This section of the Searching for SoTL resource offers suggestions for how to search for SoTL literature most effectively, including tips for using Google Scholar and subject databases, identifying keywords, and following citation chains.

Where to Search: Casting a Wider Net

Most scholars are accustomed to searching a few specific key databases in their discipline. Depending on your discipline, you may be able to find at least some SoTL literature in your preferred databases. However, because SoTL literature can be found in so many different places, and because you should explore beyond your discipline, it is important to also use multidisciplinary search tools that allow you to search more widely. Examples include:

  • Google Scholar (see video below for search tips)
  • Your library’s discovery platform. Most academic libraries have a discovery platform that searches across the library’s holdings and electronic databases. This is an important tool for multidisciplinary searching! Ask a librarian if you are unsure how to locate your institution’s discovery platform.
  • JSTOR (humanities and social sciences)
  • Scopus
  • Web of Science
  • ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Global. Dissertations are important sources of emerging research, have extensive bibliographies, and can help you find useful instruments and methodologies. If your institution does not subscribe to this database, many dissertations are available in institutional repositories and can be found through Google Scholar.
  • Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ). The DOAJ is a great source for literature that is not indexed in Web of Science or Scopus and a way to expand the scope of your search.

For teaching and learning topics, the Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC) is a key source. A free version is available through the Institute of Education Sciences, but your university may also subscribe to ERIC through another platform that provides more full-text access to articles.

How to Search: Keywords

One of the key challenges in searching for SoTL literature is the lack of agreed upon terminology. Those researchers who are used to searching using a specific controlled vocabulary such as Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) or another set of terms in their preferred database may find this especially frustrating. There is no controlled vocabulary organizing SoTL literature, so we have to be flexible and creative with our search terms and embrace trial and error.

Margy MacMillan outlines a useful approach for brainstorming keywords for SoTL literature searching. Consider the different aspects of your topic and list possible terms you could use in your search.

  • The phenomenon or aspect of teaching/learning that you are researching. Are you interested in quizzes, teamwork, journaling, feedback? Consider all the different ways this phenomenon could be described and make a list of these key terms.
  • Your population. Are you interested in undergraduates, graduate students, international students?
  • Methods of interest. Are you considering a specific approach, such as think-alouds, surveys, close reading?

When beginning your search in a multidisciplinary resource like Google Scholar, start broad. Begin by searching for the phenomenon or aspect of teaching/learning before narrowing down to specific populations or methods. This will give you a better sense of the existing literature on your topic and ensure you do not miss anything relevant.

How to Identify More Key Terms

If you are having difficulty thinking of more ways to describe your topic, try a few basic searches in your library search or Google Scholar and look closely at the results. Explore the titles and abstracts of your results to see if you can find alternate keywords or related keywords that you could experiment with in your search.

For more information on searching for the SoTL literature review, see

MacMillan, Margy. 2018. “The SoTL Literature Review: Exploring New Territory.” In SoTL in Action: Illuminating Critical Moments of Practice edited by Nancy L. Chick,23-31. Stylus Publishing.

How to Search: Citation Chaining

Citation chaining is the practice of a) mining an article’s reference list for more citations (backward chaining) and b) identifying articles that have cited sources you have already found (forward citation chaining). Citation chaining is useful for comprehensiveness and for seeing how the literature on a topic is connected.

Forward citation chaining is easy to do in Google Scholar. Search for an article by title or simply explore one of your search results. If the article has been cited since it was published, you will find a “Cited by” link underneath the brief description.

A screen shot of a Google Scholar entry for a journal article. "Cited by 10" is circled.

Click on the “Cited by” link to find a list of more recent articles that have cited this one. If you want to go further, you could even explore articles that have cited those ones.