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Information Literacy


It is important to remember that searching is an iterative process. For simple fact-checking questions (e.g., What year did the Civil War start?), you might be able to enter your search terms and then find the answer immediately. For more in-depth research questions, though, you often won't find all the answers immediately after you type in your first search into Google or the library search interface. Instead, you'll find some initial information on your first search, and based off of that information, you might be able to modify your search to find more relevant results, or you might be able to refine or extend your initial research question.

Note: You may watch the following video or read the text in the boxes below; both have the same information! 

Where to Search

In addition to considering the types of sources that might be helpful in your search, it is also useful to consider where you might begin your search. For searches in your everyday life, you may frequently turn to Google.  Other places you may search are specific databases (e.g., going directly to a website like TeachersPayTeachers) or the Relay Library. 

The chart below describes several different places where you might consider starting your search, and the types of searches they are best suited for:

  Description Useful For: Example:
Specific Websites/Databases Databases are a collection of information that can be searched. Websites and online databases can often be useful sources of information, particularly if you are looking for popular or government sources. If you've already determined the types of sources most likely to be useful to you, and you know which databases contain that type of resource, starting with those databases are likely to show you the most targeted results. If you are looking for timelines, images, or science experiences, you may want to start your search with the Curriculum Resource Center, a database that the Relay Library pays for and that Relay students and faculty may access for free. If you are looking for publicly available lesson plans, you may want to start your search with BetterLesson.
Web Search Engines (e.g., Google) Web search engines allow you to search most websites that are available to the public. Web search engines may not search within some websites, particularly if those websites require payment to access them. Web search engines like Google are useful if you need to verify a quick fact, if you are looking to get a general introduction to a topic, or if you are looking for information on a non-scholarly topic. It is also useful as a starting place for finding publically accessible online databases. If you don't have any idea what an IEP is or want to know when the American Civil War started and ended, a search engine like Google is likely a good place to start.
The Relay Library The Relay Library is a collection of databases that generally would cost you money, but that you can access for free from the Library. Start your search in the Relay Library if you want to find published books/articles/videos, if you want to do a more focused search, or if you are looking for professional or scholarly resources that are more vetted. If you want an entire book with practical information on teaching English Language Learners, the Relay Library is likely a good place to start.

Additional Examples: 

The examples below give potential information needs, along with the types of sources that might be useful for each and where the teacher may begin their search:

  • I have many students who are English Language Learners (ELLs) in my secondary math classes. What are the best strategies for teaching ELLs math?
    • For quick tips on teaching ELLs math that I can use in my classroom this week, I might turn to Google.  I also know that there are likely entire books on teaching ELLs, and when I have time, I want to read those books to learn even more about the topic.  I might therefore also search the Relay Library for books that I can access for free.
  • I am a social studies teacher writing a unit on the Civil War. I would like to have my students pick one of a few different fictional novels on the Civil War to read. What books are there on the Civil War for 6th graders?
    • Since I am looking for popular resources, Google is likely a good place to start. I also know that the Relay Library has access to CLCD, a specific database that helps teachers find information on children's literature, and so I may also want to search there. 
  • My high school is considering implementing block scheduling. Most of the discussion thus far has focused on practical, rather than academic, considerations. I would like to know whether there has been any research done on whether or not this improves students' academic performance.
    • If I just want a quick overview of what the research says, I might look on Google for blog posts or articles that summarize the relevant research. Block scheduling is relatively common, and so there is likely to be much I can find on Google about the topic.  If I want to dive deeper into the research itself instead of just trusting the summaries I find, I can look in the Relay Library for scholarly articles that address the subject.

Coming Up With Search Terms

Concept Analysis

Concept analysis is a helpful first step when determining what you need to look for in the first place! This is where you start brainstorming and assessing your key words – what are some important ideas that you want to make sure are included in your search? Taking a few minutes to plan out your search in advance can save you a lot of time in the long run. We've created a basic template below that might help you to organize your thoughts!

