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Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper

  • Theoretical Framework
  • Purpose of Guide
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  • Independent and Dependent Variables
  • Glossary of Research Terms
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  • Scholarly vs. Popular Publications
  • Qualitative Methods
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  • Insiderness
  • Using Non-Textual Elements
  • Limitations of the Study
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  • Writing Concisely
  • Avoiding Plagiarism
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Theories are formulated to explain, predict, and understand phenomena and, in many cases, to challenge and extend existing knowledge within the limits of critical bounded assumptions or predictions of behavior. The theoretical framework is the structure that can hold or support a theory of a research study. The theoretical framework encompasses not just the theory but the narrative explanation about how the researcher engages in using the theory and its underlying assumptions to investigate the research problem.

Abend, Gabriel. "The Meaning of Theory." Sociological Theory 26 (June 2008): 173–199; Kivunja, Charles. "Distinguishing between Theory, Theoretical Framework, and Conceptual Framework: A Systematic Review of Lessons from the Field." International Journal of Higher Education 7 (2018): 44-53; Swanson, Richard A. Theory Building in Applied Disciplines . San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers 2013; Varpio, Lara, Elise Paradis, Sebastian Uijtdehaage, and Meredith Young. "The Distinctions between Theory, Theoretical Framework, and Conceptual Framework." Academic Medicine 95 (July 2020): 989-994.

Importance of Theory and a Theoretical Framework

Theories can be unfamiliar to the beginning researcher because they are rarely used in high school social studies curriculum and, as a result, can come across as dubious and imprecise when first introduced as part of a writing assignment. However, in their most simplified form, a theory is simply a set of assumptions or predictions about something you think will happen based on existing evidence and that can be tested to see if those outcomes turn out to be true. Of course, it is slightly more deliberate than that and so, summarized from Kivunja (2018, p. 46), here are the essential characteristics of a theory.

  • It is logical and coherent
  • It has clear definitions of terms or variables, and has boundary conditions [i.e., it is not an open-ended statement]
  • It has a domain where it applies
  • It has clearly described relationships among variables
  • It describes, explains, and makes specific predictions
  • It comprises of concepts, themes, principles, and constructs
  • It must have been based on empirical data [i.e., it is not a guess]
  • It must have made claims that are subject to testing, been tested and verified
  • It must be clear and concise
  • Its assertions or predictions must be different and better than those in existing theories
  • Its predictions must be general enough to be applicable to and understood within multiple contexts
  • Its assertions or predictions are relevant, and if applied as predicted, will result in the predicted outcome
  • The assertions and predictions are not immutable, but subject to revision and improvement as researchers use the theory to make sense of phenomena
  • Its concepts and principles explain what is going on and why
  • Its concepts and principles are substantive enough to enable us to predict a future

Given these characteristics, a theory can be understood as the foundation from which you conduct research to test existing assumptions or predictions about the research problem in a way that leads to new knowledge and understanding as well as, in some cases, discovering ways to improve the relevance of the theory itself.

A theoretical framework consists of concepts and, together with their definitions and reference to relevant scholarly literature, existing theory that is used for your particular study. The theoretical framework must demonstrate an understanding of theories and concepts that are relevant to the topic of your research paper and that relate to the broader areas of knowledge being considered.

The theoretical framework is most often not something readily found within the literature . You must review course readings and pertinent research studies for theories and analytic models that are relevant to the research problem you are investigating. The selection of a theory should depend on its appropriateness, ease of application, and explanatory power.

The theoretical framework strengthens the study in the following ways :

  • An explicit statement of  theoretical assumptions permits the reader to evaluate them critically.
  • The theoretical framework connects the researcher to existing knowledge. Guided by a relevant theory, you are given a basis for your hypotheses and choice of research methods.
  • Articulating the theoretical assumptions of a research study forces you to address questions of why and how. It permits you to intellectually transition from simply describing a phenomenon you have observed to generalizing about various aspects of that phenomenon.
  • Having a theory helps you identify the limits to those generalizations. A theoretical framework specifies which key variables influence a phenomenon of interest and highlights the need to examine how those key variables might differ and under what circumstances.

By virtue of its applicative nature, good theory in the social sciences is of value precisely because it fulfills one primary purpose: to explain the meaning, nature, and challenges associated with a phenomenon, often experienced but unexplained in the world in which we live, so that we may use that knowledge and understanding to act in more informed and effective ways.

The Conceptual Framework. College of Education. Alabama State University; Corvellec, Hervé, ed. What is Theory?: Answers from the Social and Cultural Sciences . Stockholm: Copenhagen Business School Press, 2013; Asher, Herbert B. Theory-Building and Data Analysis in the Social Sciences . Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1984; Drafting an Argument. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Kivunja, Charles. "Distinguishing between Theory, Theoretical Framework, and Conceptual Framework: A Systematic Review of Lessons from the Field." International Journal of Higher Education 7 (2018): 44-53; Ravitch, Sharon M. and Matthew Riggan. Reason and Rigor: How Conceptual Frameworks Guide Research . Second edition. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2017; Trochim, William M.K. Philosophy of Research. Research Methods Knowledge Base. 2006; Jarvis, Peter. The Practitioner-Researcher. Developing Theory from Practice . San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1999.

Strategies for Developing the Theoretical Framework

I.  Developing the Framework

Here are some strategies to develop of an effective theoretical framework:

  • Examine your thesis title and research problem . The research problem anchors your entire study and forms the basis from which you construct your theoretical framework.
  • Brainstorm about what you consider to be the key variables in your research . Answer the question, "What factors contribute to the presumed effect?"
  • Review related literature to find how scholars have addressed your research problem. Identify the assumptions from which the author(s) addressed the problem.
  • List  the constructs and variables that might be relevant to your study. Group these variables into independent and dependent categories.
  • Review key social science theories that are introduced to you in your course readings and choose the theory that can best explain the relationships between the key variables in your study [note the Writing Tip on this page].
  • Discuss the assumptions or propositions of this theory and point out their relevance to your research.

A theoretical framework is used to limit the scope of the relevant data by focusing on specific variables and defining the specific viewpoint [framework] that the researcher will take in analyzing and interpreting the data to be gathered. It also facilitates the understanding of concepts and variables according to given definitions and builds new knowledge by validating or challenging theoretical assumptions.

II.  Purpose

Think of theories as the conceptual basis for understanding, analyzing, and designing ways to investigate relationships within social systems. To that end, the following roles served by a theory can help guide the development of your framework.

  • Means by which new research data can be interpreted and coded for future use,
  • Response to new problems that have no previously identified solutions strategy,
  • Means for identifying and defining research problems,
  • Means for prescribing or evaluating solutions to research problems,
  • Ways of discerning certain facts among the accumulated knowledge that are important and which facts are not,
  • Means of giving old data new interpretations and new meaning,
  • Means by which to identify important new issues and prescribe the most critical research questions that need to be answered to maximize understanding of the issue,
  • Means of providing members of a professional discipline with a common language and a frame of reference for defining the boundaries of their profession, and
  • Means to guide and inform research so that it can, in turn, guide research efforts and improve professional practice.

Adapted from: Torraco, R. J. “Theory-Building Research Methods.” In Swanson R. A. and E. F. Holton III , editors. Human Resource Development Handbook: Linking Research and Practice . (San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 1997): pp. 114-137; Jacard, James and Jacob Jacoby. Theory Construction and Model-Building Skills: A Practical Guide for Social Scientists . New York: Guilford, 2010; Ravitch, Sharon M. and Matthew Riggan. Reason and Rigor: How Conceptual Frameworks Guide Research . Second edition. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2017; Sutton, Robert I. and Barry M. Staw. “What Theory is Not.” Administrative Science Quarterly 40 (September 1995): 371-384.

Structure and Writing Style

The theoretical framework may be rooted in a specific theory , in which case, your work is expected to test the validity of that existing theory in relation to specific events, issues, or phenomena. Many social science research papers fit into this rubric. For example, Peripheral Realism Theory, which categorizes perceived differences among nation-states as those that give orders, those that obey, and those that rebel, could be used as a means for understanding conflicted relationships among countries in Africa. A test of this theory could be the following: Does Peripheral Realism Theory help explain intra-state actions, such as, the disputed split between southern and northern Sudan that led to the creation of two nations?

However, you may not always be asked by your professor to test a specific theory in your paper, but to develop your own framework from which your analysis of the research problem is derived . Based upon the above example, it is perhaps easiest to understand the nature and function of a theoretical framework if it is viewed as an answer to two basic questions:

  • What is the research problem/question? [e.g., "How should the individual and the state relate during periods of conflict?"]
  • Why is your approach a feasible solution? [i.e., justify the application of your choice of a particular theory and explain why alternative constructs were rejected. I could choose instead to test Instrumentalist or Circumstantialists models developed among ethnic conflict theorists that rely upon socio-economic-political factors to explain individual-state relations and to apply this theoretical model to periods of war between nations].

The answers to these questions come from a thorough review of the literature and your course readings [summarized and analyzed in the next section of your paper] and the gaps in the research that emerge from the review process. With this in mind, a complete theoretical framework will likely not emerge until after you have completed a thorough review of the literature .

Just as a research problem in your paper requires contextualization and background information, a theory requires a framework for understanding its application to the topic being investigated. When writing and revising this part of your research paper, keep in mind the following:

  • Clearly describe the framework, concepts, models, or specific theories that underpin your study . This includes noting who the key theorists are in the field who have conducted research on the problem you are investigating and, when necessary, the historical context that supports the formulation of that theory. This latter element is particularly important if the theory is relatively unknown or it is borrowed from another discipline.
  • Position your theoretical framework within a broader context of related frameworks, concepts, models, or theories . As noted in the example above, there will likely be several concepts, theories, or models that can be used to help develop a framework for understanding the research problem. Therefore, note why the theory you've chosen is the appropriate one.
  • The present tense is used when writing about theory. Although the past tense can be used to describe the history of a theory or the role of key theorists, the construction of your theoretical framework is happening now.
  • You should make your theoretical assumptions as explicit as possible . Later, your discussion of methodology should be linked back to this theoretical framework.
  • Don’t just take what the theory says as a given! Reality is never accurately represented in such a simplistic way; if you imply that it can be, you fundamentally distort a reader's ability to understand the findings that emerge. Given this, always note the limitations of the theoretical framework you've chosen [i.e., what parts of the research problem require further investigation because the theory inadequately explains a certain phenomena].

The Conceptual Framework. College of Education. Alabama State University; Conceptual Framework: What Do You Think is Going On? College of Engineering. University of Michigan; Drafting an Argument. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Lynham, Susan A. “The General Method of Theory-Building Research in Applied Disciplines.” Advances in Developing Human Resources 4 (August 2002): 221-241; Tavallaei, Mehdi and Mansor Abu Talib. "A General Perspective on the Role of Theory in Qualitative Research." Journal of International Social Research 3 (Spring 2010); Ravitch, Sharon M. and Matthew Riggan. Reason and Rigor: How Conceptual Frameworks Guide Research . Second edition. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2017; Reyes, Victoria. Demystifying the Journal Article. Inside Higher Education; Trochim, William M.K. Philosophy of Research. Research Methods Knowledge Base. 2006; Weick, Karl E. “The Work of Theorizing.” In Theorizing in Social Science: The Context of Discovery . Richard Swedberg, editor. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014), pp. 177-194.

Writing Tip

Borrowing Theoretical Constructs from Other Disciplines

An increasingly important trend in the social and behavioral sciences is to think about and attempt to understand research problems from an interdisciplinary perspective. One way to do this is to not rely exclusively on the theories developed within your particular discipline, but to think about how an issue might be informed by theories developed in other disciplines. For example, if you are a political science student studying the rhetorical strategies used by female incumbents in state legislature campaigns, theories about the use of language could be derived, not only from political science, but linguistics, communication studies, philosophy, psychology, and, in this particular case, feminist studies. Building theoretical frameworks based on the postulates and hypotheses developed in other disciplinary contexts can be both enlightening and an effective way to be more engaged in the research topic.

CohenMiller, A. S. and P. Elizabeth Pate. "A Model for Developing Interdisciplinary Research Theoretical Frameworks." The Qualitative Researcher 24 (2019): 1211-1226; Frodeman, Robert. The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity . New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Another Writing Tip

Don't Undertheorize!

Do not leave the theory hanging out there in the introduction never to be mentioned again. Undertheorizing weakens your paper. The theoretical framework you describe should guide your study throughout the paper. Be sure to always connect theory to the review of pertinent literature and to explain in the discussion part of your paper how the theoretical framework you chose supports analysis of the research problem or, if appropriate, how the theoretical framework was found to be inadequate in explaining the phenomenon you were investigating. In that case, don't be afraid to propose your own theory based on your findings.

Yet Another Writing Tip

What's a Theory? What's a Hypothesis?

The terms theory and hypothesis are often used interchangeably in newspapers and popular magazines and in non-academic settings. However, the difference between theory and hypothesis in scholarly research is important, particularly when using an experimental design. A theory is a well-established principle that has been developed to explain some aspect of the natural world. Theories arise from repeated observation and testing and incorporates facts, laws, predictions, and tested assumptions that are widely accepted [e.g., rational choice theory; grounded theory; critical race theory].

A hypothesis is a specific, testable prediction about what you expect to happen in your study. For example, an experiment designed to look at the relationship between study habits and test anxiety might have a hypothesis that states, "We predict that students with better study habits will suffer less test anxiety." Unless your study is exploratory in nature, your hypothesis should always explain what you expect to happen during the course of your research.

The key distinctions are:

  • A theory predicts events in a broad, general context;  a hypothesis makes a specific prediction about a specified set of circumstances.
  • A theory has been extensively tested and is generally accepted among a set of scholars; a hypothesis is a speculative guess that has yet to be tested.

Cherry, Kendra. Introduction to Research Methods: Theory and Hypothesis. About.com Psychology; Gezae, Michael et al. Welcome Presentation on Hypothesis. Slideshare presentation.

Still Yet Another Writing Tip

Be Prepared to Challenge the Validity of an Existing Theory

Theories are meant to be tested and their underlying assumptions challenged; they are not rigid or intransigent, but are meant to set forth general principles for explaining phenomena or predicting outcomes. Given this, testing theoretical assumptions is an important way that knowledge in any discipline develops and grows. If you're asked to apply an existing theory to a research problem, the analysis will likely include the expectation by your professor that you should offer modifications to the theory based on your research findings.

Indications that theoretical assumptions may need to be modified can include the following:

  • Your findings suggest that the theory does not explain or account for current conditions or circumstances or the passage of time,
  • The study reveals a finding that is incompatible with what the theory attempts to explain or predict, or
  • Your analysis reveals that the theory overly generalizes behaviors or actions without taking into consideration specific factors revealed from your analysis [e.g., factors related to culture, nationality, history, gender, ethnicity, age, geographic location, legal norms or customs , religion, social class, socioeconomic status, etc.].

Philipsen, Kristian. "Theory Building: Using Abductive Search Strategies." In Collaborative Research Design: Working with Business for Meaningful Findings . Per Vagn Freytag and Louise Young, editors. (Singapore: Springer Nature, 2018), pp. 45-71; Shepherd, Dean A. and Roy Suddaby. "Theory Building: A Review and Integration." Journal of Management 43 (2017): 59-86.

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Chapter 4: Theoretical frameworks for qualitative research

Tess Tsindos

Learning outcomes

Upon completion of this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Describe qualitative frameworks.
  • Explain why frameworks are used in qualitative research.
  • Identify various frameworks used in qualitative research.

What is a Framework?

A framework is a set of broad concepts or principles used to guide research.  As described by Varpio and colleagues 1 , a framework is a logically developed and connected set of concepts and premises – developed from one or more theories – that a researcher uses as a scaffold for their study. The researcher must define any concepts and theories that will provide the grounding for the research and link them through logical connections, and must relate these concepts to the study that is being carried out. In using a particular theory to guide their study, the researcher needs to ensure that the theoretical framework is reflected in the work in which they are engaged.

It is important to acknowledge that the terms ‘theories’ ( see Chapter 3 ), ‘frameworks’ and ‘paradigms’ are sometimes used interchangeably. However, there are differences between these concepts. To complicate matters further, theoretical frameworks and conceptual frameworks are also used. In addition, quantitative and qualitative researchers usually start from different standpoints in terms of theories and frameworks.

A diagram by Varpio and colleagues demonstrates the similarities and differences between theories and frameworks, and how they influence research approaches. 1(p991) The diagram displays the objectivist or deductive approach to research on the left-hand side. Note how the conceptual framework is first finalised before any research is commenced, and it involves the articulation of hypotheses that are to be tested using the data collected. This is often referred to as a top-down approach and/or a general (theory or framework) to a specific (data) approach.

The diagram displays the subjectivist or inductive approach to research on the right-hand side. Note how data is collected first, and through data analysis, a tentative framework is proposed. The framework is then firmed up as new insights are gained from the data analysis. This is referred to as a specific (data) to general (theory and framework) approach .

Why d o w e u se f rameworks?

A framework helps guide the questions used to elicit your data collection. A framework is not prescriptive, but it needs to be suitable for the research question(s), setting and participants. Therefore, the researcher might use different frameworks to guide different research studies.

A framework informs the study’s recruitment and sampling, and informs, guides or structures how data is collected and analysed. For example, a framework concerned with health systems will assist the researcher to analyse the data in a certain way, while a framework concerned with psychological development will have very different ways of approaching the analysis of data. This is due to the differences underpinning the concepts and premises concerned with investigating health systems, compared to the study of psychological development. The framework adopted also guides emerging interpretations of the data and helps in comparing and contrasting data across participants, cases and studies.

Some examples of foundational frameworks used to guide qualitative research in health services and public health:

  • The Behaviour Change Wheel 2
  • Consolidated Framework for Implementation Research (CFIR) 3
  • Theoretical framework of acceptability 4
  • Normalization Process Theory 5
  • Candidacy Framework 6
  • Aboriginal social determinants of health 7(p8)
  • Social determinants of health 8
  • Social model of health 9,10
  • Systems theory 11
  • Biopsychosocial model 12
  • Discipline-specific models
  • Disease-specific frameworks

E xamples of f rameworks

In Table 4.1, citations of published papers are included to demonstrate how the particular framework helps to ‘frame’ the research question and the interpretation of results.

Table 4.1. Frameworks and references

As discussed in Chapter 3, qualitative research is not an absolute science. While not all research may need a framework or theory (particularly descriptive studies, outlined in Chapter 5), the use of a framework or theory can help to position the research questions, research processes and conclusions and implications within the relevant research paradigm. Theories and frameworks also help to bring to focus areas of the research problem that may not have been considered.

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  • Michie S, van Stralen MM, West R. The behaviour change wheel: a new method for characterising and designing behaviour change interventions. Implement Sci .  2011;6:42. doi:10.1186/1748-5908-6-42
  • CFIR Research Team. Consolidated Framework for Implementation Research (CFIR). Center for Clinical Management Research. 2023. Accessed February 15, 2023. https://cfirguide.org/
  • Sekhon M, Cartwright M, Francis JJ. Acceptability of healthcare interventions: an overview of reviews and development of a theoretical framework. BMC Health Serv Res . 2017;17:88. doi:10.1186/s12913-017-2031-8
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  • Graham-Wisener L, Nelson A, Byrne A, et al. Understanding public attitudes to death talk and advance care planning in Northern Ireland using health behaviour change theory: a qualitative study. BMC Public Health . 2022;22:906. doi:10.1186/s12889-022-13319-1
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  • Bossert J, Mahler C, Boltenhagen U, et al. Protocol for the process evaluation of a counselling intervention designed to educate cancer patients on complementary and integrative health care and promote interprofessional collaboration in this area (the CCC-Integrativ study). PLOS ONE . 2022;17(5):e0268091. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0268091
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  • Wilhelm AK, Schwedhelm M, Bigelow M, et al. Evaluation of a school-based participatory intervention to improve school environments using the Consolidated Framework for Implementation Research. BMC Public Health . 2021;21:1615. doi:10.1186/s12889-021-11644-5
  • Timm L, Annerstedt KS, Ahlgren JÁ, et al. Application of the Theoretical Framework of Acceptability to assess a telephone-facilitated health coaching intervention for the prevention and management of type 2 diabetes. PLOS ONE . 2022;17(10):e0275576. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0275576
  • Laing L, Salema N-E, Jeffries M, et al. Understanding factors that could influence patient acceptability of the use of the PINCER intervention in primary care: a qualitative exploration using the Theoretical Framework of Acceptability. PLOS ONE . 2022;17(10):e0275633. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0275633
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  • Alexander SM, Agaba A, Campbell JI, et al. A qualitative study of the acceptability of remote electronic bednet use monitoring in Uganda. BMC Public Health . 2022;22:1010. doi:10.1186/s12889-022-13393
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  • v.21(3); Fall 2022

Literature Reviews, Theoretical Frameworks, and Conceptual Frameworks: An Introduction for New Biology Education Researchers

Julie a. luft.

† Department of Mathematics, Social Studies, and Science Education, Mary Frances Early College of Education, University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602-7124

Sophia Jeong

‡ Department of Teaching & Learning, College of Education & Human Ecology, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH 43210

Robert Idsardi

§ Department of Biology, Eastern Washington University, Cheney, WA 99004

Grant Gardner

∥ Department of Biology, Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, TN 37132

Associated Data

To frame their work, biology education researchers need to consider the role of literature reviews, theoretical frameworks, and conceptual frameworks as critical elements of the research and writing process. However, these elements can be confusing for scholars new to education research. This Research Methods article is designed to provide an overview of each of these elements and delineate the purpose of each in the educational research process. We describe what biology education researchers should consider as they conduct literature reviews, identify theoretical frameworks, and construct conceptual frameworks. Clarifying these different components of educational research studies can be helpful to new biology education researchers and the biology education research community at large in situating their work in the broader scholarly literature.


Discipline-based education research (DBER) involves the purposeful and situated study of teaching and learning in specific disciplinary areas ( Singer et al. , 2012 ). Studies in DBER are guided by research questions that reflect disciplines’ priorities and worldviews. Researchers can use quantitative data, qualitative data, or both to answer these research questions through a variety of methodological traditions. Across all methodologies, there are different methods associated with planning and conducting educational research studies that include the use of surveys, interviews, observations, artifacts, or instruments. Ensuring the coherence of these elements to the discipline’s perspective also involves situating the work in the broader scholarly literature. The tools for doing this include literature reviews, theoretical frameworks, and conceptual frameworks. However, the purpose and function of each of these elements is often confusing to new education researchers. The goal of this article is to introduce new biology education researchers to these three important elements important in DBER scholarship and the broader educational literature.

The first element we discuss is a review of research (literature reviews), which highlights the need for a specific research question, study problem, or topic of investigation. Literature reviews situate the relevance of the study within a topic and a field. The process may seem familiar to science researchers entering DBER fields, but new researchers may still struggle in conducting the review. Booth et al. (2016b) highlight some of the challenges novice education researchers face when conducting a review of literature. They point out that novice researchers struggle in deciding how to focus the review, determining the scope of articles needed in the review, and knowing how to be critical of the articles in the review. Overcoming these challenges (and others) can help novice researchers construct a sound literature review that can inform the design of the study and help ensure the work makes a contribution to the field.

The second and third highlighted elements are theoretical and conceptual frameworks. These guide biology education research (BER) studies, and may be less familiar to science researchers. These elements are important in shaping the construction of new knowledge. Theoretical frameworks offer a way to explain and interpret the studied phenomenon, while conceptual frameworks clarify assumptions about the studied phenomenon. Despite the importance of these constructs in educational research, biology educational researchers have noted the limited use of theoretical or conceptual frameworks in published work ( DeHaan, 2011 ; Dirks, 2011 ; Lo et al. , 2019 ). In reviewing articles published in CBE—Life Sciences Education ( LSE ) between 2015 and 2019, we found that fewer than 25% of the research articles had a theoretical or conceptual framework (see the Supplemental Information), and at times there was an inconsistent use of theoretical and conceptual frameworks. Clearly, these frameworks are challenging for published biology education researchers, which suggests the importance of providing some initial guidance to new biology education researchers.

Fortunately, educational researchers have increased their explicit use of these frameworks over time, and this is influencing educational research in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. For instance, a quick search for theoretical or conceptual frameworks in the abstracts of articles in Educational Research Complete (a common database for educational research) in STEM fields demonstrates a dramatic change over the last 20 years: from only 778 articles published between 2000 and 2010 to 5703 articles published between 2010 and 2020, a more than sevenfold increase. Greater recognition of the importance of these frameworks is contributing to DBER authors being more explicit about such frameworks in their studies.

Collectively, literature reviews, theoretical frameworks, and conceptual frameworks work to guide methodological decisions and the elucidation of important findings. Each offers a different perspective on the problem of study and is an essential element in all forms of educational research. As new researchers seek to learn about these elements, they will find different resources, a variety of perspectives, and many suggestions about the construction and use of these elements. The wide range of available information can overwhelm the new researcher who just wants to learn the distinction between these elements or how to craft them adequately.

Our goal in writing this paper is not to offer specific advice about how to write these sections in scholarly work. Instead, we wanted to introduce these elements to those who are new to BER and who are interested in better distinguishing one from the other. In this paper, we share the purpose of each element in BER scholarship, along with important points on its construction. We also provide references for additional resources that may be beneficial to better understanding each element. Table 1 summarizes the key distinctions among these elements.

Comparison of literature reviews, theoretical frameworks, and conceptual reviews

This article is written for the new biology education researcher who is just learning about these different elements or for scientists looking to become more involved in BER. It is a result of our own work as science education and biology education researchers, whether as graduate students and postdoctoral scholars or newly hired and established faculty members. This is the article we wish had been available as we started to learn about these elements or discussed them with new educational researchers in biology.


Purpose of a literature review.

A literature review is foundational to any research study in education or science. In education, a well-conceptualized and well-executed review provides a summary of the research that has already been done on a specific topic and identifies questions that remain to be answered, thus illustrating the current research project’s potential contribution to the field and the reasoning behind the methodological approach selected for the study ( Maxwell, 2012 ). BER is an evolving disciplinary area that is redefining areas of conceptual emphasis as well as orientations toward teaching and learning (e.g., Labov et al. , 2010 ; American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2011 ; Nehm, 2019 ). As a result, building comprehensive, critical, purposeful, and concise literature reviews can be a challenge for new biology education researchers.

