How to write the Problem Statement

How to write the Problem Statement

  • Posted by Jessica
  • On February 18, 2022

There’s a distinct formula and style to dissertation writing. Understanding the parts of a dissertation and how they all fit together will help greatly in your dissertation writing journey. In this series of posts, I break down each part of Chapter 1 to guide your writing. At the end, I share an example from the published dissertation of one of my former coaching clients. The focus of this post is the problem statement.

You ready? Let’s go!

Components of Chapter 1

The first chapter of a dissertation serves to introduce the project to your reader. Chapter 1 lays the foundation for your entire study! Typical components of Chapter 1 include:

  • the background of the problem
  • problem statement
  • purpose statement
  • research questions
  • significance
  • limitations/delimitations
  • nature of the study
  • key terms.

While all these pieces are critical to a strong Chapter 1, the most important is the problem statement.

What is the problem statement?

The problem statement describes the research problem your study will address. Your research problem must be an established issue that warrants investigation. Problems are everywhere, so you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding one to investigate. Every industry, nation, culture, group, field of inquiry, etc. etc. etc. has problems.

I mean, look around!

Considering our program of study and personal interests, we can start searching for potential research problems with Google scholar. Let’s say we’re in an Educational Leadership program and want to examine problems related to teacher turnover. Let’s do a search for recent studies to get an idea of current problems related to turnover.

Using Google Scholar to identify your problem

When I type “teacher turnover” and, a number of predicted search terms pop up. This gives me a good idea of what other people are searching in Scholar. Note: by searching “teacher turnover” in quotes, I limit results to studies that include these words as a phrase, rather than all studies that includes the words teacher and/or turnover.

Since we’re in an Educational Leadership program, let’s go with “teacher turnover” and leadership. When I searched these terms, 31,000 results appeared! That’s a ton of results.

Let’s narrow this baby down by setting a custom search range for 2019-2022.

Okay, way better! This brought our results down to 7,130 – which is still very high (indicating a lot of work on this topic). But let’s click around a bit and see what we can find.

As I browsed, I kept an eye out for studies with really focused populations and problems. A couple results jumped out.

The first one is interesting because it focuses on turnover among a very specific population of teachers: Black women. It’s a qualitative study looking Black female teachers’ perspectives of how administrative support influences teacher turnover. If this piqued our interest, we could scan the article for findings and recommendations for future research. Because this is a very recent article, I could use one of those recommendations for future research. Or, I could replicate the study with a different population of teachers (Latin American women, Black men, etc.).

Alternatively, I could tackle this problem (high turnover among Black women teachers) from a quantitative perspective. Either way, the narrowed problem from this example is high rates of teacher turnover among [a specific minority group].

I like the idea of focusing on the problem of teacher turnover among Black women. So, I narrowed my search results by looking at “teacher turnover” and “Black women.” This significantly reduced my results (from over 7,000 to 244).

Examine your search results

Two studies caught my attention. The first focused on the organizational experiences of Black women teachers. This research is qualitative and emphasizes the challenges directly related to the school environment and organizational structure. This study takes our problem (high turnover/underrepresentation of Black women teachers) further by exploring it in the context of organizational structure. In other words, how does the school setting contribute to this problem?

The second is a theoretical discussion and literature review. It focuses on the reasons why Black women are underrepresented in the teaching profession.

This article positions the problem not only as high turnover among Black women teachers. It also discusses how the underrepresentation of Black women in teaching impacts Black students. This is great because now we’ve expanded the problem a bit to show its negative effects on Black students.

Because this article was not primary research, I could piggyback off of it to frame my own problem. For example, I could explore the problem of high turnover among Black female teachers from the perspectives of Black women with ample experience as teachers. I could conduct a qualitative study, collecting data through interviews and focus groups. I’d research a bit more, but my preliminary review suggests it’s a solid, established research problem focused on a population that’s marginalized in the academic literature.

What makes a great problem statement?

