Research is essentially a problem-driven process. It starts and focuses on a specific problem or phenomenon. During the research process, data is collected and theories are elaborated to explain the problem. In other words, identifying and determining the problem to study is the first and the most important aspect to deal with in undertaking research. Thus, the research problem is the foundation of a research project. If the foundation is shaky the entire project is doomed to failure.
Despite its critical importance, identifying and stating a research problem are the most challenging aspects of undertaking research, especially for novice researchers. This might be due to an insufficient understanding of how to identify and write for a study. This article describes research problem identification as the first step of a research process. It starts by describing what a research problem is, how to identify it, and where to obtain it. Then it briefly probes the criteria for determining a good research problem and what research approach it suits with. This article ends by reviewing how to systematically write the ‘statement of the problem’ in a research proposal and article.
What is a research problem?
One way to satisfactorily understand research problems is by distinguishing them from three other closely related parts: research topic, research purpose, and research question. A research topic is a broad subject or issue addressed by a study. It is a part of a research area, while a research area is a part of a research field. To illustrate, ELT Research Field has many research areas, e.g. Teaching of Language Skills, English Teaching Methods, Teaching English to Young Learners, etc. As a research area, Teaching of Language Skills covers many topics, including the teaching of listening, teaching of speaking, the teaching of reading, teaching of writing, and integrative skills teaching. Thus, the teaching of reading is a research topic.
A research problem (also called a phenomenon in various forms of qualitative research) is an issue that narrows the topic down to something reasonable for conducting a study. It is the general question you are trying to answer in your study. Typically, it is a concern, controversy, or a troubling question existing in academic literature, in theory, or in practice that requires meaningful understanding. It can also be a condition to be improved, a difficulty to be eliminated, or a challenge you are interested in that points to the need for an intentional inquiry. If, for instance, your research topic is the teaching of reading, you might be interested to study a problem like ‘factors causing English as a Foreign Language (EFL) students’ low performance in reading’, or ‘the effect of using short stories on EFL learners’ reading proficiency’, or ‘EFL learners’ perception of learning reading comprehension using e-texts’.
A research purpose is the major intent. or objective, or the overall focus that directs a study. The purpose statement clearly defines what is being explored or studied, how it is being explored, and where it is being explored. For instance, if your research problem is ‘the effect of using short stories on EFL learners’ reading proficiency’ (a typical problem for quantitative research), you might state your research purpose as “The purpose of this study is to test the effect of using short stories on EFL learners’ reading proficiency’. If your research problem is “EFL learners’ perception of learning reading comprehension using e-texts” (suitable for qualitative research), you might state your research purpose as” The purpose of this study is to explore EFL learners’ perception of learning reading comprehension using e-texts”.
Research questions are the specific questions intended to answer or address in the study. They are narrowed down from the research purpose. If the purpose states: “The purpose of this study is to test the effect of using short stories on EFL learners’ reading proficiency’, the research question might run: “Does the use of short stories affect EFL learners’ reading proficiency?”. If the purpose states: The purpose of this study is to explore EFL learners’ perception of learning reading comprehension using e-texts”, the research question might run: “What are EFL learners’ perception of learning reading comprehension using e-texts?”
Where could you get a good research problem from?
Research problems can arise from two main sources: personal or professional experiences, and the literature. Daily personal or professional experience may lead you to identify a problem that necessitates a solution. or questions you would like to answer. While searching and reviewing the literature (journal articles, conference proceedings, thesis, dissertation, books, and government documents) and media (like television, and newspapers) you can encounter conflicting theories, problems that currently have no solution, and gaps in information and knowledge that require to be bridged.
Criteria for Selecting a Good Research Problem
Although you have managed to identify an existing problem, it does not mean you automatically can or should study it. A problem is researchable if it meets some indicators abbreviated as FINER (feasible, interesting, novel, ethical, and relevant).
The first indicator, feasibility, indicates that to research a problem you must be certain that it can be studied by considering the followings: (1) you can access the research participants (subjects) and sites throughout a specific period. It is useless to plan a study in Papua unless you have the means to go there; (2) the equipment, materials, and logistics required are available; and (3) you have the skills, expertise, resources (including budget), and time needed to study the issue.
