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Systematic literature reviews for education and social sciences

A guide to conducting a systematic literature review in the Education discipline

Developing your search strategies

Developing search strategies

A systematic literature review requires you to do several things around the discovery of literature for your review:

  • develop search strategies
  • discover resources to search - databases, catalogues, websites etc.
  • organise and record search results
  • record the systematic searching process

This section will discuss the development of search strategies and the discovery of resources to search for relevant research material.

Developing search strategies

Developing sound search strategies is vital to discovering and locating literature to support your review.  

To find the most relevant literature available you will need to:

  • break your research question down into its key components
  • analyse these key components to determine the important keywords, phrases, concepts to search upon
  • expand your keywords by determining possible variations, synonyms and alternate spellings.

Searching tips

  • Use the asterisk * wildcard symbol
    • For example, searching on educat* will find education, educated, educates, educating and so on
  • Use the question mark ?  wildcard symbol for alternate spellings in Australian and American English.
    • For example, systemize or systemise. Using the following format "systemi?e" will pick up both variations. 
  • Develop alternative keywords to ensure you find all available materials on a topic
    • For example preschool / toddler / child 
  • Search on keyword phrases by placing search terms inside double inverted commas
    • For example "early childhood"
  • Use the pre and post search functionality in databases and catalogues to limit and refine results.
    • For example limit by date ranges, peer-review status, content type (book reviews, articles, chapters etc.)
  • Searching for relevant literature is a trial and error process,  test different combinations of  keywords and concepts to get the right results for you 

For further assistance in the development of your search strategies look at modules 1-4 of the Postgraduate Research Information Skills Modules. 

Questions to ask before you begin searching

Searching for research material is a trial and error process, so be prepared to conduct many searches to find the information you seek.  However, before you embark on this process, review the following questions and seek advice from your Discipline Librarian to save you time.


  • Find out who is my dedicated Discipline Librarian is
  • Do I need more training in using databases, catalogues and research software?


  • What dedicated Library resources (databases, catalogues) are available in my topic area?
  • What other information resources are available (Google Scholar, Education forums etc.)?
  • Do I know how to access these resources?

Organising search results

  • How will I keep notes on the literature discovered?
  • How will I record the bibliographic details of the literature I find? 

If you have trouble answering these questions, contact a library specialist to discuss.