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Dissertation Workshop: Theoretical Framework an Essential ‘Steering Wheel’

The authors are part of the AACTE Holmes Program at Florida Atlantic University. For information about the program, visit aacte.org. The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect the views of AACTE.

On March 27, Holmes Scholars at Florida Atlantic University hosted a research workshop, “Understanding the Role of the Theoretical and Conceptual Frameworks in Dissertation Research.” More than 30 doctoral students and faculty attended the event with the university’s four Holmes Scholars – Kalynn Hall Pistorio, Kayla Elliott, Deborah McEwan, and Brianna Joseph (pictured above, standing, along with Holmes Coordinator Professor Rangasamy Ramasamy).

An informal analogy emerged as the general theme of the workshop, in which the theoretical framework was characterized as a “steering wheel,” keeping the “car” that is dissertation research moving in the right direction. Participants discussed the overall purpose of this essential component as well as the difference between a conceptual and a theoretical framework, and when it may be appropriate to have both; the relationships between the theoretical framework and methodology and data analysis; and common dissertation errors to avoid.

Four College of Education faculty members served as panelists:

  • Patricia Maslin-Ostrowski, Professor, Department of Educational Leadership and Research Methodology
  • John Morris, Professor Emeritus, Department of Educational Leadership and Research Methodology
  • Dilys Schoorman, Professor and Chair, Department of Curriculum, Culture, and Educational Inquiry
  • Maria Vasquez, Associate Professor, Department of Educational Leadership and Research Methodology

The following synopsis captures key questions and insights shared at the workshop:

What is a theoretical or conceptual framework?

The faculty panelists offered the following descriptions for a theoretical or conceptual framework:

  • A representation of the researcher’s perspective. This perspective should be provided from the beginning. It frames the entire study by guiding and influencing the methodology and the analysis.
  • A structure that allows the researcher to capture concepts and relationships: What are the relationships between different constructs? What are the connections and disconnects?
  • An alignment tool for every part of the study. Research questions are derived from the framework, which may be simple or complicated, and everything else should align with it.

Panelists urged students to verbalize their theoretical/conceptual frameworks frequently to enhance their personal understanding of how it informs their research. Students should know their framework because someone else may offer a different perspective.

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

Panelists noted that although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, nuanced differences exist between theoretical and conceptual frameworks. Theoretical frameworks are typically associated with established works and theorists, they said, while conceptual frameworks include a combination of thoughts and ideas that may not be yet proven.

One professor offered an example based on her current student dissertations: For research on the effects of standardized testing, the work of Pierre Bourdieu provides a theoretical framework, while James Banks’ “Five Dimensions of Multicultural Education” offers more of a conceptual framework on how to teach multicultural education. Another example was offered in relationship to faculty governance, which from a conceptual stance is based on democratic decision making rather than a specific theory of governance. A participant suggested that if a designated framework is predictive, it could be more theoretical than conceptual.

Regardless of the nuances between theoretical and conceptual frameworks, students were urged to meet publishers’ specific guidelines. If the guidelines request a theoretical framework, label the framework as such, even if it is more of a conceptual framework, and be sure to delineate the variables and constructs that are pertinent to the research, panelists said.

Is a theoretical or conceptual framework always necessary?

Yes! An audience member inquired if a theoretical/conceptual framework is always necessary, such as if the design is purely quantitative. The panelists acknowledged that some research articles do not explicitly state the usage or integration of a theoretical framework, and one may be embedded in the study without being precisely labeled. But many manuscripts are rejected for publication due to the absence of a framework, and it is considered mandatory in top-notch journals.

One study may have different potential theoretical frameworks. For example, research related to gun violence may be approached from varying perspectives, such as political rights or a medical assessment of the ability to save lives based on the type of weapon used. The theoretical framework provides a method of understanding the research, and it may be embedded within a particular context.

How can a student identify or develop a theoretical or conceptual framework?

Panelists encouraged students to immerse themselves in the literature to select their theoretical framework. The following panelists’ comments were noteworthy:

  • The theoretical framework may find you in an “aha” moment.
  • Discover what is known in the literature, which may be different from your initial perspective.
  • Read several articles. The theoretical framework is not “alien.” It is in there.
  • It may be new or borrowed from the literature, but there is something new that you want to figure out.
  • The literature review is never really done.

What are some common dissertation errors?

  • A disconnect between the theoretical framework and methodology.
  • A disconnect between the theoretical framework and data analysis.
  • Tunnel vision regarding the chosen theoretical/conceptual framework, caused by focusing too narrowly on one theorist or one discipline; students may miss other pertinent connections to inform their research.

Panelists advised that a visual representation of the theoretical framework is helpful, but it must be accompanied by a detailed narrative. They also recommended using the maximum word count for the abstract; often, students are mentally exhausted by the time they need to write the abstract and they do not optimize the word count. The abstract should address every part of the study, they said.

Finally, the professors advised doctoral students to view their research and dissertation as a form of apprenticeship and realize that the dissertation is only one study in their career and not the study. As a part of the apprenticeship, students should participate and collaborate in any part of the research process they can, such as data collection and data entry. In addition, students should consider long-term career implications, such as what is next, to avoid thinking of the dissertation as the finish line.

A major caveat that emerged from the workshop was this: If the entire research process is not in alignment, the car cannot arrive at its desired destination. So keep your hands on that steering wheel!

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Rangasamy Ramasamy

Holmes Program Coordinator and Professor of Exceptional Student Education, Florida Atlantic University

Deborah McEwan

Holmes Scholar, Department of Curriculum, Culture, and Educational Inquiry, Florida Atlantic University