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Research Problem Guide

Step by Step Guide to Formulate a Research Problem

June 08, 2019
How To
Albert Barkley

This guide by The Academic Papers UK contains 8 Steps to formulate a research problem. Definition of the research problem, its types, examples, as well as tips to writer ar perfect research problem, are also part of this practical guide.

A research problem is also known as a research question. It is known as the methodological point of departure in scholarly research in both natural and social sciences. While conducting effective research, you must provide an answer to this question. If you are going to write a research paper at the undergraduate level, the answer to the research question exists in the form of a thesis statement. A research question will also address a research problem that is worth solving. Some essential tips to formulate a research question are given below:

How is Research Problem different from Research Question? (Research Problem vs Research Question)

Research questions and problems are not similar concepts but rather related to one another. So, let’s have a quick look at each concept.

Research Problem

It is also called a phenomenon in many forms of qualitative research. It is a statement on the topic you want to address, investigate or study. Also, it could be either a descriptive or experimental study. Further, it provides the rationale for conducting your research. Research problem establishes the importance of the topic and sparks readers’ interest. A research problem does not imply solutions, and it has broad applicability.

Research Question

A research question is an interrogative statement that seeks to investigate and learn more about the research topic. A research question aims to refine the research problem. After you choose the research problem, you can narrow it down to a specific research question. Research questions break down the research problem into smaller questions. It helps you to find solutions for the problem you want to address. Research questions for a particular study can be more than one. It depends on the type of study you are doing and the problem you want to address. Research questions are clear specific, and they refer to the research problem.

Research questions are those which are answerable and simple. For example, the problem statement is that climate change is causing rising sea levels and severe weather events. A research question with an implied hypothesis could be how electricity generated automobiles will help to stabilize the harmful effects of climate change? Now this implies a solution to your problem statement.

How to Identify/Search a Research Problem?

Real-life situations can provide the context for getting an idea about a research problem. The scholarly arena is another source to identify and search for a research problem. While reading for your topic, analyse those unexplored areas that require investigation. Scan for possible areas of concern that are controversial and not investigated properly.

Let us talk about the ways to search for a research problem.

  • Observe and analyse real-life situations around you in your home, neighbourhood, institute or workplace
  • Ongoing issues in daily life such as conflicts and struggles can be useful to identify a research problem

The source for identifying the research problem depends a lot on the type of research you want to conduct. If you are looking for a research problem with practical implications and connected to daily life, you can choose to do the following.

  • Identify it by reading relevant reports and research
  • Talk to people who work in that field or organization which you want to study
  • Identify performance issues or problems concerning efficiency in an organization
  • Further, identify processes that require improvement in an organization
  • Identify difficulties faced by a particular segment of the society

Theoretical research problems can be identified differently. Theoretical research is oriented towards the expansion of knowledge. It is an attempt to understand a situation rather than make direct changes to the real society. Theoretical research problems can be identified in the following manner.

  • Identify a gap in the recent research, theories and debates on your topic
  • Read relevant theories that pertain to your topic
  • Review the literature and read the conclusion where the author mentions the limitations of the study and suggests possible research problems
  • Personal experiences can be a source for generating it
  • Casual observation of life and the surrounding environment
  • Current social and global issues, for example, global warming, economic crises, or political upheaval.
  • Brainstorming activities such as having a debate or a dialogue with friends or professors can generate interesting questions which can be helpful to identify the research problem
  • Search for contexts or occurrences which are understudied
  • Look for existing contradictions in the study
  • A phenomenon not analyzed properly
  • Issues that are controversial and conflicted

Types of Research Problems

There are three different types of research problems

  1. Descriptive
  2. Relational
  3. Causal

Let’s discuss them in detail.

