Identifying a Research Problem

The research problem is the issue or concern in a particular setting that motivates and guides the need for conducting a study. Identifying a research problem is important because it lays the foundation for an entire project. If the foundation is shaky the entire project is doomed to failure. This is why absolute caution is necessary for the initial stages of a research project.

In addition to a research problem, there are several terms closely related to it. These terms are

  • research topic
  • research problem (already discussed)
  • purpose
  • research questions

We will now look at each of these with an appropriate example.

Research Topic

A research topic is the subject matter of a study. This is the broadest aspect of research and many people begin here. An example would be student satisfaction. What we are going to do and how is not explained yet. This is only pointing us in a certain direction without knowing what our destination is.

Research Problem

As mentioned previously, the research problem is the issue being addressed. The problem helps in narrowing the topic down to something that is reasonable for conducting a study. Continuing with our topic of student satisfaction, we may look at student satisfaction of teaching methods at the university level. The problem is that student satisfaction is often low at many universities and we want to do a study to explain some reasons for this.


The purpose is the objective of the study. For our student satisfaction example, the purpose could be To identify how various teaching methods influence student satisfaction at a university. At this point, we are explaining what we are going to do.

It is common for people to confuse the research problem and the purpose. The problem simply identifies a problem. The purpose explains how you will study the problem or what you are going to do. The purpose looks at the problem and states what you are going to look at in order to generate data about the problem that could be used one day to solve the problem.

This distinction is important because small missteps in the beginning will lead to major issues in completing a study in the future.  Think that problems are passive in terms of what you will do while purpose is active in terms of what you will do.

Research Questions

Research questions narrow the purpose down into questions that provide evidence for addressing the research problem. For example, in our student satisfaction example, below are two questions that could be used for the study

  1. How does a lecture method approach to teaching affect student satisfaction?
  2. How does a discussion method approach to teaching affect student satisfaction?

From here the study can move forward.


The initial step of research involves several sub-steps which are the research topic, problem, purpose, and questions. The topic is the broadest aspect of research and the research question(s) is the most focus aspects of the initial aspects of a study. The purpose of this process is narrow and shape a study in order to make it feasible and relevant.

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