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June 2003, Vol. 6, No. 6 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Bibliographic Instruction: Search Strategy for Graduate Students
Associate Professor Yeap Lay Leng
National Institute of Education
Nanyang Technological University
Mr Anthony Tan Chin Lok
Assistant Manager, Educational Development Centre
Nanyang Polytechnic


Bibliographic instruction is the process of teaching a more sophisticated and advanced level of literature search by integrating all levels of library orientation and instruction. The process whereby graduate students search for information from a whole range of bibliographic tools such as card catalogues, references, abstracts, indexes, bibliographies, search engines and electronic databases is ‘bibliographic inquiry’.

This paper deals with one crucial but frequently overlooked aspect of bibliographic instruction for graduate students in education—the ‘how’ and ‘what’ of information access commonly termed search strategy. In this paper, the context in which ‘search strategy’ is discussed is the field of Education.

Search strategy is an organised and systematic plan of gathering information to locate relevant sources that can be used immediately for research or dissertation preparation (see Figure 1 for the search strategy flowchart). While searches are usually focused on a specific subject, search activities include the following range of actions: looking up a research topic, consulting all types of sources, accessing information through the Internet, using indexes or abstracts with their accompanying thesauruses to choose the best words for effective subject access, evaluating the retrieved sources, compiling and formatting bibliography, footnotes, quotations, figures and tables.

Fig 1. Search Strategy Flowchart for Research in Education (Yeap)
The flowchart is a guide for graduate students to locate specific information sources on Education. It maps the sequence of the search process and the types of useful sources applicable at each step. Institutional libraries usually subscribe to so many databases and materials that graduate students may not know what and where the sources are, or how to use the sources. However, with some idea on a research topic, students need to translate their queries such that they can be met by different reference sources in their different forms like prints, microforms and electronic databases.

It is a ritual for graduate students at all levels of experience to search for relevant information during their dissertation writing. The ability to find information is as important as the information itself. However, search strategy is usually excluded from formal instruction because it is assumed that graduate students already have the prerequisite skills. Thus, when graduate students do not know how to search, is it their fault or the responsibility of those who did not provide the education and training in research? As far as search strategy skills are concerned, there is just too much to know for all to be taught; individuals may want the skills but not necessarily want to be taught. Students who have yet to acquire essential search competencies have a major shortcoming in their education. The knowledge-based economy requires students to learn how to explore the body of knowledge in their academic preparations for any job. Search strategy skills, applicable to all information access situations, also help individuals in life-long learning—an important characteristic of the knowledge-based economy.

A ‘Must Have’ Reference List for Research in Education

The concept of a reference source being only a book isolated as a special collection in the library is no longer relevant. A reference source is any source that can provide the necessary information regardless of form or location.

However, users’ biggest nightmare is the unavailability of the resources within their own libraries. The libraries at the Nanyang Technological University and National Institute of Education have adequate resources for users interested in the field of education. The following is a very minimum but useful list of specific reference sources for research in Education.

1. To find background information for research

A user may have specific sources in mind but is unsure of their existence or location. A bibliography is an indispensable map that directs the user to sources of information. Below is a list of some basic but excellent bibliographies for researchers in Education.

  1. Finding information on reference books

    A guide to reference materials provides general and specific reference sources for research. The sources will be useful even to those unfamiliar with the subject. The sources place the context of the subject in the mainstream of knowledge. The following are two basic and excellent guides to references:

    • Kieft, Robert. (2000). Guide to Reference Sources (GRB12). 12th edition. Chicago: American Library Association.

    • Day, A. & Walsh, M. (eds.). (2000). Walford’s Guide to Reference Material. 8th edition. London: Library Association Publishing.

  2. Finding information on books

    This can be found from trade bibliographies that list books that are in print by authors, titles and subjects. The information can be useful to graduate students who would like to look up titles available in their research area.

    • (1948 to present). Books in Print. New Jersey: Bowker. It is also is available online at

    • (1957 to present). Subject Guide to Books in Print, New York: Bowker.

