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Education - Literature Reviews

This guide outlines the purpose and process of a literature review and explains how to create search terms for conducting research on your topic.

Developing Search Terms

The following search tips work with most search interfaces, including Google Scholar, the University of Calgary Library main search box, and the various specialized databases.


Breaking Searches into Concepts and using Synonyms

When starting to develop your search strategy, think about your research question and the main or key concepts contained within it. Those concepts will help you develop your search terms, which you can then combine using Boolean Operators (see below). Once you have your main concepts mapped out, think of possible synonyms for those concepts as those will help you locate relevant resources that are not discovered using your main search terms.

The reason it is important to include synonyms in your searches is that the same concept can be expressed using different keywords and if you miss an often used term that describes one of the main ideas in your research question, you run the risk of missing articles that use that particular term, but not the one you used, to express that concept. 

Example Research Question: “How does the positive psychology movement contribute to teacher well-being?”

There are 3 main concepts in this question: positive psychology, teacher, & well-being, but these key concepts will generate several useful search terms.

Key Concept

positive psychology



Synonym 1

positive emotions



Synonym 2




Synonym 3



mental health






The other thing to keep in mind when conducting your searches (especially in the specialized databases) is being mindful of spelling variants. For example, well-being, wellbeing, and well being may all yield slightly different results (one strategy is to combine all variants with an OR operator).


Using Boolean Operators

Combining your searches with AND or OR can help you narrow, broaden, and otherwise customize your searches.

Combining search terms with AND narrows the search to resources containing both search terms:

Combining your searches with OR expands the search to resources containing either term or both terms:



Using truncation can be a real time saver since it eliminates the need for searching for all the different variants of a word. The most common symbol for truncation is the asterisk *, but some databases use other symbols, so it’s important to check the database "Help" section (another common truncation symbol is #).

Placing a truncation symbol at the end of a root word will generate all the possible variants of the term during your search.

For example: educat* will generate education, educate, educates, educated, educational, etc.


Searching for Phrases

When searching for phrases rather than single words (e.g. "positive psychology" or "mental health"), placing the phrase in quotations " " will ensure that all terms in your search are adjacent to one another in your search results rather than being scattered through the resource. For example, searching for positive psychology without the quotation marks around the phrase will result in the retrieval of articles on positive psychology as well as articles that contain the search terms independently of one another, yielding articles that are irrelevant to your search (e.g. books and papers on positive chargesabnormal psychology, etc). 


The following are several helpful guides for researchers using Google Scholar:

A Scholar’s Guide to Google (Harvard University)

Google Scholar: 13 Search Tips (Wageningen University)

Search Tips for Google and Google Scholar (Simon Fraser University)

Google Scholar Search Tips (Google)