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Developing Conceptual and Operational Definitions for Research

Defining terms is one of the first things required when writing a research paper. However, it is also one of the hardest things to do as we often know what we want to study intuitively rather than literally. This post will provide guidance in the following

  • Developing conceptual definitions
  • Determining operational definitions
  • Understanding the measurement model

Each of the ideas above is fundamental to developing coherent research papers.


A concept is a mental construct or a tool used to understand the world around us. An example of a concept would be intelligence, humor, motivation, desire. These terms have meaning, but they cannot be seen or observed directly. You cannot pick up intelligence, buy humor, or weigh either of these. However, you can tell when someone is intelligent or has a sense of humor.


This is because constructs are observed indirectly through behaviors, which provide evidence of the construct. For example, someone demonstrates intelligence through their academic success, how they speak, etc. A person can demonstrate humor by making others laugh through what they say. Concepts represent things around us that we want to study as researchers.

Defining Concepts

To define a concept for the purpose of research requires the following three things

  • A manner in which to measure the concept indirectly
  • A unit of analysis
  • Some variation among the unit of analysis

The criteria listed above is essentially a definition of a conceptual definition. Below is an example of a conceptual definition of academic dishonesty

Below is a breakdown of this definition

Academic dishonesty is the extent to which individuals exhibit a disregard towards educational norms of scholarly integrity.

  • Measurement: exhibit a disregard towards educational norms of scholarly integrity.
  • Unit of analysis: individual
  • Variation: Extent to which

It becomes much easier to shape a research study with these three components.

Conceptual Definition Template

There is also a template readily available in books and the internet to generate a conceptual definition. Below is one example.

The concept of _____________ is defined as the extent to which

_________________________ exhibit the characteristic(s) of _______________.

Here is a revised version of our conceptual defintion of academic dishonesty

The concept of academic dishonesty is defined as the ewxtent to whcih invidivudals exhibit the characteristic of  disregard towards educational norms of scholarly integrity.

The same three components are there. The wording is mostly the same, but having a template such as this can really save them time in formulating a study. It also helps make things clearer for them as they go forward with a project.

Operational Definition

Once a concept has been defined, it must next be operationalized. The operational definition indicates how a concept will be measured quantitatively. This means that a researcher must specify at least one metric. Below is an example using academic dishonesty again.

Conceptual Definition: Academic dishonesty is the extent to which an individual exhibits a disregard towards educational norms of scholarly integrity.

Operational Definition: Survey Items

  1. It is okay to cheat
  2. It is okay to turn in someone else’s work as my own

In the example above, academic dishonesty was operationalized using survey items. In other words, we will measure people’s opinions about academic dishonesty by having them respond to survey items.

Measurement error happens when there is a disconnect between the conceptual definition and the measurement method. It can be hard to detect this, so students need to be careful when developing a study.

Measurement Models

A concept is not measured directly, as has already been mentioned. This means that when it is time to analyze our data, our contract is a latent or unobserved variable. The items on the survey are observed because people gave us this information directly. This means that the survey items are observed variables.

The measurement model links the latent variables with the observed variables statistically. A strong measurement model indicates that the observed variables correlate with the underlying latent variable or construct.

For example, academic dishonesty has been the latent variable example of this entire post. The survey items “it’s okay to cheat” and “it’s okay to turn in someon else’s work as my own” are observed variables. Using statistical tools, we can check if these observed variables are associated with our concept of academic dishonesty.


Defining concepts is one of the more challenging aspects of conducting research. It requires a researcher to know what they are trying to study and how to measure it. For students, this is challenging because articulating ideas in this manner is often not done in everyday life.

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