What Is a Theoretical Model (Plus How To Build One)

What Is a Theoretical Model? (Plus How To Build One)

A theoretical model is a critical component of successful research projects. Scholars and other professionals often include theoretical models to frame their reasoning and support their interpretation process. It's important to learn fundamental knowledge about them so you can determine which aspects may be helpful to incorporate in your research. In this article, we define what a theoretical model is, explain why it's important, describe who uses theoretical models, provide steps for how to build one and describe how to use one in your own study process.

What is a theoretical model?

A theoretical model is a framework that researchers create to structure a study process and plan how to approach a specific research inquiry. It can allow you to define the purpose of your research and develop an informed perspective. Creating a theoretical model typically involves analyzing a subject's literature, including previous research studies and journal articles. Researchers often include a written description of a theoretical model in a beginning section of a dissertation or similar document so a reader can gain more context.

Here are some key terms to learn for theoretical models:

  • Hypothesis: This refers to an assumption a researcher makes about the results of a study that aims to answer their research inquiry. A theoretical model can help you develop a hypothesis.

  • Theory: This word describes a collection of ideas that a researcher connects to explain a particular phenomenon. Using a theoretical model during a research process can give you the ability to connect different theories to each other and form your own.

  • Variable: This word refers to a research subject in a study. Depending on the study's context, variables might be people, locations or situations. Theoretical models can help you identify them.

  • Coding: This is how a researcher categorizes the data they collect and determines how it can support their hypothesis. You can use a theoretical model to provide the criteria for coding your data.

Why is building a theoretical model important?

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Here are some key reasons why it's important to build a theoretical model:

  • Provides a resource for interpreting data: It's often helpful to develop a system for analyzing the data you collect during a study process so you can develop more precise conclusions. A theoretical model can illuminate which data can better address your research inquiry.

  • Places research in a broader context: A theoretical model typically requires a researcher to review the work of others before forming their own ideas. This process can help you devise relevant and helpful research for your field, identifying areas that might require more careful examination.

  • Narrows the focus of a research process: Creating a theoretical model can help you determine areas of research that interest you or provide opportunities for further analysis. It can also highlight which authors can provide useful information, allowing you the ability to prioritize.

  • Allows readers to understand a project's context: Including a theoretical model in published research can allow future readers, including colleagues or stakeholders, to understand how your research approach informs your study's procedures and overall results.

Who uses a theoretical model?

Consider the following examples of professionals who use theoretical models:

Social scientists

Social scientists can use theoretical models to study varied phenomena that people experience now or previously encountered in the past. Their theories can provide important contexts for human behavior in different situations, including what factors they might involve in a decision-making process or how they adjust to a changing cultural environment. Politicians use the study results of tested theories to pass laws and enact policies, which can affect the everyday lives of many communities in the United States.

Educational specialists

Educational specialists can use a theoretical model to study the habits of students in institutions to develop best practices for classroom curriculums. They often plan research endeavors to update previous learning theories for teachers to employ in modern classrooms. As the priorities and requirements of educational institutions can change over time, a theoretical model can help these professionals identify areas of improvement and consider alternative hypotheses to address them.

Marketing researchers

Marketing researchers can use a theoretical model to study the demographics and preferences of a customer base and then create hypotheses about which advertisement strategies to use. They often frame their research practices using previous marketing theories, allowing them to become more accurate and efficient. It can also help marketers better incorporate statistical research into their analysis, as a theoretical modeling process may provide some helpful guidelines for placing numerical information in a context.

Nonprofit employees

Nonprofit employees can use a theoretical model to develop grant proposals, which are formal requests to an individual or group to receive funding for a project. They may use a model to frame a project's purpose, intentions and overall goals to a prospective stakeholder. It can also allow nonprofit employees to better explain how a project can lead to a certain societal change. For example, if an organization proposes an initiative to increase a community's access to a resource, applying a theoretical model can show how an organization plans to achieve this endeavor.

University students

University students of all levels often use theoretical models while completing academic assignments, especially dissertations. Professors instruct undergraduate students on how to write effective theoretical models so they can develop important research skills and learn to form educated opinions about a theory. Master's and doctoral degree students might use a theoretical model to frame their own theory-creation process, which can help establish them as experts in their chosen field.