The next indicator, interest, should be taken as an important consideration because a research endeavor is usually time-consuming, and involves hard work and possible unexpected problems. If you choose a problem that does not significantly interest you, it might be very difficult to sustain the required enthusiasm to successfully conduct the research project.
Novelty, the third indicator, is the core of every research endeavor. A research project having no novelty factor is not worth carrying out. However, it does not mean that your research should be 100% novel in every aspect. In the research context, novelty means something unique or completely different in one or more aspects so that the research result will add unique information to the current body of knowledge. It can be a new design or methodology set to acquire new knowledge, or a new approach purposefully used to gain a broader or deeper understanding of the existing knowledge base. In terms of a research problem, novelty can be created by putting a new and original spin on a problem that has been studied in the past. This could be done by changing the participants, using different sites, or changing the form of the variables. For example, the variables in "the effect of using short stories on EFL tenth graders' reading proficiency" are "a collection of native stories (written by English native speaker)" and "tenth graders in an Indonesian school" respectively, The problem could be made novel by using "local stories translated into English" or "short stories published online", and by changing the participants with "primary school students" or "college students."
To ensure that your modified problem is novel or not could be done by surveying relevant previous research and comparing your idea with what is already out there on the subject. Thus, you should be familiar with the newly published articles in the field of research, and this could be facilitated through the second step of the research process, i.e. the literature review.
The fourth indicator, ethical issues, refers to a set of principles that guide your research plans and practices. Adhering to a certain code of conduct during the research undertaking in general and in collecting data from people in particular, is a must. Bryman and Bell (2007) list ten most important principles related to ethical considerations in research: (1) research participants should not be subjected to harm in any way whatsoever; (2) prioritizing a respect for the dignity of research participants; (3) obtaining full consent from the participants before the study; (4) ensuring the protection of the privacy of research participants has to be ensured; (5) ensuring an adequate level of confidentiality of the research data; (6) ensuring anonymity of the participants (individuals and/or organizations); (7) avoiding any deception or exaggeration about the aims and objectives of the research; (8) declaring affiliations in any forms, sources of funding, as well as any possible conflicts of interests; (9) honesty and transparency in any type of communication concerning the research; and (10) avoiding any type of misleading information and bias in representation of primary data findings.
Your problem is relevant if drives your research project to potentially (1) advance your scientific field by adding new information to the existing body of knowledge, bridging current gaps in the literature, or leading to further research; and (2) help practitioners do their job more effectively,
Quantitative vs. Qualitative Research Problem
After identifying your research problem, you should also consider whether it matches your research approach—quantitative or qualitative—because certain research problems are best suited for qualitative research, while other problems match quantitative research. Qualitative research is principally exploratory which addresses questions, such as “How?” or “Why?” to (1) gain an understanding of underlying motivations, reasons, and opinions; or (2) to uncover trends in thought and opinions. Quantitative research is primarily explanatory which gathers numerical data or data that can be transformed into usable statistics to answer questions such as “What?”, “When?”, and “Where?” It aims to be more conclusive and generalize results to larger populations. Thus, if your research problem requires you to (1) learn about individuals’ views; (2) assess a process over time; (3) gain detailed information about several people or research sites; or (4) produce theories based on participants' perceptions, it matches to qualitative research. But if your research problem requires you to (1) measure variables; (2) assess the impact of the variables on an outcome; (3) test theories; or (4) pertain the results to a large population, it better fits quantitative research (Creswell, 2014). Research problems, like ‘EFL learners’ perception of learning reading comprehension using e-texts' and 'Students' interest in reading printed text during the Covid-19 pandemics" are typical suit qualitative research approach, Problems like ‘the effect of using short stories on EFL learners’ reading proficiency’ and ‘the correlation between students’ reading habit and their writing performance’ match to quantitative research approach.
