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Information Literacy Learning Objects


Even for research experts, it is nearly impossible to go from topic to a well designed research question without looking up basic information about the topic. Background research will give you a foundation for your research and an overview for the basic ideas and concepts associated with your topics. As you research, keep an eye out for:

  • New concepts
  • Important people
  • Keywords
  • Sources that are cited. 

This early stage, when you are generating ideas and familiarizing yourself with your topic, is when a quick Google search or dive into Wikipedia can be beneficial to your research. Note that even Wikipedia does not recommend that you use the site directly in your research. This is not because Wikipedia contains inherently bad information, but because it is a reference source and reference sources should only be used as background information.  Other reference material is also useful at this stage. Below are different types of reference materials and tips on how to use them. 

Video brought to you by Western University. 

Classroom Activity

The classroom activity for background research is a scavenger hunt designed to allow students to explore CREDO. 

  1.  Start this activity by introducing students to Credo. We recommend showing students all of the features that they will need to use in the worksheet. 
    • Basic Search
    • Subject Facets
    • Details of Search Results
    • Example Article
    • Citations
    • Mind Maps
  2. Students can fill out the worksheet individually or with a partner (more than three becomes cumbersome). If students know what topic they are exploring for their paper, it would be best to work individually on their own topics. It is very important to emphasize that they need to think about their topic in a broad sense when search Credo. 
  3. Walk around and help students as needed. Some will find information quickly others will struggle, depending on their topic. Allow for fifteen minutes for the exercise if done in class. Even with an extended time, some students will not finish the full worksheet.
  4. At the end ask students to report on the article they found and any issues they had searching the database. 


Types of Reference Sources

Online Database

You can find many dictionaries, encyclopedias, biographies, and other reference material online in databases that specifically focus on reference. Databases make it possible to search multiple resources all at once. 

Credo Reference

Gale Virtual Reference Library


  • Keep your search terms broad
  • Keep an open mind to changing the direction of your research
  • Search both general and subject-specific sources
  • When you find an interesting entry, explore the sources it cites



Dictionaries can be the typical vocabulary based dictionaries, but there are also subject-specific dictionaries that define terms in given disciplines. These dictionaries tend to have more information included in each entry than a regular dictionary, but less than an entry in an encyclopedia. 

General Encyclopedias

General encyclopedias include entries on a broad range of topics, typically organized in Alphabetical order. These entries ten to be brief overviews focusing in on the basic facts without digging into the fine details of the topic. 

Subject Specific Encyclopedias

The entries in these encyclopedias can be longer and often delve into at least one discipline's perspective of the issue beyond the facts.  


Biographies are similar to encyclopedias in that they provide brief entries organized in alphabetical order, but these entries focus on people. Biographies can either be general or subject specific.