What is the Difference Between Theory Testing and Theory Building?

Essentially, what do graduate students do when they conduct a research investigation? Do they follow certain guidelines in doing their research? Is there a difference between how a master’s degree and a doctoral degree student do their research? What is theory testing and theory building? The following article answers these questions.

Graduate students undertake research in two different ways. A master’s degree student engages himself mainly in research primarily aimed towards theory testing while a doctoral degree student undertakes a much more challenging research task of theory building. What is the difference between theory testing and theory building?

Theory Testing and Example

Theory testing is relatively easier than theory building. Theory testing is primarily applied by the graduate student, as the name suggests, to test whether a certain theory of his choosing is a plausible explanation of a phenomenon he would like to investigate.

To clarify the concept of theory testing, take the case of the Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) Theory. Anthropogenic refers to human-derived greenhouse gas emissions that are believed to be the main reason for the observed global warming in recent years. Carbon dioxide comprises one of the greenhouse gasses. Carbon dioxide causes water on the surface of the earth to evaporate. Increased water vapor in the atmosphere can trap heat coming from the earth thus cause global warming. Is this a good explanation of global warming? See the debate on the issue in the video below:

If you are a master’s degree student, you can test this theory by looking into the humidity levels associated with carbon dioxide emissions. That is because it was mentioned a while ago, that carbon dioxide causes the water to evaporate. Greater carbon dioxide means greater water vapor in the atmosphere measured using, say, a wet and dry bulb thermometer. You will then have to find out if there is a correlation between temperature and surface humidity. This tests theory using specific factors to substantiate carbon dioxide effects to global temperature.

The main focus of theory testing is to find evidence to confirm or refute a theory. Theory testing, in this instance, tries to find out if there is there sufficient evidence to substantiate the Anthropogenic Global Warming Theory.

Theory Building and Examples

Theory building requires the application of higher level thinking skills compared to theory testing. Doctoral degree students or dissertation writers engage in this kind of research.

Why is this so?

Theory building requires the synthesis of a broad range of literature and studies to provide evidence or confirm explanations to a given phenomenon. Theory building is the graduate student’s or a veteran scientist’s attempt to explain something plausibly in a different light or perspective.

To further clarify the idea of theory building, take the previously discussed theory that tries to explain global warming, that is, the Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) Theory. The AGW Theory is just one of the theories that try to explain global warming.

One of the responses of a coastal community to sea level rise due to climate change is to build seawalls. This adaptation prevents coastal erosion as a result of advancing waters. This measure, however, could prove futile as this picture shows.

One of the responses of a coastal community to sea level rise due to climate change is to build seawalls. This prevents coastal erosion as a result of advancing waters. This, however, could prove futile as this picture shows.

Bast (2010) enumerated six other theories on global warming. I list these theories below:

1. Biothermostat Theory Рthe theory proposes that negative feedbacks from biological and chemical processes on Earth offset whatever negative feedbacks are caused by increasing carbon dioxide levels.

2. Cloud Formation and Albedo Theory – the theory advances the idea that changes in the formation and albedo (the proportion of light reflected by a surface) of clouds cancels all or nearly all the warming effects of greater levels of carbon dioxide.

3. Human Forcings Besides Greenhouse Gases Theory – the theory postulates that man influences climate is not only because of greenhouse gas emissions but likewise important human activities like clearing forests, irrigating deserts, and building cities.

4. Ocean Currents Theory – the theory explains that the variation of temperature worldwide was due to the slow-down of Thermohaline Circulation (a large-scale circulation of the ocean driven by differences in density due to changes in temperature and freshwater input) of the ocean.

5. Planetary Motion Theory – the theory attributes the recent global warming phenomenon to natural gravitational and magnetic oscillations of the solar system.

6. Solar Variability Theory – the theory suggests that global warming is due to changes in the brightness of the sun caused by bursts of energetic particles and radiation that periodically vary.

These are all theories that try to explain global warming. The graduate student needs to read a great deal of literature and gain insights to build theories. Further, you must note that these theories are not perfect explanations of global warming. Some of these theories may be substantiated or confirmed through time. On the other hand, further theory testing will show their weaknesses.

Whichever of these theories will stand rigorous scrutiny by researchers through further studies on the causes of global warming will come out as the best theory of global warming. That’s how science works.


Bast, J. L. (2010). Seven theories of climate change. Chicago: The Heartland Institute. 30 pp.

Cite this article as: Regoniel, Patrick A. (December 24, 2012). What is the Difference Between Theory Testing and Theory Building?. In SimplyEducate.Me. Retrieved from http://simplyeducate.me/2012/12/24/what-is-the-difference-between-theory-testing-and-theory-building/

© 2012 December 24 P. A. Regoniel

2 thoughts on “What is the Difference Between Theory Testing and Theory Building?”

  1. Dear author

    The article is so informative and simple. Can I get a more detailed description about this topic – “testing theories and generating theories”.

    1. Dear Athira,
      Thank you for visiting Simplyeducate.me. When you would like to test theories, you need to know first what existing theories there are on your given subject. Therefore, this requires you too review literature. Upon doing so, you will be able to generate your own theory, i.e., if you are well equipped to do it. The convention, as this article suggests, is that PhD students do this since they have already been through the testing theories stage. They generate their own theories to explain a phenomenon.

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