Develop your search strategy

It is important to understand what your assignment topic means before you start your research, otherwise it can lead to confusion, frustration and wasted time. It is also one of the common causes of assignment failure. 

Analysing the words used in the question is a good way to understand the assignment topic. There are three common types of words to look out for: 

  • Content words identify concepts or ideas from your course that apply to the topic.
  • Limiting words narrow down the topic. They tell you what aspects of the topic should be included and the limits of your discussion, such as time or location.
  • Instructional words tell you how to respond to the content. For example, they may require you to describe, compare, explain, or argue a point of view.  

Here is an activity to help you learn more about content, limiting and instructional words:

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You can learn more about analysing your assignment from these useful handouts from the Study and Learning Centre (Melbourne) and the Learning Skills Unit (Vietnam):

Understanding an assignment question

Analysing your assignment

Doing some background reading will give you better understanding of your topic and provide direction for your research. It  helps you define terms, gather facts, and get an overview of the topic.

Here are some helpful tips on how to find background information:

  • Dictionaries can help you define terms used in your subject area.
  • Encyclopedias are the place to look for facts and expert summaries on a topic.
  • Use textbooks for facts and detailed information on the main aspects of a topic.

This video shows you how and where to find background information on a topic:

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This video was created by LMU Library and made available under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license.

Library Subject Guides can also help you find subject dictionaries and reference resources for your background reading. Find out about Subject Guides from this video:

To search effectively, you need to develop a clear search strategy that will find all the relevant information on your topic. To do this you need to:

  • identify the keywords that describe the main ideas in your topic or assignment
  • expand the list of keywords by finding alternative words. This includes synonyms, related words, abbreviations, acronyms and words that are only specific to your subject area or profession. 

These learning resources will show you how to identify keywords and find alternative words by using sample assignment topics: 

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Identifying keywords and alternative words (exercise)

To learn about how to conduct a search in a database using the search strategy you develop, go to the section on Searching databases.