|| Introduction || Functions of Problem Statement || Problem Formulation in Quantitative Research || Problem Formulation in Qualitative Rese arch || Standards of Problem Formulation || Problem Statement Examples || Problem Statement Exercises || Course Overview Map ||

Source: Fenton by Wiley


As human beings, we are curious about the unknowns. We ask many questions and try to find out answers to them. When you hear a person speaking a different dialect, you may ask which country the person initially came from. When you see an unusual color a local lake has, you may ask what type of pollution has caused it. However, not every question can become a research problem. A research problem has to indicate the possibility of empirical investigation--that is, of data collection and analysis. In order to make your research problem appropriate, we need to follow some guidelines, which is the objective of this session.

Functions of Problem Statement

In order to demonstrate that your problem is researchable, the statement of research problem should perform the following functions:
  1. The context of research;
  2. The focus of research;
  3. The significance of research;
  4. The framework for results and conclusions.

Problem Statement in Quantitative Research

Types of Research Questions

Quantitative research questions usually include

  1. Descriptive research questions;
  2. Relational research questions;
  3. Difference research questions.

Logic of Quantitative Problems

The quantitative research problems are formulated through a deductive logic, that is starting with a general construct or theory, then identifying some operational variables to quantify the general construct or theory, and finally deciding on which variab les to be observed.
  1. Review of the construct;
  2. Identification of variables;
  3. Operational definitions of variables.

Research Hypothesis

For quantitative research, the framework of results and conclusions is presented in the format of hypothesis. In order to make a hypothesis useful in a research, research hypothesis has to meet the following criteria:
  1. A hypothesis should state the expected pattern, relationship or difference between two or more variables;
  2. A hypothesis should be testable;
  3. A hypothesis should offer a tentative explanation based on theories or previous research;
  4. A hypothesis should be concise and lucid.

Problem Formulation in Qualitative Research

Problem formulation in qualitative research begins with selecting a general topic and methodology (ethnographic research or an analysis of historical/legal documents). The topic and methodology are interrelated and are selected interactively rather t han in separate steps. Most qualitative research interests come from personal experiences and a long interest in a topic developed from accidents of current biography and personal history. The researcher begins by narrowing a general topic to a more def initive topic.

Types of Qualitative Questions

  1. Ethnographic Questions;
  2. Historical Questions;
  3. Legal Questions.

Logic of Qualitative Problems

Qualitative research, in contrast to quantitative research, employs primarily inductive reasoning . Qualitative research problems are reformulated several times after the researcher has begun data collection. In contrast, quantitative research probl ems are stated before data collection. The research problem is stated initially in planning for the study, reformulated during beginning data collection, and reformulated as necessary throughout data collection. The continuing reformulation of the resea rch problem reflects an emergent design. This emergent design allows qualitative research to build the findings from the data by analyzing and presenting data in increasingly abstract and synthesized forms. Reformulation of a research problem relates t o changing data collection strategies to acquire the "totality" of the phenomena and then to study some aspect in greater depth. The specific research problem emerges and is condensed toward the end of data collection. The condensed version of the resea rch problem in most publications often is not the exact same problem statement which initiated the research.

  1. Foreshadowed problems;
  2. Condensed problems.

Standards of Adequacy for Problem Statements

General Research Problem

  1. Does the statement of the general research problem imply the possibility of empirical investigation?
  2. Does the problem statement restrict the scope of the study?
  3. Does the problem statement give the educational context in which the problem lies?

Significance of Problem

Is the significance of the problem discussed in terms of one or more of the following criteria?

  1. Develops knowledge of an enduring practice;
  2. Develops theory;
  3. Generalizable--that is, expands knowledge or theory;
  4. Provides extension of understandings;
  5. Advances methodology;
  6. Is related to a current social or political issue;
  7. Evaluates a specific practice at a given site;
  8. Is exploratory research.

Specific Research Questions or Hypothesis


  1. Does the specific research purpose, question, or hypothesis state concisely what is to be determined?
  2. Does the level of specificity indicate that the question or hypothesis is researchable? Or do the variables seem amenable to operational definitions?
  3. Is the deductive logic of a research question, or the hypothesis with variables, precise? Are the independent and dependent variables identified?
  4. Does the research question or hypothesis indicate the framework for reporting the results?


  1. Do the foreshadowed problems or the condensed problem statement indicate the particular case of some phenomena to be examined?
  2. Is the qualitative methodology appropriate for description of present or past events?
  3. Is the inductive logic of the research reasonably explicit?
  4. Does the research purpose (understanding of a social situation or grounded theory) indicate the framework for reporting the findings?