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Research Skills Tutorial

This is a self-paced, non-credit course that covers research skills, critical thinking, media and internet literacy, and understanding the complexities of the modern information environment (including libraries.)

Creating a Concept Chart

Thinking in Concepts

Since library databases depend on precise search phrases to yield precise results, it helps to think of your topic in terms of the key concepts that define it. 

This material is covered in the video below. If you prefer, you may skip to the text discussion beneath it.

What concepts define your topic?

As mentioned in the previous section, databases do not understand natural language.They can only match strings of characters that you type in the search field, to strings of characters that indexed in their contents (e.g., title, author, phrases found in the full text of articles or abstracts)

In order to narrow down your topic, you add concepts to it to make it more specific. Here, we break those concepts apart so that we can recombine them in a way the databases can understand.

  • Geometry in the Egyptian pyramids = geometry + Egyptian pyramids
  • Preventable emergency room fatalities = emergency rooms + fatalities + preventable
  • Impact of Zebra mussels in the Hudson River on native mussel populations = zebra mussels + Hudson River + native mussels + ecology/population.

The divisions will not always be clean. Is "preventable fatalities" one concept or two? How about "Egyptian pyramids"? Once you start trying to think of synonyms and related terms, this will become clearer to you. 

You may wonder if an idea like "effects" or "consequences" should be its own concept. Start by leaving it out. Once you run your search and look at the results, you will know whether you need to add it. Until you get to that point, keep both possibilities in mind. 

Think of synonyms and related terms.

Again, databases can only match strings of characters that you input with strings of characters in their contents. So if you enterfatalities, articles that use the word deaths instead may not appear in your search results.

Brainstorming synonyms and related terms can help. To keep track of synonyms and related terms, use a Concept Chart.

Use one column for each of the concepts you identified in your topic. Beneath each concept, add all the synonyms and related terms you brainstormed, as below

Concept Chart for "effects of anti-bullying programs on the self-esteem of adolescent girls"

Concept 1 Concept 2 Concept 3
anti-bullying programs adolescent girls self esteem
Stand Up - Speak Out teen girls self image
Bullying: Ignorance Is No Defense teenaged girls self worth
Olweus female adolescents  
No Bully female teenagers  
Boomerang Project female teens  

Notice there are different ways to think of synonyms and related terms:

  • actual synonyms and near synonyms, like girl and female
  • related but not exactly the same ideas like self esteem and self-image
  • specific examples like Olweus, which is one anti-bullying program.

You may not be sure of the best combination of search terms until you have tried them all. Ambiguity and uncertainty are normal (and can even be good). Research, particularly searching, usually involves trial and error.

Concept Chart Worksheet

Accessibility Note

Please note: If you need to request accommodations with content linked to on this guide, on the basis of a disability, please contact Accessibility Resources and Services by emailing them.  Requests for accommodations should be submitted as early as possible to allow for sufficient planning. If you have questions, please visit the Accessibility Resources and Services website.