Now you know how to use search terms and Google Scholar to identify a research problem. When writing, keep five keys things in mind. A great problem statement is:

  • Current
  • Supported with current research
  • Actionable
  • Concise
  • Addresses a gap in the research

Pretty simple, right? First, make sure you’re looking something that’s a problem TODAY, not an antiquated problem from decades ago. Your problem should be substantiated by existing, current literature published within the last 5 years.

The problem should be actionable. You must be able to examine it through your research with the tools and populations you have access to. For example, you’d probably struggle to study leadership style among CEOs of Fortune 500 organizations without access to that population.

Next, the problem statement should be concise and clear. While some schools require the problem statement to be several pages long, this is not the norm. Your problem should fill the space of a page or two.

Finally, make sure your problem statement addresses a gap in the research. It should be specific and focus on a population or context that has not been examined by previous researchers.

Don’t do this

A problem is not a problem just because you’ve observed it. It’s critical to support your problem with plenty of citations. Now, chances are if you’ve observed a problem, it has probably been identified somewhere in the scholarship. Also be sure the problem is current. Demonstrate it’s current by supporting it with recent literature. Problems are always being solved, and new problems are always emerging as society advances. Be sure you can substantiate your problem with current sources.

Example of a great problem statement

Okay, let’s wrap this post up by looking at an example of a great problem statement. This example comes from one of my former coaching clients. She conducted a really interesting study on the fear of missing out, social media multitasking, and academic performance. She wanted to see how academic performance was affected by FOMO and social media behaviors. Take a minute to read through her short, 3-paragraph problem statement

Social media has become a ubiquitous aspect of everyday life in U.S. society (Dempsey et al., 2019). There are many benefits of social media, such as the development of social capital (Kim et al., 2016), knowledge sharing (Imran et al., 2019), and social support (Cole et al., 2017). When use is distracting, however, social media can have a number of negative effects on users, including the development of distress (Muench et al., 2015), depression (Marino et al., 2018), alcohol abuse (Hormes, 2016), anxiety (Casale & Fioravanti, 2015; Seabrook et al., 2016), and poor learning (Rozgonjuk et al., 2019).

In educational settings, social media use that is not directly associated with classroom activities and can distract students from learning is referred to as nonacademic social media use (Ravizza et al., 2014). Nonacademic social media use is associated with poor academic performance on standardized tests (Ravizza et al., 2014) and low self-reported GPA (Lau, 2017). The negative effect of social media multitasking on academic performance may be the result of cognitive overload. According to the cognitive theory of multimedia learning (Mayer & Moreno, 2003), the human information processing system has two channels (visual and auditory), is limited in capacity, and is used to process incoming information (Mayer, 2010). Nonacademic social media multitasking overloads the limited capacity of the visual and auditory channels, creating deficits in learning and performance (Lau, 2017).

Another factor to consider in the potential relationship between nonacademic social media multitasking and poor academic performance is the fear of missing out, which may perpetuate high levels of social media use (Bright & Logan, 2018). Fear of missing out describes an apprehension that others are having rewarding experiences that one is missing out on, when absent (Rozgonjuk et al., 2019). Fear of missing out can have a number of negative effects such as anxiety, depression (Krasnoa et al., 2015), and smartphone addiction (Chotpitayasunondh & Douglas, 2016), but it is unknown whether fear of missing out is correlated with nonacademic social media multitasking, or if it moderates the relationship between social media multitasking and academic performance.

Obviously I love this problem because a client of mine wrote it. But here’s what really makes it great:

  • The focus is a current problem that isn’t going anywhere (FOMO and social media are here to stay!)
  • The problem is supported by several sources published within 5 years of her study (2016-2021)
  • It’s actionable – she had access to college students and the surveys needed to quantitatively examine the relationships between her variables
  • The writing is concise. It’ just three, solid paragraphs that give a brief background on what the problem is, its negative effects, what was known about the problem, and what remained unknown

Alright, folks, that’s a wrap! Get to writing! As always, if you’re feeling stumped, give me a holler.

Happy writing!

 
Dissertation Angels