The three- or four-part clinical question, developed by Dr Scott Richardson for work in evidence-based health care, is used at the Cairns Library in Oxford to further develop traditional teaching of search preparation for database search training. The process of setting a clear search question, breaking it into search concepts, and then trying out a range of search terms for each major concept, fits elegantly into the framework of the clinical question, with its ‘anatomy’ of Patient/Problem, Intervention/Exposure (two for a comparison search), and Clinical Outcomes. It forces searchers to produce or refine a complete question if they do not have one already, and then to build up a search strategy, using free text or controlled vocabulary search terms, truncation or wildcards, Boolean operators and so on, in stages appropriate to need and to the specific learning situation, which can be ‘tested’ in the search, and refined. It is therefore a flexible teaching and learning tool, which can be used prior to and during searching. It enables user education to focus on fostering system-independent, transferable conceptual skills, rather than teaching particular databases in isolation, and it lends itself to using active learning strategies in information skills training.