Skills Hub

Identifying search words

The first step in any search is to have a clear understanding about what it is you are being asked to research, write about, or answer.

It is often helpful to consider:

What is the focus of the question?

What is your understanding of this topic?


Putting this into practice: Example 1


You have been given the following essay question to write about:

How has England's relationship with Australia changed since 1945?

What is the focus of the question?

We might say it is as simple as saying: England and Australia's relationship changed post 1945. But we need to be more specific. What element(s) of the relationship is the focus? For example, is it political, economical, anthropological, etc.

What is your understanding of this topic/focus?

You may need to consult some background material, such as encyclopaedias or general works to help you. Your answers may depend on the context in which the question is being asked. For example, you may be studying military history, or perhaps law. This will affect your perspective.


Putting this into practice: Example 2

Topic: "Many experts in the information technology field believe that it is impossible to try to develop effective protection against computer viruses because detection always lags behind the development of viruses. Discuss."


What is your understanding of this topic/focus?

In this example we have been given a statement and asked to discuss. We still want to identify the focus of the topics and our understanding of them, but this is often harder to pick out of a statement. If your topic is hard to analyse, it can help to rephrase it as a question.

Phrased as a question, this could become:

"Can effective protection against computer viruses be developed?"

This makes it much easier to recognise the key concepts and focus of the discussion, e.g. developing effective protection against computer viruses.


Choosing your keywords

In order to research a topic, you first need to break down your topic statement or question. An easy way to do this is by removing any prepositions or instructive words from the question/statement. Once they have been removed, the words that are left are your key concepts. These words will form the basis of your keyword search.

Instructional words


Words used to demonstrate what needs to be done, or what action needs to be taken; e.g. define, demonstrate, discuss, outline.


Words usually used in front of nouns or pronouns, to link a sentence together. They show the relationship between words in a sentence; e.g. of, it, and, or, at. Searching only the words appearing in your essay title or research question limits your search to resources that only use those exact words to discuss the topic. As a result, there is a much greater chance of missing out on relevant information. To search most effectively you need to use a range of search words or “keywords”. Remember, a concept may be expressed by a single word or several closely related words.

Helpful tip: Using a thesaurus can be useful when trying to find similar keywords with the same meaning.


Topic: “Discuss cheating in exams at university.”

Similar keywords. Exams or assessment. Cheating or plagiarism. University or higher education.


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