January 27th, 2009

Searching for theories should be easy, right? They are so big!

Picture of man sitting under treeOften we will get calls from learners looking for theories, for instance “theories of leadership” or “theories of learning.”

The funny thing about theories is that they don’t refer to themselves as such … at least not inside peer reviewed articles, they don’t. I. e. — If you search for “theories of learning” in the scholarly article databases you will probably get cruddy results.


So where are the best places to identify the names of highly influential theories?


  • Textbooks
    E.g. your course textbooks that you have accumulated from your courses over the years
  • Subject-specific encyclopedias
    Click Background Information on the libray’s home page.
  • Lists online
    Some people have enough time to create lists of theories and post them online. Note that these could be from star academics or shady people. (Investigate who is behind them.)
  • Books
    Go to Databases A-Z on the library’s home page and scroll down to ebrary, netlibrary or PsycBOOKS.
  • Literature Reviews
    Find these inside the Discussion section in relevant articles or search for “literature review” in the title

Once you have the name of the theory THEN you can go find scholarly articles that discuss the specific theory you are looking for (e.g. articles discussing the finer points of Transactional Leadership). You’ll almost always have more luck if you leave out the word “theory” from your search.

Therefore, “transactional leadership theory” becomes “transactional leadership.” “Constructive learning theory” becomes “constructive learning.” You’ll get a much wider pool of results if you search that way.Picture of reference list

More Tips:
Cited Reference Searching can help you find out which articles are most seminal. Google Scholar helps automate this process. Use bibliography mining to trace a specific theory back to the original author. (Highlight in-text references from the article’s discussion section, match them to citations in the reference list, and then see whether the library has the full text articles using Journal and Book Locator.)

— Erika

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