Who hasn’t experienced trouble when searching for information for a project? Obviously, you too remember staring at a blinking cursor not knowing where to start.

This is nothing to be ashamed of. Even graduate students and adult learners have problems specifying search terms, judging search results, judging sources and information as well as regulating the search process (M. Tsai, J.-C. Liang, H.-T. Hou, C.- C. Tsai, 2012).

So, how do we overcome this feeling of being lost in loads of information?

Hand-in-hand: Media literacy & Information Literacy

According to UNESCO, the umbrella concept of media and information literacy brings together several dimensions.

  • Information literacy – this is your ability to access and organise information. Additionally, it is about referencing sources and academic honesty.
  • Media literacy – this is more about your ability to work with a variety of media, as information does not just come from books and text. Especially here, evaluation and perspective play a major role. (www.academia.edu)

This new type of literacy allows us to quickly and easily find information and evaluate its quality.

Everyone does research

Whether you are doing market research for a small business or writing an essay, you need to do research and you need to do it well. Meanwhile, your research and the data you collect can be classified into two categories:

  • Primary research – the study of a subject through first-hand observation and investigation. Examples of primary sources can be articles, books or diaries.
  • Secondary research – this involves the examination of studies of other researchers. Examples of secondary sources are textbooks, book reviews, commentaries, encyclopaedias, etc.

Remember that most research involves the use of both forms of research and both forms of sources (Clarke R. J., 2005).

Have a look at the ultimate cheat sheet for critical thinking when you find new information. 

Information Search Process

Let’s see how it is possible to progress in research activity. There are many models describing the steps you need to take. One of the models developed by Carol Kuhltau is called the Information Search Process (ISP). It identifies the six stages of information seeking from the user’s perspective (B. Blummer, J. M. Kenton, 2014).

  • Initiation – when a person first becomes aware of a lack of knowledge or understanding and feelings of uncertainty and apprehension are common.
  • Selection – when a general area, topic or problem is identified and initial uncertainty often gives way to a brief sense of optimism and a readiness to begin the search.
  • Exploration – when inconsistent, incompatible information is encountered and uncertainty, confusion, and doubt frequently increase and people find themselves ‘in the dip’ of confidence.
  • Formulation – when a focused perspective is formed and uncertainty diminishes as confidence begins to increase.
  • Collection – when information pertinent to the focused perspective is gathered and uncertainty subsides as interest and involvement deepen.
  • Presentation – when the search is completed with a new understanding enabling the person to explain their learning to others or in some way put the learning to use (C. Kuhlthau , 1989).

Planning a research strategy

So, the next question is how to approach the research process? When you start exploring a topic, you need to use an effective search strategy. Search strategies are ways of using search terms to find the required information from search tools, such as search engines (Google), the library catalogue and online databases (University of Johannesburg). 

The most common search techniques are applicable to various search tools:

Boolean Logic

Boolean logic was devised by English mathematician George Boole and can be used to combine keywords to effectively search electronic information, returning relevant results while eliminating insignificant results. There are three main Boolean operators:

  • AND
  • OR
  • NOT

 With Google, a space is used for AND, OR is used for OR and – is used for NOT. (University of Birmingham, 2011).

Examples according to Boolean logic:

AND – the expression employment AND entrepreneurship will make the engine search for both words.

OR – the expression lesson OR tutorial would return any document which had either word.

NOT the expression surfing NOT Internet would search for articles that include ‘surfing’ but exclude articles with the word ‘Internet’ (Internet surfing).


The most common use of parentheses is to enclose two possible keywords separated by an OR operator and then linking those enclosed/possible keywords with another keyword using AND. (www.searchingspot.com).

Example: If you want to find a web-based internet tutorial you might use the search criteria internet AND (tutorial OR lesson).

Phrase searching

Use double quotation marks [“ ”] to find articles that contain an exact phrase.

Example: type “youth-friendly services” in order to find articles containing that exact phrase. You’ll get fewer results and it will exclude articles that don’t contain those words in that exact order.


Inserting a symbol, usually an asterisk (*), to replace letters after the root of your keyword.

Example: type librar* to find articles that contain library, libraries, librarian and librarians.


Replace a single letter in your search.

Example: type wom?n to find articles that contain woman and/or women.

Field searching

Searching in a specific field of database records, for example, when you’re looking for publications written by a specific author, you know the title of the document you want or you want documents on a particular subject. (Butte College Library)

Example: If you search a database for an article written by a known expert on youth employment, in the simultaneous search, in the Author, Subject Terms and Source field, you will write the name of the researcher, then youth AND employment and the name of the journal, for example, International Journal of Social Welfare.

Find more tips on how to approach the search process here.


Challenges of internet research

What do you find most difficult when searching the Internet? Probably breaking through your filter bubble and finding valid sources?

So, how can we cope with information overload and evaluate sources? Use the CRAAP Test (CRAAP is an acronym for Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy and Purpose). Ask the following questions:

  1. Is this information current?
  2. Is this Information relevant?
  3. Was this information produced by someone with authority?
  4. Is this information accurate?
  5. What is this information’s purpose?

Please don’t get distracted by information that does not meet the above criteria. Watch this video for more details.

When evaluating a web news source, look for:

Domain Name – Does the story’s domain contain a country code instead of .com? This can be an indicator that you are looking at a fake news source.

Contact Page – Many legitimate news sites contain a ‘contact us’ page. Sites that lack a ‘contact us’ page should be questioned.

Advertisements – Many ‘fake news’ sites contain ads for questionable content or products that do not appear on most legitimate news sources. Keep an eye out for the kind of advertisements shown on the page (Guggenheim Memorial Library, 2020).

When doing research on the Internet, be sure to try more than one search engine. Though Google remains the most widely used, it is not the be-all and end-all of searching. Each search engine has its own search formula, so you can get different results (T. Brown, 2013). For example, if you care about your privacy, then DuckDuckGo is for you, as it does not track users’ online activity. If you’re looking for high-quality images or video you can use Microsoft’s Bing, the visual search engine. If you want to find a scientific paper or a research opportunity, then consider registering on ResearchGate social networking site for students and scientists.

Likewise, don’t focus your search solely online! Use books for in-depth information and dictionaries/encyclopaedias to gain a general overview.


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Photo of Mila Corlateanu
Mila Corlateanu

Freelance journalist based in Chișinău and a strong believer in the power of informed societies where media and education both play a crucial role. Since 2016 she is DW Akademie coordinator of projects such as introduction of media literacy in school & university curricula as well as non-formal activities in this field in Moldova.