The word “research” makes many students anxious. When you break the research process down into steps, practicing this important skill of researching can actually be incredibly rewarding. Once you've identified the right research problem example for the assignment and your ideas, the rest of the process will feel more manageable.
Understand the Assignment
Before looking at methods of identifying a research problem, the first important step is to understand exactly what your instructor expects. You may be asked to identify your research problem from a list of allowable topics, such as, "How have ethical concerns affected the sourcing of materials in the jewelry industry?" Alternatively, you may be required to design your own course-appropriate research problem from scratch by stating it in the form of a specific, guiding, open-ended question. Note that open-ended questions often start with words like "how." For example, if the topic is gambling, a yes or no question, such as whether the habit affects a gambler's credit score wouldn't work. Instead, you could ask how the gambler's habit might affect his credit score. Starting your research on the right track means having more time to do a good job which can help reduce anxiety.
Choosing a Topic of Interest
If you're given a list of subjects from which to choose, use your interests to narrow your decision. Don't choose a research problem example related to standardized testing if you have no interest in the subject. However, if you're interested in homeschooling and have the option to write about that instead, that topic is a good choice. Identify several larger topics of interest in the beginning and do some primary research to see what's been written on those subjects. Don't hesitate to ask for assistance at your university library research desk. As you explore your chosen topic, be on the lookout for questions with answers that require more than simple facts. Questions that have been under-explored in the field often lead to rich research opportunities.
Problem Statement in Research
Your goal in finding a problem statement in research may be to present findings in a paper or speech. Research reports are different from other projects. Many essays support a thesis based on what you've already learned. For research projects, you won't know what argument you can make about a topic until you've thoroughly researched it. To research the topic, you'll need to start with a question that centers on a topic that can be explored through scholarly research, narrows your topic and elicits discussion and can't be answered by just a short negative, positive or emotional response. As a research problem example that doesn't work, asking whether gambling is sinful would be inappropriate since the answer relies on questions of morality and not scholarly research. Similarly, a question such as "How does gambling affect people?" is far too broad. To completely answer that question, you would have to include an overview of every psychological and financial effect that gambling has on gamblers, their families, their employers and many others. A more appropriate and narrow research problem example regarding gambling might be to look at if gambling addictions are related to society and class structure.
Flexibility in Research
It's normal for a research problem statement in research to evolve as you uncover new information. Doing research means going back and making adjustments to your search as the information that you find reshapes your thought process and guiding question. That's why it's called research, not just a search. For instance, in the process of finding out how ethical concerns affect the diamond ring industry, you may become interested in what you discover about the increase in vintage engagement ring sales in particular. At that point, you may decide that this topic makes an even better research problem than the broader one you chose in the beginning. This is a positive development as long as your evolving research fits within assignment guidelines.
Elizabeth Ewe Weaver earned her MFA in writing from Columbia and has studied composition-rhetoric at the graduate level. She has presented at the NCTE's annual Conference on College Composition and Communication convention and served as full-time writing faculty at several universities. Her writing has appeared in The Paris Review and elsewhere.