How to build a theoretical model

Here are the key steps for building a theoretical model

1. Develop a research inquiry

Generate a research question to provide a focus for your theoretical model. First, choose a general topic that interests you, then pick a specific area of that topic to study. Consider writing your question in a clear, concise statement you can refer to throughout the process. To write an effective research question, ensure it has multiple answers to explore and analyze so you can devise your own stance.

Here are some examples of research inquiries:

  • What conditions cause people to remain anonymous on the internet?

  • Which factors affect the school attendance of high school seniors?

  • How effective is medication for treating migraine headaches?

  • Which marketing strategies increase sales during the summer and fall?

2. Determine your variables

Use your research question to select variables for your theoretical model to better understand the primary elements of your research inquiry. First, establish an independent variable, which describes an aspect that stays the same throughout a research process. Afterward, choose a corresponding dependent variable, which refers to a factor the independent variable influences. For example, consider a marketing team creating a theoretical model for an inquiry that reads, "What factors cause shoe sales to increase during the spring?" Their independent variable would be the season of spring, which influences the number of shoes a company sells.

3. Conduct research on your topic

Search for relevant literature that discusses your research inquiry. To find published work, you can access an online database, discover resources in a library or use class materials like a textbook or lecture notes, if you're creating a theoretical model for a university project. Then, examine how different authors approach your variables and locate examples of other theoretical models that support your point of view. You can also include alternative perspectives to create more opportunities for nuance in your process.

4. Write a literature review

Compose a literature review, which is a comprehensive overview of your research that aims to provide a valuable context for your research inquiry. It helps you develop your theoretical model by helping you identify and connect key ideas in the sources you collected, which can allow you the ability to develop an effective hypothesis. Consider identifying areas of improvement in previous literature that you can strengthen using your research process. For example, an author may have adopted a certain perspective in their work that you plan to illuminate or counter in your future study process.

Here are the components of a literature review:

  • Topic statement: Reiterate your study topic in the opening paragraph to frame the rest of your literature review.

  • Introduction: Detail your research inquiry and how you plan to evaluate the sources in your literature review. It may be helpful to describe your independent and dependent variables in this section.

  • Terminology: Define significant concepts and terms from the sources to give readers helpful knowledge for understanding a particular research topic.

  • Source descriptions: Analyze the content of each source in one or two paragraphs, including each author's primary concepts and methods. Afterward, you can compare and contrast sources to identify significant connections between them.

  • Alternative theories: If you plan to omit a significant research study or theoretical model from your analysis, it may be helpful to specify your reason why to readers who may be familiar with it.

5. Develop a research approach

Outline a plan for approaching your research topic using the information you analyzed in a literature review. If you plan to critique a prevailing theory, you can use this section to explain your reasoning and provide key sources to support it. For example, you might investigate whether a new context alters the analytical assumptions made by a previous research study or combine distinct concepts to develop a new theory altogether.

6. Create your theoretical model

Structure your theoretical model according to the requirements of a larger project, such as a market analysis study. Depending on the complexity of your project and your preferences, you can incorporate a theoretical model into a literature review or write a new section entirely. You can also include a visual representation of your model to provide more accessibility. For example, a flowchart can show how one idea connects to another through drawn boxes, lines and arrows.

How to use a theoretical model

Here are some ways to incorporate a theoretical model in a research study:

1. Construct a hypothesis

A theoretical model can give you the background knowledge required to answer the question posed in your research inquiry. Consider reviewing your model to assess how previous researchers established a relationship between independent and dependent variables. Then, determine an informed prediction you can evaluate during a research study process. To create an effective hypothesis, consider writing a short, clear sentence about your variables.

2. Plan a research study

Use your theoretical model to inform the steps of your study process. First, determine which research methods best align with the objectives of your study. Then, consider using this information to determine the size and scope of your investigation so you can gather optimal sets of data. You can also use a theoretical model to determine whether you require participants to represent the variables and which groups you might plan to include.

For example, consider a research study about students who pass an important standardized test. A theoretical model might show previous research about different factors that contribute to a student passing the test successfully. The researchers can use this model to choose which factors to focus on, which group of students to observe and what interview method to use for data collection.

3. Analyze your data

Code your data, then determine how it addresses your hypothesis according to the concepts you discussed in a theoretical model. Afterward, you can use it to choose a method of analysis. For example, you may learn that your data can confirm the validity of a definition you incorporated in your model. You may also analyze your data according to a system of thought you devised using multiple concepts.

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