Mansureh Kebritchi, Ph.D.
A research problem is the heart of the study. It is a clear, definite statement of the area of concern or investigation and is backed by evidence (Bryman, 2007). It drives the research questions and processes and provides the framework for understanding the research findings. To begin, you will need to know where to look for your research problem and how to evaluate when a research problem for success.
Ideas for research problems tend to come from two sources: real life and the scholarly arena. First, identifying a research problem can be as simple as observing the complications and issues in your local workplace. You may encounter ongoing issues on a daily basis in your workplace or observe your colleagues struggle with major issues or questions in your field. These ongoing obstacles and issues in the workplace can be the catalyst for developing a research problem.
Alternatively, research problems can be identified by reviewing recent literature, reports, or databases in your field. Often the section on “recommendations for future studies” provided at the end of journal articles or doctoral dissertations suggests potential research problems. In addition, major reports and databases in the field may reveal findings or data-based facts that call for additional investigation or suggest potential issues to be addressed. Looking at what theories need to be tested is another opportunity to develop a research problem.
Once you find your potential research problem, you will need to evaluate the problem and ensure that it is appropriate for research. A research problem is deemed appropriate when it is supported by the literature and considered significant, timely, novel, specific, and researchable. Stronger research problems are more likely to succeed in publication, presentation, and application.
Your research problem should be relevant to the field and supported by a number of recent peer-reviewed studies in the field. Even if you identify the problem based on the recommendation of one journal article or dissertation, you will still need to conduct a literature search and ensure that other researchers support the problem and the need for conducting research to further address the problem.
Your research problem should have a positive impact on the field. The impact can be practical, in the form of direct application of the results in the field, or conceptual, where the work advances the field by filling a knowledge gap.
Your research problem should be related to the current needs in the field and well-suited for the present status of the issues in your field. Explore what topics are being covered in current journals in the field. Look at calls from relevant disciplinary organizations. Review your research center agenda and focused topics. For example, the topics of the Research Labs at the Center for Educational and Instructional Technology Research including critical thinking, social media and cultural competency, diversity, and Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) in higher education are representative of the current timely topics in the field of education. Identifying a current question in the field and supporting the problem with recent literature can justify the problem's timeliness.
Your research problem should be original and unique. It should seek to address a gap in our knowledge or application. An exhaustive review of the literature can help you identify whether the problem has already been addressed with your particular sample and/or context. Talking to experts in the research area can illuminate a problem. Replication of an existing study warrants a discussion of value elsewhere, but the novelty can be found in determining if an already-resolved problem holds in a new sample and/or context.
Your research problem should be specific enough to set the direction of the study, raise research question(s), and determine an appropriate research method and design. Vague research problems may not be useful to specify the direction of the study or develop research questions.
Research problems are solved through the scientific method. This means researchability, or feasibility of the problem, is more important than all of the above characteristics. You as the researcher should be able to solve the problem with your abilities and available research methods, designs, research sites, resources, and timeframe. If a research problem retains all of the aforementioned characteristics but it is not researchable, it may not be an appropriate research problem.
References and More Information
Bryman, Alan. “The Research Question in Social Research: What is its Role?” International Journal of Social Research Methodology 10 (2007): 5-20.