Reflecting on Searching Strategy Development

By Kerry Dhakal, MAA, MLS, Assistant Professor, Research and Education Librarian at The Ohio State University’s Health Sciences Library

How concepts are developed and how they are organized, searched and mapped in databases is the crux of searching the literature for me and what initially drew me to health sciences librarianship. Since becoming an MLS health sciences librarian, I have spent hours upon hours in learning, conducting, evaluating, revising, disseminating and publishing search strategies in collaboration with clinical healthcare providers, faculty and students in academia. Librarians regularly think about search strategy development, especially when teaching others, but we often do not have a lot of time to teach deeply on critically reflecting on search strategies. In May, I attended a presentation by Jolene Miller, University of Toledo, about reflective practice in health sciences librarianship. It got me thinking about how I can incorporate reflective thinking about searching in one-shot sessions or courses I help teach. I wanted to see if having students reflect on their strategy development was valuable for them in learning about the systematic search process, particularly since the product of their searching in the future will lead to guidelines, policies or practices that directly affect the care of patients.

In a course that I help teach in the fall each year, N8460 Integrative Reviews, the professor provided class time to students, the professor and myself to dive deeper into these types of observations. Why does using a certain keyword or subject heading pull articles on this relevant concept but not others? Why do certain subject headings, particularly those concerning demographics, include specific groups and not others, when the general understanding of that concept is that it should? Why do individual research databases have the same name for a concept but a different definition? These are great questions for students to ask.

This semester the professor and I also collaborated to develop a search strategy assignment. The doctoral (PhD) students in the course developed clinical or research questions, then I taught a full class session on how to search systematically in PubMed, using keywords, subject headings, and synonym searching techniques. The students were asked to submit the search strategies they developed for their questions in PubMed and to answer three questions reflecting on the steps that they took for developing their strategy. The assignment was a great success as not only did the students make observations about their search strategies, they commented that the process of reflecting on the assignment provided them with an opportunity to have time to critically think about the process of searching. The following class session, I provided additional guidance and tips for developing their search strategies more effectively. In that same class session, several of the students asked additional critical questions about the process of searching and about how the databases find articles, particularly focusing on article recall, sensitivity and specificity aspects of searching.

Next fall semester, I would like to take a second step and ask students to complete a survey to learn what reflecting on their practice taught them, based on the findings from Miller’s study (2020) about how reflection helps one identify personal strengths and weaknesses, gaps in knowledge or skills, achieving perspective, and recognizing errors (p25).

Here are some resources about reflective practice in the health sciences:

Miller J. M. (2020). Reflective practice and health sciences librarians: engagement, benefits, and barriers. Journal of the Medical Library Association : JMLA, 108(1), 17–28.
Winkel, A. F., Yingling, S., Jones, A. A., & Nicholson, J. (2017). Reflection as a Learning Tool in Graduate Medical Education: A Systematic Review. Journal of graduate medical education, 9(4), 430–439.

Raterink, G. (2016). Reflective Journaling for Critical Thinking Development in Advanced Practice Registered Nurse Students. The Journal of nursing education, 55(2), 101–104.

Zori, S. (2016). Teaching Critical Thinking Using Reflective Journaling in a Nursing Fellowship Program. Journal of continuing education in nursing, 47(7), 321–329.

Thompson, N., Pascal, J. (2012) Developing critically reflective practice, Reflective Practice, 13:2, 311-325, DOI: 10.1080/14623943.2012.657795