Statement of the Problem
When you have identified a research problem, determined that it meets the criteria of a good research problem, and designated that it suits either the quantitative or the qualitative approach, you can proceed to write it down in the ‘statement of the problem’ that build the introduction section of a research proposal or report. Besides the research problem, however, the statement of the problem also includes four other aspects. These five elements are presented in the following sequence: (1) topic; (2) research problem; (3) a rationale (or justification of the importance) of the problem as found in the past research and practice; (4) deficiencies in existing knowledge about the problem; and (5) the audiences that will benefit from a study of the problem (Creswell, 2014). If these five elements are properly pointed out, you will be able to write good introductions for your research proposal (and report later).
As stated earlier, the research topic is a broad subject or issue addressed by a study. According to Creswell (2014), the topic is stated at the beginning of the "statement of the problem" to reach three goals: motivating readers to keep on reading, generating their interest in the study, and providing an initial frame of reference for understanding the entire research topic. By starting with a broad topic that can be easily understood, the readers are gradually brought into the study and are encouraged to read beyond the first page.
To ensure that your research topic statement generates the readers’ interest and offers an initial frame of reference for the topic, you need to place a cogent narrative hook in the first sentence of the first paragraph of your introduction section. The following four types of information are effective alternatives you can use. First, start with a provocative question or statement, such as “Why do Indonesian students achieve a minimum reading proficiency?” and “Despite its crucial role to enable students to speak in English, good English pronunciation skills have been the most frequently neglected in EFL classrooms.” Second, start with statistical data (e.g., "More than 50% of Indonesian students have been learning online using smartphones." Third, state the purpose or intent of the study, e.g., "The purpose of this study is to explore the perception of pre-service EFL teachers of blended learning." Fourth, start with a clear need for research, such as "The unsatisfactory critical thinking development through language learning has been drawing increased attention among ELT scholars.”
The Research Problem
After stating the broad topic, you should then narrow it to a particular research problem. As stated earlier, a research problem is a concern, challenge, difficulty, controversy, or a troubling question you are trying to investigate. It is frequently presented in a single sentence or as a couple of short sentences in various forms.
The first form of the research problem is obtained from personal or practitioner experiences. It is called practical research problems. For example, can you identify the practical issue in the following research problem concerning the use of ICT in EFL learning?
Since Information and Communication Technology offers big opportunities for teachers to create a more attractive and informative learning environment and enables students to access learning activities and materials anytime and anywhere, more and more English teachers have tried to use it to advance students’ learning achievement. However, the use of ICT in many EFL classrooms in Indonesia tends to reduce the students’ reading proficiency.
The research problem can also be stated as a deficiency in the literature. Such problems are based on a need for further research due to the existence of a gap in the literature, or there is conflicting evidence in the literature, or there is a need to extend the research into other areas. This type of problem is called a research-based research problem. Both of the following examples are based on a research need for more information.
Most previous studies investigating students’ perception of ICT integration in EFL learning were conducted at the tertiary education level. Similar studies conducted at the secondary school level are still meager.
Although the crucial need for critical thinking development to cater students to living in the Industrial Revolution 4.0 era and the high potential of language learning to develop critical thinking have been previously studied, research that connects the two areas is still rare.
A research problem statement can also blend a practical and a research-based problem. Look how both problem types are stated in the following.
There is a need to explain why the use of ICT in many EFL classrooms in Indonesia reduces the students' reading proficiency (the practical approach) and to make up for a lack of research about appropriate and effective practices of using ICT tools to develop reading skills (the research-based approach).
Rationale (or Justification of the Importance) of the Research Problem
Stating the problem is not enough. You should also justify or provide the rationale (or reasons) why the problem is important to study. This justification is presented in several paragraphs of the introduction section in which you provide proof of the need to study the problem. The evidence for the justification can be provided by citing from three sources: scholarly justification (i.e., the ideas or findings of experts and researchers as reported in the literature); the professional experiences that practitioners have had in the workplace; and your (as the researcher) personal experience. The first two sources are usually used in both quantitative and qualitative research (particularly in action research), while the third is used in qualitative research only. It is worth noting that personal experience should not be used solely but in combination with one or more scholarly justification and professional experience.
