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HHP 3700 Research Methods in Exercise Science and Health Promotion

This module should take you 45 minutes to complete. Click the green button above to begin.


The information below is covered in the module, but is here for your review if needed.

Formulate a Question

Using the PICO method can really help with framing a research question. It also helps you see the individual parts of your research that will need coverage in a literature review. 

What is PICO?

PICO is a tool, most often used in health-related research, for distilling the essential components of a research topic into concepts. Finding relevant health-related information is often easier if you break down your research topic by developing a PICO question. Your proposed research question may not have all of the elements of PICO, but will likely have most parts. PICO is an acronym for:

Patient / Population / Problem

How would you describe this group of patients similar to yours? What are the most important characteristics of the patient(s)? What sorts of participants, from where, with what features?

Intervention / Indicator

What is the main intervention, treatment, or exposure? What do you want to do for the patient? 


What is the main alternative to compare with the intervention? At times your question may not have a comparison!


What are you aiming to accomplish, measure, improve, make an impact on? Are you trying to eliminate or relieve symptoms? Reduce the number or severity of adverse effects? Improve functions?



EXAMPLE PICO: Do compression socks (I), compared to regular running socks (C), improve the performance (O) of endurance athletes (P)?

Choose the Best Keywords

Why are keywords important?

By this point in your college career, you have had a chance to search library databases. You understand that you need keywords (not sentences) when you search a database. However, using health science terminology might be new territory.

Natural Language vs. Database Language

Natural language refers to the common way that we speak in everyday life. Database language refers to how a database classifies a concept and is usually very technical. Though most databases are great at matching natural language entered with database terminology, it’s important for you to begin recognizing medical terminology. Some examples include:

Natural Language Database Language
Heart attack Myocardial infarction
Swelling Edema
Bruise Contusion
ACL Anterior Cruciate Ligament
Shingles Herpes zoster


Where to Find Synonyms

  1. The Internet: Is your search term or concept called anything else? Look it up in an online encyclopedia to find out. For example, in the Wikipedia entry for "hypertension", the synonym high blood pressure is quickly identified in the opening sentence. This is true for most Wikipedia entries for scientific and medical terminology. It is Wikipedia, so exercise caution when using this as a background reading source.
  2. Other background sources: You can also easily find synonyms in other background sources, including your lecture notes, textbooks, and print encyclopedias (yes, they still exist!).
  3. Use database subject headings: CINAHL, a nursing and allied health database, is great for finding subject headings. If you run a search and find a good article, look at the subject terms listed by the database. Use those terms in subsequent searches. PubMed also has a database of its own search terms called MeSH (medical subject headings). To access MeSH: on PubMed’s homepage select the dropdown box where you see PubMed listed. Choose MeSH instead and enter your natural language term.


  1. Start with your research question:
    Can pre-screenings help decrease the risk of cardiac arrest deaths in young athletes?
  1. Sort out the major terms. In this case:  
    pre-screenings AND cardiac arrest death AND young athletes
  1. Make a list of synonyms and related terms for each of your major terms.

    Synonyms and related terms for the word cardiac arrest death include:

    • sudden cardiac death (SCD)
    • sudden cardiac arrest
    • heart arrest

    Synonyms and related terms for young athletes might include:

    • student athletes
    • high school athletes
    • adolescent athlete
    • youth sports
    • high school sports
    • youth football (or basketball, soccer, etc.)

Build a Search Strategy

Now that you've formulated a research question and developed some keywords, it's time to create a search strategy. Each of the following sections will help you build and properly conduct your search.

Search Operators (AND, OR, & NOT)

These operators can be used in Library databases, but also work really well in Google! They are important for creating efficient, effective searches.

Operator Purpose Example Search Visualization

Expands the search.

Used to string synonyms together.

Results include all articles with any of the terms used.

Hand washing


Hand Hygiene

(all results including the words "hand washing" as well as all results including the words "hand hygiene")

venn diagram - union of two sets with search terms 'hand washing' and 'hand hygiene'

Narrows the search.

All retrieved results must include all terms connected with AND.

AND usually combines different concepts together in one search.

AND is assumed between words in Google.

Hospital infection



(only results that include both the terms "hospital infection" and "antibiotic")

venn diagram - intersection of two sets with search terms 'hospital infection' and 'antibiotic'

Excludes results with a specific term.

Really handy to eliminate unwanted search results.




(all results with the term "antibiotic", but excluding those with the term "penicillin")

venn diagram - relative compliment of terms 'antibiotic' not 'penicillin'

​Phrase Searching

Use quotation marks to search for phrases. Phrase searching is excellent when the desired result is specificity.

Example: Searching for "chronic traumatic encephalopathy" will retrieve results where both terms are used together in the specified order.

CAUTION! Do NOT use phrase searching in PubMed! It turns off Automatic Term Mapping. Just don't do it!

Google Site Searching

Google site searching can help search across various government websites or can help you better search poorly indexed websites. Site searches should be typed into the browser search bar (where the web address is located). 

Site Searching by URL

  • site:URL plus search terms
Example: obesity will retrieve results from only the CDC's website that are related to obesity.

Site Searching by Domain

Example: obesity will retrieve results from all websites ending in .gov with the term obesity.

Example Search

Let's revisit a research question from earlier in the tutorial and construct some good searches.

It is now time to construct your search strategy. You may choose to organize your thoughts into a chart, as shown below using a modified version of our question from Step 2 as an example:

Does hand washing (I) amongst healthcare workers (P) reduce healthcare facility acquired infections(O)? (No hand washing is the (C).)

Synonyms for Concept #1 (I) Hand washing OR Handwashing OR Hand hygiene OR Hand disinfection
Synonyms for Concept #2 (O) Healthcare facility acquired infection OR Hospital acquired infections OR Nosocomial infections OR Healthcare associated infections
Synonyms for Concept #3 (P) Healthcare workers OR Health personnel OR Healthcare provider OR Health professional

The idea here is to combine synonyms and concepts in different ways for multiple searches. Combining your terms should reduce the overall number of searches needed. Example search strategies:

  • (Hand washing OR Handwashing OR hand hygiene) AND (nosocomial infections OR cross infection) AND (Health personnel OR Healthcare workers)
  • (Hand washing OR Handwashing) AND (nosocomial infections OR cross infection)
  • Pretty much any way you can think of to combine your terms is a good idea!
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