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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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Library Homepage

Research Process Guide

  • Step 1 - Identifying and Developing a Topic
  • Step 2 - Narrowing Your Topic
  • Step 3 - Developing Research Questions
  • Step 4 - Conducting a Literature Review
  • Step 5 - Choosing a Conceptual or Theoretical Framework
  • Step 6 - Determining Research Methodology
  • Step 6a - Determining Research Methodology - Quantitative Research Methods
  • Step 6b - Determining Research Methodology - Qualitative Design
  • Step 7 - Considering Ethical Issues in Research with Human Subjects - Institutional Review Board (IRB)
  • Step 8 - Collecting Data
  • Step 9 - Analyzing Data
  • Step 10 - Interpreting Results
  • Step 11 - Writing Up Results

Step 5: Choosing a Conceptual or Theoretical Framework

For all empirical research, you must choose a conceptual or theoretical framework to “frame” or “ground” your study. Theoretical and/or conceptual frameworks are often difficult to understand and challenging to choose which is the right one (s) for your research objective (Hatch, 2002). Truthfully, it is difficult to get a real understanding of what these frameworks are and how you are supposed to find what works for your study. The discussion of your framework is addressed in your Chapter 1, the introduction and then is further explored through in-depth discussion in your Chapter 2 literature review.

“Theory is supposed to help researchers of any persuasion clarify what they are up to and to help them to explain to others what they are up to” (Walcott, 1995, p. 189, as cited in Fallon, 2016). It is important to discuss in the beginning to help researchers “clarify what they are up to” and important at the writing stage to “help explain to others what they are up to” (Fallon, 2016).  

What is the difference between the conceptual and the theoretical framework?

Often, the terms theoretical framework and conceptual framework are used interchangeably, which, in this author’s opinion, makes an already difficult to understand idea even more confusing. According to Imenda (2014) and Mensah et al. (2020), there is a very distinct difference between conceptual and theoretical frameworks, not only how they are defined but also, how and when they are used in empirical research.

Imenda (2014) contends that the framework “is the soul of every research project” (p.185). Essentially, it determines how the researcher formulates the research problem, goes about investigating the problem, and what meaning or significance the research lends to the data collected and analyzed investigating the problem.  

Very generally, you would use a theoretical framework if you were conducting deductive research as you test a theory or theories. “A theoretical framework comprises the theories expressed by experts in the field into which you plan to research, which you draw upon to provide a theoretical coat hanger for your data analysis and interpretation of results” (Kivunja, 2018, p.45 ).  Often this framework is based on established theories like, the Set Theory, evolution, the theory of matter or similar pre-existing generalizations like Newton’s law of motion (Imenda, 2014). A good theoretical framework should be linked to, and possibly emerge from your literature review.

Using a theoretical framework allows you to (Kivunja, 2018):

  • Increase the credibility and validity of your research
  • Interpret meaning found in data collection
  • Evaluate solutions for solving your research problem

According to Mensah et al.(2020) the theoretical framework for your research is not a summary of your own thoughts about your research. Rather, it is a compilation of the thoughts of giants in your field, as they relate to your proposed research, as you understand those theories, and how you will use those theories to understand the data collected.

Additionally, Jabareen (2009) defines a conceptual framework as interlinked concepts that together provide a comprehensive  understanding of a phenomenon. “A conceptual framework is the total, logical orientation and associations of anything and everything that forms the underlying thinking, structures, plans and practices and implementation of your entire research project” (Kivunja, 2018, p. 45). You would largely use a conceptual framework when conducting inductive research, as it helps the researcher answer questions that are core to qualitative research, such as the nature of reality, the way things are and how things really work in a real world (Guba & Lincoln, 1994).

Some consideration of the following questions can help define your conceptual framework (Kinvunja, 2018):

  • What do you want to do in your research? And why do you want to do it?
  • How do you plan to do it?
  • What meaning will you make of the data?
  • Which worldview will you situate your study in? (i.e. Positivist? Interpretist? Constructivist?)

Examples of conceptual frameworks include the definitions a sociologist uses to describe a culture and the types of data an economist considers when evaluating a country’s industry. The conceptual framework consists of the ideas that are used to define research and evaluate data. Conceptual frameworks are often laid out at the beginning of a paper or an experiment description for a reader to understand the methods used (Mensah et al., 2020).

Writing it up

After choosing your framework is to articulate the theory or concept that grounds your study by defining it and demonstrating the rationale for this particular set of theories or concepts guiding your inquiry.  Write up your theoretical perspective sections for your research plan following your choice of worldview/ research paradigm. For a quantitative study you are particularly interested in theory using the procedures for a causal analysis. For qualitative research, you should locate qualitative journal articles that use a priori theory (knowledge that is acquired not through experience) that is modified during the process of research (Creswell & Creswell, 2018). Also, you should generate or develop a theory at the end of your study. For a mixed methods study which uses a transformative (critical theoretical lens) identify how the lens specifically shapes the research process.                                   

