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Information Essentials: Keyword searching

Keywords: Getting started with your assignment

Now you have the background in your topic from your unit readings, and other background research from textbooks, you can start work on your assignment. Before you start jumping into typing keywords into a search box, however, you need to analyse your assignment topic to make your search efforts more efficient.


First: Break down your question

“What am I being asked to do?"

Start by analysing your question, to make sure you don’t end up writing a great assignment, but one that doesn't answer the correct question!

There are three elements of the question to consider:

  1. Instruction words

These terms tell you how to approach the question. They include verbs like "discuss," "analyse" & "explain." Each requires a different type of answer.

  1. Content words

These words describe your topic. These include key noun phrases, adjectives and verbs. You use these when you begin your research.

  1. Focus or Limiting words

Finally, these terms set the parameters for your answer. They include place, time and type.


If you are asked to:

Compare two methodologies of historical inquiry, using primary sources to illustrate your answer.

We can see the instruction word here is to "compare," meaning you need to assess the relative strengths and weaknesses of two different methodologies. You must also "illustrate" your answer, meaning you must give examples.

The content words are "methodologies," and "historical inquiry," these are your search terms.

However, merely searching for the specific terms or "phrases" in the question may not get you the range of results you require. Instead, you may wish to brainstorm alternative keywords, "phrases," and synonyms for the terms.

This helps you to consider both Narrower terms, and Broader terms, depending upon how successful your initial searches are.

For example, your question may ask you to evaluate the effects of drug policy in Australia. If you receive too many results in your initial search, you may wish to Narrow your search term to “Western Australia,” if there are too few, you may need to consider a Broader term like “Australasia.”

Note: Include both British and American spelling of terms, as results may only use one variation or the other.

Write this up in a "Logic grid" like this:




    "Historical inquiry"   

Alternate Terms    



"Historical analysis"




"Theoretical model"






Quantitative OR Qualitative



Note: The OR operators between each alternate term for a facet groups them together, meaning it does not matter which of the alternate terms from one facet match with an alternate term from the other, as long as at least one pair is matched.

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