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Ekstrom Library

English 102 Information Literacy Activities and Lesson Plans: Developing a Search Strategy

Activity Guide: Developing a Search Strategy

Audience: English 102 / English 105

Duration: 10-20 minutes

Tools/Technology: Padlet (optional) / "Searching as Strategic Exploration" Worksheet (optional)

Learning Outcomes:

  • Conceptualize research as a process of critical inquiry and discovery.
  • Formulate a suitable exploratory search strategy, based on an initial research question.

Description: This activity can be used to provide a brief introduction to (or review of) the academic research process and teach the concept of searching as strategic exploration. At the end of the activity, students will have transformed their initial ideas into a more specific search plan and a list of relevant keywords.

You might begin the activity with a short discussion of research itself. What is research? What activities do we associate with the research process? Why are activities such as looking for information or evaluating credibility important? Some librarians will tell a story about a personal experience with research. You might also ask the students about their current assignment, the expectations or requirements, etc. The goal is to engage students, develop a rapport, and highlight key aspects of research such as:

  • Research is a process of critical inquiry and discovery: asking questions and developing potential answers. Research questions--what we're trying to learn or discover--drive the process and help us develop a search strategy.
  • Research is not linear and not always systematic. You might start out with certain questions, but they often evolve or change based on the information you find. Your questions will often get narrower or more specific. Uncertainty is a natural part of this process--embrace it.
  • Research involves seeking out and learning from multiple points of view. Our role is to access and join the existing "conversation." We become more informed and ultimately make our own contribution. We're not simply collecting other people's information and ideas. We're bringing our own ideas to the process.

Conclude the introductory discussion by noting that searching for sources involves strategic exploration. While you need to be open-minded and think broadly about your research questions (exploration), you also need to think strategically. A search plan helps you figure out what to look for and where to look within a vast ecosystem of information. A search plan (especially a keyword list) can also give you options if you run into difficulties finding sources.

At this point, segue into a specific series of questions that will help students develop individual search plans. See the "Box to Copy" on this page for example questions. Note that librarians can revise the suggested questions or develop their own, based on the needs of the class. Many librarians use Padlet for this part of the activity to foster participation, draw out student examples, and allow students to share their work more easily with the entire class. Another possibility is to use the "Searching as Strategic Exploration" worksheet linked on this page.

It's generally a good idea to go over the questions using a specific example research question, perhaps related to the class theme (if applicable). Librarians have used example questions such as:

  • How does social media influence the political process?
  • What role might games play in student learning?
  • How do superhero movies represent gender roles?

These are good examples because they can be narrowed in different ways and can be used to generate a variety of narrower and broader keywords. They may also be related to more than one academic subject or discipline. When going over the example, it can be helpful to get suggestions from the students about how the question might be narrowed or broadened, as this emphasizes the dynamic nature of research questions.

When students write down (or list on Padlet) their own research questions, you might encourage them to focus on "how" or "why" questions. In general, they should avoid questions that can be answered with an obvious fact or with a straightforward "yes" or "no" answer. As the students are working on their search plan brainstorming, you might suggest they share ideas with their classmates.

Depending on time, ask at least one student to share her research question and search plan with the rest of the class. Look for teachable moments that help students consider ways of narrowing/broadening questions, develop additional keywords, or figure out relevant academic subject areas for their research. Once they have completed the activity, the students are ready to jump into research in a library database or other resource. It's good practice to refer back to the search plan throughout the rest of the class period.

Box to Copy: Developing a Search Strategy

1. Write down one of your current research questions. What are you interested in learning or discovering at this stage?

2. Next, write down at least five keywords that you associate with your research question and that you would use to search for sources in a database or search engine. The keywords should be the most important words, issues, ideas, or concepts related to your question.

3. Finally, write down at least two academic subject areas that might be relevant to your research question. In other words, what kind of academic researchers might be interested in your question?

Discover. Create. Succeed.