Building Literature Reviews

There are different ways to approach and construct a literature review. Booth et al. (2016a) provide an overview that includes, for example, scoping reviews, which are focused only on notable studies and use a basic method of analysis, and integrative reviews, which are the result of exhaustive literature searches across different genres. Underlying each of these different review processes are attention to the s earch process, a ppraisa l of articles, s ynthesis of the literature, and a nalysis: SALSA ( Booth et al. , 2016a ). This useful acronym can help the researcher focus on the process while building a specific type of review.

However, new educational researchers often have questions about literature reviews that are foundational to SALSA or other approaches. Common questions concern determining which literature pertains to the topic of study or the role of the literature review in the design of the study. This section addresses such questions broadly while providing general guidance for writing a narrative literature review that evaluates the most pertinent studies.

The literature review process should begin before the research is conducted. As Boote and Beile (2005 , p. 3) suggested, researchers should be “scholars before researchers.” They point out that having a good working knowledge of the proposed topic helps illuminate avenues of study. Some subject areas have a deep body of work to read and reflect upon, providing a strong foundation for developing the research question(s). For instance, the teaching and learning of evolution is an area of long-standing interest in the BER community, generating many studies (e.g., Perry et al. , 2008 ; Barnes and Brownell, 2016 ) and reviews of research (e.g., Sickel and Friedrichsen, 2013 ; Ziadie and Andrews, 2018 ). Emerging areas of BER include the affective domain, issues of transfer, and metacognition ( Singer et al. , 2012 ). Many studies in these areas are transdisciplinary and not always specific to biology education (e.g., Rodrigo-Peiris et al. , 2018 ; Kolpikova et al. , 2019 ). These newer areas may require reading outside BER; fortunately, summaries of some of these topics can be found in the Current Insights section of the LSE website.

In focusing on a specific problem within a broader research strand, a new researcher will likely need to examine research outside BER. Depending upon the area of study, the expanded reading list might involve a mix of BER, DBER, and educational research studies. Determining the scope of the reading is not always straightforward. A simple way to focus one’s reading is to create a “summary phrase” or “research nugget,” which is a very brief descriptive statement about the study. It should focus on the essence of the study, for example, “first-year nonmajor students’ understanding of evolution,” “metacognitive prompts to enhance learning during biochemistry,” or “instructors’ inquiry-based instructional practices after professional development programming.” This type of phrase should help a new researcher identify two or more areas to review that pertain to the study. Focusing on recent research in the last 5 years is a good first step. Additional studies can be identified by reading relevant works referenced in those articles. It is also important to read seminal studies that are more than 5 years old. Reading a range of studies should give the researcher the necessary command of the subject in order to suggest a research question.

Given that the research question(s) arise from the literature review, the review should also substantiate the selected methodological approach. The review and research question(s) guide the researcher in determining how to collect and analyze data. Often the methodological approach used in a study is selected to contribute knowledge that expands upon what has been published previously about the topic (see Institute of Education Sciences and National Science Foundation, 2013 ). An emerging topic of study may need an exploratory approach that allows for a description of the phenomenon and development of a potential theory. This could, but not necessarily, require a methodological approach that uses interviews, observations, surveys, or other instruments. An extensively studied topic may call for the additional understanding of specific factors or variables; this type of study would be well suited to a verification or a causal research design. These could entail a methodological approach that uses valid and reliable instruments, observations, or interviews to determine an effect in the studied event. In either of these examples, the researcher(s) may use a qualitative, quantitative, or mixed methods methodological approach.

Even with a good research question, there is still more reading to be done. The complexity and focus of the research question dictates the depth and breadth of the literature to be examined. Questions that connect multiple topics can require broad literature reviews. For instance, a study that explores the impact of a biology faculty learning community on the inquiry instruction of faculty could have the following review areas: learning communities among biology faculty, inquiry instruction among biology faculty, and inquiry instruction among biology faculty as a result of professional learning. Biology education researchers need to consider whether their literature review requires studies from different disciplines within or outside DBER. For the example given, it would be fruitful to look at research focused on learning communities with faculty in STEM fields or in general education fields that result in instructional change. It is important not to be too narrow or too broad when reading. When the conclusions of articles start to sound similar or no new insights are gained, the researcher likely has a good foundation for a literature review. This level of reading should allow the researcher to demonstrate a mastery in understanding the researched topic, explain the suitability of the proposed research approach, and point to the need for the refined research question(s).

The literature review should include the researcher’s evaluation and critique of the selected studies. A researcher may have a large collection of studies, but not all of the studies will follow standards important in the reporting of empirical work in the social sciences. The American Educational Research Association ( Duran et al. , 2006 ), for example, offers a general discussion about standards for such work: an adequate review of research informing the study, the existence of sound and appropriate data collection and analysis methods, and appropriate conclusions that do not overstep or underexplore the analyzed data. The Institute of Education Sciences and National Science Foundation (2013) also offer Common Guidelines for Education Research and Development that can be used to evaluate collected studies.

Because not all journals adhere to such standards, it is important that a researcher review each study to determine the quality of published research, per the guidelines suggested earlier. In some instances, the research may be fatally flawed. Examples of such flaws include data that do not pertain to the question, a lack of discussion about the data collection, poorly constructed instruments, or an inadequate analysis. These types of errors result in studies that are incomplete, error-laden, or inaccurate and should be excluded from the review. Most studies have limitations, and the author(s) often make them explicit. For instance, there may be an instructor effect, recognized bias in the analysis, or issues with the sample population. Limitations are usually addressed by the research team in some way to ensure a sound and acceptable research process. Occasionally, the limitations associated with the study can be significant and not addressed adequately, which leaves a consequential decision in the hands of the researcher. Providing critiques of studies in the literature review process gives the reader confidence that the researcher has carefully examined relevant work in preparation for the study and, ultimately, the manuscript.

A solid literature review clearly anchors the proposed study in the field and connects the research question(s), the methodological approach, and the discussion. Reviewing extant research leads to research questions that will contribute to what is known in the field. By summarizing what is known, the literature review points to what needs to be known, which in turn guides decisions about methodology. Finally, notable findings of the new study are discussed in reference to those described in the literature review.

Within published BER studies, literature reviews can be placed in different locations in an article. When included in the introductory section of the study, the first few paragraphs of the manuscript set the stage, with the literature review following the opening paragraphs. Cooper et al. (2019) illustrate this approach in their study of course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs). An introduction discussing the potential of CURES is followed by an analysis of the existing literature relevant to the design of CUREs that allows for novel student discoveries. Within this review, the authors point out contradictory findings among research on novel student discoveries. This clarifies the need for their study, which is described and highlighted through specific research aims.

A literature reviews can also make up a separate section in a paper. For example, the introduction to Todd et al. (2019) illustrates the need for their research topic by highlighting the potential of learning progressions (LPs) and suggesting that LPs may help mitigate learning loss in genetics. At the end of the introduction, the authors state their specific research questions. The review of literature following this opening section comprises two subsections. One focuses on learning loss in general and examines a variety of studies and meta-analyses from the disciplines of medical education, mathematics, and reading. The second section focuses specifically on LPs in genetics and highlights student learning in the midst of LPs. These separate reviews provide insights into the stated research question.

Suggestions and Advice

A well-conceptualized, comprehensive, and critical literature review reveals the understanding of the topic that the researcher brings to the study. Literature reviews should not be so big that there is no clear area of focus; nor should they be so narrow that no real research question arises. The task for a researcher is to craft an efficient literature review that offers a critical analysis of published work, articulates the need for the study, guides the methodological approach to the topic of study, and provides an adequate foundation for the discussion of the findings.

In our own writing of literature reviews, there are often many drafts. An early draft may seem well suited to the study because the need for and approach to the study are well described. However, as the results of the study are analyzed and findings begin to emerge, the existing literature review may be inadequate and need revision. The need for an expanded discussion about the research area can result in the inclusion of new studies that support the explanation of a potential finding. The literature review may also prove to be too broad. Refocusing on a specific area allows for more contemplation of a finding.

It should be noted that there are different types of literature reviews, and many books and articles have been written about the different ways to embark on these types of reviews. Among these different resources, the following may be helpful in considering how to refine the review process for scholarly journals:

  • Booth, A., Sutton, A., & Papaioannou, D. (2016a). Systemic approaches to a successful literature review (2nd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage. This book addresses different types of literature reviews and offers important suggestions pertaining to defining the scope of the literature review and assessing extant studies.
  • Booth, W. C., Colomb, G. G., Williams, J. M., Bizup, J., & Fitzgerald, W. T. (2016b). The craft of research (4th ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. This book can help the novice consider how to make the case for an area of study. While this book is not specifically about literature reviews, it offers suggestions about making the case for your study.
  • Galvan, J. L., & Galvan, M. C. (2017). Writing literature reviews: A guide for students of the social and behavioral sciences (7th ed.). Routledge. This book offers guidance on writing different types of literature reviews. For the novice researcher, there are useful suggestions for creating coherent literature reviews.


Purpose of theoretical frameworks.

As new education researchers may be less familiar with theoretical frameworks than with literature reviews, this discussion begins with an analogy. Envision a biologist, chemist, and physicist examining together the dramatic effect of a fog tsunami over the ocean. A biologist gazing at this phenomenon may be concerned with the effect of fog on various species. A chemist may be interested in the chemical composition of the fog as water vapor condenses around bits of salt. A physicist may be focused on the refraction of light to make fog appear to be “sitting” above the ocean. While observing the same “objective event,” the scientists are operating under different theoretical frameworks that provide a particular perspective or “lens” for the interpretation of the phenomenon. Each of these scientists brings specialized knowledge, experiences, and values to this phenomenon, and these influence the interpretation of the phenomenon. The scientists’ theoretical frameworks influence how they design and carry out their studies and interpret their data.

Within an educational study, a theoretical framework helps to explain a phenomenon through a particular lens and challenges and extends existing knowledge within the limitations of that lens. Theoretical frameworks are explicitly stated by an educational researcher in the paper’s framework, theory, or relevant literature section. The framework shapes the types of questions asked, guides the method by which data are collected and analyzed, and informs the discussion of the results of the study. It also reveals the researcher’s subjectivities, for example, values, social experience, and viewpoint ( Allen, 2017 ). It is essential that a novice researcher learn to explicitly state a theoretical framework, because all research questions are being asked from the researcher’s implicit or explicit assumptions of a phenomenon of interest ( Schwandt, 2000 ).

Selecting Theoretical Frameworks

Theoretical frameworks are one of the most contemplated elements in our work in educational research. In this section, we share three important considerations for new scholars selecting a theoretical framework.

The first step in identifying a theoretical framework involves reflecting on the phenomenon within the study and the assumptions aligned with the phenomenon. The phenomenon involves the studied event. There are many possibilities, for example, student learning, instructional approach, or group organization. A researcher holds assumptions about how the phenomenon will be effected, influenced, changed, or portrayed. It is ultimately the researcher’s assumption(s) about the phenomenon that aligns with a theoretical framework. An example can help illustrate how a researcher’s reflection on the phenomenon and acknowledgment of assumptions can result in the identification of a theoretical framework.

In our example, a biology education researcher may be interested in exploring how students’ learning of difficult biological concepts can be supported by the interactions of group members. The phenomenon of interest is the interactions among the peers, and the researcher assumes that more knowledgeable students are important in supporting the learning of the group. As a result, the researcher may draw on Vygotsky’s (1978) sociocultural theory of learning and development that is focused on the phenomenon of student learning in a social setting. This theory posits the critical nature of interactions among students and between students and teachers in the process of building knowledge. A researcher drawing upon this framework holds the assumption that learning is a dynamic social process involving questions and explanations among students in the classroom and that more knowledgeable peers play an important part in the process of building conceptual knowledge.

It is important to state at this point that there are many different theoretical frameworks. Some frameworks focus on learning and knowing, while other theoretical frameworks focus on equity, empowerment, or discourse. Some frameworks are well articulated, and others are still being refined. For a new researcher, it can be challenging to find a theoretical framework. Two of the best ways to look for theoretical frameworks is through published works that highlight different frameworks.

When a theoretical framework is selected, it should clearly connect to all parts of the study. The framework should augment the study by adding a perspective that provides greater insights into the phenomenon. It should clearly align with the studies described in the literature review. For instance, a framework focused on learning would correspond to research that reported different learning outcomes for similar studies. The methods for data collection and analysis should also correspond to the framework. For instance, a study about instructional interventions could use a theoretical framework concerned with learning and could collect data about the effect of the intervention on what is learned. When the data are analyzed, the theoretical framework should provide added meaning to the findings, and the findings should align with the theoretical framework.

A study by Jensen and Lawson (2011) provides an example of how a theoretical framework connects different parts of the study. They compared undergraduate biology students in heterogeneous and homogeneous groups over the course of a semester. Jensen and Lawson (2011) assumed that learning involved collaboration and more knowledgeable peers, which made Vygotsky’s (1978) theory a good fit for their study. They predicted that students in heterogeneous groups would experience greater improvement in their reasoning abilities and science achievements with much of the learning guided by the more knowledgeable peers.

In the enactment of the study, they collected data about the instruction in traditional and inquiry-oriented classes, while the students worked in homogeneous or heterogeneous groups. To determine the effect of working in groups, the authors also measured students’ reasoning abilities and achievement. Each data-collection and analysis decision connected to understanding the influence of collaborative work.

Their findings highlighted aspects of Vygotsky’s (1978) theory of learning. One finding, for instance, posited that inquiry instruction, as a whole, resulted in reasoning and achievement gains. This links to Vygotsky (1978) , because inquiry instruction involves interactions among group members. A more nuanced finding was that group composition had a conditional effect. Heterogeneous groups performed better with more traditional and didactic instruction, regardless of the reasoning ability of the group members. Homogeneous groups worked better during interaction-rich activities for students with low reasoning ability. The authors attributed the variation to the different types of helping behaviors of students. High-performing students provided the answers, while students with low reasoning ability had to work collectively through the material. In terms of Vygotsky (1978) , this finding provided new insights into the learning context in which productive interactions can occur for students.

Another consideration in the selection and use of a theoretical framework pertains to its orientation to the study. This can result in the theoretical framework prioritizing individuals, institutions, and/or policies ( Anfara and Mertz, 2014 ). Frameworks that connect to individuals, for instance, could contribute to understanding their actions, learning, or knowledge. Institutional frameworks, on the other hand, offer insights into how institutions, organizations, or groups can influence individuals or materials. Policy theories provide ways to understand how national or local policies can dictate an emphasis on outcomes or instructional design. These different types of frameworks highlight different aspects in an educational setting, which influences the design of the study and the collection of data. In addition, these different frameworks offer a way to make sense of the data. Aligning the data collection and analysis with the framework ensures that a study is coherent and can contribute to the field.

New understandings emerge when different theoretical frameworks are used. For instance, Ebert-May et al. (2015) prioritized the individual level within conceptual change theory (see Posner et al. , 1982 ). In this theory, an individual’s knowledge changes when it no longer fits the phenomenon. Ebert-May et al. (2015) designed a professional development program challenging biology postdoctoral scholars’ existing conceptions of teaching. The authors reported that the biology postdoctoral scholars’ teaching practices became more student-centered as they were challenged to explain their instructional decision making. According to the theory, the biology postdoctoral scholars’ dissatisfaction in their descriptions of teaching and learning initiated change in their knowledge and instruction. These results reveal how conceptual change theory can explain the learning of participants and guide the design of professional development programming.

The communities of practice (CoP) theoretical framework ( Lave, 1988 ; Wenger, 1998 ) prioritizes the institutional level , suggesting that learning occurs when individuals learn from and contribute to the communities in which they reside. Grounded in the assumption of community learning, the literature on CoP suggests that, as individuals interact regularly with the other members of their group, they learn about the rules, roles, and goals of the community ( Allee, 2000 ). A study conducted by Gehrke and Kezar (2017) used the CoP framework to understand organizational change by examining the involvement of individual faculty engaged in a cross-institutional CoP focused on changing the instructional practice of faculty at each institution. In the CoP, faculty members were involved in enhancing instructional materials within their department, which aligned with an overarching goal of instituting instruction that embraced active learning. Not surprisingly, Gehrke and Kezar (2017) revealed that faculty who perceived the community culture as important in their work cultivated institutional change. Furthermore, they found that institutional change was sustained when key leaders served as mentors and provided support for faculty, and as faculty themselves developed into leaders. This study reveals the complexity of individual roles in a COP in order to support institutional instructional change.

It is important to explicitly state the theoretical framework used in a study, but elucidating a theoretical framework can be challenging for a new educational researcher. The literature review can help to identify an applicable theoretical framework. Focal areas of the review or central terms often connect to assumptions and assertions associated with the framework that pertain to the phenomenon of interest. Another way to identify a theoretical framework is self-reflection by the researcher on personal beliefs and understandings about the nature of knowledge the researcher brings to the study ( Lysaght, 2011 ). In stating one’s beliefs and understandings related to the study (e.g., students construct their knowledge, instructional materials support learning), an orientation becomes evident that will suggest a particular theoretical framework. Theoretical frameworks are not arbitrary , but purposefully selected.

With experience, a researcher may find expanded roles for theoretical frameworks. Researchers may revise an existing framework that has limited explanatory power, or they may decide there is a need to develop a new theoretical framework. These frameworks can emerge from a current study or the need to explain a phenomenon in a new way. Researchers may also find that multiple theoretical frameworks are necessary to frame and explore a problem, as different frameworks can provide different insights into a problem.

Finally, it is important to recognize that choosing “x” theoretical framework does not necessarily mean a researcher chooses “y” methodology and so on, nor is there a clear-cut, linear process in selecting a theoretical framework for one’s study. In part, the nonlinear process of identifying a theoretical framework is what makes understanding and using theoretical frameworks challenging. For the novice scholar, contemplating and understanding theoretical frameworks is essential. Fortunately, there are articles and books that can help:

  • Creswell, J. W. (2018). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches (5th ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage. This book provides an overview of theoretical frameworks in general educational research.
  • Ding, L. (2019). Theoretical perspectives of quantitative physics education research. Physical Review Physics Education Research , 15 (2), 020101-1–020101-13. This paper illustrates how a DBER field can use theoretical frameworks.
  • Nehm, R. (2019). Biology education research: Building integrative frameworks for teaching and learning about living systems. Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Science Education Research , 1 , ar15. https://doi.org/10.1186/s43031-019-0017-6 . This paper articulates the need for studies in BER to explicitly state theoretical frameworks and provides examples of potential studies.
  • Patton, M. Q. (2015). Qualitative research & evaluation methods: Integrating theory and practice . Sage. This book also provides an overview of theoretical frameworks, but for both research and evaluation.


Purpose of a conceptual framework.

A conceptual framework is a description of the way a researcher understands the factors and/or variables that are involved in the study and their relationships to one another. The purpose of a conceptual framework is to articulate the concepts under study using relevant literature ( Rocco and Plakhotnik, 2009 ) and to clarify the presumed relationships among those concepts ( Rocco and Plakhotnik, 2009 ; Anfara and Mertz, 2014 ). Conceptual frameworks are different from theoretical frameworks in both their breadth and grounding in established findings. Whereas a theoretical framework articulates the lens through which a researcher views the work, the conceptual framework is often more mechanistic and malleable.

Conceptual frameworks are broader, encompassing both established theories (i.e., theoretical frameworks) and the researchers’ own emergent ideas. Emergent ideas, for example, may be rooted in informal and/or unpublished observations from experience. These emergent ideas would not be considered a “theory” if they are not yet tested, supported by systematically collected evidence, and peer reviewed. However, they do still play an important role in the way researchers approach their studies. The conceptual framework allows authors to clearly describe their emergent ideas so that connections among ideas in the study and the significance of the study are apparent to readers.

Constructing Conceptual Frameworks

Including a conceptual framework in a research study is important, but researchers often opt to include either a conceptual or a theoretical framework. Either may be adequate, but both provide greater insight into the research approach. For instance, a research team plans to test a novel component of an existing theory. In their study, they describe the existing theoretical framework that informs their work and then present their own conceptual framework. Within this conceptual framework, specific topics portray emergent ideas that are related to the theory. Describing both frameworks allows readers to better understand the researchers’ assumptions, orientations, and understanding of concepts being investigated. For example, Connolly et al. (2018) included a conceptual framework that described how they applied a theoretical framework of social cognitive career theory (SCCT) to their study on teaching programs for doctoral students. In their conceptual framework, the authors described SCCT, explained how it applied to the investigation, and drew upon results from previous studies to justify the proposed connections between the theory and their emergent ideas.

In some cases, authors may be able to sufficiently describe their conceptualization of the phenomenon under study in an introduction alone, without a separate conceptual framework section. However, incomplete descriptions of how the researchers conceptualize the components of the study may limit the significance of the study by making the research less intelligible to readers. This is especially problematic when studying topics in which researchers use the same terms for different constructs or different terms for similar and overlapping constructs (e.g., inquiry, teacher beliefs, pedagogical content knowledge, or active learning). Authors must describe their conceptualization of a construct if the research is to be understandable and useful.

There are some key areas to consider regarding the inclusion of a conceptual framework in a study. To begin with, it is important to recognize that conceptual frameworks are constructed by the researchers conducting the study ( Rocco and Plakhotnik, 2009 ; Maxwell, 2012 ). This is different from theoretical frameworks that are often taken from established literature. Researchers should bring together ideas from the literature, but they may be influenced by their own experiences as a student and/or instructor, the shared experiences of others, or thought experiments as they construct a description, model, or representation of their understanding of the phenomenon under study. This is an exercise in intellectual organization and clarity that often considers what is learned, known, and experienced. The conceptual framework makes these constructs explicitly visible to readers, who may have different understandings of the phenomenon based on their prior knowledge and experience. There is no single method to go about this intellectual work.

Reeves et al. (2016) is an example of an article that proposed a conceptual framework about graduate teaching assistant professional development evaluation and research. The authors used existing literature to create a novel framework that filled a gap in current research and practice related to the training of graduate teaching assistants. This conceptual framework can guide the systematic collection of data by other researchers because the framework describes the relationships among various factors that influence teaching and learning. The Reeves et al. (2016) conceptual framework may be modified as additional data are collected and analyzed by other researchers. This is not uncommon, as conceptual frameworks can serve as catalysts for concerted research efforts that systematically explore a phenomenon (e.g., Reynolds et al. , 2012 ; Brownell and Kloser, 2015 ).

Sabel et al. (2017) used a conceptual framework in their exploration of how scaffolds, an external factor, interact with internal factors to support student learning. Their conceptual framework integrated principles from two theoretical frameworks, self-regulated learning and metacognition, to illustrate how the research team conceptualized students’ use of scaffolds in their learning ( Figure 1 ). Sabel et al. (2017) created this model using their interpretations of these two frameworks in the context of their teaching.

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Conceptual framework from Sabel et al. (2017) .

A conceptual framework should describe the relationship among components of the investigation ( Anfara and Mertz, 2014 ). These relationships should guide the researcher’s methods of approaching the study ( Miles et al. , 2014 ) and inform both the data to be collected and how those data should be analyzed. Explicitly describing the connections among the ideas allows the researcher to justify the importance of the study and the rigor of the research design. Just as importantly, these frameworks help readers understand why certain components of a system were not explored in the study. This is a challenge in education research, which is rooted in complex environments with many variables that are difficult to control.

For example, Sabel et al. (2017) stated: “Scaffolds, such as enhanced answer keys and reflection questions, can help students and instructors bridge the external and internal factors and support learning” (p. 3). They connected the scaffolds in the study to the three dimensions of metacognition and the eventual transformation of existing ideas into new or revised ideas. Their framework provides a rationale for focusing on how students use two different scaffolds, and not on other factors that may influence a student’s success (self-efficacy, use of active learning, exam format, etc.).

In constructing conceptual frameworks, researchers should address needed areas of study and/or contradictions discovered in literature reviews. By attending to these areas, researchers can strengthen their arguments for the importance of a study. For instance, conceptual frameworks can address how the current study will fill gaps in the research, resolve contradictions in existing literature, or suggest a new area of study. While a literature review describes what is known and not known about the phenomenon, the conceptual framework leverages these gaps in describing the current study ( Maxwell, 2012 ). In the example of Sabel et al. (2017) , the authors indicated there was a gap in the literature regarding how scaffolds engage students in metacognition to promote learning in large classes. Their study helps fill that gap by describing how scaffolds can support students in the three dimensions of metacognition: intelligibility, plausibility, and wide applicability. In another example, Lane (2016) integrated research from science identity, the ethic of care, the sense of belonging, and an expertise model of student success to form a conceptual framework that addressed the critiques of other frameworks. In a more recent example, Sbeglia et al. (2021) illustrated how a conceptual framework influences the methodological choices and inferences in studies by educational researchers.

Sometimes researchers draw upon the conceptual frameworks of other researchers. When a researcher’s conceptual framework closely aligns with an existing framework, the discussion may be brief. For example, Ghee et al. (2016) referred to portions of SCCT as their conceptual framework to explain the significance of their work on students’ self-efficacy and career interests. Because the authors’ conceptualization of this phenomenon aligned with a previously described framework, they briefly mentioned the conceptual framework and provided additional citations that provided more detail for the readers.

Within both the BER and the broader DBER communities, conceptual frameworks have been used to describe different constructs. For example, some researchers have used the term “conceptual framework” to describe students’ conceptual understandings of a biological phenomenon. This is distinct from a researcher’s conceptual framework of the educational phenomenon under investigation, which may also need to be explicitly described in the article. Other studies have presented a research logic model or flowchart of the research design as a conceptual framework. These constructions can be quite valuable in helping readers understand the data-collection and analysis process. However, a model depicting the study design does not serve the same role as a conceptual framework. Researchers need to avoid conflating these constructs by differentiating the researchers’ conceptual framework that guides the study from the research design, when applicable.

