Conceptual framework

A conceptual framework is used to illustrate what you expect to find through your research, including how the variables you are considering might relate to each other.

You should construct one before you actually begin your investigation.


Sample conceptual framework


Testing research

Whether constructing a conceptual framework will be a helpful exercise depends on the type of research you are doing. Conceptual frameworks are particularly common when the research involves hypothesis testing. In this situation, a framework can be used to review your hypotheses or explore if you can scientifically prove a particular idea.

Cause-effect relationship

The basis of testing research – and thus the start of constructing a conceptual framework – is often a cause-effect relationship. If your dissertation involves this kind of research, your goal is to try to prove such a relationship.

Example of a cause-effect relationship

Ben, a student, gets a perfect 100% on the big exam, which surprises his classmates. However, Ben has a very good explanation: he studied for many hours (the cause) and therefore scored well (the result).

Ben is so excited when he realizes that his hard work has resulted in a great score that he decides he wants to write his dissertation on the experience. His goal is to demonstrate scientifically that his high score was not just the result of luck, but rather of a cause-effect relationship.

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The first step in scientifically demonstrating a cause-effect relationship is to map your expectations using a conceptual framework. Before doing so, it’s important to identify the relevant variables.

Variables are simply the characteristics that the cause-effect relationship is describing. In our example, the two variables are “hours of study” and “exam score.”

Independent and dependent variables

A cause-effect relationship always involves two types of variables: independent and dependent. In our example, “hours of study” is the independent variable, while “exam score” is the dependent variable. In other words, “exam score” depends on “hours of study.”

Cause-effect relationships frequently include several independent variables that affect the dependent variable. Another independent variable that we could add to our example would be “enough time to answer all of questions during the exam period.” However, to keep things simple we’ll work with just one independent variable, namely “hours of study.”

Designing a conceptual framework

Now that we have identified both an independent variable and a dependent variable, we can begin constructing a conceptual framework. The basic design components are boxes, arrows, and lines:

Create a box for each variable. Use arrows to indicate cause-effect relationships. Each arrow should start from the variable that has causal influence and point to the variable that is being affected. Use a line when you expect a correlation between two variables, but no cause-effect relationship.

These components can be summarized as follows:

ArrowCausal influence (cause-effect relationship)
LineConnection (correlation)

Here is a sample conceptual framework that represents the relationship between the independent variable of “hours of study” and the dependent variable of “exam score” from our example with Ben:


Sample conceptual framework using an independent variable and a dependent variable

Expanding the conceptual framework

A conceptual framework doesn’t have to be limited to just independent and dependent variables; other types of variables can be incorporated as well. Depending on your research, you may wish to show additional facets of a cause-effect relationship by introducing one or more of the following:

Next steps

Once your conceptual framework is complete, you’re ready to start undertaking scientific research that will prove the relationships you have illustrated. You can select from a number of qualitative and quantitative research methods, including:

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Bas Swaen

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June 17, 2020 at 10:22 AM

Your explanation came at the right time! Never been thought how to do this before. Reading this, it's like I've studied a course teaching me how to write a conceptual framework. Thank you!


December 10, 2019 at 6:09 AM

Great! Your explanations are so straight -forward and easy to understand. I have being battling with understanding conceptual framework but thanks to your explanation. I'm clear now. I love to become a great writer like you


Ajems Jennifer
May 27, 2020 at 11:42 AM

Amazing always dependable for answers to thesis writing i just appreciate you guys.


June 20, 2019 at 4:56 PM

Hi there,

Is it possible to create a conceptual framework with two dependent variables? And can be gender an independent variable, or is it a moderator then?



Raimo Streefkerk
Raimo Streefkerk (Scribbr-team)
July 3, 2019 at 1:56 PM

Hi Anne,

It is indeed possible to have two dependent variables. Gender can both be an independent variable or a moderator. It depends on the relationship you expect. For example: gender is a moderator when the relationship between X and Y is different for men and women.



July 29, 2018 at 10:22 AM

how to write a problem statement in dissertation


Victoria Mrosek
Victoria Mrosek (Scribbr-team)
July 29, 2018 at 11:47 AM

Dear Piya,
Thanks for your question.
Unfortunately, I am not sure if I got it right though. I'd recommend for you to check our knowledge base:
I hope that helps.
Good luck!


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