Mapping a Controversy: Brainstorming Keywords

What to know about keywords and search strategy

You will find that students search the Web and resources differently than you might. They may search in sentences, or forget that there are alternate ways of saying something (gay marriage, same sex marriage). They are also not proficient in advanced search techniques such as boolean logic (when to use AND and OR and limiters). 

Having an organized, effective keyword strategy will help research go smoothly

  • Encourage your students to keep notes about their searches (what words they searched and where) and to organize sources they find into NoodleTools, which allows them to store citations, links and notes in a personal account. Here is an example of a research log that you can adapt in your class, but you can easily do this same thing with the Notecards feature in NoodleTools.

  • Searching library databases does not work the same way as a Google search, but students don't know that. Walk them through the process of brainstorming concepts and stakeholders in their topics (example below).

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 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 should use terms that someone writing about the topic might use - terms they may not know until they start research and read how experts and stakeholders talk about issues.
  • 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, “right to die” is more likely to be used by advocates for the legalization of assisted suicide.
  • Since students will 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, but could also narrow the issue too much. Explain to students when they need to focus in and zoom out when researching a controversy. 
  • 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 - what are people arguing about? 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, reasons why, causes 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. Demonstrate in a database:


  • Tips:
    • Students are often looking for an article that lays out all the pros and cons of their controversy (basically, their paper in article form). Explain that they will need to find viewpoints from both sides and then synthesize their sources into their paper.
    • As an extension of the above discussion, explain to them that searching for terms like pro/con or for/against will not work since there are rarely the words people on either side of an issue use to describe themselves (pro-life/pro-choice rather than pro-abortion or con-abortion, Collective Bargaining and Right to Work rather than for or against unions)

Assignments, Activities, Resources

Resources for students:

  • 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.
  • Use Background Information databases for keyword gathering: Send students to this guide

Activities for in-class:

  • 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.
  • 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.