How to Formulate a Research Problem
Despite being a crucial part of our work, formulating a problem is one of the greatest difficulties for students and researchers, mainly because many begin to think about it even before researching the topic.
It is quite common to deal with criticisms such as “you already know the answer to this problem”, “this is not a scientific research problem” or even not being able to answer objectively when questioning what the work research problem is.
What is a research problem?
Contrary to what many people think, the research problem is not the subject of the work. For a start, it’s important to know how to differentiate these two.
Theme: It is a more comprehensive proposition of the subject that you want to prove or develop in your research.
Research problem: It is an explicit way of saying what is the difficulty or gap found in the theme of the work. Thus, the problem is a question that is not answered by the topic and must be clear, understandable, operational, and specific.
So, it’s often just a question in the form of “How…?”, “In what way…?”, “What differences are there between…?”, and so on. So, this research problem will be the starting point that will define:
- The methodology: That is, how are you going to answer that question.
- The goals: Why do you want to answer this question.
- The hypotheses: What do you expect to find in the answer.
From there, your work is very well directed, and both your research and your writing will be more fluid and direct.
5 steps to formulating your research problem
First, it is important to point out that these are tips just to guide you, but the most important thing is to feel free to formulate your questions and write. So, try to follow the steps in the way that makes the most sense to you, without rigidity, locks or judgments.
Remember: this step is not yet part of your research project, so there is no weight of a grade or someone else proofread your work. Of course, building a research problem is not just about finding questions, so it’s very important to know your topic well before following the steps.
1. Write down everything you already know about the topic
First, you need to know what you don’t know, and then you want to look for an answer. Therefore, our tip is to focus on the topic that interests you. For starters, you can resort to readings and make summary scorecards.
In addition, also look for other references and write down any questions that the contents leave open or anything else that catches your attention. But it’s okay if you still don’t have enough reading, as your practical experience and casual observations are also important parts of the notes. In other words, it is worth including all ideas related to the topic.
Finally, have you noticed that there are several doubts? It’s time to let the questioning take shape!
2. Start writing questions
From your notes, you are probably already full of doubts. Therefore, get rid of existential doubts, such as those referring to insecurities or your competence to deal with the matter. We know, it’s very common for this to happen, but don’t doubt your ability! Then select everything that pertains to your research object and use your creativity to start turning the notes into questions.
At this point, it’s time to ask whatever you want and get it, without worrying about whether the questions are relevant, silly, or too difficult. At the end of this process, you will have brainstormed super important things for your work!
3. Criticize your questions
Well, if you were already judging yourself in the previous step, you can go back and redo everything, as this is where the big cuts phase will begin. Just follow the steps:
- Cut the questions you already know the answer
We know you don’t know everything, but how about looking for more information about your topic? If your questions are already answered out there, it’s time to save this knowledge to help you in your research but leave the questions aside.
- Separate the practical questions and keep them
Do you know those questions that ask for concrete solutions, such as proposals for what to do? So, normally these are not the main problems in scientific research, but they can help you. So, separate these questions and save them for step 4.
Also, practical questions can serve as further goals for your research. That is, your work will build knowledge that can help drive solutions to real problems (and this should later be indicated in your proposal).
- Also, separate issues that are too broad
Of course, generic, or vague questions are not very good for a research problem, as they will likely not allow you to conduct well-targeted research. It is usually not even possible to draw a methodology from questions that are too broad, or because you do not know which object to research or because it is very diverse, complex and requires more time for analysis. But they can be important starting points for your research problem. So, save them and try to derive more specific questions from them.
- Do you have questions that are answered with yes or no? try to expand them
Finally, we will also explore the simpler questions, such as those that are answered with “yes” or “no”. In these cases, try to expand them and think about the more complex problems that run through them. For example, you can compare situations, ask why this happens or how. At the end of this entire process, you will notice that you already have some questions, but there is no ideal number to complete this step. It is not necessary to have many questions to build a research problem, because what matters, in addition to your enormous interest in the subject, is the relationship between the questions and, above all, their relevance.
4. Now organize the questions
To help you find the main problem in your work, divide the questions left over from brainstorming into categories, such as:
- Most relevant.
- More specific.
- Independent of each other.
- Related, by parallel or by subordination.
- More theoretical.
- More geared towards data search.
Of course, the standards for the organization can vary and will depend a lot on the set of questions you have. However, the main objective of this step remains the same: go beyond the level of loose questions and create an integrated set of questions. So, this is already a guide to defining the research problem and writing a good project.
So, make a game of setting up the questions. Choose your research problem, assemble your text with the other questions, create templates that answer your questions, until you are satisfied. In that case, the most relevant questions, the ones that are clear and precise, which can be researched and explored, are likely to be your research questions. Refine them, see which one’s interest you the most and choose one that you can answer with the time you have to research.
But the tip is: don’t be satisfied right at the beginning, play with the possibilities of your work.
5. Write a text
It’s finally time to write! When you have arrived at a satisfactory set for your research, see if you can make a text to explain your research problem. In it, you should explain the relationship between the set of questions, why your problem is interesting, and why you are curious about the topic. That way, you’ll already have the materials you need to start writing even a research project.
Make a clear text to make the reader understand your project. For this, a tip is to use the readings from the beginning of this step and enrich the text.
Also, remember you’re not writing an article, so avoid early responses and a terminal tone. Therefore, keep the text open for future developments and don’t hide your doubts.
What is not a research problem?
After all that, you must have come to a research problem. But if there are still doubts or insecurities, checking what is not a research problem can help you. So, you can rephrase your problem if it falls into one of these three categories:
- It’s not a search problem when you can answer it with a simple Google search.
- It is never a scientific problem when solving the problem, you need to take practical action of interfering with the environment.
- It is also not a scientific research problem when the question has values, moral judgments, and subjective considerations.