Creswell, J. W., & Creswell, J. D. (2 018). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches. Sage.

Fallon, M. (2016). Writing up quantitative research in the social and behavioral sciences. Sense. https://kean.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=cookie,ip,url,cpid&custid=keaninf&db=nlebk&AN=1288374&site=ehost-live&scope=site&ebv=EB&ppid=pp_C1

Guba, E. G., & Lincoln, Y. S. (1994). Competing paradigms in qualitative research. Handbook of Qualitative Research, 2 (163-194), 105.

Hatch, J. A. ( 2002). Doing qualitative research in education settings. SUNY Press.

Imenda, S. (2014). Is there a conceptual difference between theoretical and conceptual frameworks?  Journal of Social Sciences, 38 (2), 185-195.

Jabareen, Y. (2009). Building a conceptual framework: Philosophy, definitions, and procedure. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 8 (4), 49-62.

Kivunja, C. ( 2018, December 3). Distinguishing between theory, theoretical framework, and conceptual framework. The International Journal of Higher Education, 7 (6), 44-53. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1198682.pdf  

Mensah, R. O., Agyemang, F., Acquah, A., Babah, P. A., & Dontoh, J. (2020). Discourses on conceptual and theoretical frameworks in research: Meaning and implications for researchers. Journal of African Interdisciplinary Studies, 4 (5), 53-64.

  • Last Updated: Jun 29, 2023 1:35 PM
  • URL: https://libguides.kean.edu/ResearchProcessGuide

Conceptual Framework and Theory Development

  • First Online: 07 June 2024

Cite this chapter

literature review vs conceptual framework

  • George P. Moschis 2  

A conceptual framework is a structure that researchers use to best explain the relationship they expect to see between variables, or the characteristics of the phenomenon they investigate. This term is used often interchangeably with “model” and “theory.” And although all conceptual frameworks and models are not necessarily theories, theories and theoretical frameworks are normally viewed as conceptual frameworks. A conceptual framework forms the basic foundation for conducting a study, helping to summarize either the basic constructs and their expected relationships in a deductive investigation, or the outcomes of the inductive inquiry. They evolve and change as knowledge accumulates (Miles et al., 2014). As Miles et al. (2014: 20) put it: “Conceptual frameworks are simply the current version of the researcher’s map of the territory being investigated. As the explorer’s knowledge of the terrain improves, the map becomes correspondingly more differentiated and integrated.” Thus, a conceptual framework becomes increasingly refined, elaborate, and comprehensive as knowledge accumulates and forms the basis for its expansion and revision, which may also suggest the use of different methodologies (Ravitch & Riggan, 2016).

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Conceptual Framework vs Literature Review: Understanding the Difference in Research

  • by Veronica Lopez
  • October 27, 2023

Are you confused about the terms “conceptual framework” and “literature review” in research? Well, you’re not alone! These terms often leave many researchers scratching their heads, trying to figure out the dissimilarities. In this blog post, we’ll delve into the world of research methodologies and explore the disparities between conceptual frameworks and literature reviews.

In the ever-evolving landscape of academia, research plays a vital role in advancing knowledge. But before embarking on a research journey, it’s crucial to understand the foundations. A conceptual framework refers to the theoretical underpinnings that support a research study, while a literature review involves examining existing scholarly works to identify gaps, trends, and relationships in the chosen field. Both are essential components of research, but they serve different purposes and have distinct characteristics.

So, if you’ve ever wondered how a conceptual framework differs from a literature review and what each entails, this blog post is for you. Let’s dive deeper into the realm of research methodologies and uncover the significance of conceptual frameworks versus literature reviews.

What is the difference between conceptual framework and literature review?

What’s the Deal with Conceptual Framework and Literature Review

So, you’ve embarked on the noble quest of research and stumbled upon these two terms: “conceptual framework” and “literature review.” But wait a minute, aren’t they the same thing? Ah, my fellow knowledge seeker, fear not! I am here to unravel this mystery and enlighten you with the key differences between these two scholarly creatures.

Conceptual Framework: Unlocking the Realm of Ideas

Think of a conceptual framework as your trusty treasure map, guiding you through the vast jungle of ideas and theories. In simpler terms, it’s basically a fancy term for a theoretical framework. This bad boy sets the stage for your research, outlining the principles, concepts, and theories that will shape your study. It’s like creating the blueprint before constructing a magnificent building. Without a solid conceptual framework, your research may end up resembling a wobbly house of cards ready to collapse at the slightest breeze.

Literature Review: Venturing into the Land of Knowledge

Ah, the literature review, the brave explorer of knowledge. Picture yourself as Indiana Jones, delving into the dusty archives of books and scholarly articles. A literature review is all about thoroughly investigating existing research and literature on your chosen topic. It’s like sifting through a mountain of ancient scrolls to unearth hidden gems of wisdom. This grand quest allows you to identify gaps, conflicts, and inconsistencies in previous studies, building a solid foundation for your own research.

