State the research problem

State the research problem

What is a research problem?

A research problem refers to some difficulty which a researcher experiences in the context of either a theoretical or practical situation and wants to obtain a solution for the same.

What is the difference between the topic and the research problem?

While the research topic is the broad subject matter addressed by the study, for example, weapon possession by students in schools, the research problem is the concern, or controversy addressed in research that narrows the topic, for example, the escalating violence in schools due, in part, to students possessing weapons.

Should the Problem Be Researched?

You should research a problem IF your study will:

  1. Fill a gap in the existing literature. For example, assume that a researcher examines the literature on the ethical climate on college campuses and finds that past research has examined the perceptions of students, but not of faculty. This is a void or gap in the body of research about this issue. Conducting a study about faculty perceptions of the ethical climate would address a topic not studied in the current literature.
  2. Replicate a past study but examines different participants and different research sites. In a quantitative study of ethical climate, for example, past research conducted in a liberal arts college can be tested (or replicated) at other sites, such as a community college or major research university. Information from such a study will provide new knowledge.
  3. Extend past research or examines the topic more thoroughly. For example, in our illustration on ethical climate, although research exists on ethical climates, it now needs to be extended to the situation in which students take exams, because taking exams poses many ethical dilemmas for students. In this way, you extend the research to new topics. This extension is different from replication because you extend the research to these topics rather than participants and research sites.
  4. Give voice to people silenced, not heard, or rejected in society. For example, although past studies on ethical climate have addressed students on predominantly white campuses, we have not heard the voices of Native Americans on this topic. A study of this type would report and give voice to Native Americans.
  5. Inform practice. For example, a study of ethical issues in a college setting may lead to a new honor code, new policies about cheating on exams, or new approaches to administering tests.

Now, HOW do you write a “statement of the problem” section?

After identifying your research problem, determining that it can and should be researched, you can state your problem by answering the following four questions:

WHAT is the specific controversy or issue that I need to address?” Escalating violence in the schools.

WHY is this problem important?” Schools need to reduce the violence; students will learn better if violence is less a part of their lives, etc.

HOW will my study add to what we already know about this problem?” We really don’t have many school plans for addressing this escalating violence.

WHO will benefit from what I learn about this problem?” Schools, anybody interested in learning how schools can respond to escalating violence (the body of literature, administrators, teachers, etc.)

EXAMPLE of a problem statement

Adolescent use of all tobacco products is increasing. By age 18 years, approximately two thirds of United States teenagers have tried smoking and approximately one fourth have smoked in the last 30 days. In addition, more than 20 percent of white adolescent males use smokeless tobacco products. Adolescent tobacco use has been reported by race/ethnicity, gender, and grade level; however, the relationship between sports intensity, race, and tobacco use has not been studied to the best of our knowledge. (Davis et al., 1997, pp. 97–98).


Creswell, J.W. (2012). Educational Research: Planning, Conducting, and Evaluating Quantitative and Qualitative Research, 4th ed. Boston, MA: Pearson Education.

Kothari, C.R. (2004). Research Methodology: Methods and Techniques, 2nd ed. New Delhi: New Age International (P) Ltd., Publishers.

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