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Guide to Searching

Become a better searcher!

Search Basics: Make Searching Easier

The goal of this guide is to help you become a better searcher.

Databases are structured in similar ways and have common features. This means that if you can search one database effectively, then your skills are transferable to other databases.

Knowing how your favorite database uses the terms you put into the search box may make all the difference in your being able to find what you need quickly and effectively.

Follow the steps listed on this page to get started:

Browse the tabs on the left for more database tips and search techniques!

Choose Where to Search

On the homepage of the TCSPP Library, there are a couple of choices of where to start your search:














Using One Search:

The search box on the library webpage is a great option for starting your research. It searches across TCSPP physical and ebook collections, as well most library databases, which includes full text articles and streaming videos.

While OneSearch results are comprehensive, there are limitations:

  • It lacks some of the additional bells and whistles such as thesuari and subject specific limiters found in databases such as PsycINFO, CINAHL, and others.
  • If you are looking for specific types of information like case studies, datasets, or other specialized types of information, it may not be the best place to start.
  • Because of the way the searching works, you might get too many results, or results that don't seem relevant.

Using Databases:

Searching library databases is a good choice for more in-depth research or to find specialized types of information. Databases can be multidisciplinary or they can specialize in specific subject areas, such as psychology, education, nursing, business, etc. Subject specific databases such as PsycINFO, CINAHL or ABI/Inform Global also include helpful subject specific search tools and limiters.


  • For a comprehensive search on a topic, it's best to search more than one database. Although there may be some overlap, each database contains different journals and provides different results.
  • Choose a database by subject using the TCSPP Library Databases A-Z  list.
  • For suggestions on the best databases to search on your topic, the TCSPP Research Guides are a helpful resource!


For more on databases, watch this informative video from the University of Michigan Library that explains:

  • What a library database is -- and reasons to use one
  • Why searching a library database is different than searching the general internet
  • What are the two main types of Library databases

Watch this video on finding and using databases in the TCSPP Library:

Identify Main Concepts

The next step is to choose your keywords. First, break your topic into key concepts. These concepts will form the building blocks of your search strategy.

Example Topic and Key Concepts:




  • Good research topics usually contain 2-4 concepts. 
  • Topics with one concept will usually retrieve way too many results.
  • Topics with too many concepts may limit your results too much.
  • Keep in mind, long phrases or sentences will confuse the database and lead to disappointing or NO results.

Brainstorm for Keywords

Databases look for the exact words and phrases you type in, so if the author uses a different word (synonym) to describe a concept, you will not see that article in your results.

For each key concept of your topic or research question, make a list of other words with the same or related meanings.

Think of synonyms or even  specific examples or types.

It may help to ask yourself, "What other words could the author use to describe this concept?

Use this list as you search the databases.

In addition to synonyms, be creative and think of:

  •     Related Words
  •     Spelling Variations (especially American vs British, for example anesthesia or aneasthesia)
  •     Acronymns (also spell out the phrase)
  •     Brand and generic drug names
  •     Plural and Singular variations
  •     Narrower Terms
  •     Broader Terms


Connect your Keywords

How you connect your search terms together can change the outcome of your search!

    A database needs instructions--tell it what to do!
    Databases use the Boolean Operators AND, OR, NOT to combine search terms.
    Most databases automatically use AND.  This only retrieves articles that contain all of the keywords.

Here's an example:

See the Boolean Searching tab for more information on how to use this technique.

Exploratory Searches

Explore the database and see what's there.

Remember, your initial searches are a guess about how the author has described the topic in the title and abstract. You are trying to match your keywords to their words.

1. Run some exploratory searches in the database using different keywords from your list.

2. Browse your search results. In most databases, you will need to click on the title to read the abstract.

3. Look for relevant articles.

4. Look for subject headings.  Most databases assign subject headings for each article. These indicate the main topics of the article. If there is an appropriate subject heading for one of your concepts try using it in your search instead of your keywords!  For more information, click on the Subject vs. Keyword Searching tab.

5. Once you've found some relevant articles, look for additional keywords or subject headings in the article details, or abstract that can be used in another search. Here's an example:

6. Revise, Revise, Revise. Initial searches can often be improved. Evaluate your results and then search again using alternative keywords or appropriate subject headings found in your initial results.

Setting Up the Search:

1. As a general rule, start with broad searches. Cast a wide net and explore your results. After you have determined the best keywords/subject headings, start to limit your search.

    Start with only 2 of your concepts. Prioritize your concepts and begin with the two most important concepts.

2. Most databases have multiple search boxes near the top of the page.

    Enter each of your core concepts separately.
    If you don't see the individual search boxes, click on the Advanced Search option

Refine Searches

Tried some searches but found that you are getting too few results, or too many? Or just  getting irrelevant results? Searching is often a process of trial and error.  You will probably revise & refine your searches several times based on each search's results.

Too Many Search Results ?

  • Find better search terms or keywords. Think of terms that are more specific and modify your search.
  • Add more search terms. Start with a smaller number of keywords and then add more terms to refine your search. 
  • Use limiters. Limiters such as date and subject will give you more targeted results. 
  • Do not use OR. Using OR between terms will search for all instances of each term. 
  • Notice the default search options. Databases often search in the title, author, abstract and subject fields. Be specific and search for the terms in just the title or subject field. 
  • Narrow down your topic. Your topic may be too broad so think about a more focused aspect of the topic.
    For example, students --> college students --> freshmen 


Too Few Search Results ?

  • Try a database on your topic. Search in a database that specializes in a certain subject because it covers the subject discipline in greater depth.
  • Broaden your topic. Did you start too narrow and specific? Is the topic too new? Think about broader search terms on the subject. 
  • Change your search terms. Consider similar or related terms.
  • Use fewer search terms. Start with a smaller number of keywords and add more as needed. 
  • Use fewer limiters. Limiters such as date or format can cause you to have too few results. Remove one or more limits to expand your search to include more results.
  • Check your spelling.  Unlike Google, research databases often do not suggest a correct spelling. 
  • Use OR with synonyms.

Example:  (learning OR "academic achievement" OR "academic performance" OR grades)

See the Boolean Searching tab for more on this search technique.

  • Use wildcard (usually a question mark)  or truncation (an asterisk)  to include additional variations of your search terms.