From Questions to a Problem

In this entry (in our work smarter blog series), we explore how to turn a question into a problem that is worth solving. This is an important step in conducting a successful research. Many researchers struggle with this. But do not be intimidated. I will summarize the suggested key steps and present them in a way that is easier to follow. So let’s begin.

In thinking about a research question, we may come up with a number of questions that are worthwhile to explore on a personal level. What makes a question worthwhile to explore? When we become researchers, we join a community of researchers that share certain common grounds. And the “worthiness” of a question in a sense depends on the readers’ point of view. These readers refer to the other members of this community that you are becoming a part of. Thus, you may find certain questions interesting enough to explore but how would the question be significant for these other researchers. The key is to make the question relevant and significant to your readers. By doing that, you make the question matter to them. It is now not only a question that you would like to explore but also a problem that others would like to see solutions for. Understanding why your question is significant is quite challenging even for more experienced researchers. However, this is a crucial process of conducting a successful research in an academic setting. So what do research problems look like? Let us review some different types of problems that you might face on a daily basis.

Distinguishing practical and research problems

Many research problems grow out of every-day practical problems. They are grounded in our daily lives.  One example of this kind provided by the author involves a bike. Let us follow their line of thinking. Suppose that your bike is screeching. That is a problem, a practical problem. This practical problem can easily become a research problem. And you might way, “How can I find a bike-shop online to fix the screeching bike”? That is a research problem. And research solution to this problem might be just finding a particular bike-shop in your neighborhood. However, this is the solution to your practical problem with the bike. The solution to that practical problem then involves taking the bike to that shop and having it repaired. It involves doing something.

Within academic setting, a similar distinction is to be made between practical and conceptual problems. Conceptual problems, the authors say, do not require us do something to something. Instead, they require us to understand some aspects of the world. Solution to conceptual problems is achieved through answers. So this is simple enough. We provide an answer to a question that we have about aspects of this world. By identifying the research question earlier on will help you focus more in terms of data collection and analysis. So start thinking about this earlier on.

Understanding the common structure of a problem

The authors suggest that both practical and conceptual problems have similar structures including both CONDITION and CONSEQUENCE.  These are the structure of a problem, be it practical or conceptual. The CONDITION of a conceptual problem often involves either NOT KNOWING or NOT UNDERSTANDING something. So we might want to study the interactions between siblings because we do not understand how their different speaking styles effect their relationship. In this case, the condition is the not-understanding part. The consequence of a conceptual problem though is beyond the not understanding part or  the answer to this question. But it is what comes after the answer. It’s the so what part and is more consequential than the first answer.

Finding a good research problem

Formulating a conceptual problem is not an easy task. Researchers often spend many hours on a particular topic without a clearly defined research problem. So it’s better to think about this at the onset of your research project. The authors provide some tips on how you might start thinking about this earlier on. The 1st tip is about asking for help. Do not be afraid to talk with your classmates, colleagues, and professors. Brainstorm with people who are interested in your topic and try to come up with questions worthwhile to explore. Start with something small and manageable. The 2nd tip is about locating problems in existing literature. As you read journal articles, you should pay particular attention to the concluding parts where the authors point out areas needing further investigation. This will help you discover research problems quite easily. And lastly, the authors point out that reading your own concluding remarks is also an excellent way to think about its significance. So read your final remarks critically and ask yourself what question your claim answers. Getting in the habit of doing these will help you find a great research problem.

Managing the unavoidable problem of inexperience

Anxiety is a natural feeling that we have when we enter into a unfamiliar territory such as the task of doing a research paper. We as writers, students, and researchers should be very familiar with this. To manage the stress and anxiety that come with the task at hand, the authors provide the following practical tips and I quote them directly:

  • Know that uncertainty and anxiety are natural and inevitable.
  • Get control over your topic by writing about it along the way.
  • Break the task into manageable steps.
  • Count on your teachers to understand your struggles.
  • Set realistic goals.
  • Most important, recognize the struggle for what it is – a learning experience.

Booth, W., Colomb, G. & Williams, J. (2008). The Craft of Research. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.