A research problem defines the topic of study in a research undertaking. Research problems may examine practical issues to propose changes or analyze theoretical problems to contribute to the existing knowledge in a field.
This article discusses the importance of a research problem and how to formulate it to guide research.1
Definition: Research problem
A research problem is a specific challenge or knowledge gap that sets the foundation for research. It is the primary statement about a topic in a field of study, and the findings from a research undertaking provide solutions to the research problem.
The research problem is the defining statement that informs the sources and methodologies to be applied to find and recommend proposals for the area of contention.2
Why is the research problem important?
Research should adopt a precise approach for analysis to be relevant and applicable in a real-world context. Researchers can pick any area of study, and in most cases, the topic in question will have a broad scope; a well-formulated problem forms the basis of a strong research paper which illustrates a clear focus.3
Writing a research problem is the first step in planning for a research paper, and a well-structured problem prevents a runaway project that lacks a clear direction.
Step 1: Finding a general research problem area
Your primary goal should be to find gaps and meaningful ways your research project offers a solution to a problem or broadens the knowledge bank in the field.
A good approach is to read and hold discussions about the topic, identify areas with insufficient information, highlight areas of contention and form more in-depth conclusions in under-researched areas.
You can carry out workplace research using a practical approach. This aims to identify a problem by analyzing reports, engaging with people in the organization or field of interest, and examining previous research. Some pointers include:
- Efficiency and performance-related issues within an organization.
- Areas or processes that can be improved in the organization.
- Matters of concern among professionals in the field of study.
- Challenges faced by identifiable groups in society.
In theoretical research, researchers aim to offer new insights which contribute to the larger knowledge body in the field rather than proposing change. You can formulate a problem by studying recent studies, debates, and theories to identify gaps. Identifying a research problem in theoretical research may examine the following:
- A context or phenomenon that has not been extensively studied.
- A contrast between two or more thought patterns.
- A position that is not clearly understood.
- A bothersome scenario or question that remains unsolved.
Theoretical problems don’t focus on solving a practical problem but have practical implications in their field. Many theoretical frameworks offer a guide to other practical and applied research scenarios.
Step 2: Narrowing down the research problem
After identifying a general problem area, you need to zero in on the specific aspect you want to analyze further in the context of your research.
The problem can be narrowed down using the following criteria to create a relevant problem whose solutions adequately answer the research questions. Some questions you can ask to understand the contextual framework of the research problem include:
|Which groups or individuals does the problem affect?||These may be distinguished by age, location, race, religion, and other metrics that apply to the topic.|
|How old is the problem?||Is it an ongoing concern, or is it a new problem?|
|What is the existing opinion on the topic?||Has any research been done on the matter? How do existing views concur or differ with your initial presumptions?|
|Are there any proposed solutions?||Which recommendations have been made by other scholars and researchers?|
|Are there any debates or areas of contention?||Do they offer any useful questions, and what gaps can you identify?4|
Evaluating the significance of a research problem is a necessary step for identifying issues that contribute to the solution of an issue. There are several ways of determining the significance of a research problem. The following questions can help you to evaluate the significance and relevance of a proposed research problem:
- Which area, group or time do you plan to situate your study?
- What attributes will you examine?
- What is the repercussion of not solving the problem?
- Who stands to benefit if the problem is resolved?5
Example of a research problem
By narrowing down the research problem, you can create the problem statement, hypothesis, and relevant research questions.6
There has been an upward trend in the immigration of professionals from other countries to the UK. Research is needed to determine the likely causes and effects.
Begin by examining available sources and previous research on your topic of interest. You can narrow down the scope from the literature or observable phenomenon and focus on under-researched areas.
Investigate the specific aspects you would like to investigate. Furthermore, you can determine the consequences of the problem remaining unresolved and the biggest beneficiaries if a solution is found.
Context refers to the nature of the problem. It entails studying existing work on the issue, who is affected by it, and the proposed solutions.
1 Sacred Heart University. “Organizing Academic Research Papers: The Research Problem/Question.” Accessed November 29, 2022. https://library.sacredheart.edu/c.php?g=29803&p=185918.
2 Research Guides. “Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper.” USC Libraries. November 14, 2022. https://libguides.usc.edu/writingguide/introduction/researchproblem.
3 QuestionPro. “Research problem: Everything a market researcher needs to know.” Accessed November 29, 2022. https://www.questionpro.com/blog/research-problem/.
4 Lewis, Lloyd.”Problem Statement, Conceptual Framework, and Research Question.” Academic Medicine 76. no. 9 (September 2001): 923-924. https://journals.lww.com/academicmedicine/fulltext/2001/09000/problem_statement,_conceptual_framework,_and.21.aspx.
5 ReadingCraze.com. “The Importance of Formulating a Research Problem.” Sahifa. December 18, 2013. https://readingcraze.com/index.php/importance-formulating-research-problem/.
6 Ball, Allison. “How do I narrow down my research topic?” Seneca Libraries. October 04, 2021. https://seneca.libanswers.com/faq/195516.