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ERIC: ERIC Thesaurus & Descriptors

How to navigate ERIC, the Education Resources Information Center.

Keywords versus Descriptors


  • Keywords are the search terms that you use to search for records on your topic.
  • Keyword searching is what many of us start with. When you type in your search terms and hit Search, you are doing a keyword search. You can use limiters with a keyword search and it will still be a keyword search. 
  • A keyword search searches for the term(s) in the Title, Abstract, Descriptors, and Identifiers fields.
  • If the keyword(s) appears in those fields, it will be included in the search results. This is true even if the keyword is only mentioned once and has nothing to do with the actual topic of the record. For this reason, keyword searching can return results that are off-topic. 


  • Descriptor searches are designed to return results that are on-topic. Descriptors are a standardized list, or controlled vocabulary, of terms used to organize ERIC records by subject. 
  • A Descriptor search searches the Descriptors field (DE=)
  • Descriptors are assigned to each ERIC record. A Descriptor describes the subject content of a record. Descriptors provide a more precise description of a records' subjects than keywords do. 

ERIC's Thesaurus

  • The ERIC Thesaurus contains the Descriptors used in ERIC.  
  • You can search the Thesaurus search to find the best, most accurate, descriptor(s) for your topic, keyword, or subject terms.


How to translate your keywords into descriptors:

For this example, let's assume you are researching students' math grades, possibly focusing on students' grades on homework and test. What Descriptors should you use to search for this topic?

  • Go into ERIC at EBSCOhost
  • Click on Thesaurus (located in the top blue bar)
  • Enter your keyword in the Browsing ERIC - Thesaurus search box
    • Click on Relevancy Ranked
  • Click on Browse
  • Take a look at the terms that come up:


In the second search box on this page under Browsing ERIC - Thesaurus, middle grades has been entered into the search box.



In this case, it looks like grades is bringing back a lot of irrelevant Descriptors. We are not looking for grade levels, we are looking for grades on homework and tests. What other terms might be appropriate? Are we really talking about achievement when we say grades?

  • Search math achievement in the Browsing ERIC - Thesaurus
  • Click on the Descriptor that looks like the best match
    • In this example Mathematics Achievement
  • Click on the Descriptor will usually give you a definition of the Descriptor


match achievement entered in the search box under Browsing: ERIC -- Thesaurus. Generates Math Achievement at the bottom, provides a definition, and various related terms like Achievement, Academic Achievement, Mathematical Aptitude, etc.


To search with the Descriptor:

  • Click the box next to the Descriptor
  • Click Add
    • The Descriptor will be added to the Search box at the top
  • Click Search