Answered By: Priscilla Coulter
Last Updated: Sep 22, 2022     Views: 10340

To narrow your search, you'll need to "zoom in" on your topic.   Just as placing an object under a microscope reveals detail that's not visible to the naked eye...narrowing your topic will help you identify more specific concepts and keywords.  Your search results will be more focused.

  • Just as you did when you chose your keywords identify each of the major concepts in your topic
  • For each concept, make a list of specific examples or types
    • It may help to first consult a thesaurus, or do a test search to find synonyms (other ways to describe your concepts) and examples.
    • If you can't find a more specific example of one of your concepts...don't worry.  Just get as narrow as you can.
  • Search for those more specific concepts, zooming in even further if needed!

Let's try an example. 

Suppose our topic is:  How does class interaction help online students succeed? 

We tried searching for interaction AND online students AND success, but most of the articles we found only mentioned interaction briefly, and some weren't really relevant at all.  We need more detail to write a paper about this topic. So, we'll add more detail to our search! 

First, we identify the major concepts and zoom in on each one to find the specifics.  Like this:

Original concepts: 

interaction online students success

Narrower concepts:

  • conversation
  • discussion
  • dialog
  • engagement
  • online adult learners
  • online college students
  • online undergraduate students
  • online graduate students
  • performance
  • learning
  • grades

Even narrower concepts:

  • forums
  • chat
  • social networking
  • social media
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Zoom




Now, we'll try searching again...this time mixing and matching our narrower (and even narrower) terms with our original terms, until we get the kinds of results we need: 

  • engagement AND online students AND performance
  • social networking AND online students AND success
  • Facebook AND interaction AND online AND undergraduate students AND learning



Narrowing your search can mean narrowing your research topic, might decide, based on your new search results, to follow a slightly more focused path with your paper or presentation.   Sometimes a narrower topic is more interesting to read (and to write!) about, because a more detailed investigation brings deeper insight and new perspectives.  Be sure to clear topic changes with your instructor.

But, even when your topic is broad, there are times when searching narrowly is useful.  

Articles, in particular, are usually written about narrower topics than books.   If your article searches bring too many irrelevant results, try narrowing your keywords.  Even if an article addresses a more specific aspect of your topic, you'll probably be able to use information or examples that you find there.

TIP: Library databases can help you narrow your searches, too.  Learn more about database limiters here. 

Related Topics


Need personalized help?
Librarians are available 365 days/nights per year! 
See our schedule.

Email your librarians.

    Consult with a librarian (screen-sharing sessions).

Learn more about how librarians can help you succeed.