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Writing a problem statement for a research paper

By formulating a specific research problem, this enables you as the researcher to clearly determine, [both to yourself and the reader], what the purpose of the research is. All further explanations aim at providing information that should help shed more light on the problem and ultimately solve it. The problem statement is therefore a very important guide in terms of keeping the researcher on track with his or her research. It also serves as a yardstick for evaluating the research. In other words, does the research adequately address the problem it proposed to solve?

What is a research problem?

A research problem is a statement about a phenomenon of concern, a condition that can be improved, a difficulty to be eradicated, a gap to be filled, and/or a troubling question that exists in scholarly literature, in theory, or in practice which needs to be meticulously investigated, thoroughly understood and subsequently addressed. Identifying a researchable problem is usually the most difficult challenge when trying to carry out research. Once you have identified a research problem, the next step would be to write a statement of the problem.

Like noted above, an appropriate statement of the research problem is one of the most important parts of the research. It is possible for different researchers to derive a variety of researchable problems from the same phenomenon or area of interest since there are many research challenges that can materialize from a general problem situation. From this plethora of problems, a researcher should narrow down to one [or a few] that can be scientifically investigated. This then becomes the research problem. According to Chris Andrew and Peter Hildebrand, for a problem statement to be effective in the planning of applied research, it should have the following characteristics:

  • The problem reflects felt needs
  • The problem is non-hypothetical, i.e., it must be based on factual evidence
  • It should suggest meaningful and testable hypotheses – to avoid answers that are of little or no use to the alleviation of the problem
  • The problems should be relevant and manageable

Generally speaking, there are four conceptualizations of a research problem (particularly within the social sciences):

  • Casuist Research Problem — this type of problem is premised on the determination of right and wrong in questions of conduct or conscience by analyzing moral dilemmas through the application of general rules and the careful distinction of special cases.
  • Difference Research Problem — typically asks the question “does any difference exist between two or more groups or treatments?” This type of problem statement is useful when the researcher is comparing or contrasting two or more phenomena.
  • Descriptive Research Problem — typically asks the question, “what is…?” The underlying purpose here is to describe a situation, state, or existence of a specific phenomenon.
  • Relational Research Problem – suggests some form of relationship between two or more variables to be investigated. The underlying purpose is to investigate qualities/characteristics that are somehow linked or related.

Tips for writing a good problem statement

A good problem statement should commence with an introduction of the broad area that your research espouses and then gradually narrowed down to specific questions and a particular problem. Though a good problem statement need not be too lengthy, it should have the following features:

  • Significance
    Curiosity alone is not a sufficient reason to embark on research. The problem you have selected to investigate and possibly solve must be significant enough to warrant the time, energy, and funds you intend to invest in it. In short, the selected problem must be one that motivates you to address it. Note that it must be a problem whose answers are not already available (unless you’re trying to duplicate the results of a previous study).
  • Contribute to knowledge

In the process of solving problems, research should also enrich the existing stock of knowledge. In selecting your problem, therefore, be sure to settle for one whose solution would make valuable contribution to the body of organized knowledge in your field of learning. Contributions can be made with respect to methodology, theory, practice, or the process whereby one replicates the results of existing findings to yield more reliable knowledge or increase the level of generalisability of those previous findings. The contribution you make can be used to modify, refine or replace existing theories and relationships, in order to influence educational practice in particular and human society holistically.

  • Appropriately phrased
    Endeavor to phrase the problem in a logical way that avoids contradictions or dichotomies and instead supports the generation and exploration of multiple perspectives. A good research problem is one that can stimulate discussion by generating diverse points of view from a rational and critical audience of people conversant with the problem.
  • Researchable

Finding a researchable problem is a big reason for the difficulty in problem identification. For a problem to be researchable, especially in quantitative research, it has to involve variables that can be defined and measured. Some problems, by their very nature, cannot be subjected to systematic empirical scientific scrutiny. For example, many philosophical, ethical, spiritual problems, etc, cannot be studied empirically. This makes it impossible to derive useful empirical answers to such ethical, philosophical, spiritual, and other questions. For instance, how can you study the influence of spiritual powers on the academic achievement of religious leaders?

 It can be thus opined that a problem is not researchable if researchers cannot develop and validate standardized measurement techniques and instruments for it. Researchability may also have to do with the complexity of the problem being investigated. Some problems are best tackled by a team of researchers due to their magnitude and capital-intensiveness. Thus, for a solo researcher, a problem is said to be researchable if it falls within the scope of the resources available to him or her and if it can be easily conducted by one individual.


Problem identification is often the most difficult challenge when trying to conduct research. The researcher tries to discover a researchable problem or problems that interest him within his field. This problem has to be consequential enough to deserve investigation. It must also be a problem that can be solved through the scientific method of research. Though it may not always be easy, you should try and find a unique problem that has not been solved by previous research.

Other resources

This post was produced as part of a research guide series by Avidnote which is a free web-based app that helps you to write and organize your academic writing online. Click here to find out more.

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