What Sets Them Apart

Now, you may wonder: “If they both involve reading and researching, what makes them different?” Well, my friend, the answer lies in their purpose and focus.

A conceptual framework sets the theoretical context for your research, providing a clear structure and framework. It forms the guiding principles and concepts that shape your study. It’s like establishing the rules of a game before you start playing. This way, you ensure that your research aligns with established theories and helps you answer your research question effectively.

On the other hand, a literature review is a comprehensive exploration of existing research and knowledge in the field. It involves analyzing, comparing, and synthesizing previous studies to gain insights, identify gaps, and establish the context for your research. It’s like taking a stroll through the library of Alexandria, absorbing the collective wisdom of generations past.

Why Bother with Both

Ah, now you may ask, “Do I really need to do both?” Well, my fellow adventurer, the answer is a resounding YES! Dramatic music intensifies .

By crafting a solid conceptual framework, you establish a strong theoretical foundation and set the stage for your research. It helps you define key concepts, hypotheses, and research variables. Without it, your work may resemble a ship lost at sea, drifting aimlessly without direction.

Meanwhile, a literature review empowers you with the knowledge and insights of those who’ve come before. It allows you to build upon existing research, avoid reinventing the wheel, and contribute something novel to the scholarly community. Neglecting this crucial step is like embarking on a quest for the Holy Grail without first consulting the ancient tomes and maps.

To Wrap It Up

In a nutshell, a conceptual framework and a literature review are like two sides of the same coin. The former sets the stage and provides a theoretical framework, while the latter explores the vast ocean of existing knowledge. To achieve research greatness, embrace them both, my friend, and let them be your guiding stars in the scholarly galaxy.

So, fellow knowledge-seeker, armed with this newfound understanding , may you conquer the wild beasts of research confusion and embark on your own epic quest for knowledge!

What is the difference between conceptual framework and literature review?

FAQ: Understanding Conceptual Framework and Literature Review

What is a conceptual literature review in research.

In research, a conceptual literature review provides a comprehensive analysis and synthesis of existing theories and concepts related to a specific topic. It goes beyond summarizing individual studies by examining the broader theoretical frameworks that shape the understanding of the subject. By exploring various perspectives and ideas, a conceptual literature review helps researchers develop a solid foundation for their own study and identify gaps in the existing knowledge.

What sets apart a conceptual framework from a literature review

While both a conceptual framework and a literature review are essential components of research, they serve different purposes. A conceptual framework provides a theoretical underpinning to guide a study by identifying key variables, relationships, and hypotheses. It serves as a roadmap to frame research questions and design data collection methods. On the other hand, a literature review summarizes and evaluates existing research and scholarly works that are relevant to the topic. It aims to provide a comprehensive overview of the current knowledge and identify gaps that can be addressed through further research.

So, what exactly is a conceptual paper

A conceptual paper, also known as a theoretical paper, focuses on advancing theoretical understanding rather than presenting empirical findings. It delves into the exploration and development of new ideas, theories, or frameworks, contributing to the intellectual discourse in a particular field. By proposing novel concepts or models and discussing their potential implications, a conceptual paper stimulates further research and pushes the boundaries of knowledge.

Hold on a second, is an interview considered a secondary source

No, an interview is not classified as a secondary source. Secondary sources are created by someone who did not participate in the event or process being studied. They interpret or analyze primary sources, which are the original materials or firsthand accounts. However, an interview is considered a primary source as it provides direct information from the person being interviewed. It offers unique insights into the individual’s experiences, opinions, and perspectives, making it valuable for qualitative research or capturing personal narratives.

Remember, understanding the distinctions between these terms will help you navigate the research landscape with confidence and precision!

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  • literature review
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literature review vs conceptual framework

The Ultimate Guide to Qualitative Research - Part 1: The Basics

literature review vs conceptual framework

  • Introduction and overview
  • What is qualitative research?
  • What is qualitative data?
  • Examples of qualitative data
  • Qualitative vs. quantitative research
  • Mixed methods
  • Qualitative research preparation
  • Theoretical perspective
  • Theoretical framework
  • Literature reviews
  • Research question
  • Conceptual framework
  • Introduction

Revisiting theoretical frameworks

Revisiting conceptual frameworks, differences between conceptual and theoretical frameworks, examples of theoretical and conceptual frameworks, developing frameworks for your study.

