Before actually beginning an ERIC search, it is important to understand that every journal article and document entered into the ERIC database is assigned several ERIC “descriptors,” which are terms with standard definitions. The trick is to determine which ERIC descriptors have been assigned to a particular topic or set of documents of interest. Fortunately, there is an ERIC Thesaurus that operates much like a standard thesaurus. By looking up terms in the ERIC Thesaurus related to a topic, it is possible to identify the ERIC descriptors used to index ERIC citations. These descriptors can then be used to conduct a search for the citations in the ERIC database.
Begin the search by going to the Educator’s Reference Desk “Search ERIC Database” page, at www.eduref.org/Eric. There you will find a number of options for search assistance and for conducting an ERIC search. To identify the appropriate ERIC descriptors needed for the search, select the “ERIC Thesaurus” option in the box on the left, which leads to the actual ERIC Thesaurus. In the “Keywords” box, enter the term or phrase (in single quotes) associated with the topic of interest. Enter it in all capital letters to avoid problems with case-sensitive words or phrases. After entering a keyword, it is sometimes possible to narrow the search a little more by adding one of the terms in the “Category” window. Then click on “Search” to see what Thesaurus descriptors show up.
If the topic concerns programs for students at risk of academic failure, go to the Thesaurus and enter AT-RISK at the prompt for Keywords. The following three ERIC descriptors will appear: AT-RISK PERSONS; HIGH RISK PERSONS (1982 1990) ; RISK POPULATIONS. Click on AT-RISK PERSONS to obtain a Thesaurus entry that lists broader, narrower and related terms. Click on the narrower term of HIGH RISK STUDENTS to obtain yet another Thesaurus entry that lists related terms such as COMPENSATORY EDUCATION.
It may be necessary to try several different keywords before finding appropriate descriptors. Alternatively, click on the “Browse” button to see the entire list of Thesaurus descriptors and choose from among those.
Note that in addition to descriptors for subject topics, the ERIC Thesaurus also includes descriptors for different types of citations. For example, LITERATURE REVIEW is a descriptor in the ERIC Thesaurus.
After choosing the descriptors, make a note of them and exit the ERIC Thesaurus by closing the window, which will lead back to the “Search ERIC Database” page on the Educator’s Reference Desk Web site. Now, either begin a search on ERIC or obtain more information about conducting an ERIC search by clicking on “Searching Assistance,” “Searching FAQ’s,” etc. in the box on the left.
To conduct a “Simple Search” (the default option), simply enter one of the descriptors in the box and choose any limitations that are appropriate in terms of resource type and years. It is possible to search only journal articles, for example, or full-text ERIC Digest articles, which are short literature reviews. Similarly, it is possible to limit a search for citations related to standards-based education to the time span of 1985 to the present, using 1985 as an approximate date for the start of the standards movement.
To combine descriptors or make a search more specific, use Search Operators (e.g., AND, OR, NOT) and construct a whole search string. To learn about search operators, click on “Searching Tips” just above the boxes where search terms are entered on the actual ERIC search screens. Alternatively, it is possible to obtain the same information from the “Searching Assistance” page.
Before conducting a search, consult the list of “Stopwords,” which can be accessed from the bottom of the “Other helpful pages” list on the “Searching Assistance” page. Stopwords are words that will be ignored in an ERIC search, even when the words are enclosed in quotation marks. For example, searching for ‘BEFORE SCHOOL PROGRAMS’ will result in hundreds of citations related to SCHOOL PROGRAMS because BEFORE is a stopword that will be ignored.
To search using search operators, or if a Simple Search results in a large number of citations or citations of questionable relevance, switch to “Advanced Search.” An Advanced Search makes it easy to use the main search operators and to conduct a more specific search, especially when there is some prior knowledge about the resources or kinds of resources needed. Even then, it’s easy to get searches that result in too many irrelevant citations, particularly when searching by the “Keyword” category. Consult the “Searching Assistance” page to increase the efficiency of a search and save time in the long run.
Here are a couple examples of Advanced Searches:
To find citations on improving the reading performance of at-risk students in grades K-12, enter the following:
Using the Search Operator NOT with COLLEGE STUDENTS limits the search to non-college students.
To limit a search to literature reviews, enter LITERATURE REVIEW and search that term by the All Descriptors category instead of the Keyword category: