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Federal Role in Education

Top 10 Search Tips

Top 10 Search Tips:


1. Choose the most appropriate databases by reading the brief descriptions of their content (you can also always come to the Reference Desk for assistance with your database selection).

To find these descriptions look for the “i” for information icons


2. Quickly read any help files which describe how to search most effectively within that particular database (especially before jumping into an unfamiliar database).

To find this documentation, on the database main page, click on “I” or “About” or “Help” or “User Guide


3. Try to use Terms & Connectors along with Segment or Field searching.  Only use Natural Language searching if you can’t think of any search terms with which to begin.


4. Break down your query into several discrete concepts. For example, if you’d like to find material on the efficacy of single-sex schools, you may have the following concepts in play:

-          “single-sex school”

-          “gender differences”

-          achievement level

-          “gender equity”

-          “elementary education”

-          “secondary education”


5. Prepare an alternate list of synonyms, broader and narrower terms, abbreviations, variants due to hyphenation (single-sex, single sex or preschool, pre-school) and alternative ways of describing your subject in case your searches are not yielding the type of results you expect, and to ensure a comprehensive search. For example, a few alternates for the terms above are:

-          “separate but equal” and gender

-          “sex differences”

-          success and education

-          “school leavers”

-          “grade school”

-          “high school”


Note: if the database you are preparing to search is indexed using a controlled vocabulary (usually labeled as “subject headings”), then browse the database thesaurus or index to help choose your search terms (because these will be the preferred terms consistently used by the indexers). Usually, you will be directed to the preferred term via cross-references.


6. Set limits for your search such as:

Published within a given date range

Only peer reviewed journals

Publication type (periodical, book)

Document type (article, book review)


7. Refine your search terms using the most appropriate of the following options:

Add additional search terms, as well as AND, OR, NOT


Search for phrases usually placing them in quotes


Check the database’s “Help” file to find out what the truncation symbol is for that database (usually an *) and use it to retrieve words with variant endings simultaneously:

child* - will retrieve both child and children

adopt* - will retrieve adopt, adopts, adopted, adoption


Wildcard searching can retrieve words with variant spellings

(symbol is often a ?):

wom?n – will retrieve both women and woman

organi?ation – will retrieve both organization and organization


Use proximity operators particularly when searching full text.  Again, check the database’s “Help” file for the correct operator:

single-sex ADJ school – directs that single-sex must be ADJACENT to school in the text

arne w/1 duncan – directs that arne must be WITHIN 1 word of duncan in the text

father SAME custody – directs that father must be in the SAME sentence as custody


8. Perform Segment or Field searches to search within only the article:






9. Try browsing an online index to determine the preferred term(s) if you still aren’t getting anywhere with your current search terms.  Most online indexes will direct you to the preferred term via cross-references:

For example, in most databases “occupational stress” would be the preferred term as opposed to “job stress” and “elementary education” would be preferred over “grade school.”


10. The point of diminishing returns is the point at which you quit researching, such as when you begin to find many of the same articles or other sources over and over again in different databases.


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