  • Data collection
  • Qualitative research methods
  • Focus groups
  • Observational research
  • Case studies
  • Ethnographical research
  • Ethical considerations
  • Confidentiality and privacy
  • Power dynamics
  • Reflexivity

Conceptual vs. theoretical framework

Theoretical and conceptual frameworks are both essential components of research, guiding and structuring the research. Although they are closely related, the conceptual and theoretical framework in any research project serve distinct purposes and have different characteristics. In this section, we provide an overview of the key differences between theoretical and conceptual frameworks.

literature review vs conceptual framework

Theoretical and conceptual frameworks are foundational components of any research study. They each play a crucial role in guiding and structuring the research, from the formation of research questions to the interpretation of results .

While both the theoretical and conceptual framework provides a structure for a study, they serve different functions and can impact the research in distinct ways depending on how they are combined. These differences might seem subtle, but they can significantly impact your research design and outcomes, which is why it is important to think through each one of them.

literature review vs conceptual framework

The theoretical framework describes the broader lens through which the researcher views the topic and guides their overall understanding and approach. It connects the theoretical perspective to the data collection and data analysis strategy and offers a structure for organizing and interpreting the collected data.

On the other hand, the conceptual framework describes in detail and connects specific concepts and variables to illustrate potential relationships between them. It serves as a guide for assessing which aspects of the data are relevant and specifying how the research question is being answered. While the theoretical framework outlines how more abstract-level theories shape the study, the conceptual framework operationalizes the empirical observations that can be connected to theory and broader understanding.

Understanding these differences is crucial when designing and conducting your research study. In this chapter, we will look deeper at the distinctions between these types of frameworks, and how they interplay in qualitative research . We aim to provide you with a solid understanding of both, allowing you to effectively utilize them in your own research.

Theoretical frameworks play a central role in research, serving as the bedrock of any investigation. This section offers a refresher on the essential elements and functions of theoretical frameworks in research.

A theoretical framework refers to existing theory, concepts, and definitions that you use to collect relevant data and offer meaningful empirical findings. Providing an overall orientation or lens, it guides your understanding of the research problem and directs your approach to data collection and analysis .

Your chosen theoretical framework directly influences your research questions and methodological choices . It contains specific theories or sets of assumptions drawn from relevant disciplines—such as sociology, psychology, or economics—that you apply to understand your research topic. These existing models and concepts are tools to help you organize and make sense of your data.

The theoretical framework also plays a key role in crafting your research questions and objectives. By determining the theories that are relevant to your research, the theoretical framework shapes the nature and direction of your study. It's essential to note, however, that the theoretical framework's role in qualitative research is not to predict outcomes. Instead, it offers a broader structure to understand and interpret your data, enabling you to situate your findings within the broader academic discourse in a way that makes your research findings meaningful to you and your research audience.

Conceptual frameworks , though related to theoretical frameworks , serve distinct functions within research. This section reexamines the characteristics and functions of conceptual frameworks to provide a better understanding of their roles in qualitative research .

A conceptual framework, in essence, is a system of concepts, assumptions, and beliefs that supports and informs your research. It outlines the specific variables or concepts you'll examine in your study and proposes relationships between them. It's more detailed and specific than a theoretical framework, acting as a contextualized guide for the collection and interpretation of empirical data.

The main role of a conceptual framework is to illustrate the presumed relationships between the variables or concepts you're investigating. These variables or concepts, which you derive from your theoretical framework, are integral to your research questions , objectives, and hypotheses . The conceptual framework shows how you theorize these concepts are related, providing a visual or narrative model of your research.

literature review vs conceptual framework

A study's own conceptual framework plays a vital role in guiding the data collection process and the subsequent analysis . The conceptual framework specifies which data you need to collect and provides a structure for interpreting and making sense of the collected data. For instance, if your conceptual framework identifies a particular variable as impacting another, your data collection and analysis will be geared towards investigating this relationship.

literature review vs conceptual framework

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Though interconnected, theoretical and conceptual frameworks have distinct roles in research and contribute differently to the research. This section will contrast the two in terms of scope, purpose, their role in the research process, and their relationship to the data analysis strategy and research question .

Scope and purpose of theoretical and conceptual frameworks

Theoretical and conceptual frameworks differ fundamentally in their scope. Theoretical frameworks provide a broad and general view of the research problem, rooted in established theories. They explain phenomena by applying a particular theoretical lens. Conceptual frameworks, on the other hand, offer a more focused view of the specific research problem. They explicitly outline the concrete concepts and variables involved in the study and the relationships between them.

While both frameworks guide the research process, they do so in different ways. Theoretical frameworks guide the overall approach to understanding the research problem by indicating the broader conversation the researcher is contributing to and shaping the research questions.

Conceptual frameworks provide a map for the study, guiding the data collection and interpretation process, including what variables or concepts to explore and how to analyze them.

Study design and data analysis

The two types of frameworks relate differently to the research question and design. The theoretical framework often inspires the research question based on previous theories' predictions or understanding about the phenomena under investigation. A conceptual framework then emerges from the research question, providing a contextualized structure for what exactly the research will explore.

