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Writing the Problem Statement

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Writing the Problem Statement
Getting Started

The first step in any study is determining what the problem is you are trying to solve.
If you do not have a clear vision of your problem statement, you don't understand what you need to do.

Provide Solutions

Remember that a problem is something that needs to be solved. It is NOT your purpose statement (the purpose is to SOLVE the problem). After you have clearly defined your problem, you will establish the purpose, write research questions (and hypotheses for quantitative studies), determine your methodology, conduct the study, and analyze the data.

Your data analysis should lead to you to constructive suggestions that constituents can apply to solve real-world problems.

Without a solid problem statement, the rest of your study becomes a 'house of cards' that will collapse at some point - early or late - in the process.

Advancing knowledge Remember that the purpose of a research study is to advance knowledge in your subject area.
If you already know a solution to the problem, this is NOT a good research study!
Be specific:

A topic is not a problem. The problem must have a potential solution, but this is not always identified at the start of the study.

School dropout rate Students in 9th through 12th grade are not motivated and drop out of school Certain factors may motivate students to stay in school.
School dropout rate Multiple factors have been identified regarding WHY students drop out of school, but no viable solutions have been identified Determine whether paying students to stay in school reduces the dropout rate.
Homeless in America Many homeless are unaware of the local, state, and federal organizations available to help the homeless. Initiate a campaign to educate the homeless in one city on local, state, and federal organizations available to help the homeless to determine if this campaign decreases the homeless population.
Homeland Security Airport Homeland Security officers are not properly trained to find and confiscate certain items. First test current airport homeland security officers on their existing ability, provide a specific training program, then measure their ability to find and confiscate certain items.
Provide a clear rationale You must have a clear rationale for the hypotheses in your study.
This rationale begins with the statement of the problem.
Guide the reader Be sure that you are leading the reader directly to the purpose of the study and the questions that you will be addressing. Indicate that this is a problem that has not been previously addressed by the research literature. If, however, the problem has been previously addressed, you will need to indicate that you are studying a new aspect of the problem (a different twist), are verifying the results of a previous inquiry in some new or unique fashion, or are testing the results with a previously untested population.
Support your problem statement Begin with a review of the literature. Find recent studies (preferably less than a year old, since by the time you complete your dissertation or thesis, they will be much older than that!) where the author indicates suggestions for future research. This is a great place to find support for the need for your study - or to find a problem to study.
Identify a compelling need

An effective problem statement clearly describes the nature and extent of the problem you expect to solve with your research study. The problem statement also identifies factors/variables that contribute to the problem. You will need to provide citations for this section - your opinion is NOT enough! The reader must be able to discern the seriousness of the problem and understand the need for the study and its further elucidation.

If you are doing "action research" - research that identifies and solves a specific problem at a specific institution with little or no generalizability - you should provide support with personal communications: find a leader/supervisor who supports/explains the need for the study. Explain clearly why this problem is of sufficient scope for a dissertation study.

Include 4 key elements
  1. Explain the general problem that supports the need for the study.
    Include references - and be sure they're recent!
  2. Explain the specific problem in a clear, concise manner. Keep to one sentence - two at most.
    If you cannot clearly and concisely identify the problem, then you don't have a study!
  3. Briefly summarize the methodology and research design. Make sure it is appropriate to the problem being presented. Remember that the problem, purpose, and questions drive the methodology, not the other way around.
  4. Identify the general population. The population is directly related to the problem - make sure it is clear why this population faces this problem.
Say it in plain English Don't write your problem statement with language that only a Ph.D. can understand.
Write it so a high school student can understand it.
Understand the impact of the problem Be sure you understand the direct and indirect impact of the problem.
How does it affect the population?
How does it affect members of the community or other stakeholds who are not members of the research population?
Understand the impact of the solution How will the results of your study solve the problem or improve circumstances for members of the population? Are the results meaningful? If the results of the study will not provide information that will enable leaders to change the impact of the problem, then there is no point to the study. Although you will address this later (when discussing the significance of the study), you must understand it now, otherwise, you'll be spinning your wheels.

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Copyright BOLD Educational Software 2011
Diane M. Dusick, Ph.D.
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