One of the most challenging aspects of conducting research is to clearly identify the
“problem” that leads to a need for your study. Individuals do not seem to give enough
attention to why they are conducting their studies. Research problems are the educational
issues, controversies, or concerns that guide the need for conducting a study. Good research
problems can be found in our educational settings, such as:
1. The disruptions caused by at-risk students in classrooms
2. The increase in violence on college campuses
3. The lack of parental involvement in schools for students with challenging
These problems concern personnel in our schools, classrooms, and college campuses. In
writing about the research problem, authors state it as a single sentence or several sentences
in a research report. To locate the research problem in a study, ask yourself:
What was the issue, problem, or controversy that the researcher wanted to address?
What controversy leads to a need for this study?
What was the concern being addressed “behind” this study?
Is there a sentence like “The problem addressed in this study is . . .”?
You can find “problems” in the introduction to a study. They are included in a passage called
the “statement of the problem” section. You can locate this passage in the opening,
introductory paragraphs of a research report. We study research problems so we can assist
policy makers when they make decisions, help teachers and school officials solve practical
problems, and provide researchers with a deeper understanding of educational issues. From a
research standpoint, specifying a research problem in your study is important because it sets
the stage for the entire study. Without knowing the research problem, readers do not know
why the study is important and why they should read the study. What are some educational
issues that you might research? Write down these issues.
Although you are aware of many educational problems, it is challenging to write them
into a research report. This may be due to a lack of understanding about how to write them or
identify them for your study.
To better understand research problems, you might distinguish them from other parts of the
research process. The research problem is distinct from the topic of the study (to be addressed
later in this chapter), the purpose
purpose statements), and specific
purpose statements). The research problem needs to stand on i
distinct step because it represents the problem addressed in the study.
In the brief definitions that follow, consider the differences among these parts of research:
A research topic is the broad subject matter addressed by
seeks to study weapon possession by students in schools.
A research problem is a general educational issue, concern, or controversy addressed
in research that narrows the topic. The problem Maria addresses is the escalating
violence in schools due, in part, to students possessing weapons.
A purpose is the major intent or objective of the study used to address the problem.
Teacher might state the purpose of her study as follows: “The purpose of my study
will be to identify factors tha
Research questions narrow the purpose into specific questions that the researcher
would like answered or addressed in the study. Maria might ask, “Do peers influence
students to carry weapons?”
Looking at these differences, you can see that they differ in terms of breadth from
broad (topic) to narrow (specific research questions). Let’s examine another example, as
shown in Figure 2.1, to make this point. In this example, a researcher begins with
or intent of the study (to be considered in the chapter on
research questions (also discussed in the chapter on
its own and be recognized as a
the study. For example,
that influence the extent to which students carry weapons in
ts t a broad
topic, distance learning. The inquirer then seeks to learn about a problem related to this topic:
the lack of students enrolled in distance education classes. To study this problem, our
educator then reformulates the problem into a statement of intent (the purpose statement): to
study why students do not attend distance education classes at one community college.
Examining this statement requires that our investigator narrow the intent to specific
questions, one of which is “Does the use of Web site technology in the classroom deter
students from enrolling in distance education classes?” The process involves narrowing a
broad topic to specific questions. In this process, the “research problem” becomes a distinct
step that needs to be identified to help readers clearly see the issue.
A common error is stating research problems as the purpose of the study or as the
research question. The following examples show how you might reshape a purpose or a
research question as a research problem.
Should the Problem Be Researched?
A positive answer to this question lies in whether your study will contribute to knowledge
and practice. One important reason for engaging in research is to add to existing information
and to inform our educational practices. Research adds to knowledge. Now let’s examine
these ways in more detail as you think about the research problem in one of your studies.
There are five ways to assess whether you should research a problem:
1. Study the problem if your study will fill a gap or void in the existing literature. A
study fills a void by covering topics not addressed in the published literature. For example,
assume that a researcher examines the literature on the ethical climate on college campuses
and finds that past research has examined the perceptions of students, but not of faculty. This
is a void or gap in the body of research about this issue. Conducting a study about faculty
perceptions of the ethical climate would address a topic not studied in the current literature.
2. Study the problem if your study replicates a past study but examines different
participants and different research sites. The value of research increases when results can
apply broadly to many people and places rather than to only the setting where the initial
research occurred. This type of study is especially important in quantitative experiments. In a
quantitative study of ethical climate, for example, past research conducted in a liberal arts
college can be tested (or replicated) at other sites, such as a community college or major
research university. Information from such a study will provide new knowledge.
3. Study the problem if your study extends past research or examines the topic more
thoroughly. A good research problem to study is one in which you extend the research into a
new topic or area, or simply conduct more research at a deeper, more thorough level to
understand the topic. For example, in our illustration on ethical climate, although research
exists on ethical climates, it now needs to be extended to the situation in which students take
exams, because taking exams poses many ethical dilemmas for students. In this way, you
extend the research to new topics. This extension is different from replication because you
extend the research to these topics rather than participants and research sites.
4. Study the problem if your study gives voice to people silenced, not heard, or rejected
in society. Your research adds to knowledge by presenting the ideas and the words of
marginalized (e.g., the homeless, women, racial groups) individuals. For example, although
past studies on ethical climate have addressed students on predominantly white campuses, we
have not heard the voices of Native Indians on this topic. A study of this type would report
and give voice to Native Americans.
5. Study the problem if your study informs practice by examining the problem. Your
research may lead to the identification of new techniques or technologies, the recognition of
the value of historical or current practice, or the necessity of changing current teaching
practice. Individuals who benefit from practical knowledge may be policy makers, teachers,
or learners. For example, a study of ethical issues in a college setting may lead to a new
honour code, new policies about cheating on exams, or new approaches to administering
Keep in Mind
Just because a problem exists and an author can clearly identify the issue does not mean that
the researcher can or should investigate it. You can research a problem if you have access to
participants and research sites as well as time, resources, and skills needed to study the issue.
You should research a problem if the study of it potentially contributes to educational
knowledge or adds to the effectiveness of practice.
1. Can You Gain Access to People and Sites?
To research a problem, investigators need to gain permission to enter a site and to involve
people at the location of the study (e.g., gaining access to an elementary school to study
children who are minors). This access often requires multiple levels of approval from
schools, such as district administrators, principals, teachers, parents, and students. In addition,
One of the most challenging aspects of conducting research is to clearly identify the