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InfoSkills1: Defining Your Topic

Identifying the keywords

Identifying the keywords in a question helps you understand what the assignment is about and what you have to do.

Consider this sample assignment question:

Handwashing has been shown to dramatically reduce the spread of viruses. Summarise the role handwashing plays in public health and discuss appropriate methods for implementing a handwashing regime in one of the following industries: hospitality, child care or patient care.

Let's unpack it in the box below. Each aspect is examined on a different tab.

Task words are usually verbs and they tell you what to do to complete your assignment. As you research and write your assignment, check these words occasionally to make sure you are still doing what you have been asked to do.

Here are some definitions of different academic task words

Don't try to use them in your research - they aren't things to find, only things to do.

The task words in our sample question are summarise and discuss.

  • Summarise means to "describe something concisely"
  • Discuss means to "consider and offer an interpretation or evaluation of something; or give a judgment on the value of arguments for and against something"

So, you would need to briefly explain what handwashing is and then evaluate some different handwashing strategies.

Content words are the main ideas and concepts in the question. You can use them in your search and to generate similar and related search terms.

The content words in our sample question are handwashing or handwashing regime, methods and public health.

You may or may not choose to use methods as a search term as leaving it out will still return results that include methods, however you may wish to include it to focus your search if you are getting too many results. The word "methods" is likely to be too generic, anyway. A much better approach would be to brainstorm actual methods and use those for your search terms, rather than the word "methods"

You probably won't use public health as a search term, as the question  instructs you to research one industry within public health. Check what these areas are using the Limiting Words tab. But think about related terms like "viruses" that can be more applicable.


Limiting words allow you to focus on a particular aspect of the topic, and prevent your search from being too general and unwieldy.

Limits include:

  • Time, eg. Last 5 years, 20th century
  • Place, eg. Australia, South-East Asia
  • People groups, eg. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, women over the age of 50 

The limiting words in the sample question are hospitality, child care, patient care. You are asked to choose only one industry from this list. You would include one of these as a search term.

You should also limit your research to appropriate handwashing methods. You won't include appropriate as a search term but you could use a similar term like effective.

Context words or sentences provide the setting or background for your research question.

In our example, the first sentence provides context - Handwashing has been shown to dramatically reduce the spread of viruses.

You may or may not choose to include context words in your search. For example, you could include virus or infection control as part of your search string, or you could simply keep the context in mind when selecting relevant articles.

It is easy to get distracted and go off on tangents when doing your research. Refer to the context words to help keep your focus where it should be.

Test your skills

Toolkit Home | Defining Your Topic | Searching for Resources | Evaluating Resources | Referencing

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