Descriptive Research Problems

Descriptive research problems tend to answer questions like ‘what is?’, which aims to describe an existing phenomenon or situation. It seeks to identify the prevalence of certain attitudes and behaviours in a particular population segment. Public surveys and poll opinions are generally descriptive because they seek to understand people’s opinions about something. Public surveys are more appropriate for descriptive research because they seek to understand the social phenomenon.

For example, if we want to know ‘what are the main factors which affect voter decisions?’, we are simply looking for a descriptive research problem.

Causal Research Problems

A causal research problem seeks to establish a relationship between cause and effect. It seeks to point out a causal relationship between two or more variables. A causal research problem aims to spot the impact of a change or variation within the framework of the established practice. This type of research problem requires isolation and identification of variables and establishing a link between them. For example, how does advertising impact consumer decisions?’ now, this question is based on two variables. It seeks to establish a link between the independent and dependent variables.

Relational Research Problems

A relational research problem seeks to establish a relationship between two or more variables. It aims to investigate the interconnection of qualities and characteristics. A relational research problem investigates certain qualities and attributes that may somehow connect. For example, if you want to establish a relational research problem, it could be like ‘how students’ academic performance is related to their writing skills. In this example, you seek to establish a relationship between students’ academic performance and their writing skills.

The Importance of Formulating the Research Problem

There are lots of benefits of formulating a research problem because the actual process of research begins with the formulation of the research problem. Some essential benefits of research problem are given below;

  1. Formulating a research problem is known as the preliminary step to conduct the research study. Its reason is that by formulating the research problem, you can easily understand the research procedure.
  2. By formulating the research problem, we can easily determine the objective and intention of the research. If we don’t formulate the research problem, we can’t determine the research methodology.
  3. By formulating the research problem, we can easily generate clear questions relevant to the research paper. An interesting and intriguing research paper is also necessary to engage the researchers in the research process.
  4. A research problem also provides us with an idea of whether the research process is manageable within the resources or not.

How To Formulate A Good Research Problem?

Now, let’s discuss the important steps to formulate it.

1-Specify The Research Objectives

A clear problem statement that can easily define all of your objectives is helpful to you to develop effective research. It is also helpful for the evaluators to get an idea of whether your project’s research questions have provided all the possible answers to your questions or not. With the help of clear objectives, it is also easy for the students to find out the possible answers to the research questions of a project. No doubt, finding the manageable objectives is a critical task for the students, but with a little effort, you can easily specify the research objectives of your project.

2-Identify the Broad Study Area

The foremost step is to know about the subject area which interests you. For example, if you are a politics student, you should choose research areas in politics. You can choose to analyze political parties, foreign policy of a country, ideology, and human rights issues.

3-Narrow Down Your Focus

Dissect your broader research area and make it specific to some subareas. For example, if your topic is the foreign policy of a country, then narrow it down further. You can compare two countries’ foreign policies, such as the UK and the US. The topic could be further narrowed down to one country, such as geopolitical considerations in the foreign policy of the USA.

4-Highlight your Interest

Even if you identify sub-areas, it becomes quite difficult to study everything in them. You should select those issues which interest you. It helps you narrow down the focus of your study and helps to formulate a precise research problem.

5-Review The Context Of The Research Problem

There are some environmental variables or contextual variables which are helpful to you to provide enough idea about the findings of your research problem. It would be best to determine all the environmental or contextual variables that can affect your research project. After finding these variables, you will be in a better position to formulate the possible methods which are helpful to you to control these variables.

6-Explore The Nature Of The Problem

We know that these can be simple and complex. The research problem’s simplicity or complexity depends upon the number of variables and the relationship between these variables. As a researcher, you should try to select such variables for your research project that directly relate to the research problem or the research questions. That is because if a student can easily explore and understand the nature of a problem, it is easy for him to develop better solutions to the research problems.

7-Define The Variable Relationships

We can’t ignore these variables while formulating the research questions. For example, if you are going to write a research project on marketing, you will have to know which behaviours are occurring over time and the best design to introduce a new product. That is because these variables have a direct relationship with the sale of the products. It is also considered an essential stage for problem formulation.