Scholarly justification is the most common form of rationale. It could be obtained from researchers’ recommendations for future research usually provided in the concluding paragraph of a research article. For example, note the following suggestion for further study written in the concluding paragraph of a research article titled” The Effect of Using Short Stories on Secondary School Students’ Critical Reading”. You might cite Nazara (2019) to justify a research problem focusing on “the effect of short stories reading on male and female primary school students’ critical reading”.
Based on the findings and discussion provided in the previous sections, it can be concluded that short stories can be used as an alternative instructional material to improve students’ critical reading skills. … the participants of this study were students of the same grade at a single school. To get more valid results, further study is needed to investigate the effect of using short stories to develop critical reading skills at different levels of language proficiency, comparing gender, comparing children and adults, and comparing learners with different learning styles (Nazara, 2019).
Professional experiences could also be used to justify the importance of a research problem. In the following example, the researcher used some English teachers' experiences in teaching writing to justify his research problem.
In August 2019 I got an opportunity to facilitate an essay writing workshop for secondary 25 English teachers in Serang, Banten. Through an interview administered at the beginning of the workshop, many of the workshop participants pointed out that their students encountered various problems in writing, and the top three were related to lexical difficulties, grammar, and paraphrasing sources to avoid plagiarism. Therefore, there is a need to find out effective teaching methods for developing students’ writing vocabulary, grammar, and paraphrasing skills.
In the following example, the researcher used his personal experience to justify the need to develop students' critical reading skills.
Some years ago while I was trying to provide the students who attend my reading classes in the English Department of the Faculty of Education and Teacher Training of the Christian University of Indonesia Jakarta with up-to-date reading materials by selecting some texts from English newspapers and magazines, I realized that some of the materials attempt to influence the reader’s thinking and behavior. This incident reminded me that writers do not only aim to communicate information, experience, or amusement (Pardede, 2007).
Deficiencies in Existing Knowledge
Deficiencies in existing knowledge refer to the inadequacy of the present state of knowledge available in the past literature or from practical experiences to address the research problem. Deficiencies in the past literature may be stated as the need to lengthen a study, replicate a study, explore a phenomenon, collect information from participants with heterogeneous demography, lift marginalized people's voices, etc. Deficiencies from practical experiences may be in the form of the unavailability of workable solutions for difficulties encountered by students or teachers. While reviewing these deficiencies, state two or three reasons why existing literature and practice are deficient in addressing the research problem toward the end of the introduction section of your study.
To show the significance of studying your research problem, you need to identify the audiences in your "statement of the problem" section. The audiences include individuals and groups who will read and potentially benefit from the information provided in your research. They can vary depending on the nature of your study. ELT research audiences generally cover researchers, policymakers, educators, practitioners, and individuals participating in the studies.
Writing the Statement of the Problem
Writing the introduction or "statement of the problem" that builds the introduction section of your research proposal or report sets the stage for readers to understand your project and appreciate its strong study orientation. As indicated from the discussion above, your statement of the problem should include five aspects: research topic, research problem, justification for the problem, deficiencies in the evidence, and beneficial audiences. As a practical guide, you can write each aspect in a paragraph. However, the aspects of justification for the problem, and deficiencies in the evidence naturally require longer spaces. Consequently, you can write each of these two in two or three paragraphs. Do not forget to cite and reference every source of information you include. The "statement of the problem" section published here might help you get more comprehensive ideas for writing your proposal/report introduction section.
Bryman, A. & Bell, E. (2007). Business Research Methods. New York: Oxford University Press
Creswell, J. W. (2014). Educational research: Planning, conducting and evaluating quantitative and qualitative research (4th ed.). Harlow: Pearson.
Nazara, S. (2019). The Effect of Using Short Stories on Secondary School Students’ Critical Reading. In Pardede, P. (Ed.) English Education Department Collegiate Forum (EED CF) 2015-2018. Jakarta: UKI Press, 20-28.
Pardede, P. (2007). Developing Critical Reading in the EFL Classroom. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/329557401_Developing_Critical_Readi ng_in_EFL_Classroom