Reviews of theoretical frameworks: Challenges and judging the quality of theory application

Sarah Hean, Liz Anderson, Chris Green, Carol John, Richard Pitt, Catherine O'Halloran

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Citations (Scopus)


Background: Rigorous reviews of available information, from a range of resources, are required to support medical and health educators in their decision making.

Aim: The aim of this article is to highlight the importance of a review of theoretical frameworks specifically as a supplement to reviews that focus on a synthesis of the empirical evidence alone. Establishing a shared understanding of theory as a concept is highlighted as a challenge and some practical strategies to achieving this are presented. This article also introduces the concept of theoretical quality, arguing that a critique of how theory is applied should complement the methodological appraisal of the literature in a review.

Method: We illustrate the challenge of establishing a shared meaning of theory through reference to experiences of an on-going review of this kind conducted in the field of interprofessional education (IPE) and use a high scoring paper selected in this review to illustrate how theoretical quality can be assessed.

Findings: In reaching a shared understanding of theory as a concept, practical strategies that promote experiential and practical ways of knowing are required in addition to more propositional ways of sharing knowledge. Concepts of parsimony, testability, operational adequacy and empirical adequacy are explored as concepts that establish theoretical quality.

Conclusions: Reviews of theoretical frameworks used in medical education are required to inform educational practice. Review teams should make time and effort to reach a shared understanding of the term theory. Theory reviews, and reviews more widely, should add an assessment of theory application to the protocol of their review method.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)613-620
Number of pages8
JournalMedical Teacher
Issue number6
Early online date16 Oct 2015
Publication statusPublished - 2016


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