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Researching for your literature review: Subject search activity

Subject heading searching

Subject searching tips:

  • Subject headings are assigned based on the topic of the article (rather than the words used in the title or abstract).
  • A database will only search for subject headings in the 'subject field' of database records.
  • You can also browse subject headings on your topic as subject headings are contained within the database's thesaurus.
  • Subject heading searching increases the relevance of search results, and when combined with keyword searching is a more advanced method suitable for comprehensive searches.
  • Subject headings are not available for every topic and it is best to only select them if they relate closely to your research question.

screenshot of the ERIC database homepage with the Thesaurus link highlighted

Looking at the subject headings in a database record may suggest potential search terms relevant for your search strategy.

Subject searching in ERIC

When you click on an article title in the ERIC database the article record will contain a list of subject headings which have been used to describe and organise the article within the database.

screenshot of Subject Headings in an ERIC record


Activity: Search by subject heading

Key databases such as ERIC allow you to do a subject heading search to locate relevant subject headings for your key concepts.

1.  Login to ERIC at

2.  Go to Advanced search and click on Thesaurus.

3.  Enter inclusion, and click Find.

screenshot of a search for inclusion in the thesaurus

Your search term is mapped to a Subject Heading if possible. Inclusion is a subject heading that is used in this database, however as the term used has changed over time the previous subject headings are also provided.

Click on the box icon screenshot of the notes icon to find more information about a subject heading next to Inclusion for more details including a definition of this term. Note the list of synonyms under Use term for and the list of Related terms. After confirming it is appropriate for your topic, click on the box for this subject heading then click Add to search. This will add the subject heading to the search box in Advanced search. Click on search to run the search with this subject heading.

4.  Now search the thesaurus for student perspectives. You will note that there is no subject heading for this term. However a search for student reveals a list of potential options, of which student attitudes seems appropriate. Check the definition to make sure. 

screenshot of a search for student in the thesaurus

Click on the Student attitudes subject heading to see more information. 

Here you can see that the subject heading Student attitudes is part of a broader heading, Attitudes, but includes the smaller subheading, Student satisfaction. By ticking the Explode box I am including any subheadings that exist under Narrower terms. If I chose the Major box, this would specify that the subject heading must be a central aspect of any articles retrieved. This may narrow the search too much, so it is often best to leave it unchecked.

screenshot of student attitudes in the thesaurus showing the broader and narrower terms


5.  Now search for schools or education. A quick check reveals that there are many options for schools. Select what is most appropriate for your topic. This search will focus on high schools. The thesaurus shows that High schools sits under the Broader term, Secondary schools, which is more appropriate. Tick the Explode box to include any Narrower terms, and Add to search

screenshot of high schools in the thesaurus showing broader and narrower terms


6.  Go to Recent searches and combine the three searches with an AND

screenshot showing the searches combined with AND


7.  Apply any relevant limits, such as English language or specific date parameters. Review the results and refine the search if necessary. You may add more subject headings, or combine the subject heading search with some keywords.