Explicitly describing conceptual frameworks is essential in depicting the focus of the study. We have found that being explicit in a conceptual framework means using accepted terminology, referencing prior work, and clearly noting connections between terms. This description can also highlight gaps in the literature or suggest potential contributions to the field of study. A well-elucidated conceptual framework can suggest additional studies that may be warranted. This can also spur other researchers to consider how they would approach the examination of a phenomenon and could result in a revised conceptual framework.

It can be challenging to create conceptual frameworks, but they are important. Below are two resources that could be helpful in constructing and presenting conceptual frameworks in educational research:

  • Maxwell, J. A. (2012). Qualitative research design: An interactive approach (3rd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage. Chapter 3 in this book describes how to construct conceptual frameworks.
  • Ravitch, S. M., & Riggan, M. (2016). Reason & rigor: How conceptual frameworks guide research . Los Angeles, CA: Sage. This book explains how conceptual frameworks guide the research questions, data collection, data analyses, and interpretation of results.


Literature reviews, theoretical frameworks, and conceptual frameworks are all important in DBER and BER. Robust literature reviews reinforce the importance of a study. Theoretical frameworks connect the study to the base of knowledge in educational theory and specify the researcher’s assumptions. Conceptual frameworks allow researchers to explicitly describe their conceptualization of the relationships among the components of the phenomenon under study. Table 1 provides a general overview of these components in order to assist biology education researchers in thinking about these elements.

It is important to emphasize that these different elements are intertwined. When these elements are aligned and complement one another, the study is coherent, and the study findings contribute to knowledge in the field. When literature reviews, theoretical frameworks, and conceptual frameworks are disconnected from one another, the study suffers. The point of the study is lost, suggested findings are unsupported, or important conclusions are invisible to the researcher. In addition, this misalignment may be costly in terms of time and money.

Conducting a literature review, selecting a theoretical framework, and building a conceptual framework are some of the most difficult elements of a research study. It takes time to understand the relevant research, identify a theoretical framework that provides important insights into the study, and formulate a conceptual framework that organizes the finding. In the research process, there is often a constant back and forth among these elements as the study evolves. With an ongoing refinement of the review of literature, clarification of the theoretical framework, and articulation of a conceptual framework, a sound study can emerge that makes a contribution to the field. This is the goal of BER and education research.

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What Is a Conceptual Framework? | Tips & Examples

Published on 4 May 2022 by Bas Swaen and Tegan George. Revised on 5 August 2022.


A conceptual framework illustrates the expected relationship between your variables. It defines the relevant objectives for your research process and maps out how they come together to draw coherent conclusions.

Keep reading for a step-by-step guide to help you construct your own conceptual framework.

Table of contents

Developing a conceptual framework in research, step 1: choose your research question, step 2: select your independent and dependent variables, step 3: visualise your cause-and-effect relationship, step 4: identify other influencing variables, frequently asked questions about conceptual models.

A conceptual framework is a representation of the relationship you expect to see between your variables, or the characteristics or properties that you want to study.

Conceptual frameworks can be written or visual and are generally developed based on a literature review of existing studies about your topic.

Your research question guides your work by determining exactly what you want to find out, giving your research process a clear focus.

However, before you start collecting your data, consider constructing a conceptual framework. This will help you map out which variables you will measure and how you expect them to relate to one another.

In order to move forward with your research question and test a cause-and-effect relationship, you must first identify at least two key variables: your independent and dependent variables .

  • The expected cause, ‘hours of study’, is the independent variable (the predictor, or explanatory variable)
  • The expected effect, ‘exam score’, is the dependent variable (the response, or outcome variable).

Note that causal relationships often involve several independent variables that affect the dependent variable. For the purpose of this example, we’ll work with just one independent variable (‘hours of study’).

Now that you’ve figured out your research question and variables, the first step in designing your conceptual framework is visualising your expected cause-and-effect relationship.


It’s crucial to identify other variables that can influence the relationship between your independent and dependent variables early in your research process.

Some common variables to include are moderating, mediating, and control variables.

Moderating variables

Moderating variable (or moderators) alter the effect that an independent variable has on a dependent variable. In other words, moderators change the ‘effect’ component of the cause-and-effect relationship.

Let’s add the moderator ‘IQ’. Here, a student’s IQ level can change the effect that the variable ‘hours of study’ has on the exam score. The higher the IQ, the fewer hours of study are needed to do well on the exam.


Let’s take a look at how this might work. The graph below shows how the number of hours spent studying affects exam score. As expected, the more hours you study, the better your results. Here, a student who studies for 20 hours will get a perfect score.


But the graph looks different when we add our ‘IQ’ moderator of 120. A student with this IQ will achieve a perfect score after just 15 hours of study.


Below, the value of the ‘IQ’ moderator has been increased to 150. A student with this IQ will only need to invest five hours of study in order to get a perfect score.


Here, we see that a moderating variable does indeed change the cause-and-effect relationship between two variables.

Mediating variables

Now we’ll expand the framework by adding a mediating variable . Mediating variables link the independent and dependent variables, allowing the relationship between them to be better explained.

Here’s how the conceptual framework might look if a mediator variable were involved:


In this case, the mediator helps explain why studying more hours leads to a higher exam score. The more hours a student studies, the more practice problems they will complete; the more practice problems completed, the higher the student’s exam score will be.

Moderator vs mediator

It’s important not to confuse moderating and mediating variables. To remember the difference, you can think of them in relation to the independent variable:

  • A moderating variable is not affected by the independent variable, even though it affects the dependent variable. For example, no matter how many hours you study (the independent variable), your IQ will not get higher.
  • A mediating variable is affected by the independent variable. In turn, it also affects the dependent variable. Therefore, it links the two variables and helps explain the relationship between them.

Control variables

Lastly,  control variables must also be taken into account. These are variables that are held constant so that they don’t interfere with the results. Even though you aren’t interested in measuring them for your study, it’s crucial to be aware of as many of them as you can be.


A mediator variable explains the process through which two variables are related, while a moderator variable affects the strength and direction of that relationship.

No. The value of a dependent variable depends on an independent variable, so a variable cannot be both independent and dependent at the same time. It must be either the cause or the effect, not both.

Yes, but including more than one of either type requires multiple research questions .

For example, if you are interested in the effect of a diet on health, you can use multiple measures of health: blood sugar, blood pressure, weight, pulse, and many more. Each of these is its own dependent variable with its own research question.

You could also choose to look at the effect of exercise levels as well as diet, or even the additional effect of the two combined. Each of these is a separate independent variable .

To ensure the internal validity of an experiment , you should only change one independent variable at a time.

A control variable is any variable that’s held constant in a research study. It’s not a variable of interest in the study, but it’s controlled because it could influence the outcomes.

A confounding variable , also called a confounder or confounding factor, is a third variable in a study examining a potential cause-and-effect relationship.

A confounding variable is related to both the supposed cause and the supposed effect of the study. It can be difficult to separate the true effect of the independent variable from the effect of the confounding variable.

In your research design , it’s important to identify potential confounding variables and plan how you will reduce their impact.

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Conceptual and Theoretical Frameworks for Thesis Studies: What you must know

example of a research framework

A theoretical framework is a conceptual model that provides a systematic and structured way of thinking about a research problem or question. It helps to identify key variables and the relationships between them and to guide the selection and interpretation of data. Theoretical frameworks draw on existing theories and research and can be used to develop new hypotheses or test existing ones. They provide a foundation for research design, data collection, and analysis and can help to ensure that research is relevant, rigorous, and coherent. Theoretical frameworks are common in many disciplines, including social sciences, natural sciences, and humanities, and are essential for building knowledge and advancing understanding in a field.

This article explains the importance of frameworks in a thesis study and the differences between conceptual frameworks and theoretical frameworks. It provides guidelines on how to write a thesis framework, definitions of variable types, and examples of framework types.

What is a research framework and why do I need one?

When planning your thesis study, you need to justify your research and explain its design to your readers. This is called the research framework.

When planning your thesis study, you need to justify your research and explain its design to your readers. This is called the research framework. Think of it as the foundation of a building. A good building needs a strong foundation. Similarly, your research needs to be supported by reviewing and explaining the existing knowledge in the field, describing how your research study will fit within or contribute to the existing literature (e.g., it could challenge or test an existing theory or address a knowledge gap), and informing the reader how your study design aligns with your thesis question or hypothesis.

Important components of the framework are a literature review of recent studies associated with your thesis topic as well as theories/models used in your field of research. The literature review acts as a filtering tool to select appropriate thesis questions and guide data collection, analysis, and interpretation of your findings. Think broadly! Apart from reviewing relevant published papers in your field of research, also explore theories that you have come across in your undergraduate courses, other published thesis studies, encyclopedias, and handbooks.

There are two types of research frameworks: theoretical and conceptual .

What is a conceptual framework?

A conceptual framework is a written or visual representation that explains the study variables and their relationships with each other. The starting point is a literature review of existing studies and theories about your topic.

Steps to develop a conceptual framework

  • Clarify your study topic by identifying and defining key concepts in your thesis problem statement and thesis question. Essentially, your thesis should address a knowledge gap.
  • Perform a literature review to provide a background to interpret and explain the study findings. Also, draw on empirical knowledge that you have gained from personal experience.
  • Identify crucial variables from the literature review and your empirical knowledge, classify them as dependent or independent variables, and define them.
  • Brainstorm all the possible factors that could affect each dependent variable.
  • Propose relationships among the variables and determine any associations that exist between all variables.
  • Use a flowchart or tree diagram to present your conceptual framework.

Types of variables

When developing a conceptual framework, you will need to identify the following:

  • Independent variables
  • Dependent variables
  • Moderating variables
  • Mediating variables
  • Control variables

First, identify the independent (cause) and dependent (effect) variables in your study. Then, identify variables that influence this relationship, such as moderating variables, mediating variables, and control variables. A moderating variable changes the relationship between independent and dependent variables when its value increases or decreases. A mediating variable links independent and dependent variables to better explain the relationship between them. A control variable could potentially impact the cause-and-effect relationship but is kept constant throughout the study so that its effects on the findings/outcomes can be ruled out.

Example of a conceptual framework

You want to investigate the hours spent exercising (cause) on childhood obesity (effect).

example of a research framework

Now, you need to consider moderating variables that affect the cause-and-effect relationship. In our example, the amount of junk food eaten would affect the level of obesity.

example of a research framework

Next, you need to consider mediating variables. In our example, the maximum heart rate during exercise would affect the child’s weight.

example of a research framework

Finally, you need to consider control variables. In this example, because we do not want to investigate the role of age in obesity, we can use this as a control variable. Thus, the study subjects would be children of a specific age (e.g., aged 6–10 years).

example of a research framework

What is a theoretical framework?

A theoretical framework provides a general framework for data analysis. It defines the concepts used and explains existing theories and models in your field of research.

A theoretical framework provides a general framework for data analysis. It defines the concepts used and explains existing theories and models in your field of research. It also explains any assumptions that were used to inform your approach and your choice of specific rationales. Theoretical frameworks are often used in the fields of social sciences.

Purpose of a theoretical framework

  • Test and challenge existing theories
  • Establish orderly connections between observations and facts
  • Predict and control situations
  • Develop hypotheses

Steps to develop a theoretical framework

  • Identify and define key concepts in your thesis problem statement and thesis question.
  • Explain and evaluate existing theories by writing a literature review that describes the concepts, models, and theories that support your study.
  • Choose the theory that best explains the relationships between the key variables in your study.
  • Explain how your research study fills a knowledge gap or fits into existing studies (e.g., testing if an established theory applies to your thesis context).
  • Discuss the relevance of any theoretical assumptions and limitations.

A thesis topic can be approached from a variety of angles, depending on the theories used.

  • In psychology, a behavioral approach would use different methods and assumptions compared with a cognitive approach when treating anxiety.
  • In literature, a book could be analyzed using different literary theories, such as Marxism or poststructuralism.

Structuring a theoretical framework

The structure of a theoretical framework is fluid, and there are no specific rules that need to be followed, as long as it is clearly and logically presented.

The theoretical framework is a natural extension of your literature review. The literature review should identify gaps in the field of your research, and reviewing existing theories will help to determine how these can be addressed. The structure of a theoretical framework is fluid, and there are no specific rules that need to be followed, as long as it is clearly and logically presented. The theoretical framework is sometimes integrated into the literature review chapter of a thesis, but it can also be included as a separate chapter, depending on the complexity of the theories.

Example of a theoretical framework

The sales staff at Company X are unmotivated and struggling to meet their monthly targets. Some members of the management team believe that this could be achieved by implementing a comprehensive product-training program, but others believe that introducing a sales commission structure will help.

Company X is not achieving their monthly sales targets

To increase monthly sales.

Research question:

How can Company X motivate their sales team to achieve its monthly sales targets?


  • Why do the sales staff feel unmotivated?
  • What is the relationship between motivation and monetary rewards?
  • Do the sales staff feel that they have sufficient product knowledge?

Theoretical framework:

A literature search will need to be performed to understand the background of the many different theories of motivation in psychology. For example, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (basic human needs—physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization—have to be fulfilled before one can live up to their true potential), Vroom’s Theory of Expectancy (people decide upon their actions based on the outcomes they expect), and Locke’s Goal-Setting Theory (goals are a key driver of one’s behavior). These theories would need to be investigated to determine which would be the best approach to increase the motivation of the sales staff in Company X so that the monthly sales targets are met.

A robust conceptual or theoretical framework is crucial when writing a thesis/dissertation. It defines your research gap, identifies your approach, and guides the interpretation of your results.

A thesis is the most important document you will write during your academic studies. For professional thesis editing and thesis proofreading services, check out Enago's Thesis Editing service s for more information.

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What type of framework is used in the Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) domain? +

Theoretical frameworks are typically used in the HSS domain, while conceptual frameworks are used in the Sciences domain.

What is the difference between mediating versus moderating variables? +

The difference between mediators and moderators can be confusing. A moderating variable is unaffected by the independent variable and can increase or decrease the strength of the relationship between the independent and dependent variables. A mediating variable is affected by the independent variable and can explain the relationship between the independent and dependent variables. T he statistical correlation between the independent and dependent variables is higher when the mediating variable is excluded.

What software should I use to present my conceptual framework? +

The software program Creately provides some useful templates that can help you get started. Other recommended programs are SmartDraw , Inkscape , and diagrams.net .

The PhD Proofreaders

Eureka! When I learnt how to write a theoretical framework

Feb 6, 2019

how to structure a theoretical framework

Have you checked out  the rest of  The PhD Knowledge Base ? It’s home to hundreds more free resources and guides, written especially for PhD students.  

Have you ever had a eureka moment? A moment where something that you’ve misunderstood for ages becomes crystal clear?

I did, about half way through my PhD.

Did I come up with a ground breaking discovery that would revolutionise my field? Did I develop a new theory that would change the way we think about the world?

I finally understood how to write a theoretical framework.

Sound silly? It isn’t. 

During the one-on-one PhD coaching sessions I run, the issue of how to write a theory framework comes up more frequently than any other. The theoretical framework is important, but many people find it difficult. I know I struggled with it. 

Then someone explained the theory framework to me in such a simple way. Here’s the eureka moment: The theoretical framework is like a toolbox.

Simple, right?

Let me explain. In the literature review you highlighted the problem that needs ‘fixing’. The theoretical framework – the ’toolbox’ – details the theories, propositions, hypotheses (if you’re using them) and concepts – the ’tools’ – that you will use to address or make sense of this problem.

So, your job in a theoretical framework chapter is to discuss in detail what the tools look like, how they behave, how they have been used before, how they relate to one another, how they are relevant to your aims and objectives and what the drawbacks are from using them. The methods chapter then discusses how you will use (operationalise) those tools.

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What is a theoretical framework?

In the literature review you highlighted the problem that needs ‘fixing’. The theoretical framework – the ’toolbox’ – details the theories, propositions, hypotheses (if you’re using them) and concepts – the ’tools’ – that you will use to address or make sense of this problem.

The list of potential explanations for why responses differ is enormous.

You could approach this question with a focus on, say, psychology, power, gender, economics, and so on. The best we can typically hope for – and this is particularly true in much of the social sciences – is an interpretation of the truth.

So – and this is important – we use theory to focus our attention on a small sub-set of all potential explanations, on one particular viewpoint.

Now I know I’m getting into messy epistemological and ontological waters here. I am an interpretivist, so I see theory as a ‘lens’ that you apply to make sense of the world. That’s the shape of my toolbox.

But, even if you’re a positivist you still pick and choose theoretical concepts and hypotheses from a range of available options; you just use them in a different way (rather than a lens, they become testable propositions, or measurement tools).

Without a theoretical framework we are left with a potentially endless choice of potential viewpoints, which would make our data collection and analysis and our discussion hugely chaotic.

PhD Literature Review & Theory Framework Survival Pack

Master your lit review & theory framework.

Learn what goes where (and why), and how it all fit together with this free, interactive guide to the PhD literature review and theory framework.

In other words, if we don’t know how to focus our attention, how we can present a coherent explanation? 

The theoretical framework is a natural extension of the literature review. The purpose of the literature review, amongst other things, is to highlight gaps and shortcomings with the existing work in your field.

The theoretical framework details   the perspective you will take   to address that gap and shortcoming.

For example, in   my doctoral research,   my literature review focused on government responses to climate change and pointed out that there hadn’t been much discussion on local government.

The theoretical framework then made an informed decision to come at it from a particular theoretical perspective (institutional theory, if you’re interested) and then discussed what that theory looks like, highlighting the key concepts and ideas. 

In your own research you will also need to make an informed decision about the particular theory you will employ to guide you through the rest of the research.

The theoretical framework is a natural extension of the literature review. The purpose of the literature review, amongst other things, is to highlight gaps and shortcomings with the existing work in your field. The theoretical framework details the perspective you will take to address that gap and shortcoming.

So, the   job of the theoretical framework isn’t to repeat the literature review . Instead, think of it as a   separate, mini literature review , this time focusing on the theory you will employ. You don’t have to discuss every particular use and discussion of the theoretical position you employ. If you did, you’d quickly run out of space and time.

Remember, your examiners are likely to already be familiar with the theory, meaning that rather than discuss every possible thing that there is to discuss about it, you instead need to discuss how and why the theory has been adapted and adopted to the context of your research.

How to structure a theoretical framework

  • You need to have a solid grasp of your aims and objectives. These define the space in which your research will sit and your goals when conducting it. You will need to briefly recap these when you start writing your theoretical framework, both to remind the reader and so that you can relate your theory to these overarching aims.
  • What theory/theories are you using? Here you need to define and explain each theory you draw upon and, in doing so, discuss the leading proponents and applications. This shows that you understand the theory you are going to adopt.
  • You then need to spend time critically arguing why you are adopting this particular theory. There are a lot of potential theories you could use. Why this one? Importantly, you should relate your choice to the discussions in the literature review and your aims and objectives.
  • Can the theory/theories be broken down into different schools? Which one are you siding with and why?
  • A theory contains a number of concepts. Which will you be drawing upon? Why these ones? Have you defined them properly? The way you approach this section will be influenced by your epistemological and ontological perspective and, thus, whether you use hypotheses or not. If you are using hypotheses, you need to state them as such.
  • How do the concepts relate to your aims and objectives?
  • Have you clearly stated your ontological and epistemological perspective?
  • Are you the first to use this particular theory in this particular way? What benefits or drawbacks does that bring?
  • Can you spot any drawbacks with applying this theory? Does it fail to account for a particular dimension of a phenomenon? Is it difficult to operationalize?
  • How are your concepts related? Are you using them as hypotheses? Or as a model to make sense of the data? Somewhere in between? Be explicit about how they are all related and what you plan on doing with them.

example of a research framework

The goal of writing up a theoretical framework is to tell the reader why you have chosen particular theories, how they relate to the gap in the literature, and how they relate to your aims and objectives.

A short (but necessary) note on ontology and epistemology 

How do i choose theories and create my framework.

Unless you are using an inductive methodological approach (where you generate theory from the data), you will likely approach your fieldwork with a theoretical framework in mind. Which theory or theories you choose is, in part, down to your aims and objectives and whether there is a relevant theory available ‘off-the-shelf’ that is appropriate for your needs.

There are generally three strategies that researchers use to develop their theoretical frameworks: 

  • There may be theories in your field that have arisen on the basis of repeated observation and testing and which are widely accepted.
  • Or, you might find that you need to select concepts from multiple theories and create a novel framework that is unique to your particular context.
  • A growing and important trend in social research is to adopt an interdisciplinary perspective when trying to understand the social world. This can be achieved by looking beyond the dominant, well-established theories and thinking about how other theories, particularly those from other disciplines or sub-disciplines, can be used.

In any case, you must consider the following when selecting a theory:  

  • Identify your ontological and epistemological beliefs.
  • List several theories that align with your epistemological position and which can aid your understanding of the phenomenon under investigation.
  • Engage in literature review around those theories, both to familiarise yourself with them but also to understand their relevance to your study.
  • Ask yourself how each theory connects to your problem, aims & objectives.
  • Select the theory or theories that provide more relevant tools for your thesis. 

I have more than one theory. What do I do?

  Often, you need to combine concepts, hypotheses or ideas from more than one theoretical school. Employing   more than one theory is entirely legitimate.   I did so in my PhD. 

  However, you need to  consider a few key questions : 

Are the theories you are bringing together epistemologically compatible? 

Have you discussed each theory in the same level of detail to adequately explain the theory, your justification for its inclusion, its relation to the literature and its potential drawbacks? 

What benefits does focusing on more than one theory bring? Perhaps one theory has shortcomings that the other addresses? 

What downsides are there to employing more than one theory? 

Has anyone else used this combination of theories before you? 

The theoretical framework is a tricky section to write, largely because the choice available to you is huge.

But   keep that toolbox metaphor in mind. 

  Each theory contains a number of tools. Your job in the theory framework is to take the tools you need for your project from the most relevant theory/theories and package them up into your own toolbox.

When you’re done, you should see that the theory framework offers:

  • Structure, by detailing the key concepts, tools and, where relevant, hypotheses
  • A way to connect to other research
  • A coherent, joined up set of ideas that structure the writing and help to create an argumentative streak that can run throughout your thesis
  • An approach that can be reused in additional contexts once you’re done

Along the way, you need to convince the reader that you’ve picked and applied the most appropriate tools possible, given your aims and objectives.

The theoretical framework frames the research. If you build that frame right, your research will shine. If you don’t then you’ll struggle.

If you need expert guidance to structure, plan or write your theory framework you can get in touch for a one-on-one coaching session . It’s like having a personal trainer, but for your PhD. 

Share this:



A great read. Quite some insight into my Phd journey. The conceptual framework?

Dr. Max Lempriere

Glad you found it useful. You having trouble with your conceptual framework?


This is enlightening. I was struggling with my Theoretical framework. I will apply the guidelines here and await feedback from my supervisor. Thanks

I’m glad you found the post useful. Thanks for your kind words.


I came across your posts while helping my wife with her work (I finished my PhD two years ago), and I keep thinking…hmmm the pain I went through to learn this… thank you for making it so easy for others…

Thanks for the kind words. I remember how difficult I found my own PhD, so my motivation is to make life easier for as many other PhD students as possible.

umair rahmat

i need some more clear version to develop a theoretical framework. kindly contact me through email. thank you


Great insights. I have read through your thesis. You did a lot of quality work. I see the EM, Environmental Policy Capacity and the institutions theory all discussed. Really detailed and linked. Let me see how mine goes

I’ve sent you an email. I’d be glad to help.


This is very helpful because am really struggling to write my theoretical section. I have a question, I selected a framework but realised it has shortcomings, so I decided to include a model, but also I have another theory. All the three are confusing me how to structure them please I need your help. Thanks

Hi Carolyne,

Thanks for your email. Do you want to have a one-on-one coaching session with me? We’ll be able to get to the bottom of your confusion and clear up your theory problems once and for all. Click here for more details and to book yourself in.


Do you have a structured outline, similar to the overall diss outline, for the theoretical framework?

I sure do. You can find it here: https://www.thephdproofreaders.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Theoretical-Framework-Template_AW_20190208.pdf

Lindiwe Mpindiwa

What are the advantages of having a chapter on theoretical framework independent of the Literature Review chapter. Please assist.

Thanks for your comment. Whether or not you need a separate literature review and theory framework chapter depends on how distinct they are from one another and on how complex each chapter is. It may be the case that you need two chapters because to discuss both in one would make the chapter very large, complex and hard to follow. Also, it is often the case that the theory framework builds on and addresses gaps you’ve highlighted in your literature review, so for that reason it makes sense to keep them as two separate chapters.

But which one comes first? I thought theoretical framework comes earlier than literature review or is it in a proposal where it is structured that way?

Typically the lit review comes first, then the theory. The lit review makes the case for the research and the theory framework shows the approach you will take to conduct the research.

Thanks for the kind words 🙂


Dear Max, I am using multiple related concepts to frame my research. I am confused whether to dedicate a complete chapter to explain only these five concepts, or just operationalise them in one of the chapters. Again, is introducing these concepts early in my introductory chapter a good idea as it forms one of my research questions. This means I have answered the question in the introductory chapter

Thanks for your comment. Whether or not such concepts end up in your introduction/context discussion will depend in part on whether they are framing your research (as in, providing the background or context) or whether you’re using them to answer your research questions (in which case they’ll form part of your theory framework and will therefore come at a later stage).


Dear Max, I was searching how to structure Theoretical framework and came across your writing. Thank you for this, it is really helpful. I’m one of those phd students who struggles with Theoretical framework :/ I would appreciate your help if possible. Could you please outline, how can I reach you?

Thanks for your kind words. I’m glad you’re finding the phD Knowledge Base useful. You can reach me at max[at]thephdproofreaders.com

Speaks soon!

Naheed Akhtar

I’m so confused about my theoretical framework. Could you possibly help please?

Sure. Have you checked out the one-on-one PhD coaching service we offer? It sounds just that’s just what you need.


I couldn’t express how grateful I am. MAY YOU BE SHOWERED WITH BLESSINGS

Thanks! I’m glad you found the advice useful.


wow!!! thank you very much , I have been struggling to write my theoretical framework . thank you.

You’re welcome!

Dr. Max I am expecting to learn more on how to pick the right literatures, related to my theme. all of them seem very nice and informative. I am having hard time to select them. and also I have difficulties in starting the sentence of my Introduction. I am researching on “the impact of Prosperity gospel in Tanzanian mainline churches”. my topic is very popular and many has been said … I feel like I am saying what has been said .

