How To Define a Research Problem in 6 Steps (With Types)

Updated March 10, 2023

There are several steps involved in a research process that help individuals associated with a study conduct successful testing. Defining a research problem is an important step in any research process and can help outline the process of your study. There are several types of research problems you may encounter, and understanding how they differ may help you decide which approach is best for you.

In this article, we discuss what a research problem is, list different types of research problems, describe how to define one.

Key takeaways:

  • A research problem introduces a reader to a study's topic and its significance.

  • This problem contextualizes a research topic and helps define what researchers plan to investigate.

  • It also provides a framework for reporting research results that highlight the information discovered.

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What is a research problem?

A research problem is a statement that addresses a gap in knowledge, a challenge or a contradiction in a particular field. Scientists use research problems to identify and define the aim of their study and analysis. You may decide to conduct research based on a problem if you're interested in contributing to social or scientific change or supplying additional knowledge to an existing topic. A research problem may also help identify key concepts and terms, overarching questions and variables associated with a study.

Related: What Is Research Methodology? (Why It's Important and Types)

Characteristics of an effective research problem

There are several factors that ensure a research problem is clear, well-defined and easy to follow throughout the duration of a study. Understanding these aspects of a research problem can help as you identify and create your own. Some characteristics to consider when aiming to define a research problem include:

  • Reflecting on issues or required knowledge in a particular field prior to conducting a study

  • Ensuring that the topic you aim to examine has a sufficient amount of relevant data

  • Relying on reputable evidence and data and disregarding information that you can't verify

  • Remaining practical, manageable and communicative with researchers involved in data collection and analysis

  • Adhering strictly to a budget and timeline

Related: 19 Types of Research (With Definitions and Examples)

3 types of research problems

Here are three types of research problems that can help you decide on the best format to use:

1. Theoretical research problems

Theoretical research problems allow you to contribute to the overall information and knowledge in an area of study. These kinds of research problems are exploratory and provide basic definitions of a problem's overarching nature or areas of informational gaps. Theoretical research problems can address contradictions between two or more perspectives or address an unresolved question. Researchers develop their hypotheses for these problems according to a particular theory, typically stemming from social philosophy. For example, Albert Einstein's theory of relativity began as a theoretical research problem before he eventually proved it in the early 20th century.

2. Applied research problems

Applied research problems, or nonsystematic problems, involve the practical use of theoretical knowledge, meaning that scholars may use a particular theoretical framework to gain information. It also includes an exploratory hypothesis and tests to verify the accuracy of the hypothesis. Social scientists typically use applied research problems in studies where the objective is to provide practical and applicable solutions to help specific individuals and groups if they encounter challenges. For example, a marketing company may define an applied research problem of how to better market its services to a particular audience.

3. Action research problems

Similar to applied research problems, action research problems also aim to provide solutions for problems but are typically more time-sensitive in nature. Action research problems can also be one component of a larger reflective process that combines ongoing research, analysis and action. Researchers develop and implement a research strategy to create innovative solutions and discoveries as soon as possible. For example, an action research problem in education might include finding a solution for a district-wide problem impeding student success. This may include school staff members working together and using district-wide action research data to find a solution.

Related: What Are Problem-Solving Skills? Definitions and Examples

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How to define a research problem

Consider following these steps when aiming to define your own research problem:

1. Identify a general area of interest

As you determine an area of study, consider areas that haven't been explored thoroughly or present challenges within a particular field. Assess how you might address the area of concern and whether you can develop a research problem related to this issue. If your research is action-based or applied, consider contacting those who work in a relevant field to attain feedback about problems to address. You can also follow up on research that others have already conducted. Consider these various aspects when choosing an area of interest:

  • Contradictions between two or more theoretical perspectives

  • Situations or natural relationships that haven't been investigated thoroughly

  • Processes in an institution or organization that you and your research team could improve

  • Areas of concern raised by individuals who work or are experts in a particular industry

Related: How To Write a Methodology (With Tips and FAQs)

2. Learn more about the problem

The next step is to learn more about the area of interest. Ask yourself what you need to know about a particular topic before you begin your study. Assess who or what it might affect and how your research could address those relationships. Consider whether other research groups have already tried to solve the problem you're interested in analyzing and how your approach might differ.

3. Review the context of the information

Reviewing the context of your research involves defining and testing the environmental variables in your project, which may help you create a clear and focused research problem. It may also help you note which variables are present in the research and how to account for the impact that they may have on it. By reviewing the context, you may easily estimate the amount of data your research is likely to require.

Related: Data vs. Information: What Are the Differences?

4. Determine relationships between variables

After identifying the variables involved in your research, you can learn how they're related to one another and how these relationships may contribute to your research problem. Consider generating as many potential perspectives and variable interactions as possible. Identifying the relationships between variables may be useful when deciding the degree to which you can control them in your study and how they might affect potential solutions to the problem you're addressing.

Related: Independent vs. Dependent Research Variables: What's the Difference?

5. Select and include important variables

A clear and manageable research problem typically includes the variables that are most relevant to the study. A research team summarizes how they plan to consider and use these variables and how they might influence the results of the study. Selecting the most important variables can help the study's audience better understand the trajectory of your research and the potential impact of the solution.

Read more: 10 Types of Variables in Research and Statistics

6. Receive feedback and revise

Consider contacting mentors, teachers or industry experts for feedback on your research problem. They may present you with new information to consider or suggest you edit a particular aspect of your research design. Revising your research problem can be a valuable step in creating impactful and precise research, as well as developing beneficial research skills. However, before asking for feedback, try asking yourself these guiding questions:

  • Does my research problem allow for several solutions and outcomes?

  • Am I creating a study that has a testable hypothesis or theory?

  • Am I defining all the terms correctly?

  • Is my research objective comprehensive?

  • Are all parts of my project understandable?

If you answer affirmatively to most or all of these questions, it's likely that you have an effective research problem and can progress with your study.

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