Theory: A Primer

Theory tells you why. Let me tell you why.

Author

Eleanor C Sayre

Abstract

What is theory for? Theory shapes your research project, from connecting your research questions and your data streams to guiding what matters about your project and how to communicate about it. This article outlines what theory is for, how to use it, and a framework for classifying theories you find in the literature.

What is theory for?

Theory tells you why.

  • When you are just getting started thinking about your research interests, theory helps you connect the things you care about in the world – improving student learning, supporting inclusive practices, discovering patterns of human cognition, etc – with broader principles and existing conversations on those topics.
  • When you are designing your research project, theory helps you refine your research questions and connect the parts of your project together.
  • When you are collecting and analyzing your data, theory tells you why your observations are meaningful and in what ways your analyses generate new knowledge.
  • As you go through each iteration of your project, theory guides what you look for to make changes to your existing work, evaluate how you meet your goals, and decide how to proceed.
  • When you are communicating your results, theory helps you join a bigger conversation in the literature by situating your project within a broader tradition of scholarly work and supporting your conversations with other researchers. Without a theoretical framework, your observations are meaningless and your work is unpublishable.

All along the way, theory tells you why: why you do what you do, why it is important, and why your next steps are appropriate.

Theory in other fields

In other fields, theory often fulfills these roles as well as others. However, the ways that other fields talk about theory are sometimes different. If your journey into education research started with classical training in STEM, then you might be used to talking about or using theory in another way. That’s ok.

Which theory should I use?

The best theories are (a) explicit; (b) well-matched to your research question and methods; and (c) intentionally chosen. There isn’t a “best theory” for everyone, or even every research question, and there are a lot of options available.

Within a family of research questions, researchers may disagree about which theories to use. That’s normal: different researchers care about different topics, even within the same kinds of research studies, so they pick different theories so that they can attend to the parts they care about more.

For example of these subtle differences and their implications, the article on Resources and Misconceptions delves into comparing two theories in more detail.

You might find that you need to use multiple theories to best connect all the parts of your research question with your data. That’s ok. You might find that combining multiple theories suggests research questions. That’s awesome.

A note on terminology

There are a number of related words and phrases to name this idea: e.g. theory, theoretical framework, conceptual framework, theoretical lens, theory worldview. Taken collectively, these terms are all trying to answer one big question: What are the ideas in your research, and why are those ideas important?

Different fields – and different authors within each field – mean a slightly different thing by each of these terms. The thing that some people call theory, other people call theoretical framework, and vice versa. Some people can get very heated about the differences that they perceive or the terminology norms in their particular corner of the research landscape. Because some people care a lot and “correct” definitions depend on who you talk to, you should be prepared to adjust your language based on your audience.

In this Handbook, I use theory and theoretical framework in an inclusive sense to stand for all of these terms.

A framework for organizing theories

As you interact with the research community through reading papers and talking to people, you will encounter theories. You can do this in an opportunistic or haphazard way, making note of what theories you encounter and how they work. You can do this in an intentional way, deliberately seeking theories that help you with your project.

As you encounter theories, either opportunistically or intentionally, you need a framework to help you organize them. Your framework should help you classify a theory when you first encounter it: what kind of theory is this?

As you engage with it more, you might ask yourself some additional questions:

  • how might this theory align with my project?
  • what parts of this theory speak to what really matters to me?
  • how might this help me make decisions about how to structure my study? interpret my data?
  • who else uses this theory, and how do I want to be in conversation with them?

This block of questions can be complicated to answer, so let’s focus on a classification scheme that will help you quickly decide how much time you want to spend with a particular theory.

As you learn more theories and build a more robust understanding of the theory landscape in your field, you might find that there are other questions to ask that help you distinguish among theories. That’s great! This primer is just here to get you started, or to help you meaningfully stretch into an adjacent field.

There are a lot of frameworks already available in the literature, but this one is my favorite. It’s accessible for emerging researchers because it doesn’t depend on broad knowledge of history in the field. It’s general enough to handle almost all of the theories that I’ve encountered, but specific enough to help me make meaningful classifications. The scheme itself is simple, so there aren’t a lot of parts to keep track of. Applying the scheme is fast, because you only need to answer one question.

These features – accessible, general-yet-specific, simple, and fast – make this a practical framework for classifying theories. Think of yourself as a 19th century biologist encountering new species in the wild: what kind of thing is this?