Thanks for your comment. I wish you the best of luck.


Hi Max, Great read. Doing my MA Thesis after years away from academia has been a challenge to say the least. Your article provided clarity that I have been asking for/seeking elsewhere (supervision/consultant) for months. Wish I had of found it earlier but glad I came across it.

Thank you and all the best in these uncertain times.

Great! Glad you’re finding the resources useful. Good luck with the rest of the thesis.


Dear Max, thank you very much, many things got clear after reading this. I have a question, I am using political capability approach as my theoretical foundation which is part of RBW theory. So technically it is not a theory but just an approach, so does this indirectly mean that I am USING RBW Theory? Many Thanks

Hi – glad you found it useful. Without knowing more about your project I’m afraid I can’t advise about your choice of theory framework. Have you approached your supervisor with this question?

Macdonald Muyabalo

This is a very helpful article.

Glad you enjoyed it!

Grace Magama

This has been one of the best articles that has clearly outlined the Theoretical framework. Kindly do a Youtibe video for auditory learners with real examples. It will greatly assist me especiall. I am glad I found this article.

Thanks for the kind words and for your feedback. I’ll take it on board for future guides.

Pauline McGonagle

Thanks so much for this which has helped me with a sticky bit as I move forward to discover new theoretical concepts from slightly outside my field that fit better than those I started out with. A part-time PhD has such a long life that it leaves too much room for changes and adaptations! A big thank you to Rebecca Baker on a Shut Up and Write Session who referred me to this!

I’m glad you found the guide useful. Thanks to you and to Rebecca Baker!

Jackson Isiko

I found this post very helpful, thanks for sharing

Thanks for reading!

Roshni Louis Alphanso

Thank you for this crisp advice on Theoretical framework. personally i have been experiencing difficulties selecting appropriate theory related to the study. However your advice was really beneficial. God bless you for your kindness towards us researchers.

Thanks for the kind words Roshni.


Thank you so much for sharing this information regarding the theoretical framework. I revisited my chapter and strengthened it based on the pointers you outlined here. This is a must read before drafting the chapter. Very helpful ?

Thanks for the kind words. I’m glad you found it useful.


This came just in time! I’m taking a research philosophy course and this week’s discussion is “Theory and Theoretical Frameworks”. I found this very helpful.

Great. I hope it helped deepen your understanding.

Channel Zhou

Thank you Dr Lempriere for this insightful article. I have just started my PhD journey and I found this article to be very useful and eye-opening.

Ehikioya Hilary Osolase

Interesting and excellent read.

Thank you so very much for sharing your intellectual insights on this.

PhD finisher

Hi this is really useful thank you. I have a question regarding one of my tools. I realise (quite late) that I am using one tool in a *generalised* way. I could put this another way – the context in which I found this tool constituted a more particular use of this more general tool, and I am seeking to retrieve it for a more general use. This opens the question – on what grounds am I employing a generalised form of this tool? What constraints govern this process of generalisation? Etc. I wish I’d dealt with this earlier… Do you have any thoughts on how I navigate this?

Hi – I’d love to give you advice, but without knowing more about your research and thesis any advice I would give wouldn’t be qualified. Sorry I can’t be of more help.


I loved your explanation, but what if you ARE doing an inductive project?

Ellana Delfino-Rice

I found your article very useful, thank you! I am currently building a Foucauldian theoretical framework through which to discuss a phenomena (“Karens”).

Do you any academic articles which I can use to justify using the interpretavist approach (using theory as a lens)? I cant find anything through my searches.

Hi – sorry, we don’t I’m afraid.


Surely, this is a great lesson offered. How I pray I had your email, I would love to learn more from you. Thank you

olivia komukama

Been struggling with my Phd and literature review . This has been very helpful. Is it possible for you to share your email so i can engage more with you and get some insights and help

Stephanie Green

Really really helpful guide, I am so grateful to you for providing this! It is helping me immensely in developing my own framework, a task which previously seemed scary, confusing and impossible!

Carmen van der Merwe

Thanks for this. It is very useful. So should I first write my Lit review and then only the theoretical framework? TIA

Thanks! It’s hard to say without knowing more about your project, I’m afraid!

Alhassan Mutawakilu

Thank you for the wonderful work. I want to know if theoretical frame work can presented in a diagram form

You’re welcome! Yes, your theory framework can be presented visually. It’s a great way of showing the framework in a clean, simplified way. It also serves as a useful reference guide for people to easily refer back to if they want to remind themselves of what your theory framework looks like.


I found your article highly informative. I recently enrolled for my PhD and my supervisor asked me to submit my Research outline. Does the outline have to have that detailed Theoretical framework. Again how best can I choose the theoretical framework suitable for my topic. If I may have a list of Theoretical frameworks I will be happy. I will also be grateful to have a direct contact with you.


A great insight into how to write a theoretical framework, simple and jargon free, the article makes the purpose and the method of writing the chapter explicit. Thank you.

That’s so kind of you Sethu. I’m glad you found it useful.

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Research Method

Home » Theoretical Framework – Types, Examples and Writing Guide

Theoretical Framework – Types, Examples and Writing Guide

Table of Contents

Theoretical Framework

Theoretical Framework


Theoretical framework refers to a set of concepts, theories, ideas , and assumptions that serve as a foundation for understanding a particular phenomenon or problem. It provides a conceptual framework that helps researchers to design and conduct their research, as well as to analyze and interpret their findings.

In research, a theoretical framework explains the relationship between various variables, identifies gaps in existing knowledge, and guides the development of research questions, hypotheses, and methodologies. It also helps to contextualize the research within a broader theoretical perspective, and can be used to guide the interpretation of results and the formulation of recommendations.

Types of Theoretical Framework

Types of Types of Theoretical Framework are as follows:

Conceptual Framework

This type of framework defines the key concepts and relationships between them. It helps to provide a theoretical foundation for a study or research project .

Deductive Framework

This type of framework starts with a general theory or hypothesis and then uses data to test and refine it. It is often used in quantitative research .

Inductive Framework

This type of framework starts with data and then develops a theory or hypothesis based on the patterns and themes that emerge from the data. It is often used in qualitative research .

Empirical Framework

This type of framework focuses on the collection and analysis of empirical data, such as surveys or experiments. It is often used in scientific research .

Normative Framework

This type of framework defines a set of norms or values that guide behavior or decision-making. It is often used in ethics and social sciences.

Explanatory Framework

This type of framework seeks to explain the underlying mechanisms or causes of a particular phenomenon or behavior. It is often used in psychology and social sciences.

Components of Theoretical Framework

The components of a theoretical framework include:

  • Concepts : The basic building blocks of a theoretical framework. Concepts are abstract ideas or generalizations that represent objects, events, or phenomena.
  • Variables : These are measurable and observable aspects of a concept. In a research context, variables can be manipulated or measured to test hypotheses.
  • Assumptions : These are beliefs or statements that are taken for granted and are not tested in a study. They provide a starting point for developing hypotheses.
  • Propositions : These are statements that explain the relationships between concepts and variables in a theoretical framework.
  • Hypotheses : These are testable predictions that are derived from the theoretical framework. Hypotheses are used to guide data collection and analysis.
  • Constructs : These are abstract concepts that cannot be directly measured but are inferred from observable variables. Constructs provide a way to understand complex phenomena.
  • Models : These are simplified representations of reality that are used to explain, predict, or control a phenomenon.

How to Write Theoretical Framework

A theoretical framework is an essential part of any research study or paper, as it helps to provide a theoretical basis for the research and guide the analysis and interpretation of the data. Here are some steps to help you write a theoretical framework:

  • Identify the key concepts and variables : Start by identifying the main concepts and variables that your research is exploring. These could include things like motivation, behavior, attitudes, or any other relevant concepts.
  • Review relevant literature: Conduct a thorough review of the existing literature in your field to identify key theories and ideas that relate to your research. This will help you to understand the existing knowledge and theories that are relevant to your research and provide a basis for your theoretical framework.
  • Develop a conceptual framework : Based on your literature review, develop a conceptual framework that outlines the key concepts and their relationships. This framework should provide a clear and concise overview of the theoretical perspective that underpins your research.
  • Identify hypotheses and research questions: Based on your conceptual framework, identify the hypotheses and research questions that you want to test or explore in your research.
  • Test your theoretical framework: Once you have developed your theoretical framework, test it by applying it to your research data. This will help you to identify any gaps or weaknesses in your framework and refine it as necessary.
  • Write up your theoretical framework: Finally, write up your theoretical framework in a clear and concise manner, using appropriate terminology and referencing the relevant literature to support your arguments.

Theoretical Framework Examples

Here are some examples of theoretical frameworks:

  • Social Learning Theory : This framework, developed by Albert Bandura, suggests that people learn from their environment, including the behaviors of others, and that behavior is influenced by both external and internal factors.
  • Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs : Abraham Maslow proposed that human needs are arranged in a hierarchy, with basic physiological needs at the bottom, followed by safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization at the top. This framework has been used in various fields, including psychology and education.
  • Ecological Systems Theory : This framework, developed by Urie Bronfenbrenner, suggests that a person’s development is influenced by the interaction between the individual and the various environments in which they live, such as family, school, and community.
  • Feminist Theory: This framework examines how gender and power intersect to influence social, cultural, and political issues. It emphasizes the importance of understanding and challenging systems of oppression.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Theory: This framework suggests that our thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes influence our behavior, and that changing our thought patterns can lead to changes in behavior and emotional responses.
  • Attachment Theory: This framework examines the ways in which early relationships with caregivers shape our later relationships and attachment styles.
  • Critical Race Theory : This framework examines how race intersects with other forms of social stratification and oppression to perpetuate inequality and discrimination.

When to Have A Theoretical Framework

Following are some situations When to Have A Theoretical Framework:

  • A theoretical framework should be developed when conducting research in any discipline, as it provides a foundation for understanding the research problem and guiding the research process.
  • A theoretical framework is essential when conducting research on complex phenomena, as it helps to organize and structure the research questions, hypotheses, and findings.
  • A theoretical framework should be developed when the research problem requires a deeper understanding of the underlying concepts and principles that govern the phenomenon being studied.
  • A theoretical framework is particularly important when conducting research in social sciences, as it helps to explain the relationships between variables and provides a framework for testing hypotheses.
  • A theoretical framework should be developed when conducting research in applied fields, such as engineering or medicine, as it helps to provide a theoretical basis for the development of new technologies or treatments.
  • A theoretical framework should be developed when conducting research that seeks to address a specific gap in knowledge, as it helps to define the problem and identify potential solutions.
  • A theoretical framework is also important when conducting research that involves the analysis of existing theories or concepts, as it helps to provide a framework for comparing and contrasting different theories and concepts.
  • A theoretical framework should be developed when conducting research that seeks to make predictions or develop generalizations about a particular phenomenon, as it helps to provide a basis for evaluating the accuracy of these predictions or generalizations.
  • Finally, a theoretical framework should be developed when conducting research that seeks to make a contribution to the field, as it helps to situate the research within the broader context of the discipline and identify its significance.

Purpose of Theoretical Framework

The purposes of a theoretical framework include:

  • Providing a conceptual framework for the study: A theoretical framework helps researchers to define and clarify the concepts and variables of interest in their research. It enables researchers to develop a clear and concise definition of the problem, which in turn helps to guide the research process.
  • Guiding the research design: A theoretical framework can guide the selection of research methods, data collection techniques, and data analysis procedures. By outlining the key concepts and assumptions underlying the research questions, the theoretical framework can help researchers to identify the most appropriate research design for their study.
  • Supporting the interpretation of research findings: A theoretical framework provides a framework for interpreting the research findings by helping researchers to make connections between their findings and existing theory. It enables researchers to identify the implications of their findings for theory development and to assess the generalizability of their findings.
  • Enhancing the credibility of the research: A well-developed theoretical framework can enhance the credibility of the research by providing a strong theoretical foundation for the study. It demonstrates that the research is based on a solid understanding of the relevant theory and that the research questions are grounded in a clear conceptual framework.
  • Facilitating communication and collaboration: A theoretical framework provides a common language and conceptual framework for researchers, enabling them to communicate and collaborate more effectively. It helps to ensure that everyone involved in the research is working towards the same goals and is using the same concepts and definitions.

Characteristics of Theoretical Framework

Some of the characteristics of a theoretical framework include:

  • Conceptual clarity: The concepts used in the theoretical framework should be clearly defined and understood by all stakeholders.
  • Logical coherence : The framework should be internally consistent, with each concept and assumption logically connected to the others.
  • Empirical relevance: The framework should be based on empirical evidence and research findings.
  • Parsimony : The framework should be as simple as possible, without sacrificing its ability to explain the phenomenon in question.
  • Flexibility : The framework should be adaptable to new findings and insights.
  • Testability : The framework should be testable through research, with clear hypotheses that can be falsified or supported by data.
  • Applicability : The framework should be useful for practical applications, such as designing interventions or policies.

Advantages of Theoretical Framework

Here are some of the advantages of having a theoretical framework:

  • Provides a clear direction : A theoretical framework helps researchers to identify the key concepts and variables they need to study and the relationships between them. This provides a clear direction for the research and helps researchers to focus their efforts and resources.
  • Increases the validity of the research: A theoretical framework helps to ensure that the research is based on sound theoretical principles and concepts. This increases the validity of the research by ensuring that it is grounded in established knowledge and is not based on arbitrary assumptions.
  • Enables comparisons between studies : A theoretical framework provides a common language and set of concepts that researchers can use to compare and contrast their findings. This helps to build a cumulative body of knowledge and allows researchers to identify patterns and trends across different studies.
  • Helps to generate hypotheses: A theoretical framework provides a basis for generating hypotheses about the relationships between different concepts and variables. This can help to guide the research process and identify areas that require further investigation.
  • Facilitates communication: A theoretical framework provides a common language and set of concepts that researchers can use to communicate their findings to other researchers and to the wider community. This makes it easier for others to understand the research and its implications.

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10+ Research Framework Examples in PDF

Research Framework Examples

A framework is an essential idea that humans have been using to build something effectively. This structure is widespread in various fields. In web development, for example, web developers use a framework called Model-View-Controller(MVC) to develop a web application.  MVC framework  is one of the most common software design patterns that web developers use to build user-interfaces. This type of structure allows them to create a more organized and understandable set of codes, making it an essential tool in developing an object-oriented program using programming languages, such as Javascript. Aside from web development, you can use frameworks in executing research methodologies, such as quantitative and qualitative research .

What is the Research Framework?

A research framework is a precise representation of the structure of a research project plan . Through this structure, you can determine the critical areas of the study. It also allows you to come up with relevant research questions and research objectives. To develop a research framework, you have to team up with the individuals within your organization or community. These people may include local authorities, contractors, voluntary groups, and other affecting individuals.

What are the Contributions that Research Framework Can Offer?

Developing a framework for your study is crucial to obtain the following benefits.

1. Timely Knowledge

Whether you are conducting marketing research or nursing research, you will need to gather the relevant information that surrounds your study for a better understanding of your research. You can collect this type of information by scanning related reports and writings from a public library, publications, and other sources.

2. Knowledge Gaps

After receiving the relevant information, you will be able to determine the holes of the data between the existing information and your current study. To close the gap, use this knowledge difference to come up with questions, which you will be focusing on for the rest of your project.

3. Research Strategy

If you can develop an action research framework, market research framework, or any other research framework, it will be easier for you to plan on how to carry out your project.

10+ Research Framework Examples

To give you a better understanding of research frameworks, we collated a list of samples that you can easily download in PDF formats.

1. Disaster Management Research Framework Example

disaster management research framework

Size: 227 KB

2. Research Framework Plan Example

research framework plan example

Size: 270 KB

3. Research Framework Policy Example

research framework policy example

4. Research Framework Methodology Example

research framework methodology example

Size: 308 KB

5. Feminist Research Framework Example

feminist research framework example

6. Basic Research Framework Example

7. research methodology and analysis framework example.

research methodology and analysis framework

Size: 197 KB

8. Research Evaluation Framework Example

research evaluation framework example

Size: 215 KB

9. Framework for Assessing Research Example

framework for assessing research

Size: 76 KB

10. Research Training Framework Example

research training framework example

Size: 159 KB

11. Research Strategic Framework Example

research strategic framework example

How to Apply Research Framework?

In applying the framework to research projects such as experimental investigations for the first time, following a guide can be essential to prevent your research from going astray. Read the following instructions to ensure that you are doing your research correctly.

1. Take Note of the Observation

When researching with a set framework, the first thing that you must do is to observe the research surroundings. There are many ways to do your observation. You can take note of the indicators that will reveal the hidden matters during your study. In the process, you may notice unusual activities that may need further examination. You can also uncover a connection between one or two matters, which the existing information didn’t cover.

2. Develop Research Questions

By following the previous step, you should be able to take note of remarkable observations. Through these remarks, you will formulate the research questions. In doing so, make sure that the items that you have come up with will interest you and your audience. Aside from that, it would help if you were the first individual who will answer the questions. However, you also have to ensure that these questions are answerable given the time and the resources that you have.

3. Determine the Study Objectives

Once you have gathered the research questions, you can easily create the objectives of your project. Develop answerable, predictive, and clear assertions.

4. Assign the Most Appropriate Design

By choosing a research method, you can determine how to gather the necessary data, which is crucial to come up with a conclusion of your research. Case study, open-label, parallel design, cross-sectional, and case-control are a few of the vast array of the research designs that you can choose from to apply in your project.

5. Describe the Data Collection Process

Explain all the procedures for gathering the necessary information for your study. This essay should cover the process involved in collecting and storing the data. Specify the individuals or organizations that can retrieve the data and the steps that you are going to take in ensuring the subject and the data confidentiality.

6. Analyze the Data

Once you have all the necessary information, analyze it using statistical methods to come up with the best solution, and conclusion for your research project. Lastly, present the results to the target audience.

Before conducting a research project, it is essential to learn the use of research frameworks. Just like software development frameworks, this type of tool will ensure that you are executing the research process of your project systematically. We created this article to ensure that you are not going to conduct your research project aimlessly.

example of a research framework

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Theoretical vs Conceptual Framework

What they are & how they’re different (with examples)

By: Derek Jansen (MBA) | Reviewed By: Eunice Rautenbach (DTech) | March 2023

If you’re new to academic research, sooner or later you’re bound to run into the terms theoretical framework and conceptual framework . These are closely related but distinctly different things (despite some people using them interchangeably) and it’s important to understand what each means. In this post, we’ll unpack both theoretical and conceptual frameworks in plain language along with practical examples , so that you can approach your research with confidence.

Overview: Theoretical vs Conceptual

What is a theoretical framework, example of a theoretical framework, what is a conceptual framework, example of a conceptual framework.

  • Theoretical vs conceptual: which one should I use?

A theoretical framework (also sometimes referred to as a foundation of theory) is essentially a set of concepts, definitions, and propositions that together form a structured, comprehensive view of a specific phenomenon.

In other words, a theoretical framework is a collection of existing theories, models and frameworks that provides a foundation of core knowledge – a “lay of the land”, so to speak, from which you can build a research study. For this reason, it’s usually presented fairly early within the literature review section of a dissertation, thesis or research paper .

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Let’s look at an example to make the theoretical framework a little more tangible.

If your research aims involve understanding what factors contributed toward people trusting investment brokers, you’d need to first lay down some theory so that it’s crystal clear what exactly you mean by this. For example, you would need to define what you mean by “trust”, as there are many potential definitions of this concept. The same would be true for any other constructs or variables of interest.

You’d also need to identify what existing theories have to say in relation to your research aim. In this case, you could discuss some of the key literature in relation to organisational trust. A quick search on Google Scholar using some well-considered keywords generally provides a good starting point.

foundation of theory

Typically, you’ll present your theoretical framework in written form , although sometimes it will make sense to utilise some visuals to show how different theories relate to each other. Your theoretical framework may revolve around just one major theory , or it could comprise a collection of different interrelated theories and models. In some cases, there will be a lot to cover and in some cases, not. Regardless of size, the theoretical framework is a critical ingredient in any study.

Simply put, the theoretical framework is the core foundation of theory that you’ll build your research upon. As we’ve mentioned many times on the blog, good research is developed by standing on the shoulders of giants . It’s extremely unlikely that your research topic will be completely novel and that there’ll be absolutely no existing theory that relates to it. If that’s the case, the most likely explanation is that you just haven’t reviewed enough literature yet! So, make sure that you take the time to review and digest the seminal sources.

Need a helping hand?

example of a research framework

A conceptual framework is typically a visual representation (although it can also be written out) of the expected relationships and connections between various concepts, constructs or variables. In other words, a conceptual framework visualises how the researcher views and organises the various concepts and variables within their study. This is typically based on aspects drawn from the theoretical framework, so there is a relationship between the two.

Quite commonly, conceptual frameworks are used to visualise the potential causal relationships and pathways that the researcher expects to find, based on their understanding of both the theoretical literature and the existing empirical research . Therefore, the conceptual framework is often used to develop research questions and hypotheses .

Let’s look at an example of a conceptual framework to make it a little more tangible. You’ll notice that in this specific conceptual framework, the hypotheses are integrated into the visual, helping to connect the rest of the document to the framework.

example of a conceptual framework

As you can see, conceptual frameworks often make use of different shapes , lines and arrows to visualise the connections and relationships between different components and/or variables. Ultimately, the conceptual framework provides an opportunity for you to make explicit your understanding of how everything is connected . So, be sure to make use of all the visual aids you can – clean design, well-considered colours and concise text are your friends.

Theoretical framework vs conceptual framework

As you can see, the theoretical framework and the conceptual framework are closely related concepts, but they differ in terms of focus and purpose. The theoretical framework is used to lay down a foundation of theory on which your study will be built, whereas the conceptual framework visualises what you anticipate the relationships between concepts, constructs and variables may be, based on your understanding of the existing literature and the specific context and focus of your research. In other words, they’re different tools for different jobs , but they’re neighbours in the toolbox.

Naturally, the theoretical framework and the conceptual framework are not mutually exclusive . In fact, it’s quite likely that you’ll include both in your dissertation or thesis, especially if your research aims involve investigating relationships between variables. Of course, every research project is different and universities differ in terms of their expectations for dissertations and theses, so it’s always a good idea to have a look at past projects to get a feel for what the norms and expectations are at your specific institution.

Want to learn more about research terminology, methods and techniques? Be sure to check out the rest of the Grad Coach blog . Alternatively, if you’re looking for hands-on help, have a look at our private coaching service , where we hold your hand through the research process, step by step.

example of a research framework

Psst… there’s more (for free)

This post is part of our dissertation mini-course, which covers everything you need to get started with your dissertation, thesis or research project. 



Thank you for giving a valuable lesson

Muhammed Ebrahim Feto

good thanks!

Benson Wandago


olawale rasaq

thanks for given very interested understand about both theoritical and conceptual framework


I am researching teacher beliefs about inclusive education but not using a theoretical framework just conceptual frame using teacher beliefs, inclusive education and inclusive practices as my concepts


good, fantastic

Melese Takele

great! thanks for the clarification. I am planning to use both for my implementation evaluation of EmONC service at primary health care facility level. its theoretical foundation rooted from the principles of implementation science.


This is a good one…now have a better understanding of Theoretical and Conceptual frameworks. Highly grateful

Ahmed Adumani

Very educating and fantastic,good to be part of you guys,I appreciate your enlightened concern.


Thanks for shedding light on these two t opics. Much clearer in my head now.


Simple and clear!

Alemayehu Wolde Oljira

The differences between the two topics was well explained, thank you very much!


Thank you great insight

Maria Glenda O. De Lara

Superb. Thank you so much.

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National Academies Press: OpenBook

Review of the Draft Research and Restoration Plan for Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim (Western Alaska) Salmon (2006)

Chapter: 3 the research framework, 3 the research framework, implementation of research framework.

In preparing its initial advice to the AYK SSI about developing a research and restoration plan, this committee (NRC 2005) set forth the elements such a plan should contain. Reading the draft plan prepared by the AYK SSI leads this committee to amplify that advice. We begin with a diagram ( Figure 3-1 ) of 11 steps that should be followed to implement the AYK SSI research program, as well as a description of each step and references to pages in the STC document that apply to each step. Reorganization and shortening of the current draft plan to follow these steps, and perhaps the inclusion of a diagram that shows the research program framework, would improve clarity and reduce confusion about the proper sequence of steps to be followed.

Steps for Implementation

Step 1. problem formulation.

The first step in any research program is to identify clearly the overarching questions relevant to the program goal. Frequently, this is one clearly stated goal with a well-defined set of carefully chosen broad, universal questions. Specific research questions are developed later (Step 5). The purpose of Step 1 is to encourage creative thinking based on concepts used to understand issues in the world of salmon. This creative thinking, or problem formulation, is a process of identifying impor-

example of a research framework

FIGURE 3-1 Numbered sequence of 11 steps that should be followed to develop and implement the AYK SSI research program.

tant factors that affect salmon abundance. It is helpful to identify those factors, or stressors , and the regime that they operate in. For example, if temperature is a stressor (a factor that affects salmon), then the range and duration of temperature fluctuations is the stressor regime. The stressor also might primarily affect a specific life stage. For example, if sea temperatures over the continental shelf in summer are higher than average, that might not affect adults, but it might affect the marine survival of juveniles. Information for problem formulation should come from published literature, expert opinion, local and traditional knowledge (LTK), and the experience and expertise of the researchers.

The AYK Salmon Research and Restoration Plan was funded because of low salmon returns in the region. Therefore, it makes sense for problem formulation to translate into questions about how the trends and causes of variation in AYK salmon abundance and human use of salmon can be compared and contrasted with trends and causes of variation elsewhere in the world. Any number of factors at global (climate change), international (for example, chum salmon hatcheries in Japan), regional (for example, commercial fishing in the Bering Sea), or local (for example, downriver commercial fishing) scales could contribute to the decline of AYK salmon. As indicated in Figure 3-1 of this report, LTK provides important input on local trends and causes of variation at this initial step.

