Drawn to Science Education: Studying Science Teaching and Learning through Drawings

Conceptual Framework

Drawing of students using a telescope outdoors.

When researchers approach a question or problem they do so with a set of assumptions and theories about how the people think, learn, and interact with the world. This can be thought of as their conceptual framework or theory of understanding.

A theory of understanding has two important functions in research. First, it frames your research and guides how you seek answers to questions. This includes how data will be collected and how it will be analyzed. Second, by stating a theory of understanding, you are providing readers with a sense of how your research was conducted. Doing so aids the reader in understanding the research and enhances the credibility of your findings.

You don't need to spend hours researching and writing about your conceptual framework but it is something you should think about and include it in your research. The following article describes three conceptual frameworks used frequently in research on education.

A Theory of Understanding for Use in Action Research: Three Choices

Prepared by Dr. J. Randy McGinnis


The educational psychology community has developed three leading philosophical perspectives of learning: behaviorism, cognitivism, and social constructivism. To add a "Theory of Understanding" upfront to your action research study as a way to provide guidance to your study, you may consider using one.

The first of these three leading theories, behaviorism, is based on the supposition that learning occurs with a change in behavior, is shaped by the environment, and is guided by the principles of contiguity and reinforcement (Skinner, 1950). The second, cognitivism, supersedes the first model adapted by research psychologists, behaviorism, by refuting the conceptualization of learning as solely a product of stimulus-response associations and extends the conceptualization of learning to encompass not just behavior modification based on rewards and punishments but the realization that cognitive processing of external information leads to understanding and productive thinking, not just reproduction, enabling transfer to novel, problem-solving situations (Mayer, 1996). Finally, the third, social constructivism, extended the cognitivism view and defined learning as an individual construct resulting from personal interpretations of all life experiences within a society and culture, including both formal and informal education (Steffe & Gale, 1995).


Mayer, R.E. (1996). Learners as information processors: legacies and limitations of Educational Psychology's Second Metaphor. Educational Psychologist 31(3/4), 151-161.

Skinner, B.F. (1950). Are theories of learning necessary? Psychological Review, 57(4), 193-216.

Steffe, L. P., & Gale, J. (Eds.) (1995). Constructivism in education. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.