Brainstorming Search Terms Instructor Guide

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Brainstorming Search Terms

Instructor Guide
Many students have limited or no experience searching library databases and will approach a library database search the same way they approach a Google search. This instructor guide is designed to help you teach your students the importance of brainstorming search terms before beginning their library research, and model for them the process to do so. The included exercises and tips serve to reinforce these concepts. This guide is not intended to be a handout for students.
Explanation to Use with Students

Searching library databases does not work the same way as a Google search. When you do a Google search, you can type in almost anything and something will come back. For example, if you type in “history of Maya ballgame” you will get 100,000s of hits. However, when you do the same search in a library article database, you will most likely get very few. Why is that? Library databases require that you search by concept or key word and connect these using AND and OR. Before you start your research, you should spend at least a few minutes brainstorming search terms that you can use in a database. That way, if your first search doesn't get you what you need, you have other search terms on hand to use immediately.

How to explain/discuss it using a whiteboard:

  • Write your sample topic down on the board. Our example is: the history of the Maya ball game

  • Ask students what the key concepts are and underline them (Maya ballgame).

  • Have students brainstorm broader, narrower and related terms for each of the key concepts and write them underneath in columns. [See below for an example of how to explain the concept of broader/narrower/related terms at this point in the discussion.]

  • After this part of the discussion, you may have a list on the board that looks like this:


Ball game

South American


Latin American




  • Take this opportunity to discuss with your students how using background information will help them find more search terms to use. Remind them that they may add to their search terms grids as they do research. If they find an article they like, copy the terminology or vocabulary that it uses, and often you’ll find other helpful articles.

  • Explain that students need to use AND and OR to connect topics (not "effects of," etc.). Explain that AND narrows a search by requiring both words to be in the results and OR broadens it by allowing for any of the words connected by OR to be in the results. You can use a Venn diagram to illustrate this.

Explanation of Broader, Narrower and Related Terms

You can use an example and visual representation to explain what you mean by broader, narrower and related terms. Try online shopping as your example. 

Scenario described by the instructor:

  • You go to class one day and your friend is wearing a green hoodie which you really like so you ask her where she got it. She tells you the web site she bought it from and you go home, go to that site and type in "hoodie." You don’t get any results, but you know the hoodie is there. What else would you type in? 

  • Students will probably come up with terms such as sweater, sweatshirt, etc. Write these on the board and explain that these are related terms.

  • Ask them what you would do if none of these worked and you needed to choose a broader topic or category. Students will probably say outerwear or clothing. Write that on the board and explain that is what you mean by broader terms.

  • Tell them to imagine that when they searched for sweater (or one of the related terms they came up with), they got back over 300 results. What would they search? Students will probably say "green sweater" and you can write that on the board and explain that is what you mean by a narrower term.

  • By the end of this discussion, you should have a diagram on the white board that looks like the image below.

  • Ask them to apply this same concept to your sample topic (ex: Maya ball game) as a class.

description: description: description: description:

Classroom Exercises and Take-home Assignments

  1. In-class exercise for a classroom with an instructor station only

Demonstrate the utility of background information for generating search terms to use to search. Show a background source such as Gale Virtual Reference Library . Look through an entry together and have students come up with search terms as a class.

B. In-class exercise for any classroom
Have your students brainstorm search terms in class individually for their own research topics, or in groups once they already have a topic in mind and have looked at background information on their own. Have them do a think/pair/share if they are doing it individually.

C. In-class exercise for a hands-on classroom or take-home exercise for any classroom
Have your students use a background source such as Gale Virtual Reference Library or search their topic on the web, to identify search terms. Have students fill out the Generate Keywords for your Topic tool for this exercise, and make sure they email you a copy of their search terms grid or have them use the Turn Your Topic Into a Search worksheet (see below) and do a think/pair/share.

Turn Your Topic into a Search - Worksheet

Write down your topic and underline the key terms.

Write the key terms at the top of each column and brainstorm broader, narrower, and related terms. You do not need to use all of the rows and columns.



Concept 1



Concept 2




Concept 3









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