How to Develop a Problem Statement

Developing a problem statement is essential to writing a research paper.

Problem statements are a crucial element of research papers. Problem statements appear at the beginning of a research paper, after the title and abstract. The problem statement describes the central issue of the paper and persuades the reader to continue reading the paper. Formulating a strong, clear problem statement often represents the first step in writing a research paper. You might also have to develop a problem statement for a research paper proposal.

Describe the issue. For example, if you are studying the effect of school uniforms on school violence in a particular high school, briefly describe the current school environment and statistics of violence.

Clarify why the issue is important. Using the same topic as an example, explaining information about the current school environment and statistics of violence could clarify why school uniforms could make the school safer. In general, consider issues that affect a large population, have serious impacts on a population or extend or challenge existing knowledge. For example, studying the effect of school hours on students' grade point average is more important than the relationship of lunchtime length and how much time students spend socializing. Make sure the reader understands why the issue matters.

Explain your proposed methodology. Explain how you will conduct or synthesize research. Include or clarify which variables you will study and how you will measure them. For example, an article about school uniforms and violence might include tracking the frequency of in-school suspensions for a year before and a year after school uniforms are implemented.

Acknowledge and counter any obvious objections or problems that people might find in your study. For example, if it is not clear how you will keep other variables controlled or whether your experiment is ethical, briefly clarify the issue. You can explain these issues in greater depth in the research paper, if necessary.

Sum up your research project in a concise question that mentions the independent variable (the factor you change) and the dependent variable (the effect you will measure). For example: "How do school uniforms affect rates of school violence at Northview High School?" This question can often serve as your title as well.

Rebekah Richards is a professional writer with work published in the "Atlanta Journal-Constitution," "Brandeis University Law Journal" and online at She graduated magna cum laude from Brandeis University with bachelor's degrees in creative writing, English/American literature and international studies. Richards earned a master's degree at Carnegie Mellon University.