After you have determined your research problem by delving into your topic and by means of preliminary research, you must write the problem statement in which you indicate which problem or issue should be investigated.

An effective problem definition is concise, concrete and:

  • Places the problem in context
  • Describes exactly what the research is about
  • Shows the relevance of the problem
  • Directs towards the goal of the research

With the help of the problem statement, you ultimately set your objective and main question. There is a clear difference between these three components.

Base your problem statement on a problem analysis

Before you draft your problem statement, you do a problem analysis / orientation during your preliminary research. Based on this information you can clearly define your problem definition and demonstrate its relevance. This makes it a lot easier to formulate your problem.

Conditions for a proper problem definition

A good problem definition clearly indicates the context, the problem and its relevance. Below you will find two examples of good problem statements. The problem statement does not have to be a single sentence. It may also be a (concise) paragraph in which you describe the problem.

Example problem statement in one sentence

The teachers of primary school De Hoensbroek do not have the skills to recognize gifted children in the classroom and to provide the correct guidance

Example problem definition in a concise paragraph

Rabobank Nederland employees are unmotivated after Rabobank announced a new round of layoffs. This while the workload is and remains high. This threatens the risk of more illness. The HR department does not currently have the right tools at its disposal to monitor, estimate and prevent sickness loss.

Define the problem and describe the context of the problem

On the one hand, you delineate your problem by clarifying what the problem entails and on the other by describing the context.

In your problem statement, clearly indicate where and when the problem occurs, who is involved in the problem and who is bothered by it. You also describe what information about the problem is known and what has already been tried in vain to solve the problem.

You explicitly describe what the problem entails, which in turn shows which information still needs to be retrieved. This will ensure that you delineate the problem sufficiently so that your research can focus exactly on that problem and that your research remains feasible.

Ask yourself the following questions to check your problem statement:

  • Is it clear what the context of the problem is?
  • Is it clear what exactly the problem is?
  • Is the problem delineated in such a way that I can research it within the time frame and with the resources available to me?

Example of an undefined problem definition: without context and focus

Pupils at the secondary school De Haas in the age group of 12 to 15 years have difficulty concentrating during lessons and working together in groups. This leads to less good results and much unrest in the classrooms and halls. It is unclear what caused the concentration and collaboration problems.

Explanation: It is unclear where and when the problem occurs, who is involved, who is affected, and what has already been tried to fix the problem. It is also not clear what the problem exactly is: concentration problems or cooperation problems?

Example problem definition with context

Pupils at the secondary school De Haas in Arnhem in the age group of 12 to 15 years had concentration problems in the 2017 and 2018 school years. This allowed teachers to spend less time on the subject matter. The interactive teaching methods implemented to keep students engaged had little effect. Because the students were unable to concentrate, they achieved less good results than the students in the age group of 12 to 15 years in the school year from 2016 to 2017. It is unclear what caused the concentration problems.

Make sure your problem is relevant

It should be clear why you need to know more about the problem; what the need for this is. You do not have to indicate this explicitly. The relevance should simply be apparent from the problem you are dealing with.

Find out if your problem is relevant by asking yourself the following questions:

  • What happens if the problem is not resolved?
  • Who will face the consequences?
  • What are the benefits of gaining more insight into the problem?

If you can’t give a satisfactory answer to any of these questions, then your problem is probably not relevant enough.

Example of irrelevant problem definition 

Four of the thousand employees of company X attended event Y, but contrary to expectations, they did not learn how to do Z. The company has no insight into the activities organized during Y, so it is unclear why these four employees did not learn enough here. Company X usually trains its employees to perform Z itself.

Explanation: Research into this issue is irrelevant, as the issue doesn’t actually impact the business. There are no consequences, the problem can be solved very easily and there is no benefit to be gained by gaining more insight into the problem.

Example of relevant problem definition

One hundred of the 1,000 employees of company X attended event Y to learn how to handle program G. However, after the event they were unable to implement the program, causing a delay in the production of H, customers could not be served on time and turnover was lost. The company currently has no insight into the activities organized during Y, making it unclear why these employees did not acquire the appropriate skills here. However, the company relies on the organization of such events by the education department to train its employees.

Steer your problem statement towards a clear goal

Your objective must logically arise from your problem definition . This goal is not to find a solution to the problem. You want to gain insight into the reasons why the problem exists and on that basis give advice on how to tackle the problem or to better understand it.

Ask yourself the following:

  • Do I aim with my problem definition towards a clear goal to gain more insight into a particular phenomenon?

Example problem statement that does not lead to a goal

Rabobank Nederland employees are unmotivated after Rabobank has announced a new round of layoffs. This while the workload is and remains high. This threatens the risk of more illness.

Explanation: It is unclear what this research will focus on next. The workload? Illness loss? Motivation? The aim of the research thus does not logically follow from the problem definition.Example problem definition that clearly leads to a goalRabobank Nederland employees are unmotivated after Rabobank announced a new round of layoffs. This while the workload is and remains high. This threatens the risk of more illness. The HR department does not currently have the right tools at its disposal to monitor, estimate and prevent sickness loss.

Present your problem statement in your summary and introduction

In your thesis you present the problem definition in your introduction and briefly in your summary . Also in your Plan , research proposal , research internship report or advisory you describe your research problem.

Source and read more (Dutch): Scribber