Theory-guided Research: What, Why, and How?

When I was a PhD student, I commonly heard exacerbated sighs from my fellow students regarding the trials and tribulations of “fitting” a theory into their doctoral research. Similarly, many students had trouble understanding why it was important to be theoretically guided in your research, what was the point? And how do you even “use” theory for nursing research? Luckily, I have had some amazing mentors, teachers, and colleagues who have helped me understand the importance of theory for nursing research in a practical, and I’ll also add, empowering way! In this blog, I hope to share some of these points with you in hopes to help you, or your students, in understanding the importance of theory-guided research.

To start, let’s define what theory is. Put simply, a theory is “an explanation of what is going on” (Petrovskaya, Purkis, & Bjornsdotir, 2019, p.2). To advance that definition and focus on nursing specifically, nursing theory helps nurses to see, describe, explore, explain, and test “what is going on” (Petrovskaya, Purkis, & Bjornsdotir, 2019, p.2). Nursologists/nurses can develop their own theory, apply a nursologist/nurse colleague’s theory, or even borrow and adapt a theory from other disciplines! The options are endless, and really there is no one size fits all approach. The truth is nursologists/nurses theorize every day in unique and important ways. Theory is a powerful tool that nurses/nursologists can use to advance our discipline in endless ways!

The above image includes four light-blue overlapping circles with the words practice, education, research, and policy in each circle. At the center of all the circles is the word nursing theory.

What is theory-guided research?
Theory-guided research is the application or use of a theory, whether developed, applied, borrowed, or adapted, to support a scientific endeavor. When I say scientific endeavor, I mean research of any kind which includes quality improvement AND knowledge development. Theory-guided research is not owned by solely academics or research roles either. Theory-guided research can be completed in any setting (policy and practice included), and it has endless benefits too!

Why is theory-guided research important?
Theory-guided research is important because it connects and builds upon previously developed nursing knowledge. This knowledge, in turn, is used to develop practice change (i.e., quality improvement) or advance our understanding of phenomena. What does that mean? If you are interested in a specific phenomenon, oftentimes you complete a literature review (i.e., searching for information to understand what is currently known about that topic). After you complete said literature review, there is now an understanding of what has been done, and also, what the gaps are. The next step then would be, a) use that information to drive quality improvement or policy change, b) complete more research to further understand an identified knowledge gap, or c) repeat the research to see if the results hold in different settings. Also, this helps assure that previously completed research isn’t being repeated unnecessarily! I myself have experienced the agony of having a great idea, and upon completing a literature review seeing that it has already been examined (argh!). By connecting with the theories (or their concepts) used to guide previous research, a paper trail results avoiding those plunders, such as repeating research unnecessarily (an ethical problem) or wasting participants time (also an ethical problem). Moreover, by using theory-guided research knowledge is built in a systematic way that promotes a nuanced understanding of complex phenomena so it can be useful knowledge and not disconnected knowledge. By taking a theory-guided approach to nursing research, nursing knowledge is advanced and can be applied to all settings including practice, research, education, and policy.

How do you “do” theory-guided research?

As I have inferred above, there is no one right way to “do” theory-guided research. Theorizing is a personal and unique experience, and also changes depending upon the phenomena of interest. A great way to start with theory-guided research is during a literature review – assess what theories have been used (if any) for that phenomenon. Take note of those theories, think about them deeply. Maybe one theory is identified that supports your research? Great! Maybe more than one theory is identified? Wonderful! Can you use those theories simultaneously to support your important work or parts of these theories? If yes, excellent! Oftentimes there may be no explicit theory named, but concepts are used and applied – I will call this implicit theory-guided research because theoretical thinking is always there. Identify those concepts and keep note of them. These concepts will help not only in developing a deeper understanding of a phenomenon but if no promising theories that support the phenomena are identified, these concepts can be used for theoretical development, yay! But really, the paths to theory-guided research are endless. Theories identified in the literature can be used to create a supportive framework for your research endeavor, whether it be one or multiple. Alternatively, as I inferred above if there is no explicit theory that speaks to you, you can begin the journey of theoretical development by creating your own conceptual framework. I will provide you examples of all approaches below, 1) using a singular theory to guide your research, 2) using multiple theories to guide your research, or 3) developing your own conceptual framework/theory for research. In the end, theory-guided research shouldn’t be about “fitting” a theory to your research, in reality, it should be utilizing theory in a way that helps see, describe, explore, explain, and test what you want to look at – your phenomena of interest!

