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Research Guides

EDCI 636 - Educator as Researcher (Spring 2018)

How to Conduct a Literature Search


  1. Compile a list of keywords and synonyms to be used to search over multiple relevant databases.
    • Your research question should comprise several key concepts.
    • Find synonyms for each, and then use the OR connector to combine the synonyms together such as 
      Hispanics or Latinos or Mexican Americans
    • Use the AND connector to combine all  the concepts in your search statement, for example:
                 Hispanics or Latinos or Mexican Americans
                 culture or tradition           
    • [Optional] Use Thesaurus or Subject Indexes to find synonyms or the related terms.
  2. Start your research with the most relevant database first.
    • Screening the initial results to see if the keywords work. If not, modify them.
    • Repeat the search with the same set of keywords in the next database, then the next one and so on.
    • Export the search results to a citation software like RefWorks.
    • Also save your search histories while using databases.
  3. Document your searches.
  4. Evaluate results to determine the relevance to your research question.
  5. Organize, discuss your findings and write.


Break a Research Question into Key Concepts

  1. Break a topic into several key concepts.
  2. Compile a list of keywords or synonyms for each. 
  3. Use OR to group the synonyms together for one component.

Sample topic :  Hispanic families' influences upon their kids school performance (k-12)

  1. Break the question into these concepts: Hispanic, families, k-12 schools, and student performance

  2. Think about the synonyms for each, for example,

    • Hispanic, Latino, American Mexicans 

    • Family, families, parents, Hispanic culture

    • Schools, elementary school, middle school, high school

    • Student Performance, grading, tests, academic achievement 

  3. Use the Or to group the synonyms together, e.g. - Hispanic or Latino or American Mexicans

Use Thesaurus or Subject Indexes to Identify Synonyms
To look up the terms related to the concept of "family influences" in ERIC, for example, > click on Thesaurus (on top) > type in the term family in the Browsing: ERIC -- Thesaurus box> click on Family (Sociological Unit) > you may find the following related terms:

  • Parents+

  • Family Involvement

  • Family Attitudes

  • Family Role

  • Family School Relationship+

  • Family Influence 

You could further expand the Parents+ category to select the subsets such as:

  • Parent Role+

  • Parent Child Relationship+        

  • Parent School Relationship

  • Parent Student Relationship

  • Parent Influence 

For the concept of student school performance, look up the phrase "academic achievement," you may find many synonyms:
DE "Academic Achievement," DE "Educational Attainment," DE "Academic Records," DE "Achievement Gap," DE "Performance Contracts," DE "Student Evaluation," DE "Grades (Scholastic)," DE "School Effectiveness," DE "Academic Aptitude," DE "Ability Grouping," DE "Reading Achievement," DE "Minimum Competency Testing," DE "College Readiness," DE "Academic Failure," DE "Grading," DE "Student Characteristics," DE "Graduation Requirements," DE "Excellence in Education," DE "Mastery Tests," DE "Academic Ability," DE "Report Cards," DE "Educational Indicators,"  DE "Student Improvement," DE "Achievement Rating"

If Thesaurus offers too many terms, use the overarching category instead, e.g. academic achievement.

The List May include Keywords and Tag Terms
Your keyword list may include both regular keywords and the tag words. A tag word (from Thesaurus or descriptors assigned to an article) may carry a descriptor indicator such as "DE" or "SU" in front of the word. The indicators may not work in other databases. Drop the indicator before including them into your list.

Key Databases: Education & Social Science

Start with the most relevant database. Repeat the same search strategies with the same set of keywords over other databases.

  1. Use OR to group the synonyms together for each concept.
  2. Combine all the concepts with the connector AND.
  3. Put in limits such as year, language etc.
  4. Screen the initial results and modify your search strategies if necessary.
  5. Retrieve major relevant studies; export them to RefWorks
  6. Save your search histories into your personal account with the databases
  7. Document your searches in a format like the one below in case you need them later:
  • Database name (ERIC)
  • Database host (EBSCO)
  • Date of search (Feb. 21, 2012)
  • Years covered (All years)
  • Search terms |
  • Limits (English, peer reviewed)
  • Number of articles retrieved  (105 articles)

Adapted from, Margaret Foster, "Search for Literature Reviews" (video) 



  1. To expand your search results, use truncation mark. (theor* will find theory, theories, theoretical, theorists)
  2. To limit the results, add another term/phrase, or add limit by years, language, type. etc.
  3. Phrase searching may require quotation marks to go with it.
  4. The Reference cited in an article could lead you to other related studies. You could either do a hand search or use SCOPUS database to find them electronically. Enter a title, SCOPUS will list all the References cited for that article.
  5. Finding existing literature reviews. Use the dissertation database to find a similar topic. Check out their literature reviews.
  6. Avoid browsing e-journals. Database searching is more efficient because it searches over hundreds of journals simultaneously.
  • Assess the retrieved studies for relevance, reliability and accuracy.
  • Choose the major studies that significantly contribute to the topic.
  • Decide whether you need to stop searching or to find more studies. 
  • Cite while you write. 
  • Don't wait until the end.
  • Track everything you have retrieved and add them to RefWorks.
  • Add citations as you write. 

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