Teaching Effective Search

  • Learn how stepping stone sources help build a formal research strategy
  • Learn ways that stepping stone sources teach new ways of thinking about your topic
  • Learn to identify patterns in stepping stone sources to deepen your search
Of course, we're often looking for information without much prior knowledge about our topic. When we're in that situation, it's really helpful to think about stepping stone sources. A stepping stone source, is a source that I can read for ideas about useful search terms or potential kinds of evidence that I might want to look for. A stepping stone source maybe results from a general search engine, where I've done a search, and the results I got might be high quality, maybe not so much. But, I can leverage them to get ideas to build a formal research strategy. So again, I can find words that might be used by people who know something about the topic, or maybe some idea of a new place to look.

Sometimes, a stepping stone source would be an encyclopedia article or another overview work of some sort, that would help me learn more specific disciplinary vocabulary. Whether I use one or the other or both, really depends on the topic I have at hand. I like to do this as an in-class activity, because it's a really hard transition for my students to make. Usually, when they're reading with a highlighter in hand or a pen for underlining, what they're doing is gathering sentences or whole paragraphs that they dump into a document somewhere and return to it some later date.

In this case, I just want them looking for single words or short phrases or names of types of sources that they can use, and it's a really unnatural shift for them and takes a lot of practice, so I like to do it in class where we work together and then they work in a scaffolded situation. To practice not hunting and gathering for whole sentences, but really just picking future search terms.

Essentially, our stepping stone sources, stand in for us in the job of predicting what words experts will use to talk about something when we don't hold that expertise. Sometimes we need the stepping stone sources to teach us new vocabulary and new ways of thinking about topics. Sometimes our stepping stone sources serve to remind us of things that maybe we didn't know that we know. It can be challenging to think of predicting words. But in a way, as you become a reader, you start encountering typical language we use to describe all kinds of things.

Take for example, a student who is trying to research whether the money the United States spends on foreign aid ultimately enriches us as a nation or makes us poorer. She was searching kind of all over the place and she wasn't finding any relevant sources one way or the other. She came to me really frustrated, saying that she'd only managed to find one passage in a Forbes article that matched her topic. The passage said, "It's the right thing to do in a moral sense but it also advances U.S. public diplomacy and national security."

Where the student was frustrated that she only found this one passage, I got pretty excited. Because I immediately recognized the verb "advances," as the verb we always use in scholarly conversation when we discussed the topic she had in mind. I imagined phrases like, foreign aid does not advance diplomatic, whatever. Foreign aid advances diplomatic, whatever. I imagine them existing frequently and precisely the kinds of sources she sought. In fact, we changed her search to foreign aid advanced diplomatic, and that gave her a wide variety of options. Not only did she find more that was on topic, but they were almost all a much more scholarly quality than most of what she had uncovered before.

Students need to practice recognizing regularly used language when it arises. I've noticed that for younger readers, both strong and emerging readers tend to really love captions and margin boxes in nonfiction books. They seem to feel like that's where they can get the most information, the most quickly. Asking students to compare multiple captions, can help them look for common elements of language. With younger students this activity may introduce them to names we have for different kinds of sources. Like they might learn the word 'timeline' or the word 'infographic' from seeing it in a caption. As students get older and more experienced captions offer even more stylized language that makes them highly searchable.

An example I like to use with students is offering an image and asking students how to find its source. Through practice we come to realize there are consistent sets of language that we use to credit images and captions. Uploading the image into a image search tool, such as the one offered by Google Images, pairs nicely with search terms like source, photo by, credit, collection, library, or courtesy of. I'm willing to bet that right now you're imagining a caption in your owner mind that uses one of those phrases similar to ones you've seen before. One of those terms is likely to appear in almost any caption that gives credit to the creator of the image that it shows, and because it's in a caption it becomes searchable and it becomes a tool we can use for finding what we need.

Older students may also compare first paragraphs of multiple news articles on a single topic. Or collect a variety of sentences focused on communicating a common idea. They can look at those paragraphs or sentence and pull out words that appear again and again.

Over time, through practice, it becomes an unconscious behavior to notice words that appear regularly in a particular context and becomes easier than ever to find what you need.
Stepping Stone Sources

Stepping stones help you get from one place to another. In research, stepping stone sources can help you find search terms or specific kinds of evidence that you can build into your search. If you are unfamiliar with your research topic, predicting what your results might look like could be difficult. Starting with a basic search on your topic will provide you with the vocabulary you need to deepen your knowledge of the topic and help build your research strategy. Spend a few minutes thinking about using stepping stone sources with your students and then complete the Reflect & Practice activity.



The idea of stepping stone sources is a wonderful way to take your students to the next level of their research game. It allows them to start with what they know and build upon that knowledge to help them create a more formal research strategy. After reviewing the resources, use page 8 in the Course Packet (found in the Resources above) to create a sample search process that you can use to illustrate the benefit of stepping stone sources and strengthen their research skills.

Using Images as Stepping Stones

Stepping stone sources help you identify a common language used surrounding your topic to help you dive deeper in your research. Using primary sources as stepping stones allows your students to expand their research tools, as well as start to work with different elements of sources, such as captions as resources for their research project. Review the SLC resources below and then complete the Reflect & Practice activity.



In this lesson, Bergson-Michelson talks about using images as stepping stone sources to help build student's recognition of regularly used language and identifying elements they can use to build their search. This activity is a great way to introduce using primary sources in their research. Using page 9 in the Course Packet (found in the Resources above), create a quick activity using primary sources as stepping stones. Choose a topic that your students are not familiar with and provide them with a primary source for that topic.

Additional Resources


About the Presenter

Tasha Bergson-Michelson is the Instructional and Programming Librarian for Castilleja School in Palo Alto, CA. Since 1995, she has been exploring what makes for successful information literacy instruction in corporate, non-profit, subscription, and school libraries, and through after school programs and summer camps. Previously, Bergson-Michelson was the Search Educator at Google, where she wrote an extensive series of Search Education lesson plans, the Power Searching MOOCs, and—most importantly—collaborated with other librarians around the world to explore the most effective ways of teaching research skills. Bergson-Michelson was designated a 2014 Mover & Shaker—Tech Leader by Library Journal.

MLA Citation

Bergson-Michelson, Tasha. "Stepping Stone Sources [6:17]." ABC-CLIO Solutions, ABC-CLIO, 2022, educatorsupport.abc-clio.com/TopicCenter/Course/2131948?productId=2002&topicCenterId=2257524&subId=2279773&childId=2131953. Accessed 4 Oct. 2022.

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