This is not a complete list of theories.

In this article, I outline a framework for classifying theories, and illustrate the framework with examples. It is not an exhaustive list of all theories in education research. It’s not even a complete list of all the theories I have personally used.

What entities are the subject of this research?

This framework asks one question: What entities are the subject of this research?

Ideas

Ideas are held within humans’ heads. Idea-level research focuses on how ideas change or grow.

Individuals

Individuals are, well, people. Individual-level research focuses on how ideas interact in people, not how people interact together.

Community

A community is a group of individuals who interact together, like a class, small group, or research field. Community-level research focuses on how individuals interact.

Systems

Systems are interacting (and perhaps overlapping) groups of communities. Systems-level research focuses on how communities behave in a larger ecosystem.

In general, each research question operates at only one level. If you have a larger project with multiple research questions, each of those questions might operate at a different level, or they might all be at the same level.

It’s possible (but rare) for a single research question to span multiple levels. If you think yours might, consider splitting it into two related questions, so that you can choose a good theoretical framework for each part.

For each of these levels, research projects can be qualitative, quantitative, or both. All categories of data are useful at all levels. Similarly, each of these levels can be used in a small project or a large one: the choice of theoretical level does not determine the size of your project.

Let’s go into a little more detail for each of these.

Blaise teaches a course on differential equations, and he noticed that his students aren’t learning as much as he would like. Blaise’s goal is to help his students learn more, and he starts thinking more carefully about the best ways to do that.

Blaise starts with a general research question: how does participation in a reformed course affect students? He needs to refine this research question so that he can figure out what theory to use, so he tries on questions at each level to see which one resonates with him the most.

Ideas

Idea-level theories focus on beliefs and thinking. The focus of the research is on the ideas themselves, not the people holding them. Often the idea itself can be named in the research question.

Studies at the ideas level often look at context in a narrow way: how does changing the phrasing of this question change which ideas are elicited, or how do students’ ideas on this topic change from the beginning to the end of the course?

Example questions

  • What are students’ ideas about mitosis?
  • How do students use graphs in their electrical engineering circuits course?
  • How do students in calculus conceptualize functions, compared to students in introductory computer science?
  • Which kind of lab improves student understanding of how to calculate uncertainty?

When Blaise tries on the Ideas level, his question becomes: What ideas do students bring into his classroom from their prior calculus courses?

To investigate this question, Blaise plans to ask his students about their calculus ideas (like rate of change) at the beginning of his course. He could do this qualitatively (e.g. with interviews) or quantitatively (e.g. with a survey).

Example theories

Individuals

Individual-level theories focus on people. The focus is on the individual (student or teacher or participant). Studies at the individuals level often examine how individual humans: combine multiple ideas in one context; change their ideas across contexts; or act within a particular context.

Example questions

  • What is the effect of gender on grades in introductory courses in the college of science?
  • How does students’ sense of belonging affect their persistence in chemistry?
  • How do students’ ideas about functions change from their calculus classrooms to their computer science classrooms?

When Blaise tries on the Individuals level, his question becomes: How does students’ major affect the ways they think about key concepts in his course, like rate of change or the importance of proofs?

To investigate this question, Blaise plans to look for connections between students’ majors and their performance on homework and exam questions. He could also conduct focus groups with students stratified by major, to see if math majors talk about proofs differently than physics majors.

Example theories

  • Sense of belonging
  • Socio-cognitive career theory
  • Future possible selves

Comparing Ideas and Individuals

In contrast to the ideas level, studies at the individuals level focus on the person as a whole, rather than disembodied ideas, and they tend to look at context a bit more broadly as well. If your research question looks at how something about a person (e.g. their personal demographics) interacts with a context or setting (e.g. your course) to change their ideas, then you’re probably looking at the individuals level.

aspect Ideas Individuals
Context Narrower: how does changing question phrasing change which ideas are elicited? Broader: how do these different courses affect students?
Student demographics Less important, but might affect which ideas are prevalent. More important because they are a core part of who each person is.
Learning is A process of accumulating more (correct) knowledge Mediated by your experiences and who you are as a person

Arthur’s department teaches an introductory class with 8 different instructors and 10 different GTAs. Many students are struggling with the mathematical formalism, so the department is going to revise the curriculum to support students’ math skills and problem solving. Arthur plans to collect some baseline data so that they will know if the changes are working.