  3. Finding information on serial/magazines/journals

    • (1953 to present). New Serial Titles. Washington: Library of Congress.

      Besides listing periodicals available in the United States and Canadian libraries, this publication provides title and subject approaches as well. Users also can refer to this publication to find the libraries where serials (magazines or journals) are available for inter-library loan.

    • (1932 to present). Ulrich’s Periodicals Directory. New Jersey: Bowker.

      This Directory lists a whole range of journals. Users can access the journals by subject. It is useful for users who would like to look up journals available in their research area. The online version at is updated weekly.

  4. Finding extensive information on all branches of knowledge

    Encyclopaedias are literary works of retrospective research containing extensive information on all branches of knowledge. Subject encyclopaedias are specialised, narrower in scope and more in-depth.

    • (1992). Encyclopaedia of Educational Research. 6th edition. Alkin, M. (Ed.). New York: American Educational Research Association.

    • (1994). The International Encyclopaedia of Education. 2nd edition. Husen, T. & Postlethwaite, T. (Eds.). Oxford: Pergarnon.

    • (2001). Handbook of Research on Teaching. Richardson, V. (Ed.). Washington: American Educational Research Association (AERA).

    • (2002). Encyclopaedia of Education. 2nd edition. Deighton, L.C. (Ed.). Michigan: Thomson Gale.

      A listing of useful specialised encyclopaedias for education can be found on or

2. Finding information on the review of the literature

Literature reviews present critical essays synthesising research in a particular area. All graduate students have to go through the review of literature. The following periodicals are annual publications by the American Educational Research Association (AERA) that contain critical review of research on a variety of educational topics:

  1. Review of Educational Research.

  2. Review of Research in Education.

3. Finding information on general and current affairs

  1. (1999). The Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature is a database containing comprehensive indexing of the general-interest periodicals and magazines. 

  2. Dow Jones is a full text database that covers selected worldwide newspapers and major regional papers.

  3. LexisNexis Scholastic Universe (LNSU) is a full text database that provides access to vital source materials like international newspapers, magazines, newsletters and multi-disciplinary journals.

4. Finding information on tests

  1. (1999). Tests in Print V consists of descriptive listings and references to commercially published tests that are in print and available for purchase.

  2. (1985 to present). Mental Measurements Yearbook is a valuable resource to locate and evaluate commercially published tests.

  3. is an Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC) database that includes test review information in the web site ‘assessment and evaluation’.

5. Finding information on dissertation and thesis

  1. ProQuest Digital Dissertation ( contains information about doctoral dissertations and masters’ theses in American and Canadian universities. A 24-page review is available for titles published since 1997.

  2. British Education Index (BEI) lists articles of educational interest in periodicals published in the British Isles. It also includes the microfiche British Education Thesis Index (BETI) which records all thesis related to education but deposited in the United Kingdom and Irish universities and polytechnics.

6. Finding information on research articles

Indexes and abstracts are the heart of any information retrieval system. They are useful in locating specific pieces or bits of information in a larger unit like articles in journals and periodicals. Abstracts are an extension of indexes. They locate, record the contents of periodicals and include a summary of the materials indexed. Indexes and abstracts are updated very frequently.

  1. Education Index provides access to educational websites.

  2. Current Index to Journals in Education (CIJE*), ERIC is an online journal article bibliographic database.


* Both the CIJE and RIE have an accompanying reference, the Thesaurus of ERIC Descriptors, 14th edition (2001), that contains permitted terms/vocabulary/descriptors for use in the subject search of articles/studies in the ERIC system.

 First Look articles

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Inside this issue
Improving the Medical Graduate Programme and Supervision of Postgraduate Students
Graduate Research and Supervision in the School of Design and Environment
Building a Graduate Studies Learning Community
Bibliographic Instruction: Search Strategy for Graduate Students
The Graduate Tutor Training Workshop in the Department of Mathematics