What Is a Research Problem?

Topic Development

One of the most fundamental components of a study is the research problem. In fact, the research problem drives the entire study; if you do not have a research problem, you do not have a study. Yet, beginning researchers sometimes do not understand the importance of the research problem or understand exactly what a research problem is. This blog is intended to shed light on the nature and purpose of the research problem.

A research problem is exactly what it sounds like: a problem or issue in or with the research.  Although the research problem stems from a social or organizational issue, the actual research problem itself is developed by looking into the literature. I cannot emphasize this point enough: the research problem is developed by diving into the research on the topic to see what is there and what research is needed. It does not come from what we think is important, from our opinion about what needs to be studied, or from our desire to study something. The research problem exists in and is developed from the literature.

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For example, let’s say there is a problem with special education teachers leaving the profession. The first thing to do is to go to the research to see what is already known about the topic. So, the research says they are leaving because they are not satisfied in their jobs, jobs demands are high, and pay is commensurately low. They also leave because they do not feel adequately prepared and feel they are not supported by administration. So now, where do we go from here? You can review the “Recommendations for Further Research” sections of recent studies. These are recommendations for future research suggested by researchers based on their findings. These recommendations may be developed into research problems.

To develop a research problem, you should delve into the issue further. Look at how we know what we know about teachers leaving special education. Maybe the research is primarily quantitative, necessitating qualitative inquiry to gain in-depth information on teachers’ perceptions and experiences. Or, maybe it is the reverse. Maybe we have lots of information on teachers’ experiences but little quantitative research confirming the relationships between factors and constructs. Or, maybe we do not have comprehensive information about the topic, necessitating the views of other stakeholders such as administrators, or more comprehensive study designs such as case studies with multiple data sources. These shortcomings in the research represent gaps in what we know or problems with the research that, if addressed, can enhance understanding of the topic and uniquely contribute to the research.

I sometimes hear beginning researchers say, “I want to study” or “I think it’s important to study” such-and-such. These are good places to start, but they do not represent legitimate research problems. From these starting points, go to the literature. See what is there. See what the shortcomings, weaknesses, and gaps are in the research on your topic. See what the issues or problems are in the research and how you can uniquely contribute to it. Then, you will be on your way to developing a true research problem to support a study.