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Context  In a recent study of the quality of reporting experimental studies in medical education, barely half the articles examined contained an explicit statement of the conceptual framework used. Conceptual frameworks represent ways of thinking about a problem or a study, or ways of representing how complex things work. They can come from theories, models or best practices. Conceptual frameworks illuminate and magnify one’s work. Different frameworks will emphasise different variables and outcomes, and their inter-relatedness. Educators and researchers constantly use conceptual frameworks to guide their work, even if they themselves are not consciously aware of the frameworks.

Methods  Three examples are provided on how conceptual frameworks can be used to cast development and research projects in medical education. The examples are accompanied by commentaries and a total of 13 key points about the nature and use of conceptual frameworks.

Conclusions  Ultimately, scholars are responsible for making explicit the assumptions and principles contained in the conceptual framework(s) they use in their development and research projects.