Arthur should focus on the ideas level to investigate students’ math skills and therefore see if they can be improved later.

However, maybe Arthur’s department is worried about students’ math skills because this course has a high drop / withdraw / failure (DFW) rate. In that case, Arthur might actually have an individuals question: what aspects of a student (or their preparation) help them succeed in the course?

Community

Community-level theories focus on how people interact in groups. A community is a collection of individuals who work together, share values or practices, or collaborate in some way. Communities can be small (e.g. 3-4 people) or large (e.g. thousands of people), and they’re often identified by collective nouns (e.g. a lab group, the class, refugees, black twitter).

Example questions

  • What classroom practices promote equity course discussions?
  • How has membership in the research community grown over time?
  • How do children and undergraduates interact during Science Club?

When Blaise tries on the Community level, his question becomes: how does my department support students’ growth throughout the undergraduate mathematics curriculum?

To investigate this question, Blaise sits down with his colleagues who teach Calculus III (the course before his) and Partial Differential Equations (the course after his). They talk about course structures and content, as well as the Math Help Center, to identify ways that the departmental community helps students see mathematics as cohesive and the department as supportive.

Example theories

  • Communities of Practice
  • Social Network Analysis

Comparing Individuals and Community

In contrast to the individuals level, studies at the community level focus on how people interact together, or how practices and values are shared or communicated in a group. While studies at the individuals level might look broadly at the overlapping identities and contexts each person finds themself in, community-level projects tend to look how one context – the context that the community as a whole exists in – might affect the interactions of the participants in the community.

aspect Individuals Community
Context Follows the person: how do these different courses affect each student? Follows the setting: how do the labs in this course affect how students interact?
Learning is a process of gaining knowledge becoming a full participant in a community
Values Something an individual has, because of their personal demographics or past experiences Something that a community holds in common, as evidenced by their activities and/or policies.
When people interact it’s important to attribute ideas and contributions to each person it’s ok if the group holds an idea in common without attributing it to a single person

Sanjay is the faculty coordinator for Science Club, an after school activity for elementary school children ages 6-10. Children meet in Science Club, where undergraduate students are responsible for different activity stations, such as building with Lego or writing code or checking on plants in the garden. Sanjay wants more undergraduates to participate in Science Club more regularly, but he’s not sure how to make that happen given his limited budget.

If Sanjay wants to focus at the individuals level, he might look for how participation in Science Club affects his undergraduates’ professional goals, or which aspects of their backgrounds help them be excited about participating.

If he wants to focus at the community level, he might look for what practices the undergraduates do together: how they decide which activities will be available, who staffs each room, and how new undergraduates are made to feel welcome.

Systems

Systems deal with human systems at the intersection of community, policy, and culture. Systems level questions often deal with multiple, overlapping communities, such as multiple departments within one University, or a department within a university within a national higher education landscape. These theories investigate how policies and culture intersect with each other or enact broader societal trends.

Systems questions are often used in “large” research questions, while subquestions may deal with community or individuals level. Critical theories are critical of systems and their disparate impact on people with different identities, and are particularly focused on how overlapping systems of oppression elevate some people in some ways at the expense of others.

The job of critical theory is to make you angry by teaching you to see oppression everywhere. What has been seen cannot be unseen.

Example questions

  • How do departmental values and practices differ at different institutions as a result of their institutional cultures, geographic locations, and physical architecture?
  • Why is physics the most discriminatory science?
  • How do the experiences of black PhD students change from the 1970s to the 2020s?

When Blaise tries on the Systems level, his question becomes: how do my department’s implicit policies drive away some students, and how are those policies derived from math as a field or the institution as a whole?

To get started on this question, Blaise meets with the head of the Queer Student Center, the faculty advisor for the Blacks in Engineering student group, and the Society of Math Students’ leadership team. He’s listening for the barriers that their members experience to get a sense of what his department’s implicit policies might be, and to seek partnership with them moving forward to identify common cause and productive futures.

Example theories

  • Complexity Theory
  • Critical Theory

Comparing Community and Systems

In contrast to the community level, studies at the systems level focus on how groups of people interact with other groups, or how practices and policies are similar or different across groups. While the community level tends to focus on the context of one community, acknowledging that participants also exist in other overlapping communities, systems level questions tend to embrace the overlap among different communities.

