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Nonprofit Leadership for University College

Keywords Basics

Coming up with Keywords

Taking a few minutes to think about and identify some keywords before starting your search will help you search more efficiently. This will save you time (and probably a little frustration).

  • Identify important concepts from your research question (look for nouns).
  • Brainstorm some synonyms (to help you find more information).
  • Keep track of useful terms you discover during research.


Why Identify Keywords?

You probably already use keyword searching in your own life. For instance, if you're using Google (another search engine), and you need to find information about a movie theater in your town, what words might you use to search?

Why would you use those words?

Whether through a search engine like Google, or through a library database, keywords help you find information.

Finding New Keywords from Your Search Results

Different subjects will often have their own specific terms to describe something. Keeping an eye out for subject-specific language will give you clues as to which subjects are writing about your research question, and what words you can use to search.

You can use your research log to keep track of where you've searched. Keeping track of where you've searched will save you time as you conduct your research.


Exploratory Tools

You can use these suggestions while you are developing keywords from your research question:

  • Ask a librarian. You don't have to wait until you're stuck! A librarian can help no matter where you are in your research.
  • Ask your teacher. Your teacher can help, especially when you're still learning the language of a subject.
  • Brainstorm with a classmate: It can be very useful to bring another perspective to your work. The Generating Keywords Resource below can help you accomplish this. Share your research question, and any keywords you've come up with. 

Other resources to come up with keywords:


Quick Recap

  • Key ideas from your research question (think nouns)
  • Brainstorm synonyms
  • Talk to others to help work out your ideas
  • Record useful terms you found doing research. Be open to change.
  • Keep track of which keywords worked and didn't work, and the sources you find.

This guide is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial 4.0 International License. It is attributed to UConn Library

Formulating Questions

The PICO method can help you develop a research question or problem statement about your topic. Each letter stands for an important aspect of a well-rounded thesis:

  • P: Population
  • I: Intervention
  • C: Comparison
  • O: Outcome

The chart below will explain each element of the PICO question to help you identify elements of your question and come up with better keywords. The template will also help clarify your thesis.

Four Elements in a Well-Formulated Question









Client Type

And/or Problem

What You

Might Do

Alternative Course
of Action

What You Want

To Accomplish

Describe the population with which you are interested in working. This part of the question will help you consider whether or not the population that you are interested in serving does or does not match up with the samples that are included in research studies you find.


Describe an intervention you might use. You can choose something general like “parent training”, or a specific intervention like, “Parent-Child Interaction Therapy”.


Optional: Describe an alternative intervention. Use this column only if you are interested in comparing one intervention to another.

One outcome of treatment, program, or policy. Choose only one outcome for each question. Try to be specific. General outcomes like “well-being” are hard to pin down. Try to think about things that you can observe, measure, or on which people can report.

You can use the following template to help develop your research question.

In ________________ (P), what is the effect of _______________ (I) on __________________ (O) compared with _______________ (C) ?

For example,

In school-aged children (P), what is the effect of more sleep (I) on grades (O) compared with less sleep (C)?

Additional Resources

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Reference Librarian

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Elia Trucks
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