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Research Skills

Information to help students find, evaluate, reference, and write for their assignments

Developing a search strategy

We live in an information age thanks to technology like the Internet. Knowing which avenues to use to find the information we need can seem a little daunting at the outset of our research journey.

This section will help direct your search so that you never have to feel lost or overwhelmed by information.

Use the quick links below to help you learn about the skills you need to build an effective and efficient search strategy.

Quick links

Finding search terms: keywords

Keywords are the words you type into search engines when you are looking for relevant sources.

Your keywords will be the main concepts from your research question.

This section will teach you how to identify your main concepts and turn them into a collection of keywords that give your search strategy flexibility and scope.

How to identify the main concepts in your question

The easiest way to identify them is to work backwards!

We'll apply the following steps to two different-looking research questions:

Explore the effectiveness of Lego as an adult teaching tool What factors have influenced a high Covid19 vaccination rate in the Pasifika community?

STEP 1: Remove all the small, insignificant words.

Explore the effectiveness of Lego as an adult teaching tool What factors have influenced a high Covid19 vaccination rate in the Pasifika community?

STEP 2: Remove any instructional words (the words that give you a directive/tell you what to do) OR any 5Ws and the H words (What, When, Where, Which, Who, and How). They tend to be the first word of the question.

Explore effectiveness Lego adult teaching tool What factors influenced high Covid19 vaccination rate Pasifika community?

STEP 3: Remove any evaluating words (words that indicate measuring or assessing, or suggest change).

effectiveness Lego adult teaching tool factors influenced high Covid19 vaccination rate Pasifika community

What's left will be your main concepts and your keywords! 

Lego / adult / teaching tool factors / high Covid19 vaccination rate / Pasifika community

Having flexible keywords 

The keywords you've identified through your process of elimination won't be your ONLY keywords. When you type them into a search engine (whether it be the Wintec databases or Google Scholar) they may not retrieve all relevant results. That's because different sources will use different words for the same concepts.

Here's how to cover all your bases so that search results include ALL sources that are relevant.

Brainstorm all the synonyms (different words that mean the same thing) for your key concepts:

 Use a thesaurus, like Wordhippo or Collins English Thesaurus to help you.

 Some keywords may not have synonyms because they are too specific.

Here's an example of how to approach brainstorming synonyms for your keywords:

CONCEPT 1: Lego CONCEPT 2: adult CONCEPT 3: teaching tool

No synonyms as word is

a specific brand (any other

word will mean the results

may not be relevant for Lego)

Mature student Education method
  Grown up Learning aid
    Teaching device

Once you have a list of synonyms, you can try using different combinations of search terms in your search engine to see which gives the best results.

The next section will teach you the best way to join ALL your keywords (synonyms and all) to retrieve the most relevant results.

The video below explains a little more about keywords and developing additional keywords/synonyms.

Pro searching tips

Most search engines will give you some options to optimise your search and really target the results you want. In this section you will learn about Boolean operators and phrase searching.

Quick links


Boolean operators (and, or, not)

You may notice the following drop down options when you use the Catalogue or the OneSearch Advanced Search:

The AND, OR, and NOT help narrow and broaden your search.


The AND can be used to join your main concepts. By joining two or more ideas together, your search becomes more specific and your results will therefore be more targeted. You will have fewer results.


The OR can be used to join your synonyms to give your search engine more options (remember, not all sources will use the same words for the same concepts). You will have more results because it broadens your search.


The NOT can be used to strip out any results that are not relevant. For example, if you are doing research on early childhood education, one of your keywords might be "children". However, your search engine might include results for teenagers. By writing "teenagers" next to the NOT Boolean operator, you will remove all those irrelevant results. You will have fewer results because it limits your search.

What does a search strategy look like using Boolean operators?

Let's use one of the examples from the previous section in which we found the keywords and synonyms for the question Explore the effectiveness of Lego as an adult teaching tool.

By using AND and OR you are joining your main concepts together to limit search results by making them specific, and you are also giving your search engine options to find relevant sources that may use different terms for the same thing.

Lincoln Memorial University

Lincoln Memorial University explains how Boolean operators (and, or, not) work using pirates and ninjas. It's worth a watch for the entertainment value alone.

Phrase searching

Phrase searching is an easy way to limit the number of your search results.

By using it, you are telling your search engine you want to search for words that are side-by-side or in a particular order. It's really important to use it for any concepts that are multi-worded, like "The Internet of Things" or "Postpartum depression".

If you don't use phrase searching for multi-worded terms, your search engine will look for each word separately and you will get a large number of results (many of which will be irrelevant for your research).

All you need to do is put quotation marks around your search terms, like this:

Filters, limiters, and facets

Most databases give you options to narrow your search results according to a set of criteria. These criteria are called "filters" by some databases, and "limiters" or "facets" by others, but they all do the same thing.

They can allow you to limit your search results by things like:


 peer-reviewed articles

 publication date

 age groups and sex/gender

 type of publication

They are often tick boxes or drop down menus in the advanced search:


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