Teaching Effective Search

  • Learn the advanced search feature of associated search terms
  • Learn to use associated search terms when it is difficult to identify a specific word
  • Learn how associated search terms can help you in finding projections or forecasts
Associated search terms are a much more advanced feature, and you should only introduce them cautiously and to more advanced students. Nonetheless, they're really helpful. In some cases, it can be difficult to identify a specific word that's likely to be used to describe your topic. But you can think of words that are highly likely to appear on a source, or maybe you can just think of words that are very likely to be on precisely the source you want even though they have nothing to do with the topic.

So, for example, I had a student who was looking for polls or surveys on a particular topic. And she used poll or survey as context terms, but she also used approve or disapprove because she felt those words were highly likely to appear in the source she was seeking. The same student similarly was looking for statistics on the same topic, and so she used the search terms, increase or decrease, because she basically thought the word increase or the word decrease was likely to appear next to or associated with the topic that she wanted to find with statistics themselves.

Similarly, sometimes I have students who are looking for scholarly sources, they may look in a scholarly database, or they may look in collections on the open web that have scholarly papers. Sometimes, they'll also use words that they know typically appear in the structure of a scholarly paper. For example, many studies use terms like methodology, results, or discussion, as subtopic headings. So students can actually use that structure to find what they need.

Conversely, there can be search terms that are really very messy and impossible to describe. For example, I've frequently seen students run into trouble searching for the term Native American. It's not a very good search term. We have a lot of different ways of conveying that concept, first peoples, Indians, so forth. Some of those are geographically located, some of them are in or out of favor. But the point is, you don't know what words someone's going to use. Additionally, tribal names can be spelled in multiple ways or tribes can have names that they use for themselves versus names that settlers applied to the tribe. It can be pretty messy. So sometimes it's best to avoid naming Native Americans or a particular tribe altogether and possibly thinking about other terms that you know will appear on the same document but may not name the concept of Native American itself.

Another example of when associated search terms can be helpful is when you're looking for projections. Now, there are a lot of related terms for projections. Sometimes we call them forecasts or estimates; sometimes there isn't actually a word at all that says directly we're now giving you a projection. So they can be pretty hard to find. On the other hand, whatever that is, is generally followed by the term, by the year. So I may not know if we are projecting childhood obesity, if we're forecasting childhood obesity, if whatever we're doing to childhood obesity, but I know the topic is childhood obesity, and I know the phrase by the year appears in the same sentence as whatever that projection is called. So sometimes I just skip the concept of projection altogether and search for childhood obesity and the phrase by the year, and I will find precisely what I'm looking for.

So once you've identified students who are awfully advanced searchers, you might encourage them to start imagining sources in their head, to start paying attention to the formats of sources that they're seeing, and asking questions about words that routinely appear in specific sources that aren't necessarily directly related to the topic but that may make excellent associated search terms in the future. It's an advanced skill but it's one that has stood me in good stead.
For Your Advanced Searchers

Associated search terms allow your advanced searchers to think about words that will likely appear in the search result they have visualized, even if they are not directly related to the topic itself. In this lesson, a great example is using words that would appear in the structure of a scholarly paper to narrow down your search results. Are your students ready for this advanced search skill? Complete the Reflect & Practice activity below once you have visualized the possibilities of this skill.



For this activity, we want to combine what we've already done. We can look back at all the skills we've helped students practice and now help them synthesize what they've learned about context terms, visualizing sources, operators, and source types. Using page 13 in the Course Packet (found in the Resources above), create a next level activity based on what you've already created. How can you elevate the exercise in Context Terms are Game Changers to have students go beyond just context terms? Remember that you're asking students to imagine their source, pay attention to common formats and language they're seeing, and use words that appear in sources that may not be related to the topic itself!

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. "Associated Search Terms [4:23]." ABC-CLIO Solutions, ABC-CLIO, 2022, educatorsupport.abc-clio.com/TopicCenter/Course/2131948?productId=2002&topicCenterId=2257524&subId=2279773&childId=2131956. Accessed 4 Oct. 2022.

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