How to write a problem statement

Writing GuidesThesis Statement
Nov 10, 2019

Proud and confident of your work, you give your paper to your professor. After a minute or two of reading, he says, “Okay, but what is the problem?” You frown out of confusion. The paper you submitted has everything right: the thesis statement is expressed very clearly, argumentation and proofing are all sound, the conclusion even has a nice ring like those novels that end on a high note. What is your professor talking about? “The problem statement. Did you write one in your paper?”

A problem statement is a vital component of your essay. Its purpose is to frame your paper. In that regard, it is quite similar to the thesis statement. The significant difference is that whereas the thesis statement contains the main argument of your entire essay, the problem statement contains the question which your thesis statement attempts to address. 

It sets the direction of your essay. Without it, you might end up writing a random bundle of info with no goal. From this, it should be very clear how significant the problem statement is. Knowing how to write a problem statement is essential to making sure that your paper is well written, from beginning to end. Take a look at the steps below to learn.

1. Deliberate on the problem

Let us talk obvious: the problem statement states the problem. Before beginning to write a statement about the problem, you should be completely familiar and knowledgeable of the problem. It is, after all, the question that you have to answer.

In other words, before writing the problem statement, you need to have a clear and profound understanding of the problem itself.

A clear understanding of the problem requires the following.

  • Knowing the nature of the problem . What is the problem asking for? An explanation, description, proofing, etc.
  • Knowing the scope of the problem . What fields of study are of concern with the problem? 
  • Knowing the applicable frameworks . What particular frameworks or theories are applicable to answer this question?

Let us take a look at this example:

Problem - How does a human being’s mentality develop?

Nature of the problem: It seeks explanation.

Scope of the problem: The primary field of study is psychology. 

Applicable frameworks : Applicable frameworks are Erik Erikson’s theory of developmental psychology, Alfred Adler’s Individual psychology, and Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory.

Important to note is that the significance of the problem statement lies not only letting the readers understand. It is also vital to the researcher itself, as it sets the direction of his studies and where he will get the essential data. It serves as a beacon, should the writer ever loses track of what he is researching and writing for in the first place.

Neglecting the significance of the problem statement is a fatal mistake. If you proceed from a misunderstanding of the problem, you will end up coming up with weak answers, even though you meant them well.

Thus, deliberating on the problem is a significant part in the process of writing the problem statement of your paper.

2. Framing the problem

Once you have equipped yourself with sufficient knowledge and understanding of the problem at hand, you can proceed to the next step: framing the problem.

Whereas the first step is focused on the researcher looking for data based on the problem, this step primarily involves the input of the researcher himself. From a broad scope of the problem, the researcher now has to focus on the particulars of the problem.

To frame a problem is to set what perspective it should be seen through. Consider the following points:

  • How is it a problem? Is it a hurdle to the progress of a particular discovery or technology? Here, you are clarifying an issue as a problem worth addressing. This magnifies its significance—and more importantly, your response and discussion that follow.
  • Who is affected by the problem? Why is it a concern to said people?

Consider the previous example::

How it is a problem: Decreasing overall happiness in the world despite progress in technology

Who is affected by the problem: Society as a whole

The significance of framing the problem is to make sure that your response to it is precise and relevant.

Most importantly, it introduces and enforces the parameters on which your thesis statement and your argumentation operate. If you determined that a specific field of study is the best to incorporate in your research—say, psychology—you must frame the problem as seeming to require that field of study. 

Granted, there are what are called “eclectic” approaches, where multiple fields of study are utilized together to consummate a single answer to the problem. Chances are, however, not having a frame in which you approach and answer the problem may lead to having an answer that is multifaceted at least, incoherent at worst. It is not to say that such an endeavor is not doable, only that it is very risky.

An important disclaimer: the purpose of framing the problem is to make its scope more narrow. By no means should it be done for the sole purpose of making it easy. “More narrow” does not mean “less difficult.” It goes without saying that serious academic essays should always contain research done with rigor and incisiveness.

With that said, because you have control over how the problem will be framed, great care and responsibility have to be exercised. Some people resort to frame the problem in a way that benefits them, committing what is called a “straw man fallacy.” This happens when some part of the substance—sometimes, the entire substance—has been twisted and contorted in such a way that it is turned into a weaker, more vulnerable version of itself.

