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Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education: Frame: Searching as Strategic Exploration

Framework Defined

Searching as Strategic Exploration refers to the understanding that information searching is often nonlinear and iterative, requiring the evaluation of a broad range of information sources and the mental flexibility to pursue alternate avenues as new understanding is developed.

In earlier drafts of the Framework this was referred to as Searching as Exploration and Searching is Strategic

Selecting and Using Keywords (CC)

Alignment with 2000 ACRL Standards

Standard One: The information literate student determines the nature and extent of the information needed.
*Standard Two (primary): The information literate student accesses needed information effectively and efficiently.
Standard Three: The information literate student evaluates information and its sources critically and incorporates selected information into his or her knowledge base and value system.

From: Hovious, Amanda. “Alignment Charts for ACRL Standards and Proposed Framework.” Google Docs, January 23, 2015.

Key Aspects

  • Ask yourself questions. Consider the who-what-when-where-how of your topic. Consider more narrow and broad aspects of your topic.
  • Ask others questions. Don’t do it alone. Seek out classmates, professors, and librarians when stumped.
  • Searching is hard work! Search is a trial and error process, and you will run into challenges along the way. Not initially finding sources is not a reason to ditch a topic. Remember to persist (and return to number one and two when necessary).
  • Think outside the box. Searching will consist of flexibility in search terms, topic, and mindset. Look for relationships and interdisciplinary connections.
  • The perfect article doesn’t exist! That’s okay. It is important to live with ambiguity and uncertainty.

Possible Learning Objectives

Articulating the information need

  • Identify the scope and limitations of information that the student needs in order to satisfy the requirements of the specific situation in which information is required  (e.g.: must be peer-reviewed; may not be more than X years old; must be a primary source; must be recommended by peers, etc.).
  • When appropriate, identify applicable search strategies per discipline.

Selecting a place to search

  • Identify characteristics of different search tools that make them better or worse choices for specific information needs.
  • Select search tool(s) that are appropriate to the information need (e.g., search engine, library database, discovery layer, library catalog, trusted expert, local authority or resource).
  • Understand potential structural biases with any search tool.

Boolean, keywords, and breaking a topic down into concepts

  • Break a complex topic down into separate concepts as necessary.
  • Identify likely synonyms or truncation opportunities for concepts as appropriate.
  • Combine keywords using Boolean operators AND and OR (optional: NOT).


  • Manage the technical details of the search interface (e.g., search box[es], limiters or facets, strategies for including Boolean operators, advanced vs. basic search, strategies for searching specific fields, etc.).
  • Flexibly move between examining results and modifying the search strategy, using appropriate tools within the search interface.

Iteration and refining the search

  • As searching progresses, identify synonyms or technical terminology that the student had not previously thought of, and incorporate those terms into subsequent iterations of the search strategy.
  • Evaluate an initial result set in order to identify problems with the search strategy, and then re-iterate the search in order to address those problems.
  • Identify serendipitous findings, as appropriate: those things that you learn about a topic only once you start searching on that topic (e.g., prominent authorities or sites of publication in the field, related topics and terminology, etc.)

More advanced topics and skills

  • Use relevant subject headings, thesauri, or other controlled vocabulary in order to retrieve a more focused and exhaustive set of results.
  • Trace citations in bibliographies of relevant sources.
  • Understand the unique searching structures and systems of archives and special collections.

Assignments for Searching as Strategic Exploration

The following lesson plans are from the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy Sandbox and Project CORA (Community of Online Research Assignments) and exemplify the Searching as Strategic Exploration frame.

Ideas to Incorporate into Classroom

  • Roundtable paired with concept mapping
  • Jigsaw to learn facets; regroup to find resources meeting different facet-based criteria on different topics (compiled in Google docs)
  • Brainstorm possible search  terms in pairs
  • Paraphrasing
  • Create a search strategy log using article database.  Start a search with the knowledge you have.  Identify 1 relevant article.  Locate new keywords and authors from citation abstract, subject terms.  Revise search and rerun search.  Continue.
  • Pass out different types of information sources and have students work in pairs to identify types and sources.  Have students introduce the source they analyzed.
  • Develop a concept map of topic, keywords, synonyms.

ACRL IL Framework Task Force

Private Academic Library Network of Indiana logo

This guide was created by a task force of PALNI librarians. 

Task Force Members:
Eric Bradley | Goshen College / PALNI
Ula Gaha | Saint Mary's College
Sally Neal | Butler University
Amber Pavlina | University of Saint Francis
Catherine Pellegrino | Saint Mary's College

Literature Review

Creative Commons License

Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education by PALNI's ACRL IL Framework Task Force is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License unless marked otherwise. PALNI’s logos and branding template are not covered by this license, and all rights to such material are reserved.