3 Sources of Student Anxiety and Confusion on Applying Theory

Students are usually confused by theory because most of their experience with theory has been in the classroom where “Big” theories were presented. In the classroom they are introduced to theories or “well-substantiated explanations.” Examples might include how market works (law of supply and demand), what motivates student-learning, causes of poverty, why planets rotate around the sun, or how plants and animals evolve. Theories were something students memorized in preparation for a test or occasionally applied in a research essay or paper. (Tweet this quote.)

1. Disconnect between the Theory and Project

Now as students face a big research project at the end of their course work they somehow expect to use theory in their paper and are unsure how these things connect to the problem of writing a literature review or collecting data for this big paper they have to finish. They may have analyzed journal articles – but the peer reviewed papers written by professors seem miles away from the initial steps in doing a masters thesis or even a dissertation.

2. Vague Research Methods

Research methods texts are also of little help. They always have a section on concepts and theory but tend to keep things vague or big. Gail Johnson (2010), for example, defines theory as “a coherent group of general propositions or as a verified explanation … such as the theory of relativity.” Her definition is abstract and linked to Einstein. Few students see themselves on par with Einstein. So, perhaps without meaning Johnson made theory inaccessible or beyond the ordinary student’s grasp much less their ability to use or develop. Students need to know how to narrow and focus. The weird emphasis on big theory leaves them stranded and confused.

3. Varying Theory as Scale Changes

One key to making sense of theory is to know that it can vary as scale changes. (Tweet this quote.) Further theories are connected as this scale changes. Wikipedia defines the term theory as a “type of abstract or generalized thinking.” This abstract thinking can be applied to big problems like how students learn or juvenile delinquency or smaller problems like how a particular program might be evaluated. Different kinds of abstract or generalized thinking and theorizing are needed as scale changes.


In the upcoming blog posts I’m going to be sharing solutions to the challenges students face when applying theory to a research project. But first I will leave you with a helpful metaphor.

Theory is like a map. There is no expectation that a map is reality. It is there to help us navigate reality. (Tweet this quote.) The map is a tool. Theory is also a tool. It is a tool we use to help us make sense of reality. Now, most students know how to use tools – they are comfortable with the computer, a forks, a hammer. So too, they can be comfortable with theory.

By the way, I trace these ideas to the philosopher John Dewey and his book Logic: The Theory of Inquiry.


Johnson, Gail. (2010) Research Methods for Public Administrators. New Your: M. E. Sharpe.

playbook for research methods


Author Patricia ShieldsPatricia M. Shields is a Professor of Political Science at Texas State University. She has a Master of Economics(1975) and PhD (1977) in Public Administration from The Ohio State University. Her research interests include pragmatism and public administration, peace and conflict resolution, research methods, women in public administration, and civil military relations. She has published over 60 articles and book chapters in journals. Meet Patricia. 


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