8-Select And Include Important Variables

A reasonable and clear research problem inculcates those variables that are relevant to the study. It is important to ask this question that how the chosen variables might have an impact on the study. The selection of important variables informs the reader about the direction of your research. It also helps to understand the relevance and impact of the solution.

9-The Sequence Of Alternate Courses Of Action

While writing any research project, you will have to keep in mind the sequence of the alternative courses of action. Therefore, while formulating the research problems, it is also necessary for us to anticipate and communicate the outcomes of the various courses of action. The reason is that if we don’t keep in mind these courses of action, we will never get the desired results.

Format of a Perfect Research Problem

Let’s discuss the formats of a perfect research problem by identifying what should not be included.

Weak Research Problem:

A weak research problem contains the following

  • Makes no claim
  • Factual statements
  • Restatement of traditional wisdom
  • Claim made on personal beliefs
  • Broad Claims

Examples of Weak Research Problems

  • I am going to write about Darwin’s theory of evolution in The Origin of Species(Makes no claim)
  • Clothing companies advertise jeans to create an appeal among young adults(Obviously factual statement)

Both of the statements above are too broad, devoid of claim and factual. Let’s try to turn them into strong research statements. You need to raise specific issues in both statements to make them more specific

An Example of the Perfect Research Problem

  • Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest in The Origin of Species fails to incorporate an important aspect in the theory of evolution––survival as a matter of interdependence.
  • The clothing industry has attempted to normalize and even glorify wearing jeans for old and fat people by inventing terms such as “loose fit” and “relaxed fit”.

The proposed solutions seek to find an avenue of inquiry and raise issues on specific aspects. Make assertions in your thesis statement which are bold and specific.

Research Problem in Quantitative Research

A quantitative research problem identifies the relationship between variables and participants and the site for research. Quantitative research problem explains, predicts, and make a comparison between variables. It contains an independent and dependent variable. It measures variables for getting quantified data. A quantitative research problem seeks to test theories by collecting data and generating results by analyzing the data.

Steps to Write a Quantitative Research Problem

  • Use a single sentence
  • If you are using a theory, state the theory you plan to test
  • Use wording such as “The purpose of this study….”
  • Employ quantitative words such as relate, compare, describe to create a relationship between variables
  • Place the independent variable first in the sentence
  • The dependant variable comes after the independent variable
  • Controlling or mediating variable has a third position in the sentence

Examples of Quantitative Research Problems

  1. The purpose of this study is to test Kern’s theory (2004) by relating leadership style to autonomy for hourly employees at a major retail centre in Spain.
  2. The purpose of this study is to describe the effect of digital marketing on the sales volume of Zara clothing stores in Spain.

Research Problem in Qualitative Reasoning

A qualitative research statement has the following features

  • Tries to explore, investigate, describe and discover a phenomenon
  • Description of views of different individuals and tries to understand a phenomenon or situation
  • A qualitative research problem is descriptive and asks questions such as what happened?
  • It is interpretive and asks questions such as the meaning of a certain occurrence for the people
  • It is process-oriented and assesses a situation or a phenomenon over some time

Steps to Write a Qualitative Research Problem

  • State the qualitative type of study you want to conduct
  • Use qualitative words such as explore, discover, understand, describe
  • State the central phenomenon you want to investigate
  • State the participant and research site in the study

Examples of Qualitative Research Problems

  1. The purpose of this study is to discover the conditions that prompted the Arab Spring in Syria.
  2. This qualitative study aims to understand the factors that contributed to the rise of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party in Germany.

Conclusion

After formulating the research problem, you should reach out to your instructors or mentors for feedback. They might be able to help you to consider any additional information required or in reformulation your research problem specific to the research. Revision is quite helpful, and taking a second opinion can be valuable for your research. A carefully crafted research problem enables the research to be precise and creates a significant impact in the relevant field.