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ENGL 1020: Aitken: Keywords & Research Questions


Step by Step Instructions

  1. Write out your research question. For example: "How does exercise affect the mental health of college students?"
  2. Pull out the most important words from your research question. exercise, mental health, and college students.
  3. Think of synonyms for these keywords.  Exercise: workout, fitness. College students: university students, post-secondary students.
  4. Think of broader keywords. Mental health: well-being. Broader keywords are helpful if you aren't getting enough results.
  5. Think of narrower keywords. Mental health: anxiety. Narrower keywords are helpful if you're getting too many results.
  6. Start searching a library database with your keywords. Remember to try out different keyword combinations to get the best search results.
  7. Collect additional keywords as you search.

Sample Keyword Selection Process

Determine Your Research Topic or Question

Do high school student athletes have higher or lower grades than their non-athlete peers?

Identify Main Ideas or Concepts

Do high school students athletes have higher or lower grades than their non-athlete peers?

Build a Key Word List

Concept 1: High School Main Idea 2: Student Athletes Main Idea 3: Grades

secondary school


Grades 9 - 12


sport or sports players

**you may want to try individual sport player i.e. football players, basketball players, etc.


Test Scores

Scores (this might get tricky)*

Grade Point Average

Grading Scale

Search using combinations of the above terms

At this point, you may want to make a list of where you're searching or where you plan to search. You could also work out how to combine these search terms in different ways, perhaps with Boolean Operators.

Choose Your Keywords

Break down your research question into keywords, and select the most important concepts/ideas. 

  • What methods of strength training are most effective in young adults?
  • How does universal health care impact healthcare costs in Canada

Enter the keywords you identified in the search boxes

Use Boolean Operators to combine your keywords

Cannot find what you need?

Identify synonyms to your keywords

young adults = young person, adolescents, juvenile, minor, teen

health care costs = medical cost, treatment cost, health costs, hospital bill, health expenditure

Using Keywords