Conceptual Models: Definition & Characteristics

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  • 0:00 Understanding Abstraction
  • 1:06 What Is a Conceptual Model?
  • 1:58 Characteristics of Models
  • 2:35 Limitations of…
  • 3:40 Uses of Conceptual Models
  • 4:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

What is a conceptual model? Learn about the characteristics of conceptual models and how these models are used in science and elsewhere. Test how well you understand this concept by completing a short quiz.

Understanding Abstraction

Humans have done some amazing things over the last couple of centuries. We've managed to understand the world scientifically in staggering ways; from the smallest things in our universe, like the quarks that make up protons and neutrons, to the largest observed cosmic structure, the Hercules-Corona Borealis Great Wall. We have a strong understanding of how the universe works, and a lot of that comes down to the ways that humans think, largely because of something called abstraction. An abstraction occurs when we take something real and represent it in a different, often simpler form.

Let's say that you're sitting in math class and begin learning algebra. Suddenly, instead of just numbers, you're doing math with letters. You multiply variable x by variable y and get variable z. These letters represent numbers. This is an example of abstraction, substituting something real with something that represents it in a simpler way.

What Is a Conceptual Model?

Humans love to represent one thing with another. That's why Jesus spoke in parables and why authors use metaphor and simile. When we use one thing to represent another, it can be easier to understand. And that's the basis of a conceptual model, a way of representing a particular concept, or set of concepts, that helps people understand or simulate the subject of that model. Often drawn as diagrams, conceptual models show relationships between factors and the flow of data or processes.

For example, you might have a conceptual model showing how your evening is structured after school each day. Maybe you do homework first, take a 10-minute break every hour for a total of three hours, then eat dinner, before watching TV for an hour and finally beginning your bedtime routine. You could draw that conceptual model in a diagram like this:

Conceptual model of your day after school
Example conceptual model

Characteristics of Models

The main characteristics or goals of a conceptual model are as follows:

  • It improves a person's understanding of the subject being modeled.
  • It communicates details between people who need to know them.
  • It gives a point of reference for people like designers to come up with specific plans.
  • It provides a document that can be referred to in the future and used when people work together.

When applied in scientific settings, the first of these characteristics is the most important. The conceptual model should improve our understanding of the subject being modeled. After all, greater understanding is the goal of science.

Limitations of Conceptual Models

Conceptual models in science are simplified ways of explaining or portraying concepts, helping to boil down complex ideas and make them easier to understand. However, there are problems or limitations with conceptual models.

Conceptual models tend to be simplified; that is, they're purposely simplified, because that's what makes them useful. However, being simpler means they're not always perfectly accurate. Sometimes, the real world is more complicated than a conceptual model allows for. But even when that's true, a conceptual model can be a good starting point.

Another weakness of conceptual models is that they stretch the truth to make something more understandable. For example, when people first learn about atoms, they are shown a model of an atom that contain protons and neutrons in the center, with electrons orbiting around the outside. This makes the atom look a lot like the solar system, with nice simple circles. But the truth is that electrons move in seemingly random ways, nowhere near as neatly as the model shows. The truth is often a little different than what's shown in a conceptual model.

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