Examples of Theory-guided Research:
1. Singular Theory Guided Research:
Transitions from Jail in the Rural Community for Adults with Mental Illness by Dr. Carrie Langley, PhD, MPH, RN-BC

2. Multiple Theory Guided Research:
Wellness Among Diné Women Who Reside in a Navajo Nation Bordertown by Dr. Cristina Stuefen, PhD, RN-BC

3. Developing Theory/Conceptual Framework for Research:
Young Adult Nurse Work-Related Well-Being, Contemporary Practice Worldview, Resilience, and Co-Worker Support During the COVID-19 Pandemic by Dr. Chloé Littzen-Brown, PhD, RN, AE-C

While this is just a brief and simple introduction to theory-guided research, I hope that you have found it both helpful and comforting – you can do this! Know that theory is a tool, and a powerful one at that, to help you in your important scholarly work. Know also that you are not alone, this work takes time, effort, and collaboration. Additionally, as my PhD advisor and mentor, Dr. Pamela Reed would remind me theory-guided research takes “armchair work.” This is the space in which reading widely (e.g., journals, nonfiction, newspapers, etc) and pondering deeply assists you. Give yourself permission to think outside of the box with your important work, and furthermore, allow yourself to step into the role of a theoretician – paint the picture of the phenomena for how you see it. It is important that all nurses/nursologists views are included in knowledge development in order to move our discipline forward!


Petrovskaya, O., Pukis, M. E., & Bjornsdottir, K. (2019). Revisiting “intelligent nursing”: Olga petrovskaya in conversation with mary ellen purkis and kristin bjornsdottir. Nursing Philosophy, 20(3),

5 thoughts on “Theory-guided Research: What, Why, and How?

  1. Peripherally related: the pressure felt by undergrads to “pick” or “choose” nursing diagnoses for their “care plans.” This also reflects a failure of instruction and is a particular hot button for me. (Were I younger, fixing it would be my dissertation topic, but at my age there’s no point so other people get to hear me rant, lol.) If grad students aren’t getting the idea about flexibility and independent assessment in the theory world, trying to jam their ideas into a given theory, it’s no surprise that they grown up to teach students who assume they choose a diagnosis (rather than *make* one out of data) and then try to jam their patient assessments into it. Or maybe it’s a chicken-and-egg thing. Parallels abound.
    This was a fun read, even if somewhat triggering, lol.

    • Hi Wendie!

      Thank you for your response, and your thoughtful comments (triggering, yes!). I agree that in undergraduate education, nursing diagnoses are peripherally related. I find the emphasis sometimes is too much on completing the task for the task’s sake (e.g., care plan assignment, or we can say here – a dissertation/dnp project), and not learning the “why” behind the task (which is the important piece, IMO, along with the process itself). Perhaps it is a compounding issue, where faculty don’t have the time/bandwidth to teach the “why,” and students don’t have the time/bandwidth to sit and learn the “why.” I think overall we are always “doing” too much, and by doing too much we can’t “be” with what we are trying to learn and show to the world.

      Thank you again!

      With gratitude,

      • Ah yes, the perennial plaintive question for aspiring healthcare workers: “What can a (MA, RN, PA, EMS) “do” that (same selection less one) can’t?” I try to tell them to think about the difference between what nurses do and what they ARE. This is hard in their high-pressure world full of learning lab check-offs. Then we work on puzzled looks, and over time that takes us to nursing theories. Sometimes it works.

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