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How to Talk About it in Class

Tell your students why it is important to do this step before they start searching:

  • 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 “Should doctors be required to help their patients die?” you will get thousands of hits. However, when you do the same search in a library article database, you will most likely get nothing. Why is that? Library databases require that you search by concept or keyword and connect these using AND and OR. Before you start your research, you should spend at least a few minutes brainstorming keywords that you can use in a database. That way, if your first search doesn't get you what you need, you have other keywords on hand to use immediately.

TIP: Many students searched library databases in high school. If you have these students in your class, you can structure this as a discussion about their experiences.

Go through an example with your class:

  • Write your sample controversy down on the board. Our example is: Should doctors and nurses be required to help their patients die?

  • Ask students what the key concepts are and underline them (doctors, help patients die).
  • Have students brainstorm broader, narrower and related terms for each of the key concepts and write them underneath in columns. If your example includes natural language phrases such as “help patients die”, talk to your students about how they want to use terms that someone writing about the topic might use. Click here 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:
doctors help patients die
physicians physician-assisted suicide
health care providers assisted suicide
hospitals euthanasia
nurses aid in dying
  right to die
  • Take this opportunity to discuss how using value-laden terms will help them find viewpoint articles. In our example, “physician-assisted suicide” is a more neutral term, while “right to die” is more likely to be used by advocates for the legalization of assisted suicide.
  • Since students may be writing about local issues, discuss how keywords related to geography may help them find information about specific examples of an issue in a particular city as well as discussions of an issue at a more national or global level. Eliminating geographical terms from a search will help a student find more information while including geographical terms at the local, state, or national level can help narrow a larger pool of search results.
  • Introduce the concept of an additional column. Instead of using it to brainstorm broader, narrower and related terms, have your students brainstorm terms related to different aspects of the controversy. A few questions you might ask include:

    • What do people on different sides of the issue argue about? In our example, you could ask them - what do people who don’t support legalizing physician-assisted suicide use as their reasons? Then, what do people who do support physician-assisted suicide use as their reasons? They'll notice that some of the words will be the same (for example, "ethics” would get results for viewpoints on both sides)
    • Who are stakeholders in this controversy? In our example, stakeholders might include people with disabilities, terminally ill patients, the mentally ill and religious leaders.
  • When you are done, you may have a list on the board that looks like this:
doctors help patients die ethics
physicians physician-assisted suicide morality
health care providers assisted suicide compassion
hospitals euthanasia profit
nurses aid in dying mental illness
  right to die depression
    terminally ill
  • 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 or try out a search in a database using the keywords you brainstormed to demonstrate, having them watch the number of search results change as a result of using AND and OR.

    • TIPS:
      • Explain to students that they will probably find a lot of articles about one aspect of their controversy (viewpoints about why physician-assisted suicide is morally wrong, for example) but won’t find any viewpoint articles that lay out all the pros and cons. Tie this explanation to your explanation of why they are mapping a controversy and how they have to find all of the viewpoints on the different aspects and synthesize them. The controversy map they are creating doesn’t already exist as an article in a library database.
      • As an extension of the above discussion, explain to them that searching for terms like pro/con or for/against will not work.

Assignments, Activities, Resources


  • How to Generate Keywords for Your Research Topic tool
    This interactive tool guides students through the process of creating an effective keyword search for their research topic and then allows students to email the results to themselves and their instructor. Students can also launch the search in the Library Catalog, Academic Search Complete, or JSTOR.
  • See Resources for background information databases


  • Turn Your Topic into a Search worksheet: Once students have a broader controversy, ask them to look at background information and brainstorm keywords. This can be done as a take home assignment, wholly in class, or partially in class. Recommend specific background sources such as Gale Virtual Reference Library, Opposing Viewpoints in Context or the Web. If you do any of this in class, you can ask students to do a “think, pair, share” (brainstorm individually and the pass their sheets to their neighbor for help), work in groups, or have a few present their keywords to be workshopped by the class.
  • How to Generate Keywords for Your Research Topic tool: Have students generate keywords using this tool and email them to you for review (as well as to themselves) or to another student or to group of students for peer review.
  • Whole class exercise: Demonstrate the utility of background information for identifying aspects of a controversy and generating keywords. Show a background source such as Gale Virtual Reference Library or Opposing Viewpoints in Context. Look through an entry together and have students identify the aspects and keywords as a class. You can open the online How to Generate Keywords for your Research Topic tool in a different tab, and ask your students give you keywords to fill it in.


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