Theoretical and conceptual frameworks also play distinct roles in data analysis. Theoretical frameworks provide the lens for interpreting the data, informing what kinds of themes and patterns might be relevant. Conceptual frameworks, however, present the variables concepts and variables and the relationships among them that will be analyzed. Conceptual frameworks may illustrate concepts and relationships based on previous theory, but they can also include novel concepts or relationships that stem from the particular context being studied.

Finally, the two types of frameworks relate differently to the research question and design. The theoretical framework basically differs from the conceptual framework in that it often inspires the research question based on the theories' predictions about the phenomena under investigation. A conceptual framework, on the other hand, emerges from the research question, providing a structure for investigating it.

Using case studies , we can effectively demonstrate the differences between theoretical and conceptual frameworks. Let’s take a look at some real-world examples that highlight the unique role and function of each framework within a research context.

Consider a study exploring the impact of classroom environments on student learning outcomes. The theoretical framework might be grounded in Piaget's theory of cognitive development, which offers a broad lens for understanding how students learn and process information.

Within this theoretical framework, the researcher formulates the conceptual framework. The conceptual framework identifies specific variables to study such as classroom layout, teacher-student ratio, availability of learning materials, and student performance as the dependent variable. It then outlines the expected relationships between these variables, such as proposing that a lower teacher-student ratio and well-equipped classrooms positively impact student performance.

literature review vs conceptual framework

Another study might aim to understand the factors influencing the job satisfaction of employees in a corporate setting. The theoretical framework could be based on Maslow's hierarchy of needs, interpreting job satisfaction in terms of fulfilling employees' physiological, safety, social, esteem, and self-actualization needs.

From this theoretical perspective, the researcher constructs the conceptual framework, identifying specific variables such as salary (physiological needs), job security (safety needs), teamwork (social needs), recognition (esteem needs), and career development opportunities (self-actualization needs). The conceptual framework proposes relationships among these variables and job satisfaction, such as higher salaries and more recognition being related to higher job satisfaction.

literature review vs conceptual framework

After understanding the unique roles and functions of these types of frameworks, you might ask: How do I develop them for my study? It's essential to remember that it's not a question of choosing one over the other, as both frameworks can and often do coexist within the same research project.

The choice of a theoretical and a conceptual framework often depends on the nature of your research question . If your research question is more exploratory and requires a broad understanding of the problem, a theoretical framework can provide a useful lens for interpretation. However, your conceptual framework may end up looking rather different to previous theory as you collect data and discover new concepts or relationships.

Consider the nature of your research problem as well. If you are studying a well-researched problem and there are established theories about it, using a theoretical framework to interpret your findings in light of these theories might be beneficial. But if your study explores a novel problem or aims to understand specific processes or relationships, developing a conceptual framework that maps these specific elements could prove more effective.

literature review vs conceptual framework

Your research methodology could also inform your choice. If your study is more interpretive and aims to understand people's experiences and perceptions, a theoretical framework can outline broader concepts that are relevant to approaching your study. Your conceptual framework can then shed light on the specific concepts that emerged in your data. By carefully thinking through your theoretical and conceptual frameworks, you can effectively utilize both types of frameworks in your research, ensuring a solid foundation for your study.

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Home » Education » What is the Difference Between Literature Review and Theoretical Framework

What is the Difference Between Literature Review and Theoretical Framework

The main difference between literature review and theoretical framework is their function. The literature review explores what has already been written about the topic under study in order to highlight a gap, whereas the theoretical framework is the conceptual and analytical approach the researcher is going to take to fill that gap.

Literature review and theoretical framework are two indispensable components of research . Both are equally important for the foundation of a research study.

Key Areas Covered

1.  What is Literature Review       – Definition, Features 2.  What is Theoretical Framework      – Definition, Features 3.  Difference Between Literature Review and Theoretical Framework      – Comparison of Key Differences

Difference Between Literature Review and Theoretical Framework - Comparison Summary

What is a Literature Review

A literature review is a vital component of a research study. A literature review is a discussion on the already existing material in the subject area. Thus, this will require a collection of published (in print or online) work concerning the selected research area. In other words, a literature review is a review of the literature in the related subject area. A literature review makes a case for the research study. It analyzes the existing literature in order to identify and highlight a gap in the literature.

Literature Review and Theoretical Framework

Moreover, a good literature review is a critical discussion, displaying the writer’s knowledge of relevant theories and approaches and awareness of contrasting arguments. A literature review should have the following features (Caulley, 1992)

  • Compare and contrast different researchers’ views
  • Identify areas in which researchers are in disagreement
  • Group researchers who have similar conclusions
  • Criticize the  methodology
  • Highlight exemplary studies
  • Highlight gaps in research
  • Indicate the connection between your study and previous studies
  • Indicate how your study will contribute to the literature in general
  • Conclude by summarizing what the literature indicates

Furthermore, the structure of a literature review is similar to that of an article or essay . Overall, literature reviews help researchers to evaluate the existing literature, identify a gap in the research area, place their study in the existing research and identify future research.

