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Literature Review & Research Skills Guide: Topic Analysis

Topic Analysis

Before you start searching for information, it is important to identify the key concepts of your research by undertaking a topic analysis process. This will identify the keywords that you will use for searching.

Let's start thinking about what terms you will use when searching for information. To do this:

  • Identify the key concepts of your topic;
  • Brainstorm as many synonyms and similar terms/phrases as you can.

This is a useful exercise because the language used to describe your topic may vary from source to source, and you don't want to miss out on a good source because it uses a different term to the one you are searching on.

Let's use this topic as an example:

Discuss how racism might affect student achievement in schools, paying particular attention to the Australian experience.

Identify Definition Example
Instruction words Tell you what to do. Charles Sturt has a list of explanations for common instruction words. Discuss
Key concepts Show you what you need to research racism

Qualifying word(s) and phrase(s)

Enable you to focus your search by limiting the scope of the topic, such as asking you to concentrate on a particular period in time, geographical location or demographic


school-aged children

The key concepts and qualifying terms from a topic analysis can be used as a guide to identify keywords to use in searching. Synonyms and similar terms allow more flexibility and breadth when searching.

Here are some examples of keywords and synonyms from the hypothetical topic above:

Keywords Synonyms
racism racist, race relations, institutional racism, multiculturalism, discrimination, minority groups, prejudice
schools education, classroom, teaching, teachers, elementary, primary, first, secondary, middle
achievements evaluate, evaluation, results, performance, success, outcome

Tools for finding synonyms

Miller, R. L. & Brewer, J. (2003). The A-Z of Social Research : SAGE Publications Ltd doi: 10.4135/9780857020024

Schools Online Thesaurus. Provides a controlled vocabulary of terms used in the Australian and New Zealand Education sector.

Topic analysis

How to develop a good research topic


Write down the key concepts from your topic and have a go at brainstorming as many alternative keywords and phrases as possible.

Thinking about your topic in this way forces you to describe your topic in "other words", which will provide you with some useful keyword alternatives as well as help you to cement your understanding of the topic.

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