boolean commands, try this quick tutorial from the Colorado State University Libraries.

Phrase Searching

To signify that a set of words must be joined together as a set, use the double parentheses command.

"exact phrase"

Otherwise, many databases will read a search for exact phrase as a search for the terms exact AND phrase appearing anywhere in the document, i.e. the word exact might appear in the first paragraph and the word phrase could appear in the last paragraph.

Subject Librarian

Jill Morningstar's picture
Jill Morningstar
Michigan State University