Theoretical vs. Conceptual Framework

Theoretical vs. Conceptual Framework

Generally speaking, theories used in academic research are a collection of ideas that can be used to explain things that happened in the past, to describe things that are happening right now, and to predict things that may happen in the future.

Theoretical Framework is a well known theory that can be used:

  • as a lens through which a researcher views the topic (qualitative study)
  • deductively; to test the theory in a specific circumstance (quantitative study)
  • inductively; as an emerging pattern (mixed methods)

In a quantitative study; theoretical framework is used to make the hypothesis or prediction of the outcome of the study. The purpose is to see if that theory “applies” in a specific situation and circumstance. The quantitative data will either further support the theory or it won’t.

In qualitative study: you do not need a theoretical framework in a qualitative study. While some qualitative studies may find both necessary, you often can include references to theories within your conceptual framework.   

Common theoretical frameworks cited by LII students include; Connectivist, Constructivist, Cognitive Load Theory, Social Learning Theory, Sociocultural Learning Theory, Self-Efficacy Theory, Transformational Learning, Transactional Distance Theory, Systems Theory, Diffusion of Innovation Theory, and Experiential Learning Theory.

Conceptual Framework

  • A set of coherent ideas or concepts organized in a way that makes them easy to communicate to others.
  • Might be an adaptation of a model previously used (possibly modified)
  • Shows the relationships of the elements (variables) that make up the study
  • Consider extraneous elements (variables) that may impact the study
  • Gives direction to the study

How do I develop a conceptual framework?

Read chapter 3 of Maxwell’s book as your guide. Start with a braindump. Get all your ideas down. Look at the various pieces of what you want to study. How are they connected? What have other researchers done to study this problem? Organize your ideas into some sort of mindmap and begin seeing connections between them.

Framework, smamework…Why do we need it anyway?

The framework provides an organized way of thinking about how and why a study takes place and about how we view its activities. A framework can help us to explain why we are doing a project in a particular way. It can also help us to understand and use the ideas of others who have done similar things.

Think of the framework as a roadmap. We can read a map, because others before us have come up with common symbols to mark streets, lakes, highways, cities, mountains, rivers, etc…The scale on a map tells us how far apart different places are, so we will get an idea how long it might take us to get from one point to the next. A map also shows us that there may be many different paths that can be taken to get to the same place. A framework can help us decide and explain the route we are taking: why would we use certain methods and not others to get to a certain point. People might have tried a similar path before and have had different experiences using one road versus another. Or, there may be paths that have never been explored. With a conceptual framework, we can explain why we would try this or that path, based on the experiences of others, and on what we ourselves would like to explore or discover. Essentially, the roadmap provides agreed upon operational terms and definitions that otherwise might be obtuse or abstract.

Here are some examples of models used as part of conceptual frameworks by LII students; Concerns-Based Adoption Model (CBAM); Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge (TPCK), Community of Inquiry (3 presences; teacher, social, and cognitive presence), Five Factor Mentor Model, and  Technology Acceptance Model (TAM).

However, much of the conceptual framework is based on pulling together the ideas, frameworks, and models related to a focused researched topics. This provides a good foundation for the study you want to do.  Carefully pick ideas that support the concepts you want to study and create something new.

References (Very good resource…video and transcript!)

Roadmap analogy: Came from Dr. MaryFriend Shepard who got it from another Walden Faculty member. If you know who came up with analogy, I would love to be able to cite it properly. Please contact me!


4 thoughts on “Theoretical vs. Conceptual Framework

  1. Renee W. says:

    Hello. Not sure if you are still checking this blog but a lot of the materials have helped me answer a few questions. However, I am still trying to grasp this concept. With all the different interchangeable terms, I am trying to focus just on what has been asked of me. For candidacy I have been asked to basically design chapter 3 of my dissertation, the methodology section. I am interested in using Brofenbrenner’s ecological systems theory. I was thinking of using this as my conceptual framework but I am starting to second guess myself. After doing additional research and reading this page, it seems like it would be a good fit. What do you think?

    • That depends on what your research questions are and what type of study you are conducting. I would work with your chair to determine the best CF or TF. Thanks for reading.

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