What is a Theoretical Framework

The theoretical framework is the research component that introduces and describes the theory that explains why the research problem under study exists. It is also the conceptual and analytical approach the researcher is going to take to fill the research gap identified by the literature review. Moreover, it is the structure that holds the structure of the research theory.

The researcher may not easily find the theoretical framework within the literature. Therefore, he or she may have to go through many research studies and course readings for theories and models relevant to the research problem under investigation. In addition, the theory must be selected based on its relevance, ease of application, and explanatory power.

Difference Between Literature Review and Theoretical Framework

A literature review is a critical evaluation of the existing published work in a selected research area, while a theoretical framework is a component in research that introduces and describes the theory behind the research problem.

Moreover, the literature review explores what has already been written about the topic under investigation in order to highlight a gap, whereas the theoretical framework is the conceptual and analytical approach the researcher is going to take to fill that gap. Therefore, a literature review is backwards-looking while theory framework is forward-looking.

In conclusion, the main difference between literature review and theoretical framework is their function. The literature review explores what has already been written about the topic under study in order to highlight a gap, whereas the theoretical framework is the conceptual and analytical approach the researcher is going to take to fill that gap.

1. Caulley, D. N. “Writing a critical review of the literature.” La Trobe University: Bundoora (1992). 2. “ Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper: Theoretical Framework .” Research Guide.

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How to write a PhD in a hundred steps (or more)

A workingmumscholar's journey through her phd and beyond, literature review or ‘contextual framework’.

Literature reviews are the one section of a PhD thesis, article or undergraduate assignment that strike fear into the hearts of even the most confident of students. Why are we so terrified of them? Reams of writing, many blogs and online advice pages, and hours of anxiety are devoted to literature reviews – the writing, reading, summarising, connecting, re-writing and re-reading that seem overwhelming at times. I am supervising a PhD student who is currently writing her literature review, and reading her 4th draft this week, a thought occurred to me: she isn’t writing a ‘review’ of the relevant literature; she is building, using the selected literature she has read as bricks and mortar, a contextual framework for her study. It seems to me that dropping the whole notion of a literature review  and replacing it with a notion of creating a contextual framework, or rationale and foundation, for your study would offer you a few helpful insights into what you are actually trying to achieve with this part of your writing.

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The first is organisation : to write a PhD thesis, a book, or even a very well researched journal article, you need to do a large amount of reading. You will read many books and papers that are useful and clearly connected to your research, and you will read others that are less useful and may need to be left out of the writing. If you are writing a literature review, the temptation is often to use this part of the thesis or paper almost as proof of how much work you have done, and therefore how credible you are as a scholar. It is tempting to find a way to bring in every study you have read, and every paper and book, laboriously summarising for the reader every argument, valid point and connection with other similar or different texts. What may well happen then is a sense, for your reader, of a lack of organisation. Rather than selecting and situating relevant texts you have read in relation to one another and your study , you are simply showing them how much reading you have done and what all of the reading says about all the topics that may be relevant to your research. So it is a kind of literature review, but not one that will help your reader find their way into the specific context for your study.

The second thing thinking about a contextual framework, rather than a literature review, could offer you is focus . Start with your specific study, and your research questions: what is this study about, in a couple of sentences? What main research question are you trying to answer? The research question will be refined as your study progresses, but you need to have a good sense of it earlier on to ensure that you keep your reading on track  and relevant. What is the context you need to create for your readers, so that they understand a) what this research is about, b) why this research is so necessary or significant, and c) where or how what you propose to research will make a contribution to scholarship in your field of study (the gap you aim to fill)? By focusing on, and adapting for your study, these questions, you can better choose firstly to do the relevant or useful reading, and secondly choose the most relevant reading you have done to include in the framework, organising it to tell a more logical story about the research you are doing, how the questions emerged for you, and how what you are writing about will tie into or contribute to your field.


By thinking of this section of your study rather as a contextual framework, a structure that will provide a foundation for what will come next in terms of the conceptual/theoretical and methodological frameworks or sections, and the data analysis, findings and conclusions later on, you could avoid this literature review pitfall. This section of any thesis or paper will never be easy, I don’t think. For PhD students especially, working out what you actually think in relation to so many published voices who seem to have so much more authority and right to speak that you do can be scary, and overwhelming.

Often, I think, literature reviews that read as turgid lists of everything the student has read come from that place of being scared that they haven’t done enough, or read enough, and they so badly want to appear and be credible and authoritative. Part of becoming a doctor is learning to manage that fear, and find a way to focus your writing and research on what will make the clearest, most sensible and accessible argument for your readers. Thinking of creating a contextual framework – a holding structure for your thesis that will connect into your conceptual/theoretical and methodological frameworks to create a very clear foundation, set of tools and action plan for your thesis or paper, might be a way of doing just that. I’d love to hear from you if you feel this helps, or if you have found other ways to make literature review writing less scary and challenging.

