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Information Essentials: Breaking down the question

Plan your search

Planning your research is crucial because it helps you avoid wasting time and getting overwhelmed. Having a search strategy keeps you on track and focused and ensures you don't miss out on important sources or key concepts that can make your research better.

Example assignment question:

Examine the effects of climate change on biodiversity in tropical rainforests.


For more on how to break down and understand an assignment question please visit the Understanding the Question page on Academic Skills @ ECU (Canvas).

  • Identify the main concepts or ideas in the assignment question.
  • These concepts will form the basis of your search string.


Practice Activity:

  • Brainstorm alternative words or phrases that can represent each key concept.
  • Consider different expressions or variations of the concepts.


Example assignment question:

Examine the effects of climate change on biodiversity in tropical rainforests.


Example synonyms/related terms:

  climate change biodiversity tropical rainforests
Alternative phrases     global warming species diversity equatorial forests
  environmental change ecological diversity jungles
  climate crisis plant and animal variety Amazon rainforest


  • Combine the key concepts and their synonyms using appropriate search operators (e.g., AND, OR) to create a search string.

Example search string:

"climate change" AND biodiversity AND "tropical rainforests"

  • Determine if there are specific parameters or aspects you want to focus on within the assignment question.
  • Think about potential filters or limiters to refine your search.

Example additional filters/limiters:

  • time frame (e.g., "past decade")
  • geographical location (e.g., "South America")
  • specific types of biodiversity (e.g., "bird species," "plant diversity")


  • Explore advanced search techniques to enhance your search results.
  • Examples include using quotation marks for exact phrases, Boolean operators, parentheses, and truncation or wildcard symbols for grouping search terms.

Example advanced search technique:

"climate change" AND (biodiversity OR "species diversity") AND ("tropical rainforests" OR "equatorial forests")

  • Explore multiple relevant databases and search engines suitable for your research topic.
  • Adapt your search string and techniques to fit the specific database you are using. For example databases/search engines: Web of Science, Science Direct, Google Scholar, etc., may all use different search filters, parameters and symbols.
  • Evaluate your search results and modify your search strategy as needed.
  • If you're not retrieving the results you want for your assignment then you can just adjust the search terms, add or remove filters, or try different databases to obtain relevant and appropriate sources.

Example refinement:

Modify the search string to focus on a specific geographical location:

"climate change" AND (biodiversity OR "species diversity") AND ("tropical rainforests" OR "Amazon rainforest") AND "South America"


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