In the draft AYK Salmon Restoration and Research Plan, this component appears in the Plan Overview (p. 7, lines 19-22), section 1.2.2 (Goal, p. 11), and section 2.2 (Statement of Research and Restoration Program Goal, p. 36). Although the program goal is stated, the plan does not seem to include any clearly stated broad questions that are universal in scope. While some description, definition, and identification of causative factors or stressors, and stressor regimes are in the plan’s introduction (sections 1.3-1.3.9), the information in these sections is not clearly linked to the problem or overarching questions. We recommend deleting these sections (1.3-1.3.9) from the introduction. As discussed in Chapter 2 of this report, we suggest replacing the sections with ones that describe important sources of variability in salmon abundance and that review and integrate current concepts about the processes responsible for that variability. We also recommend deleting the program completion year of 2012 from the statement of the program goal because a date should not be a part of problem formulation.

Problem formulation will lead to the development of a conceptual model (Step 2) that describes the problem and links the stressors to the

problem (in this case, the research issue). The conceptual model is an integral component of problem formulation.

Step 2. Development of a Conceptual Model

A conceptual model can often be expressed through a visual representation and incorporate the fundamental problem, stressors, and stressor regimes to render a holistic understanding of the problem and its components. Figure 2.1 in the draft research and restoration plan is a good example of such a visual representation. There are several ways to develop a conceptual model, including through gaining expert scientific opinion, LTK, and from workshops led by broad and creative thinkers. This is a natural point to incorporate LTK, and in the case of the AYK plan, it is essential, as discussed below. An example of such a conceptual model is the Gulf Ecosystem Monitoring (GEM) model ( http://www.evostc.state.ak.us/gem/concept_large.htm ). (See also NRC 2002.)

In the draft AYK SSI Salmon Research and Restoration Plan, this step appears in section 1.2.5 (Elements of the Conceptual Foundation, p. 1) and section 2.3 (Conceptual Foundation, pp. 36-38, Figure 2.1). It is unclear how the conceptual foundation illustrated in Figure 2.1 is related to the fundamental problem, as well as how this foundation is matched with the priority setting criteria (p. 9, 65-66).

Step 3. Identification of Relevant Approaches and General Hypotheses Specific to the Conceptual Model

Once the general problem has been formulated and the conceptual foundation has been illustrated, the next step is to identify the relevant approaches and general hypotheses that are specific to explaining, and ultimately testing, the validity of the conceptual model. These general hypotheses are developed by expert scientific opinion, LTK, and workshops and offer an explanation for processes that may contribute to the problem or relevant stressors. A general hypothesis for the AYK plan, for example, might be that climate change alters the timing and extent of spring freshwater runoff and that consequently juvenile salmon survival is affected by runoff. In this case, runoff is the stressor variable. The timing and magnitude of the runoff relative to the salmon’s life stage constitute the stressor regime.

Relevant approaches (monitoring, process studies, retrospective studies, modeling studies) are described in section 4.6 (Types of Study Approaches, pp. 79-82). Adding experimental manipulations, especially of management actions, to the list of relevant approaches is also recommended. Feedback occurs between Step 3 and Step 4, which then leads to the prioritization of these hypotheses. In the case of the AYK plan, the prioritization may be facilitated by the use of the nine criteria listed on pages 65 and 66.

Step 4. Collection and Synthesis of Existing Data and Metadata

At this stage of implementing a research plan, an evaluation already is needed of what is already known that is pertinent to the problem and what data have already been collected but perhaps not analyzed specifically to address the problem. At this step, existing data are located and identified formally; this collection of information about primary data is known as metadata. In the metadata, the type, accuracy, sampling, availability, and other characteristics of the primary information (data) are addressed. All data relevant to the hypotheses must be gathered and evaluated, regardless of institutional source. LTK should be included at this stage. These data may be obtained from extant agency programs or through grant and contract mechanisms. For example, development of metadata involves expertise, time, and expense, and will need to be funded through a grant or contract. This may involve RFPs, and, if so, should include peer review. The information in Appendix 2 of the draft plan is the start of a metadatabase on freshwater assessment project data (although no specifics are provided on when, where, and by whom the data were collected) data types (for example, paper records, computer files), species, data formats, variables, where the data are located, how the data are stored, data condition, quality, and so on. Metadata for this region are available at www.pmel.noaa.gov/np/mdb/index.html .

Without adequate attention to this step, the AYK SSI could spend time and money doing research that already has been done or gathering information that has already been gathered. The only place in the plan where metadata are specifically mentioned is in sections 4.10 (Communication of Research Results, pp. 88-89), 4.10.1 (Summary of Communication Obligations, p. 90), and 4.11 (Data Management, p. 91). The information presented in Table 4.1 and Table 4.2 is a form of metadata, although it pertains only to similar themes in other research plans and

does not specifically address whether or not there are existing data available and the adequacy of these data. Appendix 2 (pp. 110-113) contains a partial list of freshwater salmon assessment projects that currently are collecting data in the AYK region, although there are not enough details to evaluate data availability and adequacy (such as species, spatial and temporal coverage) with respect to Step 3. This task will require considerable investment of time and money, although it will provide dividends for research far into the future. As recommended later, the AYK SSI should take the opportunity to work with other organizations that are doing similar work (such as the North Pacific Research Board’s [NPRB’s] Alaska Marine Information System and the North Pacific Ecosystem Metadatabase).

Step 5. Generation of Specific Hypotheses

Based on the collection of metadata and the evaluation of extant data and knowledge in Steps 3 and 4, the next step is to develop hypotheses specific to the problem and to prioritize them. The method of prioritization can include the potential for important results, the lack of overlap with other programs, and the lack of current funding opportunities for this type of research, among other factors. This step relies on RFPs to encourage scientists to test these hypotheses, prove peer review, and obtain funding through grants and contracts.

Section 4.3 of the draft plan (Setting Research Priorities, pp. 65-77) is directly applicable to this step. In the layout of the draft document, however, the origin of the specific questions outlined in Chapter 3 (pp. 50-61) is unclear, and the questions would more logically follow rather than precede the description of how these specific questions were prioritized. The gap analysis based on the review of research plans of 10 potential partner organizations plus existing state and federal research programs from the AYK region does not seem to be a thorough and well-executed approach for prioritizing specific hypotheses, especially given that Table 4.1 (pp. 71-72) includes the category “Other programs?” and Appendix 1 (pp. 103-109) contains some organizations that were not included in the gap analysis. This shortcoming in the draft plan was recognized by the AYK SSI, which described the gap analysis “obviously incomplete” (see Note to Readers, p. 72). In the present draft, peer reviewers cannot evaluate the gap analysis. Whether the current research

plans of these other programs have been or will be successfully implemented, or whether they adequately address hypotheses critical to the success of the AYK SSI Salmon Research and Restoration Plan is unknown. A clear statement of specific hypotheses for the AYK plan is buried near the end of the plan in section 4.8 (Restoration Studies, p. 83, lines 10-14): “Hence the working hypothesis of the Science Plan is that the most likely causes for declines in AYK salmon populations are human harvest in fresh and salt water, mortality factors related to short- and long-term climate change such as disease, and competition from hatchery fish in the marine environment.” Moving this statement forward in the plan would improve the presentation.

Step 6. Testing of Hypotheses

This step would likely be accomplished through preproposals, RFPs, and external peer review of the resulting proposals (and of course, research, Step 7, and a major topic of this whole report). The plan also should include methods for documenting progress on specific proposal objectives and on data management and archiving. This step involves the consideration of conflict of interest among the investigators, of whether the proposed investigation is of sufficient scope, and of the incorporation of capacity building, among other matters.

No mention is made of the use of preproposals in the draft plan. Preproposals can be useful to researchers and funders by eliminating time spent in writing and evaluating proposals that do not match program goals. Preproposals should be short enough not to impose an undue burden on their authors or on the AYK SSI. Section 4.3.4 briefly describes guidelines for RFPs and states that “in future drafts a summary of components of the RFP and an overview of the proposal review process will be provided here.” Because this section of the draft was not yet complete, the NRC committee could not review this part of the plan. A sample of a complete RFP that was provided to the NRC committee by the STC at the August 8-11 meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, meets most of our recommendations; it is thoughtful and well written. We recommend that a process similar to the one used by National Science Foundation (NSF) or National Institutes of Health (NIH) be used in preparation, review, and selection of the proposals. Consideration should be given to an NSF-type proposal format and solicitation.

By the above recommendation, the committee means that RFPs should be widely disseminated to the general scientific community throughout the United States—and beyond if appropriate. The RFPs should require structured elements in proposals, such as broader impacts of the work and the inclusion of LTK, among other things. There should be an anonymous, independent peer review of the proposals, which should include a mechanism to avoid conflicts of interest. If funds permit, the establishment of a panel of outside independent experts to evaluate proposals would be helpful. There should be a ranking procedure for the results of the peer review and rules for final selection that are established and made public before the process begins.

Section 4.10 (Communication of Research Results, pp. 87-90) outlines approaches for documenting progress, and section 4.11 (Data Management, p. 91) briefly describes data management and archival.

Step 7. Research and Findings

This step is the core of the program, and its elements are discussed throughout this report.

Step 8. Synthesis of Results

Because there will be results from numerous projects, it is important that they be evaluated and synthesized in a holistic manner relevant to the problem and the program goals. An important step would be the periodic evaluation of results as mentioned in section 4.4 (Program Performance Measures, pp. 77-78). However, periodic evaluation is different from synthesis. We suggest that this is an excellent opportunity to use an independent scientific review or workshop that includes non-vested experts. Based on the synthesis, new questions may be identified and new priorities set; this is indicated by a feedback loop to Step 5.

Recognizing the importance of synthesis, the draft plan introduces “synthesis” as a tool that will be used to address research themes under Framework 3 (see Figure A, p. 8). As described on page 43, the purpose of Framework 3 is based on the “synthesis of knowledge acquired from activities under Frameworks 1, 2, and other research: (1) to better understand the causes of variation and resilience of the AYK salmon, and (2)

to refine and develop management tools (see Figure 2.3).” In particular, Research Theme 13 (p. 57) mentions “synthesis of historical population levels of salmon and their use by humans.”

Step 9. Development of Management Options or an Action Plan

Based on the understanding obtained in Step 8, management options would be developed and implemented by management partners. Management plans need to be periodically reviewed for their effectiveness in solving or ameliorating the identified problems. Because the AYK plan includes restoration in addition to research, the inclusion of management and its effectiveness is an integral component of this plan; it should not be viewed as an afterthought. We recommend that the concept of adaptive management as defined in section 1.4 (p. 33) be adopted, as identified in the feedback loop from Step 8 to Step 1. While this logically follows the previous steps, management options can be identified and implemented at any time the causative factors become clear and well defined.

Management applications are briefly described in section 4.7 (p. 82). This section is the first to mention that the “guiding principle for implementing the AYK SSI Research Program is that projects will be undertaken with a view toward their potential application to enhance management decisions” (from section 4.7). We recommend inclusion of this guiding principal in the introduction to the plan.

Step 10. Implementation of the Management Option

Implementation of fishery management plans is normally based on as much scientific information as is available, as well as on other considerations. Peer review often is involved, at least in the scientific aspects of the plans, through such mechanisms as fishery management councils. This committee judges that peer review of the science aspects of fishery management plans is an essential step and therefore recommends peer review at this stage. Because adaptive management depends on the quality of the information obtained about management actions, it is essential that management actions be designed so as to facilitate the collection of

relevant information. Chapter 5 of this report discusses peer review and other management actions in more detail.

Step 11. Synthesis of Management Results and Incorporation into Problem Formulation

This crucial step is the heart of adaptive management. It is essential that results from management feed back into the problem-formulation and hypothesis-generation steps of the research program diagrammed in Figure 3-1 . Doing so in a transparent way has the additional benefit of making the management process itself more transparent.


Figure 2.1 of the draft research and restoration plan illustrates the conceptual model the AYK SSI used in developing its plan. Here, as an illustrative example, we derive a hypothesis from that model and use it to develop a research question, following the advice we provided in our first report (NRC 2005) and in accordance with Figure 3-1 of this report.

Hypothesis. The variability across space and time in smolt survival through the transition to the ocean from freshwater is a major factor affecting the variability of salmon returns in the AYK region.

Importance. The hypothesis is relevant to understanding and predicting salmon population dynamics and stock-recruit relationships, setting escapement goals, and to predicting salmon abundance.

Suggested RFP. Develop a research proposal to test the hypothesis for one or more salmon populations in one or more watersheds in the AYK region.

The above would be the minimal sequence, allowing the investigators to develop research questions. However, if the AYK SSI wished to go further before issuing the RFP, the following steps might be taken.

Research question. How are the numbers of outmigrating smolts in (one or more specified) streams related to the number of returning adults n, n − 1, and n + 1 years later, where n is the average number of sea years for the species under consideration?

Data needs. Needed are the number of smolts migrating to sea in the chosen streams and the number of adult returns in those same streams the appropriate numbers of years later. The ADF&G already collects information on adult returns for many species in many streams.

Further hypotheses. These will depend on research results and will also be likely to have relevance to program goals.


Following the integrated review of factors affecting salmon abundance outlined in the previous chapter, it would be worthwhile to make some decisions about the SSI’s research strategy for improving understanding of variations in salmon abundance. This strategy should be based on the overall goals of the program and the integrated review of population dynamics. Issues to consider include the following:

Should SSI-funded studies focus on populations where ADF&G or other organizations already collect information on escapement and age/weight/length, or should SSI fund projects to collect these kinds of data?

Should SSI studies focus on representative populations that are particularly amenable to study or particularly important to the communities involved in SSI?

To what extent should SSI focus on studies that use statistical and process-based modeling efforts to understand problems of interest, and to what extent should SSI focus on studies with significant fieldwork components? To what degree could the approaches profitably be combined?

How should SSI divide its attention between the marine and freshwater environments?

Following this section on research strategy, it would be helpful to revisit the question of how research should be prioritized; here we focus on a specific example, the stock-recruitment relationship.

To what extent should the SSI focus on statistical and modeling research to better understand the stock-recruitment relationship? For example, to what extent should the SSI focus on reducing statistical uncertainty in explaining the stock-recruit relationship?

To what extent should the SSI focus on process (that is, field and laboratory) research? For example, to what degree should the SSI focus on understanding the processes responsible for generating the stock-recruitment relationship and the way in which variation in environmental conditions generates variability in this relationship? Of course, some combination of these two approaches is expected; the question is one of emphasis.

This committee has the following suggestions:

The SSI should focus on studies that are the most cost effective in improving statistical descriptions of variations in and process-based explanations of salmon abundance.

Similarly, the SSI should focus on studies that are likely to produce useful results within a reasonably short period. Both the short initial period (until 2012) of the program and the urgency of gaining information influence this suggestion.

The SSI should focus on populations for which ADF&G has a long-term stock-assessment program and work with ADF&G to supplement these studies. The SSI should provide improved statistical descriptions of relationships between the stock-recruitment relationship and environmental characteristics, and an improved understanding of the processes responsible.

The SSI should focus its efforts on a small group of representative populations.

The SSI research should complement work by ADF&G and others, not duplicate it, or provide substitute funding. This implies the development of coordination between SSI-funded projects and ADF&G’s ongoing programs, and other regional marine-science and salmon studies.

Declines in the abundance of salmon in the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim (AYK) region of western Alaska in the late 1990s and early 2000s created hardships for the people and communities who depend on this resource. Based on recommendations from a 2004 National Academies report, the AYK Sustainable Salmon Initiative (SSI) developed a research and restoration plan to help understand the reasons for this decline and to help support sustainable management in the region. This report reviews the draft plan, recommending some clarification, shortening, and other improvements, with a better focus on the relationship between the underlying intellectual model and the research questions, and a clearer discussion of local and traditional knowledge and capacity building.

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How To Make Conceptual Framework (With Examples and Templates)

How To Make Conceptual Framework (With Examples and Templates)

We all know that a research paper has plenty of concepts involved. However, a great deal of concepts makes your study confusing.

A conceptual framework ensures that the concepts of your study are organized and presented comprehensively. Let this article guide you on how to make the conceptual framework of your study.

Related: How to Write a Concept Paper for Academic Research

Table of Contents

At a glance: free conceptual framework templates.

Too busy to create a conceptual framework from scratch? No problem. We’ve created templates for each conceptual framework so you can start on the right foot. All you need to do is enter the details of the variables. Feel free to modify the design according to your needs. Please read the main article below to learn more about the conceptual framework.

Conceptual Framework Template #1: Independent-Dependent Variable Model

Conceptual framework template #2: input-process-output (ipo) model, conceptual framework template #3: concept map, what is a conceptual framework.

A conceptual framework shows the relationship between the variables of your study.  It includes a visual diagram or a model that summarizes the concepts of your study and a narrative explanation of the model presented.

Why Should Research Be Given a Conceptual Framework?

Imagine your study as a long journey with the research result as the destination. You don’t want to get lost in your journey because of the complicated concepts. This is why you need to have a guide. The conceptual framework keeps you on track by presenting and simplifying the relationship between the variables. This is usually done through the use of illustrations that are supported by a written interpretation.

Also, people who will read your research must have a clear guide to the variables in your study and where the research is heading. By looking at the conceptual framework, the readers can get the gist of the research concepts without reading the entire study. 

Related: How to Write Significance of the Study (with Examples)

What Is the Difference Between Conceptual Framework and Theoretical Framework?

Both of them show concepts and ideas of your study. The theoretical framework presents the theories, rules, and principles that serve as the basis of the research. Thus, the theoretical framework presents broad concepts related to your study. On the other hand, the conceptual framework shows a specific approach derived from the theoretical framework. It provides particular variables and shows how these variables are related.

Let’s say your research is about the Effects of Social Media on the Political Literacy of College Students. You may include some theories related to political literacy, such as this paper, in your theoretical framework. Based on this paper, political participation and awareness determine political literacy.

For the conceptual framework, you may state that the specific form of political participation and awareness you will use for the study is the engagement of college students on political issues on social media. Then, through a diagram and narrative explanation, you can show that using social media affects the political literacy of college students.

What Are the Different Types of Conceptual Frameworks?

The conceptual framework has different types based on how the research concepts are organized 1 .

1. Taxonomy

In this type of conceptual framework, the phenomena of your study are grouped into categories without presenting the relationship among them. The point of this conceptual framework is to distinguish the categories from one another.

2. Visual Presentation

In this conceptual framework, the relationship between the phenomena and variables of your study is presented. Using this conceptual framework implies that your research provides empirical evidence to prove the relationship between variables. This is the type of conceptual framework that is usually used in research studies.

3. Mathematical Description

In this conceptual framework, the relationship between phenomena and variables of your study is described using mathematical formulas. Also, the extent of the relationship between these variables is presented with specific quantities.

How To Make Conceptual Framework: 4 Steps

1. identify the important variables of your study.

There are two essential variables that you must identify in your study: the independent and the dependent variables.

An independent variable is a variable that you can manipulate. It can affect the dependent variable. Meanwhile, the dependent variable is the resulting variable that you are measuring.

You may refer to your research question to determine your research’s independent and dependent variables.

Suppose your research question is: “Is There a Significant Relationship Between the Quantity of Organic Fertilizer Used and the Plant’s Growth Rate?” The independent variable of this study is the quantity of organic fertilizer used, while the dependent variable is the plant’s growth rate.

2. Think About How the Variables Are Related

Usually, the variables of a study have a direct relationship. If a change in one of your variables leads to a corresponding change in another, they might have this kind of relationship.

However, note that having a direct relationship between variables does not mean they already have a cause-and-effect relationship 2 . It takes statistical analysis to prove causation between variables.

Using our example earlier, the quantity of organic fertilizer may directly relate to the plant’s growth rate. However, we are not sure that the quantity of organic fertilizer is the sole reason for the plant’s growth rate changes.

3. Analyze and Determine Other Influencing Variables

Consider analyzing if other variables can affect the relationship between your independent and dependent variables 3 .

4. Create a Visual Diagram or a Model

Now that you’ve identified the variables and their relationship, you may create a visual diagram summarizing them.

Usually, shapes such as rectangles, circles, and arrows are used for the model. You may create a visual diagram or model for your conceptual framework in different ways. The three most common models are the independent-dependent variable model, the input-process-output (IPO) model, and concept maps.

a. Using the Independent-Dependent Variable Model

You may create this model by writing the independent and dependent variables inside rectangles. Then, insert a line segment between them, connecting the rectangles. This line segment indicates the direct relationship between these variables. 

Below is a visual diagram based on our example about the relationship between organic fertilizer and a plant’s growth rate. 

conceptual framework 1

b. Using the Input-Process-Output (IPO) Model

If you want to emphasize your research process, the input-process-output model is the appropriate visual diagram for your conceptual framework.

To create your visual diagram using the IPO model, follow these steps:

  • Determine the inputs of your study . Inputs are the variables you will use to arrive at your research result. Usually, your independent variables are also the inputs of your research. Let’s say your research is about the Level of Satisfaction of College Students Using Google Classroom as an Online Learning Platform. You may include in your inputs the profile of your respondents and the curriculum used in the online learning platform.
  • Outline your research process. Using our example above, the research process should be like this: Data collection of student profiles → Administering questionnaires → Tabulation of students’ responses → Statistical data analysis.
  • State the research output . Indicate what you are expecting after you conduct the research. In our example above, the research output is the assessed level of satisfaction of college students with the use of Google Classroom as an online learning platform.
  • Create the model using the research’s determined input, process, and output.

Presented below is the IPO model for our example above.

conceptual framework 2

c. Using Concept Maps

If you think the two models presented previously are insufficient to summarize your study’s concepts, you may use a concept map for your visual diagram.

A concept map is a helpful visual diagram if multiple variables affect one another. Let’s say your research is about Coping with the Remote Learning System: Anxiety Levels of College Students. Presented below is the concept map for the research’s conceptual framework:

conceptual framework 3

5. Explain Your Conceptual Framework in Narrative Form

Provide a brief explanation of your conceptual framework. State the essential variables, their relationship, and the research outcome.

Using the same example about the relationship between organic fertilizer and the growth rate of the plant, we can come up with the following explanation to accompany the conceptual framework:

Figure 1 shows the Conceptual Framework of the study. The quantity of the organic fertilizer used is the independent variable, while the plant’s growth is the research’s dependent variable. These two variables are directly related based on the research’s empirical evidence.

Conceptual Framework in Quantitative Research

You can create your conceptual framework by following the steps discussed in the previous section. Note, however, that quantitative research has statistical analysis. Thus, you may use arrows to indicate a cause-and-effect relationship in your model. An arrow implies that your independent variable caused the changes in your dependent variable.

Usually, for quantitative research, the Input-Process-Output model is used as a visual diagram. Here is an example of a conceptual framework in quantitative research:

Research Topic : Level of Effectiveness of Corn (Zea mays) Silk Ethanol Extract as an Antioxidant

conceptual framework 4

Conceptual Framework in Qualitative Research

Again, you can follow the same step-by-step guide discussed previously to create a conceptual framework for qualitative research. However, note that you should avoid using one-way arrows as they may indicate causation . Qualitative research cannot prove causation since it uses only descriptive and narrative analysis to relate variables.

Here is an example of a conceptual framework in qualitative research:

Research Topic : Lived Experiences of Medical Health Workers During Community Quarantine

conceptual framework 5

Conceptual Framework Examples

Presented below are some examples of conceptual frameworks.

Research Topic : Hypoglycemic Ability of Gabi (Colocasia esculenta) Leaf Extract in the Blood Glucose Level of Swiss Mice (Mus musculus)

conceptual framework 6

Figure 1 presents the Conceptual Framework of the study. The quantity of gabi leaf extract is the independent variable, while the Swiss mice’s blood glucose level is the study’s dependent variable. This study establishes a direct relationship between these variables through empirical evidence and statistical analysis . 

Research Topic : Level of Effectiveness of Using Social Media in the Political Literacy of College Students

conceptual framework 7

Figure 1 shows the Conceptual Framework of the study. The input is the profile of the college students according to sex, year level, and the social media platform being used. The research process includes administering the questionnaires, tabulating students’ responses, and statistical data analysis and interpretation. The output is the effectiveness of using social media in the political literacy of college students.

Research Topic: Factors Affecting the Satisfaction Level of Community Inhabitants

conceptual framework 8

Figure 1 presents a visual illustration of the factors that affect the satisfaction level of community inhabitants. As presented, environmental, societal, and economic factors influence the satisfaction level of community inhabitants. Each factor has its indicators which are considered in this study.

Tips and Warnings

  • Please keep it simple. Avoid using fancy illustrations or designs when creating your conceptual framework. 
  • Allot a lot of space for feedback. This is to show that your research variables or methodology might be revised based on the input from the research panel. Below is an example of a conceptual framework with a spot allotted for feedback.

conceptual framework 9

Frequently Asked Questions

1. how can i create a conceptual framework in microsoft word.

First, click the Insert tab and select Shapes . You’ll see a wide range of shapes to choose from. Usually, rectangles, circles, and arrows are the shapes used for the conceptual framework. 

conceptual framework 10

Next, draw your selected shape in the document.

conceptual framework 11

Insert the name of the variable inside the shape. You can do this by pointing your cursor to the shape, right-clicking your mouse, selecting Add Text , and typing in the text.

conceptual framework 12

Repeat the same process for the remaining variables of your study. If you need arrows to connect the different variables, you can insert one by going to the Insert tab, then Shape, and finally, Lines or Block Arrows, depending on your preferred arrow style.

2. How to explain my conceptual framework in defense?

If you have used the Independent-Dependent Variable Model in creating your conceptual framework, start by telling your research’s variables. Afterward, explain the relationship between these variables. Example: “Using statistical/descriptive analysis of the data we have collected, we are going to show how the <state your independent variable> exhibits a significant relationship to <state your dependent variable>.”

On the other hand, if you have used an Input-Process-Output Model, start by explaining the inputs of your research. Then, tell them about your research process. You may refer to the Research Methodology in Chapter 3 to accurately present your research process. Lastly, explain what your research outcome is.

Meanwhile, if you have used a concept map, ensure you understand the idea behind the illustration. Discuss how the concepts are related and highlight the research outcome.

3. In what stage of research is the conceptual framework written?

The research study’s conceptual framework is in Chapter 2, following the Review of Related Literature.