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I love ‘contextual framework’! It makes so much more sense than literature review.

Me too! Thanks for the comment 🙂

When I worked in what was then called the Environmental Education Unit here at Rhodes I was intrigued that the assignment required of Masters students BEFORE coming to the first of a number of week-long sessions, was a reflective piece on their ‘context of practice’. The first major assignment, after the first session, was a detailed contextual profile of their practice (and therefore study). I followed this process when doing my PhD – and for all the reasons you state above – it seemed to be a really useful way to help frame thinking. Great blog!

Thanks, Karen :). Part of the inspiration was also seeing the number of undergraduate students that are being required to write literature reviews as stand-alone assignments with no research project context, which then are summary and synthesis exercises. I think that those who do become postgrads carry this way of reviewing literature through with them, and then really battle to move beyond it to a different, more authoritative and context-driven kind of writing about the literature that frames and founds their study.

I am on your side Sherran! I have never liked the idea of a ‘literature review’ as such. For me it is a process rather than a product. It is what we need to do – to review the literature in order to situate our study, but we also need to review the literature to frame our work theoretically and to inform it methodologically. We do it to inform every part of our research. So yes! Call it the ‘Contextual framework’ or any other appropriate title that blows your hair back – but I agree NOT the Literature Review!!

Thanks Sue! What other terms or metaphors would be useful?

[…] review): gap filling. Here, what I did was work put very carefully exactly what the gap in my contextual framework was, and what I needed by way of literature to fill it. I needed a few tight, clear paragraphs on […]

[…] the literature review I will be doing far more than copying and pasting from my summaries: I will be drawing out key […]

[…] Contextual frameworks ( https://phdinahundredsteps.wordpress.com/2016/02/29/literature-review-or-contextual-framework/ ) […]

[…] have written here and here and here about literature reviews, and Pat Thomson and Inger Mewburn have some useful […]

[…] what is known in relation to what you want to find out, and creating different kinds of necessary frameworks for your own research, is a significant, and vital, part of research. And there is so much to read […]

The contextual framework involves literature-based claims on how problems are addressed by referring to various countries, cultural backgrounds, beliefs, moral values and organisational structures.

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Theoretical vs. conceptual frameworks: Simple definitions and an overview of key differences

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Understanding the differences between theoretical and conceptual frameworks in research, including thesis writing, can be challenging. Therefore, here are easy-to-understand explanations and definitions of both theoretical and conceptual frameworks, along with frequently asked questions and a detailed comparison. Additionally, a helpful comparison table of key differences will help you grasp the distinction between theoretical and conceptual frameworks once and for all.

Does every research have a theoretical framework?

What is the scope of a theoretical framework in research, how do i develop a theoretical framework, does every research have a conceptual framework, do you develop a conceptual model for both quantitative and qualitative research, what is the relationship between a conceptual framework and a theoretical framework, level of detail, application, an easily understandable definition of a theoretical framework.

A theoretical framework forms the backbone of every new research endeavor; we never start from complete scratch but always have some preconceived ideas in mind.

In academic papers, the literature review section is sometimes even labeled as the ‘theoretical framework.’ This practice underscores the foundational role of existing theories and academic research in shaping theoretical frameworks.

Let’s first understand what a theory is. According to the Oxford Language Dictionary , a theory is “ a supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something, especially one based on general principles independent of the thing to be explained. ” In simpler terms, a theory represents general principles or rules that apply to many situations.

Once we understand what a theory is, a theoretical framework becomes easy to define:

A theoretical framework can be defined as the general principles or rules that can be applied to understand and explain your research topic.

Thus, in research, a theoretical framework guides us by using existing theories and general principles to analyze a research topic.

We build a theoretical framework for our research by identifying relevant theories and presenting existing knowledge on the topic.

Every research includes a theoretical framework. While some researchers explicitly state and apply their chosen framework, others may not mention it overtly. Regardless, every research inherently relies on a theoretical foundation, which shapes new insights and principles based on existing knowledge. Whether implicit or explicit, the theoretical framework is an integral part of the research process.

The scope of a theoretical framework varies. For instance, a theoretical framework for a PhD thesis is typically much more detailed than one for a bachelor’s thesis. Additionally, some researchers choose to use a single specific theory as the primary lens for their research. Others may define a more expansive theoretical framework that includes different theories, elements, and related discussions.

Developing a theoretical framework involves thoroughly reviewing discussions on your research topic, usually through a literature review. Explore the theories that scholars employ to explain phenomena related to your research, and look for patterns in their findings. This can aid in establishing general principles or rules that may also be applicable to your specific topic.

