Conceptual framework

A conceptual framework illustrates what you expect to find through your research. It defines the relevant variables for your study and maps out how they might relate to each other.

You should construct a conceptual framework before you begin collecting data. It is often represented in a visual format.

When to create a conceptual framework

If you want to investigate any kind of relationship between variables, it’s a good idea to create a conceptual framework.

Research example
You want to know if students who study more hours get higher exam scores. To investigate this question, you can use methods such as an experiment or survey to test the relationship between variables.

Before you start collecting data, construct a conceptual framework to show exactly which variables you will measure and how you expect them to relate to each other.

The conceptual framework is developed based on a literature review of existing studies on the topic.

Identifying your variables

Variables are simply the characteristics or properties that you want to study. The conceptual framework will map the expected relationship between them.

In our example, the two key variables are “hours of study” and “exam score.”

Independent and dependent variables

If we want to test a cause-and-effect relationship, we need to identify at least two variables: the independent variable and the dependent variable. In our example:

  • the expected cause, “hours of study,” is the independent variable (aka the predictor or explanatory variable).
  • the expected effect, “exam score,” is the dependent variable (aka the response or outcome variable).

In other words, “exam score” depends on “hours of study.”

Causal relationships often involve several independent variables that affect the dependent variable. However, to keep things simple, we’ll work with just one independent variable, namely “hours of study.”

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Designing a conceptual framework

A conceptual framework can be designed in many different ways. The form yours takes will depend on what kinds of relationships you expect to find.

To visualize our expected cause-and-effect relationship, we will use the basic design components of boxes, arrows, and lines.

Component Meaning
Box Variable
Arrow Causal relationship
Line Correlation


To indicate a causal relationship, each arrow should start from the independent variable (the cause) and point to the dependent variable (the effect).

Use a line when you expect a correlation between two variables, but no cause-and-effect relationship.



Basic conceptual framework using an independent variable and a dependent variable

Expanding the conceptual framework

As you develop your conceptual framework, you should also aim to identify other variables that might influence the relationship between your independent and dependent variables.

Some common variables to be incorporated into the conceptual framework include:

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    Bas Swaen

    Bas is co-founder of Scribbr. Bas is an experienced academic writer and loves to teach. He helps students by writing clear, simple articles about difficult topics.

    1 comment

    Bas Swaen
    Bas Swaen (Scribbr Team)
    December 7, 2015 at 11:48 AM

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