If your research question is about connecting large-scale societal trends to how they are enacted in particular groups, you are probably looking at the systems level.

aspect Community Systems
Interactions among individuals in the same group are important different groups are important
Values are seen in the group’s practices come from broader societal trends
Individual experiences illustrate group identity, behaviors, or norms show the effects of overlapping trends and policies
Learning is a process of becoming a full participant in a community mediated by overlapping systems of oppression and liberation

Morgan wants to study how first-year undergraduates, particularly neurodiverse students, navigate STEM majors. Their department requires a senior thesis for all majors, and two rising seniors have asked if they can work on this project with Morgan. Morgan wants to mentor them to do this kind of research, but is worried about how to get started.

Morgan’s students could be interested in this project for so many reasons! Morgan could pursue this question at different levels:

  • Individuals: What aspects of STEM students’ neurodiversity affect how they engage in STEM courses?
  • Community: How does the departmental community welcome neurodiverse students, and what departmental practices are supportive of students, especially neurodiverse ones?
  • Systems: How do neurodiverse students code-switch between overlapping communities, like their STEM departments and the student group for neurospiciness, in order to find support? How are the departmental policies and procedures different in each STEM department, and what are the impacts on student retention and sense of belonging?

While all of these questions could be interesting to them, Morgan feels like these community and systems level questions might be difficult for them to mentor as a new faculty member. They decide to steer their students towards looking at an individuals question.

Finding and making theory

Even if there isn’t a perfect theory for everything, is there a perfect theory for my project? Maybe.

Sometimes, as you interact with the literature, you find a theory that fits your project perfectly. It covers the kinds of things you want to ask, it tells you what to look for in your data, and it helps you connect your project to a larger scholarly conversation about how people grow and develop. This is a magical feeling and you should treasure it.

More often, as you think about your project and the possibilities for theory, your choice of theory and the rest of your research design co-evolve together. This is more common than finding the perfect theory unicorn in the wild. By being intentional about your theory choices as you design your project, you’re allowing your research design to best illustrate your theory, and you’re allowing your theory to tell you why in the best, most robust way.

Bricolage and multiple theories

Sometimes, you realize that a particular level speaks to you, but that each specific theory within that level doesn’t cover everything you need. This is the most common situation, and there are two big choices: either you adjust your question to co-evolve with a singular theory choice (as above), or you engage in some theory bricolage. Bricolage is a technical term for making new functional things out of older things or parts. Theory bricolage is when you glue together theories which cover different aspects of what you need in your project to make a cohesive whole. When you read a paper which introduces two main theories, the authors are engaging in bricolage.

Once you start engaging in theory bricolage, you might be tempted to bring in more and more theories because they sound helpful or relevant or appealing. Here are three rules of thumb:

  1. Within one research question, it’s a good idea to focus on only one theoretical level. If you find yourself bringing theories across multiple levels, consider if you should either split your question into multiple questions or drop theories from one level to focus on the other level.

  2. Within one research paper, it’s a good idea to keep the number of theories small and manageable. You don’t want your readers to handle more ideas than they need, because too many ideas are hard to keep track of. In a paper that is primarily about building theory, 2-3 theories are enough. In a paper that is primarily about building an empirical case, 1-2 theories are enough.

  3. When you cannot remember which theories you are using or how they interact, you have too many.

Where does theory come from?

There are books and papers written on this subject. Some of them are textbook-style for students; others are monograph style for researchers. To find them, you may have to step outside your particular discipline and look at the broader educational research literature, the learning sciences, or psychology (depending on your research questions).

  • When you read papers, make note of their frameworks and methods (and their citations!).
  • Talk to people. Talk to your collaborators and advisory board: what do they use? Go to conferences and talk to people after their talks.
  • The Journal of the Learning Sciences has an excellent series on methodology and many beautiful papers on theory.
  • Shayan Doroudi wrote an excellent primer on learning theories from the perspective of a learning scientist grappling with big trends in the Learning Sciences.

As you engage with theories, ask yourself: how does might this theory align with my project? what parts of this theory speak to what really matters to me? how might this help me make decisions about how to interpret my data?

When do I choose a theory?

Thoughout your project, you’ll use theory for different purposes at different times. You should be engaging with theory all throughout your research process, from when you first conceptualize your project, to when you plan for your data, to when you engage in your pilot work and initial analysis, and as you write your claims and assemble your papers.

