Search Strategies

Finding sources for your assignment can take time! Be sure to give yourself lots of time to thoroughly search and choose the best sources for your assignment.

Take time to brainstorm, pay attention, and reflect.

Start by brainstorming:

  • Review your assignment criteria. What topics are acceptable? How many sources do you need? What types of publications are acceptable?
  • Plan your Research. Decide on a topic, research question, and keywords.
  • Consider Types of Sources. What type of publications would have information about your topic? Books? Journals? Websites?
  • Choose a Database. Decide on the best place to look for sources on your topic.

Pay attention to the results:

  • Were there too many results? Too few?
  • Where did your keywords appear? What keywords did you use that are working? What keywords are confusing your results?
  • What vocabulary are the authors are using? Are there any new words that you could add to your list of keywords?

Modify your search strategy and search terms as needed.

Reflect on your search:

  • Did you find enough sources to meet your assignment requirements?
  • Were you satisfied with the relevance and quality of the sources you found?
  • What strategies worked well? What strategies were not helpful?

Be sure to Chat with Us if you are still struggling to find sources for your assignment.


Build a strong search.

The most common search operators are: AND, OR, and NOT. Watch How to Use AND & OR to Search (2:51).


risk factors AND smoking AND teen

  • All keywords must appear within the document or record.
  • Use AND for different keywords.
  • Decreases results.


(teen OR adolescent OR youth)

  • Any keyword may appear within the document or record.
  • Use OR for similar or related keywords.
  • Increases results.


smoking NOT marijuana

  • Exclude keywords from your search.
  • Use (sparingly) when a word is used in a different context than you intend.
  • Decreases results.

Sometimes, you may find that your search produced TOO FEW results. To expand your search:

  • Look for misspelled words or typos in your search.
  • Consider adding synonyms. For example, add synonyms for teen: risk factors (teen OR adolescent OR youth) smoking
  • Reduce the number of different keywords. For example, remove population group: risk factors teen smoking
  • Try broader or more general keywords. For example, instead of 'smoking', try: risk factors AND addiction
  • Look for a "related articles" section, if any.
  • Try a different database.

Or, try one of these search tools:



teen* - finds teen, teens, teenage, teenager, teenagers

  • Locates a word and its different endings.
  • The asterisk is most common, but databases may use other characters for truncation, such as ?, # or !. Look for a Help or Search Help link in the database to verify.
  • Use truncation carefully and combine it with other search terms to avoid picking up unintended words (example: smok* - returns smoke, smoking, smoker, but also smokey, smokepot, smokiest, smokeable, etc).


wom?n - finds woman, women

  • Locates words with varying spellings
  • The question mark is most common, but databases may use other characters for wildcards, such as !, *, or #. Look for a Help or Search Help link in the database to verify.

Sometimes, you may find that your search produced TOO MANY unhelpful results. To narrow your search:

  • Try more specific keywords, if possible. For example, instead of "risk factors" try an example of a possible risk factor: peer pressure AND teen AND smoking
  • Add additional keywords, such as geographic region, demographic group, language, etc. For example, add Canada: "risk factors" AND teenagers AND smoking AND Canada

Or, try one of these search tools:

Phrase Searching

"risk factors"

  • Finds two or more words as a phrase, in a specific order
  • Use sparingly, when two or more words make up a single concept

Watch Tips and Tricks: Phrase Searching (1:00)

(or Limiters)

Find only those documents or records with specific attributes. Common filters include:

  • Full-Text: Removes abstract- or citation-only records. 
  • Peer-Review: Includes only documents that have gone through the peer-review process.
  • Content Type: Includes only specific types of sources (example: newspapers, books, etc) 
  • Publication Date: Includes documents published within a date range (example: 2020-present).

Field Searching

Search for a keyword within a specific field in the database records. Common fields include: Title, Author, Subject, Publisher, Publication, Publication date.

  • Go to Advanced Search
  • Choose the drop-down menu next to the search box
  • Select the field you would like to search

Watch Refining your Search with Fields (1:22)

You Try!

Practice using these search tools in context.

Learn More

Chat with Us if you have any questions about your search strategy.