4. What is the difference between a Conceptual Framework and Literature Review?

The Conceptual Framework is a summary of the concepts of your study where the relationship of the variables is presented. On the other hand, Literature Review is a collection of published studies and literature related to your study. 

Suppose your research concerns the Hypoglycemic Ability of Gabi (Colocasia esculenta) Leaf Extract on Swiss Mice (Mus musculus). In your conceptual framework, you will create a visual diagram and a narrative explanation presenting the quantity of gabi leaf extract and the mice’s blood glucose level as your research variables. On the other hand, for the literature review, you may include this study and explain how this is related to your research topic.

5. When do I use a two-way arrow for my conceptual framework?

You will use a two-way arrow in your conceptual framework if the variables of your study are interdependent. If variable A affects variable B and variable B also affects variable A, you may use a two-way arrow to show that A and B affect each other.

Suppose your research concerns the Relationship Between Students’ Satisfaction Levels and Online Learning Platforms. Since students’ satisfaction level determines the online learning platform the school uses and vice versa, these variables have a direct relationship. Thus, you may use two-way arrows to indicate that the variables directly affect each other.

  • Conceptual Framework – Meaning, Importance and How to Write it. (2020). Retrieved 27 April 2021, from https://afribary.com/knowledge/conceptual-framework/
  • Correlation vs Causation. Retrieved 27 April 2021, from https://www.jmp.com/en_ph/statistics-knowledge-portal/what-is-correlation/correlation-vs-causation.html
  • Swaen, B., & George, T. (2022, August 22). What is a conceptual framework? Tips & Examples. Retrieved December 5, 2022, from https://www.scribbr.com/methodology/conceptual-framework/

Written by Jewel Kyle Fabula

in Career and Education , Juander How

Last Updated May 6, 2023 10:37 AM

example of a research framework

Jewel Kyle Fabula

Jewel Kyle Fabula is a Bachelor of Science in Economics student at the University of the Philippines Diliman. His passion for learning mathematics developed as he competed in some mathematics competitions during his Junior High School years. He loves cats, playing video games, and listening to music.

Browse all articles written by Jewel Kyle Fabula

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  • Open access
  • Published: 09 February 2024

Key influences on university students’ physical activity: a systematic review using the Theoretical Domains Framework and the COM-B model of human behaviour

  • Catherine E. B. Brown 1 ,
  • Karyn Richardson 1 ,
  • Bengianni Halil-Pizzirani 1 ,
  • Lou Atkins 2 ,
  • Murat Yücel 3   na1 &
  • Rebecca A. Segrave 1   na1  

BMC Public Health volume  24 , Article number:  418 ( 2024 ) Cite this article

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Physical activity is important for all aspects of health, yet most university students are not active enough to reap these benefits. Understanding the factors that influence physical activity in the context of behaviour change theory is valuable to inform the development of effective evidence-based interventions to increase university students’ physical activity. The current systematic review a) identified barriers and facilitators to university students’ physical activity, b) mapped these factors to the Theoretical Domains Framework (TDF) and COM-B model, and c) ranked the relative importance of TDF domains.

Data synthesis included qualitative, quantitative, and mixed-methods research published between 01.01.2010—15.03.2023. Four databases (MEDLINE, PsycINFO, SPORTDiscus, and Scopus) were searched to identify publications on the barriers/facilitators to university students' physical activity. Data regarding study design and key findings (i.e., participant quotes, qualitative theme descriptions, and survey results) were extracted. Framework analysis was used to code barriers/facilitators to the TDF and COM-B model. Within each TDF domain, thematic analysis was used to group similar barriers/facilitators into descriptive theme labels. TDF domains were ranked by relative importance based on frequency, elaboration, and evidence of mixed barriers/facilitators.

Thirty-nine studies involving 17,771 participants met the inclusion criteria. Fifty-six barriers and facilitators mapping to twelve TDF domains and the COM-B model were identified as relevant to students’ physical activity. Three TDF domains, environmental context and resources (e.g., time constraints), social influences (e.g., exercising with others), and goals (e.g., prioritisation of physical activity) were judged to be of greatest relative importance (identified in > 50% of studies). TDF domains of lower relative importance were intentions, reinforcement, emotion, beliefs about consequences, knowledge, physical skills, beliefs about capabilities, cognitive and interpersonal skills, social/professional role and identity, and behavioural regulation. No barriers/facilitators relating to the TDF domains of memory, attention and decision process, or optimism were identified.


The current findings provide a foundation to enhance the development of theory and evidence informed interventions to support university students’ engagement in physical activity. Interventions that include a focus on the TDF domains 'environmental context and resources,' 'social influences,' and 'goals,' hold particular promise for promoting active student lifestyles.

Trial registration

Prospero ID—CRD42021242170.

Peer Review reports

Physical activity (PA) has a powerful positive impact on all aspects of health. Regular PA can prevent and treat noncommunicable diseases [ 1 , 2 ], build resilience against the development of mental illness [ 3 ], and attenuate cognitive decline [ 4 ]. Given these pervasive health benefits, increasing participation in PA is recognised as a global priority by international public health organisations. Indeed, a core aspect of the World Health Organisation’s action plan for a “healthier world” is to achieve a 15% reduction in the global prevalence of physical inactivity by 2030 [ 5 ].

Despite international efforts to reduce physical inactivity, university students frequently do not meet the recommended level of PA required to attain its health benefits. Approximately 40–50% of university students are physically inactive [ 6 ], many of whom attribute their inactivity to unique challenges associated with university life. For many students, the transition to university coincides with new academic, social, financial, and personal responsibilities [ 7 ], disrupting established routines and imposing additional barriers to the initiation or maintenance of healthy lifestyle habits such as regular PA [ 8 ]. Students’ PA tends to decline further during periods of high stress and academic pressure, such as exams and assignment deadlines [ 9 ]. This pattern has been observed across diverse university populations and cultural contexts [ 10 , 11 , 12 ], highlighting the importance of understanding the factors that contribute to physical inactivity among this cohort globally.

Understanding the barriers and facilitators to PA in the context of the university setting is an important step in developing effective, targeted interventions to promote active lifestyles among university students. A recently published systematic review found that lack of time, motivation, access to places to practice PA, and financial resources were primary barriers to PA for undergraduate university students [ 13 ]. A corresponding and complementary synthesis of the facilitators of PA, however, has not yet been conducted. Such a synthesis would be valuable in enabling a comprehensive understanding of the factors that influence students' PA and identifying facilitators that could be leveraged in intervention design. Furthermore, applying theoretical frameworks to understand barriers and facilitators to PA can guide the development of theory-informed, evidence-based interventions for university students that purposely and effectively target factors that influence their participation in PA.

The Theoretical Domains Framework (TDF) [ 14 , 15 , 16 ] and the COM-B model of behaviour [ 17 ] are two robust, gold-standard frameworks frequently used to examine the determinants of human behaviour. The TDF is an integrated framework of 14 theoretical domains (see Additional file 1 for domains, definitions, and constructs) which provide a comprehensive understanding of the key factors driving behaviour. The TDF was developed through expert consensus, synthesising 33 psychological theories (such as social cognitive theory [ 18 , 19 ] and the theory of planned behaviour [ 20 , 21 ] and 128 theoretical constructs (such as ‘competence’, ‘goal priority’, etc.) across disciplines identified as most relevant to the implementation of behaviour change interventions. Identifying the relative importance of theoretical domains allows intervention designers to triage which behaviour change strategies should be prioritised in intervention development [ 22 , 23 ]. The TDF has been widely applied by researchers and practitioners to systematically identify which theoretical domains are most relevant for understanding health behaviour change and policy implementation across a range of contexts, including education [ 24 ], healthcare [ 25 ], and workplace environments [ 26 ].

The 14 TDF domains map onto the COM-B model (Fig.  1 ), which is a broader framework for understanding behaviour and provides a direct link to intervention development frameworks. The COM-B model posits that no behaviour will occur without sufficient capability, opportunity, and motivation. Where any of these are lacking, they can be strategically targeted to support increased engagement in a desired behaviour, including participation in PA. Within the COM-B model, capability can be psychological (e.g., knowledge to engage in the necessary processes) or physical (e.g., physical skills); opportunity can be social (e.g., interpersonal influences) or physical (e.g., environmental resources); and motivation can be automatic (e.g., emotional reactions, habits) or reflective (e.g., intentions, beliefs). The COM-B model was developed through a process of theoretical analysis, empirical evidence, and expert consensus as a central part of a broader framework for developing behaviour change interventions known as the Behaviour Change Wheel (BCW) [ 17 ].

figure 1

The TDF domains linked to the COM-B model subcomponents

Note. Reproduced from Atkins, L., Francis, J., Islam, R., et al. (2017) A guide to using the Theoretical Domains Framework of behaviour change to investigate implementation problems. Implementation Science 12, 77.  https://doi.org/10.1186/s13012-017-0605-9

Using the TDF and COM-B model to understand the barriers and facilitators to university students’ participation in PA is valuable to inform the development of effective evidence-based interventions that are tailored to address the most influential determinants of behaviour change. As such, this systematic review aimed to: a) identify barriers and facilitators to university students’ participation in PA; b) map these factors using the TDF and COM-B model; and c) determine the relative importance of each TDF domain.

Study design

The systematic review was conducted according to the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) [ 27 ]. The review protocol was registered on PROSPERO (CRD42021242170).

Search strategy

Search terms and parameters were developed in collaboration with a Monash University librarian with expertise in systematic review methodology. The following databases were searched on 15.03.2023 to identify relevant literature: MEDLINE, PsycINFO, and SPORTDiscus. Key articles were also selected for citation searching via Scopus. In consultation with a librarian, these databases were selected due to their unique scope, relevance, broad coverage, and utility. This process ensured the identified literature aligned with the aim and research topic of our systematic review. A 01.01.2010—15.03.2023 publication period was purposefully specified to account for the significant advancements in digital fitness support and tracking tools within the past decade [ 28 ], All available records were searched using the following combination of concepts in the title or abstract of the article: 1) barriers, facilitators, or intervention, Footnote 1 2) physical activity, 3) university, and 4) students. Each search concept was created by first developing a list of search terms relevant to each concept (e.g., for the ‘physical activity’ concept search terms included ‘physical exercise’, ‘physical fitness’, ‘sports’, ‘inactive’, ‘sedentary’, etc.). To create each concept, search terms were then searched collectively using the operator ‘OR’. Each search concept was then combined into the final search by using the operator ‘AND’. Search terms related to concepts 1, 2 and 3 included indexed terms unique and relevant to each database (i.e., Medical Subject Heading Terms for MEDLINE, Index Terms for PsycINFO, and Thesaurus terms for SPORTDiscus). The search was performed according to Boolean operators (e.g., AND, OR) (see Additional file 2 for the complete search syntax for MEDLINE). Unpublished studies were not sought.

Selection criteria

Articles were included if they: (a) reported university students’ self-reported barriers and/or facilitators to physical activity or exercise Footnote 2 ; (b) were written in English; and (c) were peer-reviewed journal articles. Articles encompassed studies directly investigating barriers and/or facilitators to students’ participation in PA and physical exercise intervention studies, where the latter reported participants’ self-reported barriers and/or facilitators to intervention adherence (see Table  1 below for full criteria).

Study selection

Identified articles were uploaded to EndNote X9 software [ 30 ]. A duplication detection tool was used to detect duplicates, which were then screened for accuracy by CB prior to removal. The remaining articles were uploaded to Covidence to enable blind screening and conflict resolution. Articles were screened at the title and abstract level against the inclusion and exclusion criteria by author CB, and 25% were independently screened by BP. The full text of studies meeting the inclusion criteria was then screened against the same criteria by CB, and 25% were again independently screened by BP. Differences were resolved by an independent author (KR). Inter-rater agreement in screening between CB and BP was high (0.96 for title and abstract screening, 0.83 for full-text screening). The decision to dual-screen 25% of studies was strategically chosen to balance thoroughness with efficiency, ensuring both the validity of the screening criteria and the reliability of the primary screener’s decisions. This approach aligns with the protocols used in similar systematic reviews in the field (e.g., [ 31 , 32 ]).

Data extraction

Key article characteristics were extracted, including the author/s, year of publication, country of origin, participant characteristics (e.g., enrolment status, exercise engagement [if reported]), sample size, research design, methods, and analytical approach. Barriers and facilitators were also extracted for each article and subsequently coded according to the 14 domains of the TDF and six subcomponents of the COM-B model. Quantitative data were only extracted if ≥ 50% of students endorsed a factor as a barrier or facilitator. This cut-off criterion was applied to maintain focus on the most common variables of influence and aligns with other reviews synthesising common barriers and facilitators to behaviour change (e.g., [ 26 , 33 ]).

A coding manual was developed to guide the process of mapping barriers and facilitators to the TDF and COM-B. All articles were independently coded by at least two authors (CB and BS, BP or KR). The first version of the manual was developed a priori, based on established guides for applying the TDF and COM-B model to investigate barriers and facilitators to behaviour [ 14 , 34 ], and updated as needed via regular consultation with a co-author and TDF/COM-B designer LA to ensure the accuracy of the data extraction. Barriers and facilitators were only coded to multiple TDF domains if deemed essential to accurately contextualise the core elements of the barrier/facilitator, and when the data in individual papers was described in sufficient detail to indicate that more than one domain was relevant. For example, if ‘lack of time due to competing priorities’ was reported as a barrier to PA, this encompassed both the ‘environmental context and resources’ (i.e., time) and ‘goals’ (i.e., competing priorities) domains of the TDF. Coding conflicts were resolved via discussion with LA.

Data analysis

The following three-step method was utilised to synthesise quantitative and qualitative data:

Framework analysis [ 35 ] was conducted to deductively code barriers and facilitators onto TDF domains and COM-B subcomponents. This involved identifying barriers and facilitators in each article, extracting and labelling them, and determining their relevance against the definitions of the TDF domains and COM-B subcomponents. This process involved creating tables to assist in the systematic categorisation of barriers and facilitators into relevant TDF domains and COM-B subcomponents.

Within each TDF domain, thematic analysis [ 36 ] was conducted to group similar barriers and facilitators together and inductively generate summary theme labels.

The relative importance of each TDF domain was calculated according to frequency (number of studies), elaboration (number of themes) and the identification of mixed barriers/facilitators regarding whether a theme was a barrier or facilitator within each domain (e.g., if some participants reported that receiving encouragement from their family to exercise was a facilitator, and others reported that lack of encouragement from their family to exercise was a barrier). The rank order was determined first by frequency, then elaboration, and finally by mixed barriers/facilitators.

This methodology follows previous studies using the TDF and COM-B to characterise barriers and facilitators to behaviour change and rank their relative importance [ 22 , 23 ].

Study characteristics

Following the removal of duplicates, 6,152 articles met the search criteria and were screened based on title and abstract. A total of 5,995 articles were excluded because they did not meet the inclusion criteria (see Fig.  2 below for the PRISMA flowchart). After the title and abstract screening, 157 full-text articles were retrieved and assessed for eligibility. One additional article was identified and included following citation searching of selected key articles. Thirty-nine articles met the inclusion criteria (see Additional file 3 for a summary of these studies). Eight studies were conducted in the USA, seven in Canada, three in Germany, two each in Qatar, Spain, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom, and one each in Australia, Belgium, Columbia, Egypt, Ireland, Japan, Kuwait, Malaysia, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, and Uganda.

figure 2

PRISMA flowchart illustrating the article selection process

Relative importance of TDF domains and COM-B components

Twelve of the 14 TDF domains and all six subcomponents of the COM-B model were identified as relevant to university students' PA. The rank order of relative importance of TDF domains and associated COM-B subcomponents are presented in Table  2 . The three most important domains were identified in at least 54% of studies.

Barriers and facilitators to student’s physical activity

Within the TDF domains, 56 total themes were identified, including 26 mixed barriers/facilitators, 18 facilitators and 12 barriers (Table  3 ). The barriers and facilitators identified within each TDF domain are summarised below (with associated COM-B subcomponent presented in parentheses), in order of relative importance:

1. Environmental context and resources (Physical Opportunity) ( n  = 90% studies)

The most frequent barrier to PA across all TDF domains was ‘lack of time’, most often in the context of study demands. Time constraints were exacerbated by long commutes to university, family responsibilities, involvement in co-curricular activities, and employment commitments. Students’ need for ‘easily accessible exercise options, facilities and equipment’ was a recurring theme. PA was deemed inaccessible if exercise facilities and other infrastructure to support PA, such as bike paths and running trails, were situated too far from the university campus or students’ residences, or if fitness classes were scheduled at inconvenient times. ‘Financial costs’ emerged as a theme. The costs associated with accessing exercise facilities, equipment and programs consistently deterred students from engaging in PA. The desire for ‘safe and enjoyable’, ‘weather appropriate’ environments for PA were frequently reported. Participating in outdoor PA in green spaces or near water increased enjoyment, provided the environment felt safe and weather conditions were suitable for PA. Factors related to students’ home, work, and university environment impacted their participation in ‘incidental PA’. Incidental PA was influenced by whether students engaged in domestic house chores, and manual work, and actively commuted to university and between classes on-campus. Students’ ‘access to a variety of physical activities’ and ‘information provision regarding on-campus exercise options’ impacted their PA. Students most often had access to a wide variety of physical activities, however, it could be difficult to access information about what types of activities were available on-campus and how to sign up to participate. The ‘lack of personalised physical activities to cater to individual fitness needs’ was a barrier, particularly for students with low levels of PA who required beginner-oriented programs. Another barrier was the ‘lack of university policy and promotion to encourage PA’, which led students to perceive that there was no obligation to participate in PA and that the university did not value it. ‘Health-concerning behaviours associated with university’, including poor diet, increased alcohol intake and sedentary behaviour, negatively impacted students’ PA. ‘Listening to music while exercising’ was a facilitator.

2. Social influences (Social Opportunity) ( n  = 72% studies)

Within social influences, ‘exercising with others’ emerged as the most frequent theme. Doing so increased students’ accountability, enjoyment and motivation, and helped them to overcome feelings of intimidation when exercising alone. Having a lack of friends to exercise with was a particular concern for students who were new to exercise or infrequently participated in PA. Receiving ‘encouragement from others to be physically active’, such as family members, friends, peers, and fitness instructors, shaped students’ values toward PA and enhanced their motivation and self-efficacy. Students’ family members, friends and teachers discouraged PA if it was not valued, or in favour of other priorities, such as academic commitments. Another recurrent theme was ‘competition or relative comparison to others’. While most students were motivated by competition, a minority felt demotivated if they compared themselves to others with higher PA standards, especially if they failed to achieve similar PA goals. Sociocultural norms influenced barriers/facilitators to PA across different cultures, and between various groups, such as international versus domestic students, and women versus men. Students from Japan and Hawaii viewed PA as an important part of their culture, in contrast to students from the Philippines who described the opposite. Participation in PA enabled international students to integrate with domestic students and learn about the local culture, however cultural segregation was a barrier to participation in university team sports. For female students from some middle-eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar, cultural norms made it impermissible for women to engage in PA, particularly compared to men. Religion also differentially impacted barriers/facilitators between women and men. Muslim women reported that Islamic practices, such as needing to engage in PA separately from men, be accompanied by a male family member while going outdoors, or dress modestly, posed additional barriers to PA. However, one study reported that Islamic teachings generally encouraged PA for both women and men by emphasising the importance of maintaining good health. Other gender-specific barriers were identified. Women often felt unwelcome or intimidated by men in exercise facilities, partly due to the perception that these facilities were tailored toward “masculine” sports and/or dominated by men. ‘Being stared at while engaging in PA’ was another barrier, impacting both women and students with a disability. A less common facilitator was the influence of both positive and negative ‘exercise role models’. For example, students practiced PA because they aspired to be like someone who was physically active, or because they did not want to be like someone who was not physically active.

3. Goals (Reflective Motivation) ( n  = 54%)

‘Prioritisation of PA compared to other activities’ was the most common theme within goals. Students frequently prioritised other activities, such as study, social activities, or work, over PA. However, those who played team sports or regularly practiced PA were more inclined to prioritise it for its recognised health benefits (i.e., stress management), and its role in enhancing confidence. Additional facilitators included ‘engaging in PA to achieve an external goal’, such as improving one’s appearance, and ‘setting specific PA-related goals’ as a means to enhance accountability.

4. Intentions (Reflective Motivation) ( n  = 44%)

Within intentions, ‘motivation to engage in PA’ was the most common theme. Students most often noted a lack of self-motivation for PA. Less frequent barriers included perceiving PA as an obligatory or necessary "chore", and ‘failing to follow through on intentions to engage in PA’. Conversely, ‘self-discipline to engage in PA’ emerged as a facilitator that assisted students in maintaining a regular PA routine.

5. Reinforcement (Automatic Motivation) ( n  = 38%)

The most frequent facilitator within reinforcement was ‘experiencing the positive effects of PA’ on their health and wellbeing. These included physical health benefits (i.e., maintaining fitness), psychological benefits (i.e., stress reduction), and cognitive health benefits (i.e., enhanced academic performance). Conversely, barriers arose from ‘experiencing discomfort during or after PA’ due to pain, muscle soreness or fatigue. ‘Past and current habits and routines’ was a theme. Students were more likely to participate in PA if they had established regular exercise routines, and that forming these habits at an early age made it easier to maintain them later in life. However, maintaining a regular PA routine was difficult in the context of inflexible university schedules. Students’ ‘sense of accomplishment in relation to PA’ was a theme. Students were less likely to feel a sense of accomplishment after participating in PA if it was not physically challenging. Consistent facilitators were ‘receiving positive feedback from others’ after engaging in PA, such as compliments, and ‘receiving incentives’, such as reducing the cost of gym memberships if students participated in more PA. ‘Experiencing a sense of achievement’ after reaching a PA-related goal or winning a sports match also served as a facilitator.

6. Emotion (Automatic Motivation) ( n  = 38%)

‘Enjoyment’ was the most frequently cited emotional theme. Most students reported that PA was fun and/or associated with positive feelings, however, a minority described PA as unenjoyable, boring, and repetitive. Students’ ‘poor mental health and negative affectivity’ (such as feeling sad, stressed or self-conscious, as well as fear of injury and pain), adversely impacted their motivation to be physically active.

7. Beliefs about consequences (Reflective Motivation) ( n  = 31%)

‘Beliefs about the physical health consequences of PA’ was the most recurrent barrier/facilitator. Most students understood that PA was essential for maintaining good health and preventing illness. However, some students who rarely or never engaged in PA believed they could delay pursuing an active lifestyle until they were older without compromising their health. Participating in PA to ‘maintain or improve one’s physical appearance’ acted as a facilitator. This motivation was most often cited in contexts such as increasing or decreasing weight, changing body shape or enhancing muscle tone. Beliefs about the positive environmental, occupational and psychological impacts of PA also served as facilitators. Students were motivated to participate in PA due to the environmental benefits of using active transport. They also acknowledged the importance of being physically fit for work and believed that being active was beneficial for mental health. ‘Receiving advice to participate in PA from a credible source’, such as a health professional, further facilitated students’ motivation to be active.

8. Knowledge (Psychological Capability) ( n  = 28%)

'Knowledge about the benefits of PA’, encompassing an understanding of the various types of benefits (i.e., physical, mental, or cognitive) and the biological mechanisms by which PA brings about these changes was identified as the most common knowledge theme. Being aware of these benefits positively influenced students’ motivation to be physically active. Conversely, students’ lack of knowledge about the gym environment and the programs available were barriers to PA. Regarding the gym environment, students’ ‘lack of knowledge about how to navigate through the gym, what exercises to do, and how to use exercise equipment’ amplified feelings of intimidation. Likewise, ‘lack of knowledge about the types of exercise programs and activities that were available on-campus, and how to sign up to participate’ were all barriers. A unique theme emerged concerning ‘knowledge about how to adapt physical activities for students with a disability’. Students with a disability described how fitness instructors often had a limited understanding of how to modify activities to enable them to participate. However, students with a disability were able to overcome this barrier if they possessed their own knowledge about how to tailor physical activities to meet their specific needs.

9. Physical skills (Physical Capability) ( n  = 21%)

The most prevalent theme within physical skills was ‘having the physical skills and fitness to participate in PA’. A lack of physical skills was most frequently a hindrance to PA. Additional obstacles to PA included being physically inhibited due to a ‘lack of energy’ or ‘physical injury’.

10. Beliefs about capabilities (Reflective Motivation) ( n  = 18%)

Within beliefs about capabilities, ‘self-efficacy to participate in PA’ was the most recurrent theme. Students who doubted their success in becoming physically active or who lacked confidence in their ability to initiate PA or participate in sport were less motivated to take part. A less frequent facilitator was students’ ‘self-affirmation to participate in PA’, often referring to positive cognitions about one’s own physical abilities.

11. Cognitive and interpersonal skills (Psychological Capability) ( n  = 15%)

‘Time-management’ was the only theme identified within cognitive and interpersonal skills. Students who struggled to manage their time effectively found it difficult to incorporate regular PA into their daily routine.

12. Social/professional role and identity (Reflective Motivation) ( n  = 8%)

The most frequent theme within social/professional role and identity was ‘perceiving PA as a part of one’s self-identity’. Students who engaged regularly in PA often considered it integral to their identity. Conversely, students who perceived they did not align with the aesthetic and superficial stereotypes commonly associated with the fitness industry felt less motivated to be active. A specific facilitator emerged among physiotherapy students, who were motivated to be active due to the emphasis on PA within their profession.

13. Behavioural regulation (Psychological Capability) ( n  = 3%)

Within the domain of behavioural regulation, two facilitators were equally prevalent: ‘self-monitoring of PA’ and ‘feedback on progress towards a PA-related goal’. By keeping track of their step count and receiving feedback on walking goals, students were motivated to exceed the average number of daily steps or achieve their personal PA targets.

14. Memory, attention, and decision process (Psychological Capability); Optimism (Reflective Motivation) ( n  = 0%)

No barriers or facilitators relating to the TDF domains of memory, attention and decision process, or optimism were identified.