During

Sometimes, you need new theory to help you understand your data:

  • Maybe you inherited a bunch of data from someone else, or you’re extending the life of old data to look at it in a new way.
  • Maybe you realize partway through a project that the theory you thought you wanted isn’t helping you analyze your data.
If/when you want to do use old data in new ways, check with your IRB about what’s allowable!

The choices that you (or someone else) already made when they took the data will constrain the kinds of research questions you can ask and what meaning you can make in your analysis.

However, you still have some flexibility! You can take up a new theory to help you develop an initial coding scheme, tell you what features to look for in your data, or suggest how you might handle the context the data come from. For cases like this, it’s pretty common to stay within the same theoretical level as before, but switch to a new theory in that level.

After

Sometimes, you need new theory to help you connect your research to a broader scholarly conversation:

  • Maybe you thought you wanted to publish in one journal, but now you think you want to try a totally different venue.
  • Maybe you’d like write a reflective piece about the lessons you learned in a particular intervention or program.

Your literature review will help you think about the scholarly conversations you want to join. Framing your work in a new way often means that you are looking for new ways to express what’s meaningful. Connecting in new theories can help you explain why your work is meaningful or develop implications for other researchers and practitioners.

Of course, your original theory already shaped the data you took, the analyses you performed, and the meaning you made. Bringing in a new theory near the end of a project is possible, but it’s not trivial. You can’t just staple in some citations and call it good; you will need to re-examine your analysis (and perhaps perform new analyses) to realize the strengths of your new choices.

But I just want to fix things

Sometimes, your project is a design project: you see a problem in the world, and you want to solve it. Do you really need to use theory?

Yes.

Theory tells you why: why is this a problem? why should this solution work? what does “working” even mean?

Theory is inevitable.

If you find yourself thinking “but I don’t really need theory”, then you have some hard questions to ask yourself about what your implicit theory is. How do your implicit assumptions about what matters in your project lead you to thinking about ideas, individuals, communities, or systems? An implicit theory is still a theory.

If your theory remains implicit, then you are missing a big opportunity to make important choices deliberately instead of haphazardly. It’s possible that this could work out for you, but you are probably not optimizing your solution, and you are likely going to struggle to share the results of your research in a meaningful way.

Sanjay wants more students to participate in Science Club. Theory will tell Sanjay why they are (or aren’t) participating now. Is it because the group feels like an exclusive clique (community level, specifically Gatekeeping)? Because they don’t see how it helps with their professional goals (individuals level, specifically Possible Future Selves)?

Arthur’s department thinks they have a problem with students’ math skills – and they might! However, blaming students’ poor performance on their math skills is a common tactic in higher education, when other reasons for poor performance are also possible. Choosing the ideas level is comfortable for the department because it suggests a solution: let’s change the curriculum to improve their math skills! Design-based research is a great choice for making new curricula, and of course there are tons of existing solutions already developed in the literature.

Alternately, if the problem is that some faculty feel like they need to “weed out” less prepared students, then the problem isn’t really students. Arthur’s department will run into problems in implementing the new curriculum because the departmental values are not aligned with the proposed practices (a community level question, specifically Communities of Practice).

Imani wants to develop a concept inventory for how biology students think about human anatomy. She wants to use the inventory at the beginning and end of her second year Anatomy & Physiology course to show how much students learn. She would also like to use it as a diagnostic in her first year introductory biology course to see if students from different health-related majors think differently about anatomy.

Imani is using the ideas level. Within that level, if she uses Resources, she’ll look for how students bring ideas together, and she’ll try to build questions in pairs so that they can show off how ideas connect together. If she uses Misconceptions, she’ll look for how students bring in wrong ideas, and she’ll try to build questions with a lot of appealing distractors to induce them into wrong answers. Imani’s choice of theory tells her how to build her instrument.

Imani’s choice of theory also suggests how she should interact with her students and their ideas, because it tells her what might be broken and a path forward to fixing it.

Even if you just want to fix things, the theory you choose has implications for how you conceptualize the problem, what you see as a reasonable solution, and how you know if your solution is working.

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History

This article was first written on December 19, 2023, and last modified on February 14, 2024.

Citation

For attribution, please cite this work as:
Sayre, Eleanor C. 2023. “Theory: A Primer.” In Research: A Practical Handbook. https://handbook.zaposa.com/articles/theory-a-primer.