When you're brainstorming keywords to use in your search terms, you'll first want to pull out the main concepts in your topic or research question - these are usually the nouns in your topic or question. We'll use the term "AND" to link these concepts together. Next, we'll think of synonyms for the original concepts - we'll link these together with "OR". Using synonyms will help come up with even more potentially useful resources.

For example, say I'm looking for articles about integrating engineering in secondary science classrooms. The main concepts are "engineering", "secondary education", and "science" - ideally, the article I find will contain all three terms. However, I'd also be ok with articles that focus on middle school, or that mention STEM instead of explicitly science.


  Concept One AND Concept Two AND Concept Three
OR engineering Secondary education Science
OR design Middle school Physics
OR   High school STEM


Creating a Search String


Now that we have a few concepts in mind, we're ready to create a search string! This is a handful of key terms that we 'string' together to find relevant resources. Here are a few handy tips for creating a search string:

  • DO use operators like "AND" or "OR" to add additional concepts - a search like "engineering AND (middle school OR high school)" will provide more results than just searching "engineering".
  • DO be prepared to try different terms and combinations! If "engineering AND (middle school OR high school)" is too broad, try searching "engineering AND "middle school" AND science". If you aren't finding enough articles, try removing a few terms or trying new synonyms.
  • DON'T search full sentences - you don't need to phrase your search as a question. Asking "how to integrate engineering into secondary science classrooms" might work on Google, but if you're searching in the Relay library or other databases it might produce fewer relevant results. Searching only the key terms means that the database focuses on the important words ("engineering", "secondary", and "science") and not focusing on less important terms ("how", "integrate", or "classroom").

Search Techniques

Here are a few quick tips for becoming a better online searcher:

Look for Filter Options

Most search engines and databases will have advanced search or filter options. Here are a few that are particularly helpful:

Filter by Source Type: If you know that a specific type of source (book, article, blog/website, etc.) might be helpful in your search, you can often restrict your search to that source type.  For example, if you know you want an in-depth discussion of teaching math to English Language Learners, you might want to look for a book rather than a short article. You therefore might go to the Relay Library search and filter by "book". 

Filter by Date: Many search engines will also allow you to filter by date. If you want to find SAT-related resources for your students, you might want to restrict your search to after 2015, to ensure that the resources are aligned to the newest version of the SAT. 

Use Synonyms as Necessary

If you aren't finding what you need, try synonyms or related terms for each concept in your search. For example, if you are searching for resources on strategies for teaching "English Language Learners", you might also want to search for "Limited English Proficiency" or "English as a Second Language," which are other commonly used phrases to describe students whose native language is not English and who are still learning English.  You may also want to look for broader terms (e.g., “high school” instead of “ninth grade”) or be more specific (e.g., search for " activity-before-concept (ABC) lessons" instead of simply "ABC lessons").

Look at the List of References

One incredibly useful place to look for additional resources is through looking at the references in a given resource.  This will help you find other, older resources that the author thought were important or influential enough to cite.  Some library databases will also allow you to search for articles that cite the one that you found, which can allow you to find newer articles. 

Pearl Growing

"Pearl growing" is a metaphor that stems from the process of a small bit of sand growing to become a pearl.  In information literacy, it is a strategy that involves using one relevant information resources you find to look for other relevant information resources. Looking at the list of references, as described in the previous strategy, is one way to do this. You can also do subject pearl growing: if a database has subject or keyword descriptors, you can click on one of them to find other sources with the same subject. You may also find that other articles by the same author or within the same journal may be helpful. Sometimes, the database will provide a "related articles" feature that may also lead you to more information. 

Organizing Information from Sources

As you're searching, you'll need to keep track of your research.  One tool you may want to consider for keeping your resources organized and available during your research and writing process is citation management software. Zotero is a free tool that you can add to your web browser. It allows you to save resources and easily create bibliographies. Download Zotero and check out this helpful Zotero Library Research Guide produced by Georgia State University for more information on how to use it.