This systematic review used the TDF and COM-B model to identify barriers and facilitators to PA among university students and rank the relative importance of each TDF domain. It is the first review to apply these frameworks in the context of increasing university students’ participation in PA. Twelve TDF domains across all six sub-components of the COM-B model were identified. The three most important TDF domains were ‘environmental context and resources’, ‘social influences’, and ‘goals’. The most common barriers and facilitators were ‘lack of time’, ‘easily accessible exercise options, facilities and equipment’, ‘exercising with others’, and ‘prioritisation of PA compared to other activities’.

The most common barrier to PA was perceived lack of time. This is consistent with previous findings among university students [ 13 , 74 ] and across other populations [ 24 ], For students, lack of time was frequently attributed to a combination of competing priorities and underdeveloped time management skills. Students predominantly prioritised study over PA, as performing well at university is a valued goal and there is a common perception that spending time exercising (at the expense of study) will impede their academic success [ 53 , 58 ]. Evidence from cognitive neuroscience research, however, suggests that this is a mistaken belief. In addition to its broad physical and mental health benefits, a growing body of evidence demonstrates regular PA can change the structure and function of the brain.

These changes can, in turn, enhance numerous aspects of cognition, including memory, attention, and processing speed [ 4 , 75 , 76 , 77 ], and buffer the negative impact of stress on cognition [ 78 ], all of which are important for academic success. However, students are typically unaware of the brain and cognitive health benefits of PA and its potential to improve academic performance, particularly compared to the physical health benefits [ 37 , 40 , 64 ]. Interventions that position participating in PA as a conduit for helping, rather than hindering, academic goals could increase the relative importance of PA to students and therefore increase their motivation to regularly engage in it. The impact that interventions of this nature have on students’ PA is yet to be empirically assessed.

Ineffective time management also contributed to students’ perceived lack of time for PA. Students reported tendencies to procrastinate in the face of overwhelming academic workloads, which left limited time for PA [ 53 ]. Additionally, students lacked an understanding of how to organise time for PA around academic timetables, social and family responsibilities, co-curricular activities, and employment commitments [ 9 , 44 , 53 , 59 ]. To address these challenges, efforts to develop students’ time management skills will be useful for enabling students to regularly participate in PA. Goal-setting and action planning are two specific examples of such skills that can be integrated into interventions to help students initiate and maintain a PA routine [ 79 ]. For example, goal-setting could involve setting a daily PA goal, and action planning could involve planning to engage in a particular PA at a particular time on certain days.

While the most common determinants of university students’ PA levels were not influenced by specific demographic characteristics, several barriers disproportionately impacted women and students with a disability. These findings are in keeping with evidence that PA is lower among these equity-deserving groups compared with the general population [ 68 , 80 ]. For women, particularly those from Middle Eastern cultures, restrictions were often tied to religious practices and sociocultural norms that limited their opportunities to engage in PA [ 45 , 48 , 66 ]. Additionally, a substantial number of women felt intimidated or self-conscious when exercising in front of others, especially men [ 48 , 49 ]. They also felt that exercise facilities were more often tailored towards the needs of men, leading to a perception that they were unwelcome in exercise communities [ 45 , 48 ]. Consequently, women expressed a desire for women-only spaces to exercise to help them overcome these gender-specific barriers to PA [ 47 , 48 , 66 ]. Furthermore, students with a disability faced physical accessibility barriers and perceived stigmatisation that deterred them from PA [ 50 , 52 ]. The lack of accessible exercise facilities and suitable equipment, programs, and education regarding how to adapt physical activities to accommodate their needs limited their opportunity and ability to participate [ 52 ]. Moreover, students with a disability felt stigmatised by others for not fitting into public perceptions of ‘normality’ or the aesthetic values and beauty standards often portrayed by the fitness industry [ 50 ]. These barriers for both equity-deserving groups of students are deeply rooted in historical stereotypes that have traditionally excluded women and people with a disability from engaging in various types of PA [ 81 , 82 ]. Despite growing awareness of these issues, PA inequalities persist due to narrow sociocultural norms, and a lack of diverse representation and inclusion in the fitness industry and associated marketing campaigns [ 83 , 84 ]. A concerted effort to address PA inequalities across the university sector and fitness industry more broadly is needed. One approach for achieving this is to develop interventions that are tailored to the unique needs of equity-deserving groups, emphasise inclusivity, diversity, and empowerment, and feature women and people with a disability being active.

The “This Girl Can” [ 85 ] and “Everyone Can” [ 86 ] multimedia campaigns are two examples of health behaviour interventions that were co-developed with key stakeholders (i.e., women and people with a disability, respectively) to tackle PA inequalities. The “This Girl Can” campaign has reached over 3 million women and girls, projecting inclusive and positive messages that aim to empower them to be physically active. Following the widespread reach of the “This Girl Can” campaign, the “Everybody Can” campaign was launched to support the inclusion of people with a disability in the PA sector. Although not tailored for university students, these campaigns provide a useful example for developing interventions that are specifically designed to address key barriers preventing women and people with a disability from participating in PA.

Across the tertiary education sector globally, efforts to elevate opportunities and motivation to include PA as a core part of the student experience will be beneficial for promoting students’ PA at scale. Two intervention approaches that can be implemented to facilitate such an endeavour are environmental restructuring and enablement [ 17 ]. These intervention approaches should involve the provision of accessible low-cost exercise options, facilities, and programs, integrating PA into the university curriculum, and mobilising student and staff leadership to encourage students’ participation in PA [ 9 ]. Although there is evidence that these approaches can be effective in promoting sustained PA throughout students’ university years and beyond [ 87 ], implementation measures such as these are complex. Implementation requires aligning student activity levels with broader university goals and is further complicated by having to compete with other funding priorities and resource allocations. Notably, due to the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on university students’ physical and mental health [ 88 , 89 ], the post-pandemic era has seen many universities prioritise enhancing student health and wellbeing alongside more traditional strategic goals like academic excellence and workforce readiness. Despite the potential for PA to be used as a vehicle for supporting these strategic goals there is an absence of data on the extent to which this is occurring in the university sector. The limited evidence in this area suggests that some universities have made efforts to support students’ mental health by referring students who access on-campus counselling services to PA programs [ 90 ]. However, the uptake and efficacy of such initiatives is rarely assessed, and even less is known about whether PA is being used to support other strategic goals, such as academic success. Therefore, while the potential is there for the university sector to use PA to support students’ mental health and academic performance, to be successful this needs to become a strategic university priority. Given that these strategic priorities are set at the senior leadership level, engaging senior university staff in intervention design and promotion efforts is important to enhance the value of PA in the tertiary education sector.

Implications for intervention development

The current findings provide a high-level synthesis of the most common barriers and facilitators to university students’ physical activity. These findings can be leveraged with behavioural intervention development tools and frameworks (e.g., the BCW [ 17 ], Obesity-Related Behavioural Intervention Trials model [ 91 ], Intervention Mapping [ 92 ], and the Medical Research Council guidelines for developing complex interventions [ 93 , 94 ]) to develop evidence-based interventions and policies to promote PA. Given that the TDF and COM-B model are directly linked to the BCW framework, applying this process may be particularly useful to translate the current findings into an intervention.

Additionally, current findings can be triangulated with data directly collected from key stakeholders to assist in the development of context-specific interventions. Best practice principles for developing behavioural interventions recommend this approach to ensure a deep understanding of the barriers and facilitators that need to be targeted to increase the likelihood of behaviour change [ 17 ]. Consulting stakeholders directly (i.e., university students and staff) to understand their perspectives on the barriers and facilitators to students’ PA also enables an intervention to be appropriately tailored to the target population’s needs and implementation setting. Studies continue to demonstrate the effectiveness of this approach, especially when framed within the context of frameworks directly linked to intervention development frameworks, such as the TDF [ 95 ].

Strengths and limitations

The findings of this review should be considered with respect to its methodological strengths and limitations. The credibility and reliability of the research findings are supported by a systematic approach to screening and analysing the empirical data, along with the use of gold-standard behavioural science frameworks to classify barriers and facilitators to PA. The inclusion of qualitative, quantitative, and mixed-methods studies of both barriers and facilitators to students’ PA allowed for a comprehensive understanding of the factors that influence students’ PA that have not previously been captured.

While the present review elucidates students’ own perspectives of the factors that influence their activity levels, other stakeholders such as university staff, will also influence the adoption, operationalisation, and scale of PA interventions in a university setting. It will be important for future research to explore factors that influence university decision-makers in these roles to inform large-scale strategies for promoting students' PA.

Additionally, only one study included in the review used the TDF to explore barriers and facilitators to PA [ 47 ]. Therefore, it is possible that certain TDF domains may not have been identified because students were not asked relevant questions to assess the influence of those domains on their PA. For instance, domains such as ‘memory, attention, and decision process’, and ‘optimism’ are likely to play a role in understanding the barriers and facilitators to PA despite not being identified in this review.

Moreover, quantitative data were only extracted if ≥ 50% of students endorsed the factor as a barrier or facilitator to PA. This threshold was purposefully applied to maintain a focus on the TDF domains most universally relevant to the broad student population in the context of understanding their barriers and facilitators to PA. It is possible that less frequently reported barriers and facilitators, which may not be as prominently featured in the results, could be relevant to specific groups of students, such as those identified as equity-deserving.

Lastly, a quality appraisal of the included studies was not undertaken. This decision was informed by the aim of the review, which was to describe and synthesise the literature to subsequently map data to the TDF and COM-B rather than assess the effectiveness of interventions or determine the strength of evidence. However, this decision, combined with dual screening 25% of the studies and excluding unpublished studies and grey literature, may introduce sources of error and bias, which should be considered when interpreting the results presented.

PA is an effective, scalable, and empowering means of enhancing physical, mental, and cognitive health. This approach could help students reach their academic potential and cope with the many stressors that accompany student life, in addition to setting a strong foundation for healthy exercise habits for a lifetime. As such, understanding the barriers and facilitators to an active student lifestyle is beneficial. This systematic review applied the TDF and COM-B model to identify and map students’ barriers and facilitators to PA and, in doing so, provides a pragmatic, theory-informed, and evidence-based foundation for designing future context-specific PA interventions. The findings from this review highlight the importance of developing PA interventions that focus on the TDF domains ‘environmental context and resources’, ‘social influences’, and ‘goals’, for which intervention approaches could involve environmental restructuring, education, and enablement. If successful, such strategies could make a significant contribution to improving the overall health and academic performance of university students.

Availability of data and materials

The review protocol is available on PROSPERO. The datasets used and/or analysed during the current study and materials used are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

The term ‘intervention’ was included to identify student barriers and facilitators to engaging in implemented physical activity interventions.

Physical exercise is defined as “a subset of physical activity that is planned, structured, and repetitive”, and purposefully focused on the improvement or maintenance of physical fitness, whereas physical activity is defined as “any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that results in energy expenditure” [ 96 ].


Behaviour Change Wheel

Capability, Opportunity, Model-Behaviour

  • Physical activity

Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses

International Prospective Register of Systematic Reviews

Theoretical Domains Framework

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The authors extend their gratitude to the funder, the nib foundation, for its financial support, which was instrumental in facilitating this research. We are also indebted to the Wilson Foundation and the David Winston Turner Endowment Fund for their generous philanthropic contributions, which have supported the BrainPark research team and facility where this research was conducted. Special thanks are owed to the library staff at Monash University for their expertise in conducting systematic reviews, which helped inform the selection of databases and the development of the search strategy.

This research was supported by nib foundation. The nib foundation had no role in the design of the study and collection, analysis, and interpretation of data, and in writing the manuscript. The views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the nib foundation.

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Murat Yücel and Rebecca A. Segrave share senior authorship.

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BrainPark, Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia

Catherine E. B. Brown, Karyn Richardson, Bengianni Halil-Pizzirani & Rebecca A. Segrave

Centre for Behaviour Change, University College London, London, UK

QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, Herston, Brisbane, QLD, Australia

Murat Yücel

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CB, KR, BP, LA and RS developed the review protocol. CB and BP conducted the search and screened articles, and KR resolved conflicts. CB, KR, BP, LA and RS extracted the barriers and facilitators, mapped barriers and facilitators to the TDF and COM-B model, and interpreted the results. CB drafted the paper. All authors read, revised, and approved the submitted version.

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Correspondence to Catherine E. B. Brown .

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Supplementary Information

Additional file 1. .

Theoretical Domains Framework domains, definitions, and constructs.

Additional file 2. 

Search syntax for Ovid MEDLINE.

Additional file 3. 

Summary of study characteristics.

Additional file 4. 

PRISMA Checklist.

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Brown, C.E.B., Richardson, K., Halil-Pizzirani, B. et al. Key influences on university students’ physical activity: a systematic review using the Theoretical Domains Framework and the COM-B model of human behaviour. BMC Public Health 24 , 418 (2024). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-023-17621-4

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How to Write a Research Proposal | Examples & Templates

Published on October 12, 2022 by Shona McCombes and Tegan George. Revised on November 21, 2023.

Structure of a research proposal

A research proposal describes what you will investigate, why it’s important, and how you will conduct your research.

The format of a research proposal varies between fields, but most proposals will contain at least these elements:


Literature review.

  • Research design

Reference list

While the sections may vary, the overall objective is always the same. A research proposal serves as a blueprint and guide for your research plan, helping you get organized and feel confident in the path forward you choose to take.

Table of contents

Research proposal purpose, research proposal examples, research design and methods, contribution to knowledge, research schedule, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about research proposals.

Academics often have to write research proposals to get funding for their projects. As a student, you might have to write a research proposal as part of a grad school application , or prior to starting your thesis or dissertation .

In addition to helping you figure out what your research can look like, a proposal can also serve to demonstrate why your project is worth pursuing to a funder, educational institution, or supervisor.

Research proposal length

The length of a research proposal can vary quite a bit. A bachelor’s or master’s thesis proposal can be just a few pages, while proposals for PhD dissertations or research funding are usually much longer and more detailed. Your supervisor can help you determine the best length for your work.

One trick to get started is to think of your proposal’s structure as a shorter version of your thesis or dissertation , only without the results , conclusion and discussion sections.

Download our research proposal template

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Writing a research proposal can be quite challenging, but a good starting point could be to look at some examples. We’ve included a few for you below.

  • Example research proposal #1: “A Conceptual Framework for Scheduling Constraint Management”
  • Example research proposal #2: “Medical Students as Mediators of Change in Tobacco Use”

Like your dissertation or thesis, the proposal will usually have a title page that includes:

  • The proposed title of your project
  • Your supervisor’s name
  • Your institution and department

The first part of your proposal is the initial pitch for your project. Make sure it succinctly explains what you want to do and why.

Your introduction should:

  • Introduce your topic
  • Give necessary background and context
  • Outline your  problem statement  and research questions

To guide your introduction , include information about:

  • Who could have an interest in the topic (e.g., scientists, policymakers)
  • How much is already known about the topic
  • What is missing from this current knowledge
  • What new insights your research will contribute
  • Why you believe this research is worth doing

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As you get started, it’s important to demonstrate that you’re familiar with the most important research on your topic. A strong literature review  shows your reader that your project has a solid foundation in existing knowledge or theory. It also shows that you’re not simply repeating what other people have already done or said, but rather using existing research as a jumping-off point for your own.

In this section, share exactly how your project will contribute to ongoing conversations in the field by:

  • Comparing and contrasting the main theories, methods, and debates
  • Examining the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches
  • Explaining how will you build on, challenge, or synthesize prior scholarship

Following the literature review, restate your main  objectives . This brings the focus back to your own project. Next, your research design or methodology section will describe your overall approach, and the practical steps you will take to answer your research questions.

To finish your proposal on a strong note, explore the potential implications of your research for your field. Emphasize again what you aim to contribute and why it matters.

For example, your results might have implications for:

  • Improving best practices
  • Informing policymaking decisions
  • Strengthening a theory or model
  • Challenging popular or scientific beliefs
  • Creating a basis for future research

Last but not least, your research proposal must include correct citations for every source you have used, compiled in a reference list . To create citations quickly and easily, you can use our free APA citation generator .

Some institutions or funders require a detailed timeline of the project, asking you to forecast what you will do at each stage and how long it may take. While not always required, be sure to check the requirements of your project.

Here’s an example schedule to help you get started. You can also download a template at the button below.

Download our research schedule template

If you are applying for research funding, chances are you will have to include a detailed budget. This shows your estimates of how much each part of your project will cost.

Make sure to check what type of costs the funding body will agree to cover. For each item, include:

  • Cost : exactly how much money do you need?
  • Justification : why is this cost necessary to complete the research?
  • Source : how did you calculate the amount?

To determine your budget, think about:

  • Travel costs : do you need to go somewhere to collect your data? How will you get there, and how much time will you need? What will you do there (e.g., interviews, archival research)?
  • Materials : do you need access to any tools or technologies?
  • Help : do you need to hire any research assistants for the project? What will they do, and how much will you pay them?

If you want to know more about the research process , methodology , research bias , or statistics , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.


  • Sampling methods
  • Simple random sampling
  • Stratified sampling
  • Cluster sampling
  • Likert scales
  • Reproducibility


  • Null hypothesis
  • Statistical power
  • Probability distribution
  • Effect size
  • Poisson distribution

Research bias

  • Optimism bias
  • Cognitive bias
  • Implicit bias
  • Hawthorne effect
  • Anchoring bias
  • Explicit bias

Once you’ve decided on your research objectives , you need to explain them in your paper, at the end of your problem statement .

Keep your research objectives clear and concise, and use appropriate verbs to accurately convey the work that you will carry out for each one.

I will compare …

A research aim is a broad statement indicating the general purpose of your research project. It should appear in your introduction at the end of your problem statement , before your research objectives.

Research objectives are more specific than your research aim. They indicate the specific ways you’ll address the overarching aim.

A PhD, which is short for philosophiae doctor (doctor of philosophy in Latin), is the highest university degree that can be obtained. In a PhD, students spend 3–5 years writing a dissertation , which aims to make a significant, original contribution to current knowledge.

A PhD is intended to prepare students for a career as a researcher, whether that be in academia, the public sector, or the private sector.

A master’s is a 1- or 2-year graduate degree that can prepare you for a variety of careers.

All master’s involve graduate-level coursework. Some are research-intensive and intend to prepare students for further study in a PhD; these usually require their students to write a master’s thesis . Others focus on professional training for a specific career.

Critical thinking refers to the ability to evaluate information and to be aware of biases or assumptions, including your own.

Like information literacy , it involves evaluating arguments, identifying and solving problems in an objective and systematic way, and clearly communicating your ideas.

The best way to remember the difference between a research plan and a research proposal is that they have fundamentally different audiences. A research plan helps you, the researcher, organize your thoughts. On the other hand, a dissertation proposal or research proposal aims to convince others (e.g., a supervisor, a funding body, or a dissertation committee) that your research topic is relevant and worthy of being conducted.

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Protocol for co-producing a framework and integrated resource platform for engaging patients in laboratory-based research

  • Manoj M. Lalu 1 , 2 , 3 , 17 , 18 ,
  • Dawn Richards 4 , 5 ,
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  • Brittany French 1 ,
  • Angela M. Crawley 6 , 7 , 8 ,
  • Kirsten M. Fiest 9 ,
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  • Pat Messner 12 ,
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  • Cheryle A. Séguin 15 ,
  • Patrick Sullivan 16 ,
  • Bernard Thébaud 2 , 17 , 20 &
  • Dean A. Fergusson 1 , 14 , 19  

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Patient engagement in research is the meaningful and collaborative interaction between patients and researchers throughout the research process. Patient engagement can help to ensure patient-oriented values and perspectives are incorporated into the development, conduct, and dissemination of research. While patient engagement is increasingly prevalent in clinical research, it remains relatively unrealized in preclinical laboratory research. This may reflect the nature of preclinical research, in which routine interactions or engagement with patients may be less common. Our team of patient partners and researchers has previously identified few published examples of patient engagement in preclinical laboratory research, as well as a paucity of guidance on this topic. Here we propose the development of a process framework to facilitate patient engagement in preclinical laboratory research.

Our team, inclusive of researchers and patient partners, will develop a comprehensive, empirically-derived, and stakeholder-informed process framework for ‘patient engagement in preclinical laboratory research.’ First, our team will create a ‘deliberative knowledge space’ to conduct semi-structured discussions that will inform a draft framework for preclinical patient engagement. Over the course of several sessions, we will identify actions, activities, barriers, and enablers (e.g. considerations and motivations for patient engagement in preclinical laboratory research, define roles of key players). The resulting draft process framework will be further populated with examples and refined through an international consensus-building Delphi survey with patients, researchers, and other collaborator organizations. We will then conduct pilot field tests to evaluate the framework with preclinical laboratory research groups paired with patient partners. These results will be used to create a refined framework enriched with real-world examples and considerations. All resources developed will be made available through an online repository.

Our proposed process framework will provide guidance, best practices, and standardized procedures to promote patient engagement in preclinical laboratory research. Supporting and facilitating patient engagement in this setting presents an exciting new opportunity to help realize the important impact that patients can make.

Plain English Summary

Engaging patients as partners or collaborators in clinical research is becoming more common, but it is still new in preclinical research. Preclinical researchers work in laboratories on cell and animal experiments. They traditionally don’t have frequent interactions with patients compared to their clinical research colleagues. Integrating patient engagement in preclinical laboratory research may help ensure that patient perspectives and values are considered. To help preclinical laboratory research align with patient-centred priorities we propose the development of a practical framework. This framework will facilitate patient engagement in preclinical laboratory research. To achieve this, we will first hold in-depth discussions with patient partners, researchers, and other collaborators to understand views on patient engagement in preclinical laboratory research. Together, we will identify key considerations to draft a framework, including motivations for patient engagement in preclinical laboratory research, and defining the roles of those who need to be involved. We will refine the framework through an international survey where we will collect feedback from researchers, patient partners, and other collaborators to make further improvements. The framework will then be tested and refined by preclinical laboratory teams inclusive of patient partners. The finalized framework and other resources to facilitate patient engagement in preclinical laboratory research will be hosted in a ‘one-stop-shop’ of online resources. Ultimately, this framework will enable partnerships between patients and researchers and provide a roadmap for patient engagement in preclinical laboratory research. This presents an exciting new opportunity for patients and researchers to collaborate and potentially improve translation of laboratory-based research.

Peer Review reports


Although patient engagement has been adopted and recognized for its benefits in clinical research, little is known about its prevalence and effects in ‘preclinical’ research [ 1 , 2 ]. This type of research, performed in laboratories using cells, tissues, or animals, informs decisions to move treatments into clinical trials. Engaging patient partners (i.e., individuals with lived experience of a health condition, including informal caregivers, family, and friends [ 3 ]) could ensure preclinical laboratory research aligns with patient preferences and priorities. Indeed, the primary motivators underlying preclinical research are the health conditions experienced by patients. Despite these potential benefits, there is a paucity of available frameworks, resources, or guidance documents available to researchers or patient partners in regard to patient engagement in preclinical laboratory research [ 1 , 2 ].

To begin to address this knowledge gap, our team previously conducted a scoping review and interview study to map and understand current patient engagement practices in preclinical laboratory research [ 1 , 4 ]. We identified 32 reports, which demonstrated that engagement in the laboratory setting was feasible. In addition, meaningful benefits similar to those seen in patient engagement in clinical research were identified, such as the exchange of diverse perspectives and creation of bi-directional learning opportunities [ 4 ]. Preclinical researchers were given the opportunity to learn about lived experiences for the health conditions they study and how therapies impact patients. It was also suggested that engagement could enhance preclinical researcher communication and motivation for their work [ 1 , 4 , 5 ]. In turn, patients were able to learn more about their health condition, ongoing projects, and challenges to research in the field [ 1 , 4 ].

We also identified barriers and challenges to laboratory-based preclinical patient engagement. For instance, preclinical research is not typically public-facing, and preclinical laboratory researchers do not routinely interact with patients as part of their regular research duties [ 1 , 4 ]. As a result, the benefits of patient engagement in preclinical laboratory research may be less intuitive compared to clinical research. In addition, communication between preclinical researchers and patients can also be challenging as it requires use of a shared vocabulary and identification of common goals [ 1 , 4 ].

Due to the novelty and challenges of patient engagement in preclinical laboratory research, the question of how and when patients can be most meaningfully engaged in the process remains unclear. Our team of preclinical and clinical researchers and patient partners propose to co-create, refine, and pilot test a framework to address these issues [ 7 ]. Drawing upon insights from implementation science [ 7 ], we aim to co-create a process framework, which will provide key steps to implementing patient engagement in preclinical laboratory research. Our framework will synthesize collaborator views, including input from an international advisory board, with our findings from previous work [ 1 , 4 ] and offer practical guidance for planning and execution of ‘laboratory-based preclinical patient engagement.’

Here we describe a protocol for a series of studies to develop and test our framework (see Fig.  1 ). First, we will conduct a series of ‘deliberative knowledge space’ meetings. These will be facilitated discussions with patient partners, preclinical researchers, and experts in patient engagement to exchange ideas on creating our draft framework. Results from the deliberative knowledge space meetings and the initial draft framework will also be shared with an international advisory board, to obtain additional input and feedback. We will next conduct a modified multi-round Delphi survey with international collaborators to further refine the draft framework. The final round will constitute a facilitated, virtual ‘face-to-face’ meeting, which is a common Delphi modification thought to promote discussion and clarity [ 8 , 9 ]. Finally, we will evaluate the framework through pilot field testing with collaborating patient partners and laboratory-based preclinical research teams. This work will lead to a user-informed generalizable framework. We will disseminate and implement this framework by working with international collaborators and creating an online repository of resources. Our proposed preclinical patient engagement framework will promote the involvement of patients at the earliest stages of the research continuum.

figure 1

Proposed steps to create a process framework for patient engagement in laboratory-based preclinical research


Development of the initial draft process framework.