You may also like: How to harness theoretical and conceptual frameworks for groundbreaking research

An easily understandable definition of a conceptual framework

Theoretical frameworks often cover a broad spectrum of elements and dynamics. However, effective research is typically precise and focused. This is where conceptual frameworks play a crucial role.

A conceptual framework is like a practical version of a theoretical framework. It’s closely related to a theoretical model but gives a more focused explanation of what you will study, zooming in on several key concepts and variables.

Therefore, in academic language, it is often stated that a conceptual framework operationalizes the general principles of theoretical frameworks. Operationalizing refers to the process of turning abstract concepts or variables into more concrete, measurable terms.

Therefore, a conceptual model primarily helps you organize your research by serving as a guide, clarifying the key concepts you plan to investigate.

A theoretical framework relies more on existing research, while a conceptual framework incorporates more of your own ideas about which variables to analyze and which relationships to explore.

Every research project includes a conceptual framework, but some researchers emphasize it more clearly. In thesis writing, for example, the conceptual framework is often prominently featured. This is sometimes done in a conceptual model—a visual representation of the concepts and variables being studied. However, some researchers choose not to explicitly mention it. Nonetheless, as a student at any level, it’s beneficial to clearly explain your conceptual framework.

Yes, you can develop a conceptual model for both quantitative and qualitative research. In quantitative research, the conceptual model typically includes hypotheses about the relationships between variables, which are tested for instance by using statistical analysis. In qualitative research, the conceptual model helps to guide the exploration of concepts and relationships through in-depth qualitative analysis of data. So, while the specific elements and methods of application may differ between quantitative and qualitative research, the conceptual model plays a crucial role in both approaches.

Conceptual and theoretical frameworks are closely intertwined. The conceptual framework translates abstract theoretical ideas into tangible elements for study, ensuring that the research remains grounded in established theories and hypotheses. In essence, the conceptual framework is built upon the theoretical framework, as it directly applies theoretical concepts to the research context, helping to structure and guide the investigation. Therefore, you should always ensure that any variable included in your conceptual framework has been addressed in some manner within your theoretical framework.

Key differences between theoretical and conceptual frameworks

In research, frameworks play crucial roles in guiding studies, but they differ in various aspects. Nonetheless, it is imperative to bear the following in mind:

Though distinct, conceptual and theoretical frameworks are not mutually exclusive; rather, they complement each other in the research process.

That said, understanding the fundamental distinctions between theoretical and conceptual frameworks, including their nature, purpose, origin, level of detail, and application, is essential for conducting good research.

In the table below, you can find a summary of the key differences between theoretical and conceptual frameworks. And if you want to know more about how to apply these frameworks in practice, check out this post.

literature review vs conceptual framework

Theoretical frameworks encapsulate abstract principles in a field, providing an overarching view of established theories that guide research. This is often achieved through a comprehensive review of existing academic literature and research findings within the field of study. Conversely, conceptual frameworks adopt a more hands-on approach, emphasizing practicality and specificity. They engage in the operationalization of abstract concepts, translating them into measurable variables tailored to the particulars of a given study.

The primary objective of theoretical frameworks lies in explaining underlying principles, assumptions, and relationships between variables, thus providing researchers with a theoretical lens to interpret findings and generate hypotheses. Conceptual frameworks, on the other hand, aim to provide structure and understanding within the confines of a specific study. They offer researchers a roadmap for organizing and comprehending key concepts and variables, facilitating a more focused research journey.

Theoretical frameworks often originate from established theories and bodies of research within a discipline, offering a solid foundation upon which to build further investigations. Conceptual frameworks, while drawing from existing theories, are more flexible. They may introduce additional concepts specific to the research topic or context, thus allowing for customization and adaptability in research design.

Theoretical frameworks provide a big-picture perspective, offering an overview of fundamental principles in a field. On the other hand, conceptual frameworks offer a detailed roadmap, guiding researchers on how to translate abstract concepts into practical variables for their study.

Theoretical frameworks find application across various research studies within a specific field or discipline. They provide a theoretical basis for understanding phenomena and generating hypotheses, contributing to the advancement of theoretical understanding within the field. Conversely, conceptual frameworks are commonly employed in empirical research studies. They guide researchers through the practical aspects of data collection, analysis, and interpretation, laying a solid foundation for empirical investigations.

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What's the difference between a theoretical framework and a conceptual framework?

What’s the difference between a theoretical framework and a conceptual framework?

A theoretical framework is based on existing theories that relate to your research topic. It offers a lens through which you can view and analyze your study, providing a broad explanation that guides your research.

A conceptual framework, on the other hand, is more specific to your particular study. It outlines the key concepts and variables you’ll be investigating and how you believe they are related.

In essence, a theoretical framework provides a general perspective grounded in established theories, while a conceptual framework is a roadmap of your study, tailored to illustrate how you plan to explore your specific research question.

literature review vs conceptual framework

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