Now that the preparatory steps have been laid out, it is time to actually write the problem statement.

3. Writing the problem statement

If you take perform the first steps diligently and rigorously, knowing how to write a problem statement should not be too hounding a task.

When writing a problem statement, be guided accordingly with these two questions:

I. Did I detail and explain the problem sufficiently and concisely?

The problem statement is part of the introduction, so it has to be extremely concise, containing the significant information that is needed to present the problem without producing any unnecessary fluff. Think of the problem statement as a summary of the problem: it effectively tells the whole story without having to mention all the details—the details come later in the discussion.

To be precise, it is a framed summary of the problem, leading the discussion into a direction from the very beginning. Hence, the problem should be presented with particular emphasis on certain items of interest on that problem, depending on what parts are to be discussed. Somewhat, this is the absolute final part of framing the problem. It is not enough to simply have the ideas of how you frame the problem; you have to put it into words in an essay setting. 

This is the greatest challenge of writing the problem statement. It is a single sentence—two, at maximum—that compresses as much significant information as possible within a relatively few words compared to the rest of the essay. Hence, it should be stressed that fluff has to be avoided as much as possible.

Make sure that you keep looking back into the previous steps to determine whether or not you are supplying the important details of the problem.

II. Will my readers clearly understand?

The essay is meant to be read by someone else other than writer. It should be readable to him as it is to other people. Otherwise, the readers will be constantly alienated and confused.

Similarly, the problem statement should work towards the goal of making the essay coherent. It sets the direction of the discussion not only for the writer but for the reader. Making the flow of the discussion smooth and clear from the start will let the reader understand the entire essay as a whole.

This is something that you have to keep in mind when writing the problem statement. Often, we get far too deep into introspection that when we put into words, it will not be comprehensible to other people. 

Think of it like this: can you understand 01001000 01100101 01111001? Looks like a random set of 0s and 1s, right? That is binary code—the language of computers. Imagine if that is all we see on the screen when we use a computer. Can we understand it, let alone appreciate it? No—that is why that code has to be converted into meaningful colors, shapes, and text so that we can understand it at a single glance. 

(If you are wondering what the code means, it just means “Hey.” Is it not wonderful that we do not need to see simple words in binary code like that in our screens?)

Even if your reader is your professor or an expert, it should not be the job of the reader to fill in the gaps. It is the writer’s job to make sure that everything is in place. 

What should a problem statement look like?

With that said, let us conclude with a problem statement from the example:

How a human being develops mentally in his life in a community is a concern of society because of the steadily decreasing rate of happiness in the world occurring alongside advancements in technology.

The problem statement above is detailed and concise. It summarizes the problem by explaining how the problem is a problem, highlighting who is of concern in the problem, and by framing it within the context of technological progress. Indicative, as well, is the later use of psychology and sociology in the discussion, as the problem is framed to necessitate the use of research in such fields. Finally, the problem is condensed and presented in a single sentence.

It does not have to contain all the details. Of course, that is the job of your discussion in the body. Nevertheless, it is vital to be concise and detailed at the same time when it comes to writing your problem statement. Everything else should follow after, and will follow well if you take the steps attentively and sufficiently.

Other problem statement examples can be made from the same problem:

How the mental development of a human being works, becomes significant amid the implementation of the K-12 program which may substantially affect the world literacy rate.

Here, the problem is framed in the context of education.

Of concern with how people mentally develop are law enforcement agencies around the world that seek to decrease the crime rate in their respective countries.

The problem is framed in the context of criminality.

There are many possibilities to frame a problem. This is the essence of the problem statement—to frame the problem with the goal of using a particular approach on it. Again, the mistake of thinking that this attempts to reduce the problem into a singular approach, or into a “straw man,” should not be committed.

Above all, what should be taken into heart is the significance of the problem statement. It is just as vital as the thesis statement. In a way, they are the heart of the whole essay—without this, it falls into obscurity and incoherence. Thus, just as important as knowing how to write your thesis statement is to know what is a problem statement—and more importantly, how to write a problem statement. Whether it is a problem statement for your essay homework or a dissertation problem statement, consider these first stages in writing your essay, and you will be rewarded handsomely with a high grade.

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