As noted, process frameworks provide guidance on the implementation of knowledge into action, breaking the practice down into stages and assigning actions at each stage [ 7 ]. Consequently, our initial step will be to map out the key stages in the preclinical laboratory research process—from project conception and planning, through to implementation and reporting—and identify potential areas for patient engagement. As a starting point, we will work from (a) several existing clinical frameworks identified by members of our institutional patient engagement support unit, (b) the evidence from our scoping review and qualitative interview studies [ 1 , 4 ], as well as (c) patient partner and collaborator input to date. To draw upon diverse perspectives and experiences, we have assembled a multidisciplinary team of fourteen investigators, including patient partners with lived experience of a condition or caregiving, researchers with expertise in preclinical laboratory research, clinical research, or qualitative research, and a patient engagement facilitator. Using the noted sources our team will co-develop a draft process framework that outlines at what stages and to what capacity patient engagement could be introduced to preclinical laboratory research.

Patient engagement within the team

Our team encompasses a patient Co-Principal Investigator (DR) and three patient Co-Investigators (KH, PM, PS). Over the last four years, DR, KH, PM, and PS have been members of the team working on various components of the research program including developing, writing and editing five successful grant applications for the program, improving the scoping review protocol, interview guide, and recruitment documents. They offer valuable insights on feasibility of study procedures and delivery of informational resources; they have also helped clarify why and how patients can be engaged at this early stage of research. In the current project, patient partners will be involved throughout all study aspects, such as protocol development, team meetings, framework development, authorship of study materials and questionnaires, recruitment strategies, framework refinement, pilot testing sessions, and manuscript development, depending on individual interest and availability. Patient partners will be recognized for contributions based on guidance from the SPOR Evidence Alliance’s Patient Partner Appreciation Policy and Protocol [ 10 ] and remunerated according to Canadian Institutes of Health Research guidelines [ 11 ]).

Recognizing the importance of patient partner compensation, all patient participants who contribute to the Delphi survey and pilot-field tests will be compensated and recognized in alignment with best practices [ 10 , 11 , 12 ]. Researcher and ‘other’ participants will be offered a gift card as a token of appreciation.

Deliberative knowledge space meetings

To systematically draw from these sources and build consensus on what should be included within the draft framework, our team of researchers and patient partners will begin with a series of ‘deliberative knowledge space’ meetings. Deliberative knowledge spaces have been defined as a metaphorical space that provides participants with the resources to consider and discuss an issue in depth in order to develop a considered view [ 13 ]. This approach has been used by Staniszewska and colleagues to co-develop a framework for public engagement in economic modelling, which is a similarly largely non-public-facing field of research [ 14 ]. We will follow INVOLVE’s nine principles for deliberative engagement (see Additional file 1 ) [ 13 ]. Though there is no one specific approach, the INVOLVE principles and Staniszewska et al. suggest tailoring the structure to the objectives, designating adequate time for collaborator discussion [ 13 ], and providing adequate information on the topic so that collaborators are encouraged to share informed perspectives and ask questions [ 14 ].

Following this guidance, we have designed four deliberative knowledge space meetings that will be held virtually through videoconferencing. We will initiate semi-structured discussion by providing background information on patient engagement and preclinical laboratory research. This will be followed by question prompts that facilitate conversation, followed by breakout room discussion among participants. Discussion points during the meetings will include: identifying motivations for engagement, possible roles and actions/activities, expectations and potential outcomes for both patient partners and preclinical researchers, and barriers and enablers to patient engagement in preclinical laboratory research. We will also consider process issues that should be included in the framework, such as recruitment of patient partners, identification of key actors, and outlining the stages of preclinical laboratory research.

Discussions will be documented through recordings, meeting minutes, and narrative summaries [ 14 ]. Underlying guiding key themes and principles will be synthesized and used to inform a working draft of the process framework, which will also be supplemented with case studies, examples, and resources. The working draft will then be refined through offline communication and further meetings, as needed. Results from the deliberative knowledge space meetings and the initial draft framework will also be shared with an International Advisory Board, which consists of an international patient partner and four patient engagement researchers, to obtain additional perspectives and input.

Consensus building Delphi survey

To refine the framework, we will collect and integrate input from a wide range of international collaborators using a modified three-round, remote Delphi survey. This method was chosen due to the geographical spread of potential participants, as well as the use of anonymous voting that minimizes group power dynamics. Through the Delphi survey, identified international collaborators with an interest or expertise in preclinical patient engagement will be asked to identify and rate the importance of specific items identified by our draft framework (e.g., an effective way of building relationships, creating a common vocabulary, considering patients’ involvement throughout the research cycle). Consensus on items determined to be important or unimportant will allow our team to focus our efforts on elaborating and expanding the framework in collaborator-identified priority areas. For instance, some collaborators have indicated the potential for patient engagement to help better communicate how and why animals may be used in biomedical research.

Participants and recruitment

The Delphi survey will span three broad respondent groups: patient partners (inclusive of patients and their friends and family caregivers), researchers (inclusive of investigators, trainees, and highly qualified personnel), and ‘others’ (funders, network leads, animal care committees, etc.). We will aim for each group to have a minimum of 10 participants, in line with the suggested range [ 15 ]. Purposive sampling will be used. Potential participants will be identified through collaborating organizations with an interest in applying findings from this work and who have committed to providing support throughout the project. These groups encompass patient organizations and panels (e.g. Canadian Cancer Stakeholder Alliance), funders (e.g. the United Kingdom’s National Institute for Health and Care Research), research networks (e.g. Stem Cell Network, BioCanRx), and charities (e.g. Versus Arthritis) from multiple countries. Additional participants will also be identified through our scoping review [ 1 ] (representing teams from the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, United States, Germany, Italy, Ireland and Canada), interview studies [ 4 ], our International Advisory Board Members (representing teams from the United Kingdom, Ireland and Canada), social media as well as snowball sampling through collaborators and survey participants. Individuals with prior experience of (a) at least one preclinical laboratory patient engagement initiative, or (b) experience with more than one patient engagement in health research initiative, or (c) a background in preclinical laboratory research (undergraduate degree or higher) will be eligible to participate.

Development of the survey

Our team of researchers and patient partners will draw upon existing literature and our previously conducted research to generate items for the initial survey. Components of the draft framework (e.g. important considerations, specific activities) will be operationalized into items. A draft version will then be shared with designated team members for preliminary feedback and item reduction/refinement. We also plan to pilot the survey with advisory board members to assess for face validity.

Conduct and analysis

All three rounds will be conducted using the cloud-based Delphi software SurveyLet® [Calibrum, St. George, Utah]. The online survey will begin with a short video that summarizes key concepts, the draft framework, and optional resources. This short video was suggested by team patient partners and will be co-developed with them. Participants will anonymously rate items on a 9-point scale (7–9 points = essential to include within the framework, 4–6 = potentially essential, and 1–3 points = unnecessary). Survey participants may enter free text to provide rationale, comments, or propose additional items. Suggestions for new items will be included in subsequent rounds of the survey, while aggregated comments will be reported alongside the associated item for participants to view. The research team will analyze the results to determine whether each item has reached the threshold for consensus. Thresholds for consensus will be greater than 80% of respondents scoring 7–9, indicated as important to include, or 1–3, indicated as not important and should be excluded [ 16 ].

A new iteration of the survey will be developed. Items that did not meet the threshold for consensus will be included. For each item, participants will be provided their individual rating from the first round as well as the overall group’s median rating. They will then be asked to re-rate the item. Any newly identified items from Round One will also be included.

Round three (virtual face-to-face)

Our revised Delphi process will culminate in a third and final round, which will be conducted virtually through a facilitated face-to-face voting session [ 8 ]. This is a common modification to promote discussion and clarification [ 9 ]. Participants will meet virtually to discuss and clarify any questions surrounding the remaining items. The discussion will be co-facilitated by a member of our research team and a patient partner. This session will also include multiple breakout sessions to allow for discussion. The meeting will be recorded and transcribed. Voting will then take place during the meeting and remain anonymous using real-time features in SurveyLet®.

The response rate will be documented for each round. Answers to free text responses will be analyzed by two reviewers to assess whether a new item has been suggested. Secondary exploratory analysis of the results across demographic data will be performed on factors such as gender, location, respondent group(s) represented, stage of career for researchers, and number of experiences with patient engagement. Final results from the Delphi survey will be used to update and refine the framework.

Pilot field testing

To facilitate its implementation, we will evaluate our framework through pilot field testing with ten groups of preclinical laboratory researchers paired with patient partners. Pilot field testing will identify barriers and facilitators to this process, and highlight opportunities that should be explored further to refine the framework.

Ten preclinical laboratory research teams and twenty patient partners will be recruited. Each of the ten groups will include the principal investigator of the research team and one to two team members (e.g. research associate, trainee), matched to two patient partners. We have selected this number of participants for feasibility, balance between researcher and patient partner team members, and the aim of fostering meaningful partnerships between team members. No prior experience with preclinical laboratory research (for patient partners) or patient engagement (researchers or patient partners) will be required. Researchers with either an active or upcoming project will be identified through one of our funders (Stem Cell Network) and professional networks. We will assist with identification of patient partners with lived experience matched to the research teams through collaborator organizations (e.g. Cancer Stakeholder Alliance, Sepsis Canada). We will also organize meetings and onboarding with patient partners. As we anticipate a learning curve for implementation of the framework, pilot field testing will be initiated sequentially in order to incorporate feedback in an iterative manner.

Educational sessions and applying the framework (introduction, discussion, implementation and planning)

Pilot field testing of the framework for each group will be initiated over three consecutive sessions (in-person if possible, or virtually). We anticipate the process described will be refined based on the findings of the deliberative knowledge space and Delphi survey. Each session will be facilitated by a research assistant trained in patient engagement as well as our draft process framework. In Session #1- ‘Introduction,’ the preclinical researchers and patient partners will be provided background information on patient engagement and preclinical laboratory research. In addition, the process framework will be introduced. Next, researchers will have an opportunity to describe their research, followed by a chance for patient partners to share aspects of their lived experience. A ‘take-home’ exercise will be provided; both researchers and patient partners will be asked to use the framework to generate ideas on how they may work together.

The first part of this session aims to introduce preclinical researchers to key values of patient engagement and facilitate patient partner familiarity and understanding of the preclinical research process, the research continuum, applicable regulatory requirements and other relevant concepts or techniques. To provide more in-depth training, all team members will also be required to complete the Canadian Institutes of Health Research Institute of Musculoskeletal Health and Arthritis Patient Engagement in Research Modules (resources co-developed by co-lead DR, [ 17 ]) after the session. This free, online course aims to help patient partners, researchers, trainees, and other team members understand patient engagement in research through four modules: (1) What is patient engagement? (2) The research process: (a) Understanding the research process for patient partners and (b) Supporting patient partners throughout the research process for other members of the team, (3) Setting up a research project for successful partnership and (4) Patient engagement for research teams: (a) Being part of a research team for patient partners and (b) Engaging patients on your research team for other members of the research team.

In Session #2- ‘Discussion of Potential Methods to Work Together,’ participants will be encouraged to refer to the framework and their ‘take-home’ exercise to help guide discussion on opportunities for engagement in the preclinical research project. This session will be semi-structured; we will start with an open discussion to allow participants the opportunity to share their ideas from the ‘take-home’ exercise. Members of our team will then facilitate further discussion, using a co-developed list of prompts, to build on these ideas and incorporate suggested strategies from the framework and identified case studies. The session will then close with any remaining thoughts, questions, or concerns from the researchers and patient partners.

Finally, in Session #3- ‘Implementation and Planning,’ each team will work to co-develop action plans that will outline immediate first steps to initiate identified activities. Through these discussions, each team will also begin to develop a terms of reference [ 18 ] and potentially make longer-term plans for their patient engagement strategy. During this time, research assistants will capture and document feedback on the framework, through meeting minutes and impact logs.

Post-Pilot field testing survey

After the third session, each group member will assess our framework through an online survey based on the Theoretical Framework of Acceptability (TFA) [ 19 ]. The TFA is an adaptable tool that seeks to evaluate the acceptability of healthcare interventions across eight domains: (1) Affective Attitude (how an individual feels about an intervention), (2) Burden (the amount of effort required to participate in the intervention), (3) Ethicality (does the intervention align with an individual's values?), (4) Perceived Effectiveness (does the intervention achieve its purpose?), (5) Intervention Coherence (does the individual understand how the intervention works?), (6) Self-Efficacy (is the individual confident they can use the intervention?), (7) Opportunity Costs (the benefits, profits, or value that was given up to engage with the intervention) and (8) General Acceptability [ 19 ]. To assess the quality of the engagement partnerships and potential impacts, we will additionally include questions from the Public and Patient Engagement Evaluation Tool [ 20 ]. The survey will also collect information on the research area, and researcher/patient partner characteristics. This will allow us to assess, in an exploratory manner, if stage of research, funding, or laboratory size, may influence the when and how of preclinical patient engagement.

Survey data analysis

Quantitative survey data will be summarized by descriptive statistics. Open-text survey questions and documented minutes will be analyzed using thematic content analysis [ 21 ]. We will analyze differences between groups, researchers, and patient partners. Feedback will be categorized and assessed for inclusion based on whether it could be addressed through revisions in the framework. This will be completed by one research assistant and verified by a patient partner. Key feedback categories will then be arranged into tables so high-level themes can be identified independently by two team members. Established themes will be discussed by our team, and iteratively modified as needed.

Refining/finalizing the framework

Results will be used to make refinements to the draft framework, to ensure all relevant aspects are included, as well as identify priority areas or knowledge gaps for future research. This refined framework will then be presented to collaborators for further feedback, approval, and dissemination.

Dissemination and future directions

To ensure wide uptake of our framework, we will employ multiple strategies to disseminate our final products. First, we plan to have regular meetings to share information and ensure maximal engagement amongst all collaborators and contributors. We will publish our work in open access, peer-reviewed journals as manuscripts describing (1) the final version of the framework and its development, and (2) an explanation and elaboration document to provide specific examples and case studies for each component of the framework. Both manuscripts will also be co-produced with patient partner team members. We will use appropriate reporting guidelines for each manuscript to ensure transparency and completeness (e.g. Sex and Gender Equity in Research guidelines [ 22 ] and Guidance for Reporting Involvement of Patients and the Public (GRIPP2) [ 23 ]).

To reach a wider audience we will also create an online resource for patient engagement in preclinical laboratory research, which will link to the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute’s Office for Patient Engagement in Research Activities (OPERA) website. This will be curated to target three groups: organizations and institutions, preclinical researchers, and patient partners. It will provide access to the framework and other resources and tools developed by our team and other organizations (e.g. videos, infographics, helpful readings, and tools). We will also create a non-technical summary for each study to post on various social media platforms and blogs (e.g. Ontario Strategy for Patient-Oriented Research SUPPORT Unit Blog), as well as our website. These products will be co-developed with patient partners to ensure the use of a common vocabulary.

Importantly, our collaborator organizations have a demonstrated need for products of this project and have indicated that they are eager to help disseminate the resources and find opportunities to implement the framework. Moreover, our research team includes collaborators from five Canadian universities, each of whom have significant involvement in various research societies and are ideally situated to further promote dissemination and uptake. In addition to providing practical guidance on how patients and preclinical researchers can work together, our hope is that our project deliverables will contribute to a broader cultural shift. Through our dissemination strategies, we aim to raise awareness of the importance of involving patients in preclinical laboratory research. Integration of trainees in this process may also effect a meaningful change to training. Future research will then work towards further refinement of the framework, implementation, and assessment of its impacts.

Our proposed approach will systematically account for perspectives from various key collaborators and knowledge users. This series of studies will also provide evidence to inform and refine our process framework. Moreover, through our knowledge translation efforts to disseminate our final developed framework, we will help preclinical researchers and patients to establish relationships and to identify activities, methods, and further considerations for engagement. Promotion of laboratory-based preclinical patient engagement will help align preclinical research priorities to patient needs and experiences, allow patients to have a better understanding of the nuances of this non-public facing domain of science, and expose preclinical laboratory researchers to real-lived experiences of the conditions they study.

Availability of data and materials

Not applicable. All materials and datasets generated or analyzed during the proposed study will be made available in the subsequent study manuscripts or from the correspondence author on reasonable request. Recordings of deliberative knowledge space meetings and pilot field tests, as well as individual survey responses will be kept private to respect participant privacy.


Theoretical Framework of Acceptability

Guidance for Reporting Involvement of Patients and the Public

Office for Patient Engagement in Research Activities

Public and Patient Engagement Evaluation Tool

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The authors would like to thank the patient partners, project collaborators, advisory board, and knowledge users for their contributions to this project.

Stem Cell Network Translation & Society Team Award; Canadian Institutes of Health Research Project Grant; Ontario SPOR Support Unit EMPOWER Award. MML is supported by The Ottawa Hospital Anesthesia Alternate Funds Association, a University of Ottawa Junior Clinical Research Chair in Innovative Translational Research, and the Canadian Anesthesiologists’ Society Career Scientist Award.

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Manoj M. Lalu, Madison Foster, Brittany French, Justin Presseau & Dean A. Fergusson

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Guarantor: MML. Conceptualization: MML, DR, AMC, KMF, KH, KFM, AAM, PM, SN, JP, CAS, PS, BT, DAF. Methodology: MML, DR, AMC, KMF, KH, KFM, AAM, PM, SN, JP, CAS, PS, BT, DAF. Writing—original draft: MML, DR, MF, AMC, KMF, KH, KFM, AAM, PM, SN, JP, CAS, PS, BT, DAF. Writing—review/editing: MML, DR, MF, BF, AMC, KMF, KH, KFM, AAM, PM, SN, JP, CAS, PS, BT, DAF. Supervision: MML, DAF. Resources: MML, DAF.

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Correspondence to Manoj M. Lalu .

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Our deliberative knowledge space meetings will draw from the existing literature, previous work, and the expertise of our network and team; an ethics application for this portion of the project is thus not required. For the Delphi and pilot field test studies, we will submit study protocols and research ethics board applications to the Ottawa Health Science Network—Research Ethics Board (OHSN—REB) and obtain all required institutional approvals prior to start of the studies.

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Additional file 1. table s1.

. INVOLE’s Nine Principles for Deliberative Engagement.

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Lalu, M.M., Richards, D., Foster, M. et al. Protocol for co-producing a framework and integrated resource platform for engaging patients in laboratory-based research. Res Involv Engagem 10 , 25 (2024). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40900-024-00545-7

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DOI : https://doi.org/10.1186/s40900-024-00545-7

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As part of its digital strategy , the EU wants to regulate artificial intelligence (AI) to ensure better conditions for the development and use of this innovative technology. AI can create many benefits , such as better healthcare; safer and cleaner transport; more efficient manufacturing; and cheaper and more sustainable energy.

In April 2021, the European Commission proposed the first EU regulatory framework for AI. It says that AI systems that can be used in different applications are analysed and classified according to the risk they pose to users. The different risk levels will mean more or less regulation. Once approved, these will be the world’s first rules on AI.

Learn more about what artificial intelligence is and how it is used

What Parliament wants in AI legislation

Parliament’s priority is to make sure that AI systems used in the EU are safe, transparent, traceable, non-discriminatory and environmentally friendly. AI systems should be overseen by people, rather than by automation, to prevent harmful outcomes.

Parliament also wants to establish a technology-neutral, uniform definition for AI that could be applied to future AI systems.

Learn more about Parliament’s work on AI and its vision for AI’s future

AI Act: different rules for different risk levels

The new rules establish obligations for providers and users depending on the level of risk from artificial intelligence. While many AI systems pose minimal risk, they need to be assessed.

Unacceptable risk

Unacceptable risk AI systems are systems considered a threat to people and will be banned. They include:

  • Cognitive behavioural manipulation of people or specific vulnerable groups: for example voice-activated toys that encourage dangerous behaviour in children
  • Social scoring: classifying people based on behaviour, socio-economic status or personal characteristics
  • Biometric identification and categorisation of people
  • Real-time and remote biometric identification systems, such as facial recognition

Some exceptions may be allowed for law enforcement purposes. “Real-time” remote biometric identification systems will be allowed in a limited number of serious cases, while “post” remote biometric identification systems, where identification occurs after a significant delay, will be allowed to prosecute serious crimes and only after court approval.

AI systems that negatively affect safety or fundamental rights will be considered high risk and will be divided into two categories:

1) AI systems that are used in products falling under the EU’s product safety legislation . This includes toys, aviation, cars, medical devices and lifts.

2) AI systems falling into specific areas that will have to be registered in an EU database:

  • Management and operation of critical infrastructure
  • Education and vocational training
  • Employment, worker management and access to self-employment
  • Access to and enjoyment of essential private services and public services and benefits
  • Law enforcement
  • Migration, asylum and border control management
  • Assistance in legal interpretation and application of the law.

All high-risk AI systems will be assessed before being put on the market and also throughout their lifecycle.

General purpose and generative AI

Generative AI, like ChatGPT, would have to comply with transparency requirements:

  • Disclosing that the content was generated by AI
  • Designing the model to prevent it from generating illegal content
  • Publishing summaries of copyrighted data used for training

High-impact general-purpose AI models that might pose systemic risk, such as the more advanced AI model GPT-4, would have to undergo thorough evaluations and any serious incidents would have to be reported to the European Commission.

Limited risk

Limited risk AI systems should comply with minimal transparency requirements that would allow users to make informed decisions. After interacting with the applications, the user can then decide whether they want to continue using it. Users should be made aware when they are interacting with AI. This includes AI systems that generate or manipulate image, audio or video content, for example deepfakes.

On December 9 2023, Parliament reached a provisional agreement with the Council on the AI act . The agreed text will now have to be formally adopted by both Parliament and Council to become EU law. Before all MEPs have their say on the agreement, Parliament’s internal market and civil liberties committees will vote on it.

More on the EU’s digital measures

  • Cryptocurrency dangers and the benefits of EU legislation
  • Fighting cybercrime: new EU cybersecurity laws explained
  • Boosting data sharing in the EU: what are the benefits?
  • EU Digital Markets Act and Digital Services Act
  • Five ways the European Parliament wants to protect online gamers
  • Artificial Intelligence Act

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  1. Research Framework

    example of a research framework

  2. Research methodology framework

    example of a research framework

  3. Conceptual Framework of the research

    example of a research framework

  4. Research Model

    example of a research framework

  5. Conceptual framework of the research.

    example of a research framework

  6. How To Make Conceptual Framework In Qualitative Research

    example of a research framework


  1. What is research

  2. Research Methods

  3. What is Research??

  4. Research part 1/overview of research

  5. Research Methodology



  1. What is a Theoretical Framework? How to Write It (with Examples)

    Example 1. Example 2. Benefits of a theoretical framework Frequently Asked Questions What is a theoretical framework? A theoretical framework in research can be defined as a set of concepts, theories, ideas, and assumptions that help you understand a specific phenomenon or problem.

  2. What Is a Conceptual Framework?

    Example: Research question Let's say you want to study whether students who study more hours get higher exam scores. To investigate this question, you can use methods such as an experiment or a survey to test the relationship between variables. However, before you start collecting your data, consider constructing a conceptual framework.

  3. Theoretical Framework Example for a Thesis or Dissertation

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  4. Theoretical Framework

    The theoretical framework is the structure that can hold or support a theory of a research study. The theoretical framework encompasses not just the theory but the narrative explanation about how the researcher engages in using the theory and its underlying assumptions to investigate the research problem. Abend, Gabriel. "The Meaning of Theory."


    We also include an example conceptual framework memo that details how a researcher describes their conceptual framework. CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORKS IN RESEARCH A conceptual framework lives at the center of an empirical study.

  6. What Is a Theoretical Framework?

    Examples: Theoretical frameworks in research The same research topic can be approached very differently depending on which theoretical approach you take, even within the same field. For example: In literature, a scholar using postmodernist literary theory would analyze The Great Gatsby differently than a scholar using Marxist literary theory.

  7. Chapter 4: Theoretical frameworks for qualitative research

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  10. What is a research framework and why do we need one?

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  11. PDF Frameworks for Qualitative Research

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  12. Conceptual and Theoretical Frameworks for Thesis Studies: What ...

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  13. Conceptual Framework

    For example, an empirical framework for a study on the impact of a new health intervention might involve collecting data on the intervention's effectiveness, cost, and acceptability to patients. Descriptive Framework A descriptive framework is used to describe a particular phenomenon.

  14. How to Choose the Best Research Framework for Your Project

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  15. How to write a theoretical framework

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  16. Theoretical Framework

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  17. Research Framework

    10+ Research Framework Examples To give you a better understanding of research frameworks, we collated a list of samples that you can easily download in PDF formats. 1. Disaster Management Research Framework Example igem.qld.gov.au Details File Format

  18. Theoretical vs Conceptual Framework (+ Examples)

    Example of a theoretical framework. Let's look at an example to make the theoretical framework a little more tangible. If your research aims involve understanding what factors contributed toward people trusting investment brokers, you'd need to first lay down some theory so that it's crystal clear what exactly you mean by this. For example, you would need to define what you mean by ...

  19. Research Framework

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  20. 3 The Research Framework

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  21. How To Make Conceptual Framework (With Examples and Templates)

    Why Should Research Be Given a Conceptual Framework? What Is the Difference Between Conceptual Framework and Theoretical Framework? What Are the Different Types of Conceptual Frameworks? 1. Taxonomy 2. Visual Presentation 3. Mathematical Description How To Make Conceptual Framework: 4 Steps 1. Identify the Important Variables of Your Study 2.

  22. (PDF) Research Framework

    research framework is the one that considers and evaluates all the available variables. For a . research as complex as this one, the researcher would be compelled to design and develop a .

  23. Key influences on university students' physical activity: a systematic

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  24. How to Write a Research Proposal

    Research proposal examples. Writing a research proposal can be quite challenging, but a good starting point could be to look at some examples. We've included a few for you below. Example research proposal #1: "A Conceptual Framework for Scheduling Constraint Management".

  25. Protocol for co-producing a framework and integrated resource platform

    Development of the initial draft process framework. As noted, process frameworks provide guidance on the implementation of knowledge into action, breaking the practice down into stages and assigning actions at each stage [].Consequently, our initial step will be to map out the key stages in the preclinical laboratory research process—from project conception and planning, through to ...

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  28. EU AI Act: first regulation on artificial intelligence

    In April 2021, the European Commission proposed the first EU regulatory framework for AI. It says that AI systems that can be used in different applications are analysed and classified according to the risk they pose to users. The different risk levels will mean more or less regulation. Once approved, these will be the world's first rules on AI.