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The Problem Statement in the Research Paper

The problem provides the context for the research study and typically generates questions which the research hopes to answer. In considering whether or not to move forward with a research project, you will generally spend some time considering the problem. In your paper, the statement of the problem is the first part of the paper to be read [we are ignoring the title and the abstract]. The problem statement should "hook" the reader and establish a persuasive context for what follows.

You need to be able to clearly answer the question: "what is the problem"? and "why is this problem worth my attention"? At the same time, the problem statement limits scope by focusing on some variables and not others. It also provides an opportunity for you to demonstrate why these variables are important.

Problem Importance
The importance of the problem should receive considerable and persuasive attention. Clearly indicate why your problem is an important one by answering questions such as these: Is the problem of current interest? Is it topical? Is the problem likely to continue into the future? Will more information about the problem have practical application? Will more information about the problem have theoretical importance? How large is the population affected by the problem? How important, influential, or popular is this population? Would this study substantially revise or extend existing knowledge? Would this study create or improve an instrument of some utility?

Problem Importance

Would research findings lead to some useful change in best practice? Is there evidence or authoritative opinion from others to support the need for this research? The problem statement should persuasively indicate that major variables can be measured in some meaningful way

Problem Statement Question

The problem statement should close with a question. Typically, the question contains two variables, a measurable relationship, and some indication of population. The purpose of the literature search that follows is to answer the research problem question. If the literature cannot answer the question, the research is needed to do so. An example question might be: "What is the relationship between the grade point average of UTK juniors and their use of the library"? The information needed is (1) grade point average and (2) some measure of library use.

A bad example might be: "What is the best way to teach bibliographic instruction"?

This is insufficient because: What are the variables? What will be measured? What relationships will be examined? What is the population? The title and the problem statement question are often nearly identical. For example, in the good example above, the title of this research project would be something like this: "Library Circulation Use by University of Tennessee Juniors and Their Grade Point Average"

Before you begin writing a grant proposal, take some time to map out your research strategy. A good first step is to formulate a research question. A Research Question is a statement that identifies the phenomenon to be studied. For example, What resources are helpful to new and minority drug abuse researchers?

To develop a strong research question from your ideas, you should ask yourself these things:

Do I know the field and its literature well? What are the important research questions in my field? What areas need further exploration? Could my study fill a gap? Lead to greater understanding? Has a great deal of research already been conducted in this topic area? Has this study been done before? If so, is there room for improvement?

Is the timing right for this question to be answered? Is it a hot topic, or is it becoming obsolete? Would funding sources be interested? If you are proposing a service program, is the target community interested? Most importantly, will my study have a significant impact on the field?

As a generic reference, the following process can be helpful in refining and concretizing your ideas:

Ask yourself: Why is this research important? What have other people done? What have they found? Based on this information, formulate a specific research question. Develop a hypothesis/hypotheses that stems from your research question. Indentify the specific aims, that is the steps you are going to take to test your hypothesis.

A strong research idea should pass the so what test. Think about the potential impact of the research you are proposing. What is the benefit of answering your research question?

Who will it help (and how)? If you cannot make a definitive statement about the purpose of your research, it is unlikely to be funded.

A research focus should be narrow, not broad-based. For example, What can be done to prevent substance abuse? is too large a question to answer.

It would be better to begin with a more focused question such asWhat is the relationship between specific early childhood experiences and subsequent substanceabusing behaviors?

Research Hyphoteses
well-thought-out and focused research question leads directly into your hypotheses. What predictions would you make about the phenomenon you are examining? This will be the foundation of your application.


Hypotheses are more specific predictions about the nature and direction of the relationship between two variables. For example, Those researchers who utilize an online grant writing tutorial will have higher priority scores on their next grant application than those who do not.


Strong hypotheses: Give insight into a research question; Are testable and measurable by the proposed experiments; Spring logically from the experience of the staff;

Normally, no more than three primary hypotheses should be proposed for a research study. A proposal that is hypothesis-driven is more likely to be funded than a fishing expedition or a primarily descriptive study. Make sure you: Provide a rationale for your hypotheseswhere did they come from, and why are they strong? Provide alternative possibilities for the hypotheses that could be testedwhy did you choose the ones you did over others?

If you have good hypotheses, they will lead into your Specific Aims. Specific aims are the steps you are going to take to test your hypotheses and what you want to accomplish in the course of the grant period.

Make sure: Your objectives are measurable and highly focused; Each hypothesis is matched with a specific aim. The aims are feasible, given the time and money you are requesting in the grant.

Hypotheses can be couched in four kinds of statements.

Literary nulla no difference form in terms of theoretical constructs. For example, There is no relationship between support services and academic persistence of nontraditional-aged college women. Or, There is no difference in school achievement for high and low self-regulated students.

Operational nulla no difference form in terms of the operation required to test the hypothesis. For example, There is no relationship between the number of hours nontraditional-aged college women use the student union and their persistence at the college after their freshman year.

Or, There is no difference between the mean grade point averages achieved by students in the upper and lower quartiles of the distribution of the Self-regulated Inventory. The operational null is generally the preferred form of hypothesis-writing.

Literary alternativea form that states the hypothesis you will accept if the null hypothesis is rejected, stated in terms of theoretical constructs. In other words, this is usually what you hope the results will show. For example, The more that nontraditional-aged women use support services, the more they will persist academically. Or, High selfregulated students will achieve more in their classes than low self-regulated students.

Operational alternativeSimilar to the literary alternative except that the operations are specified. For example, The more that nontraditional-aged college women use the student union, the more they will persist at the college after their freshman year. Or, Students in the upper quartile of the Self-regulated Inventory distribution achieve significantly higher grade point averages than do students in the lower quartile.

In general, the null hypothesis is used if theory/literature does not suggest a hypothesized relationship between the variables under investigation; the alternative is generally reserved for situations in which theory/research suggests a relationship or directional interplay. Be prepared to interpret any possible outcomes with respect to the questions or hypotheses. It will be helpful if you visualize in your mind s eye the tables (or other summary devices) that you expect to result from your research (Guba, 1961).

Questions and hypotheses are testable propositions deduced and directly derived from theory (except in grounded theory studies and similar types of qualitative inquiry).

Make a clear and careful distinction between the dependent and independent variables and be certain they are clear to the reader. Be excruciatingly consistent in your use of terms. If appropriate, use the same pattern of wording and word order in all hypotheses.

Questions and/or Hypotheses

Questions are relevant to normative or census type research (How many of them are there? Is there a relationship between them?). They are most often used in qualitative inquiry, although their use in quantitative inquiry is becoming more prominent.

Hypotheses are relevant to theoretical research and are typically used only in quantitative inquiry. When a writer states hypotheses, the reader is entitled to have an exposition of the theory that lead to them (and of the assumptions underlying the theory). Just as conclusions must be grounded in the data, hypotheses must be grounded in the theoretical framework.

A research question poses a relationship between two or more variables but phrases the relationship as a question; a hypothesis represents a declarative statement of the relations between two or more variables (Kerlinger, 1979; Krathwohl, 1988).

Deciding whether to use questions or hypotheses depends on factors such as the purpose of the study, the nature of the design and methodology, and the audience of the research (at times even the taste and preference of committee members, particularly the Chair).

The practice of using hypotheses was derived from using the scientific method in social science inquiry. They have philosophical advantages in statistical testing, as researchers should be and tend to be conservative and cautious in their statements of conclusions (Armstrong, 1974).