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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, the argumentation and proofing are all sound, and 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 . Unfortunately, students often overlook this part, usually because the greater emphasis is put on other components like the thesis statement. Moreover, such statements are often stated in a subtler or more implicit way, as opposed to the explicitness of the thesis statement. It is not uncommon for someone to read the problem statement and not even realize what it is, especially if it has been integrated so seamlessly into the discussion introduction.

You might be wondering what a problem statement is and, more importantly, how to write one. You’re in luck because this post explains this crucial element and offers steps that you can use as a guide for writing this component.

What is a problem statement?

A problem statement, as the term itself suggests, is a statement that conveys an issue or concern at hand (Kush, 2015). It may be remembered that a thesis statement conveys the main argument of a paper. Meanwhile, the problem statement conveys the issue the thesis statement attempts to address. Hence, it may be a question that requires an answer or a barrier that requires a solution.

The main purpose of this statement is to frame the paper. Furthermore, it provides the impetus for the thesis statement. In other words, it gives the thesis statement a reason for existing. If there is no issue to begin with, then the significance of the thesis and the paper itself decrease or altogether disappears (Hatcher & Rocco, 2011).

It is important to remember that a problem statement comes in different forms. It can be a component of shorter projects like research papers and term papers. It can also be a component in longer coursework like theses, literature reviews, and dissertations . But it can be a project in itself, such as in the case of a problem statement paper. The difference is that when it is a component, it usually serves to frame the thesis, which means the paper will address the issue. Meanwhile, when it is a project in itself, the main aim is to illustrate that the identified issue is indeed a problem (Sani, 2016).

Writing a Problem Statement

Knowing how to write a problem statement is essential to making sure that your paper is well-written from beginning to end. As mentioned earlier, this component adds meaning to the paper by serving as grounds for the thesis statement. But writing this can be quite difficult, which is why steps that can guide you are provided below.

Step 1: Deliberate on the Problem

The most important thing when writing this component is understanding the issue itself. You cannot convey what the issue is, let alone its significance if you have no idea why it is an issue in the first place. Hence, the first step is deliberating on the issue. You should understand what it is, its effects, and its overall significance. In other words, you need to have a clear and profound understanding of the concern itself.

In order to gather an adequate understanding of the issue, you need to look at the following aspects:

  • The nature . You must answer the question: what is the problem in itself? In particular, what is it asking for? A solution? An explanation? Evidence for its existence?
  • The scope . What fields of study are of concern to the problem?
  • The applicable frameworks . What particular frameworks or theories are applicable to answer this question? Note that one or more frameworks may be applicable to the problem, but it’s better to choose the one that fits the issue best. Knowing this will narrow down your search for frameworks. Also, note that frameworks are not always essential. Frameworks are usually required for extended works like theses and dissertations.

To gather a better idea of how to understand the problem, let us take a look at the example of fast fashion. Hence, the issue is this: society’s obsession with fast fashion.

  • Nature. The nature of the issue requires a solution.
  • Scope. The issue is a complex one, with business, economics, environment, and ethics intersecting.
  • Applicable framework. An applicable framework for this issue is those related to corporate ethics, corporate social responsibility , and the triple bottom line.

It is important to note that the significance of the problem statement lies not only in letting the readers understand the context of the paper. It is also vital to the researcher’s success since it leads the paper down the right path. For instance, the nature of the problem can provide insight into what should be done about it. Hence, it should be understood as well as possible. Misunderstanding the issue can result in the paper offering weak answers.

Step 2: Frame the Problem

Once you have equipped yourself with enough knowledge and understanding of the issue, the next step is to frame it. You will need to understand more specific details about the issue. In particular, you will need to understand how it is a concern and who is affected by it. To frame a concern is to set what perspective it should be seen from. Consider the following questions:

  • How is it a problem?  Here, you are clarifying an issue as a concern worth addressing. For something to qualify as a problem, there should be a negative effect emanating from the issue’s existence. Note that sometimes, the absence of something is the issue itself.
  • Who is affected by it?  What is the extent of the issue? What population or populations are affected? What are its tangible and intangible effects if left unchecked? These are some of the questions you need to ask.

Now, let’s take a look at how these questions are answered to frame the problem. Again, the issue is society’s obsession with fast fashion.

  • How is it a problem?  Society’s obsession with fast fashion has been identified as a top source of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Who is affected by it?  The issue can be considered global since pollution and climate change are issues that confront all countries around the world.

The significance of framing the concern is to make sure that your response to it is precise and relevant. Most importantly, it introduces and enforces the parameters in which your thesis statement and your argumentation operate. If you determine that a specific field of study is the best to incorporate in your research, 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 come up with a single but comprehensive answer to the issue. But chances are, not having a frame in which you approach and address the issue may lead to having an answer that is multifaceted at best and incoherent at worst. This is not to say that such an endeavor is doable, only that it is very risky.

An important disclaimer: the purpose of framing the concern is to make its scope narrower. By no means should it be done for the sole purpose of making it easy. “Narrower” 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 should be exercised. Some people resort to framing the issue in a way that benefits them, committing what the logical fallacy 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.

Step 3: Write the Problem Statement

If you take the first steps diligently and rigorously, knowing how to write a problem statement should not be too hounding a task. When writing this component, be guided accordingly by these two questions:

Question 1: Did I detail and explain the problem sufficiently and concisely?

The problem statement is usually part of the introduction in shorter papers. Thus, it needs to be extremely concise. It has to contain the significant information that is needed to present the issue without producing any unnecessary fluff. Think of this component as a summary of the concern: 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 issue, leading the discussion in a direction of the thesis statement. In other words, it has to be written in such a way that the reader is made aware that the answer is about to follow. This is the greatest challenge of writing the problem statement. It is a single sentence or a few at the maximum that compresses as much significant information as possible. Hence, it should be stressed that unnecessary content 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 its important details.

Question 2: Will my readers clearly understand?

The essay is meant to be read by someone else other than the writer. Therefore, the content should be easy to read for them. Otherwise, the readers will be constantly confused and alienated. 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. A writer may sometimes go too deep into introspection that the output may end up incomprehensible to other people. Think of it like this: can you understand 01001000 01100101 01111001? Looks like a random set of 0s and 1s, right? This is binary code, which is the language of computers. Imagine if that is all the reader can see on the screen when they use a computer. Can the average reader understand it, let alone appreciate it? Probably not. This is why that code has to be converted into meaningful colors, shapes, and text so that it can be understood in a single glance. If you are wondering what the code means, it simply means “Hey.” This example shows the importance of simplifying the content. 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?

At this point, we have discussed the steps to writing a problem statement. We have also emphasized the need for this statement to be clear, concise, and comprehensible to the reader. Now we look at how a problem statement should look by examining an example:

“While the rise of fast fashion in the past few decades has made clothes more accessible to more people around the globe and contributed greatly to economies, the massive industry has also been identified as a major source of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.”

The problem statement above is detailed and concise. It summarizes the concern by explaining how the issue qualifies as an issue, highlighting who it concerns, and framing it within the context of economics. Indicative as well is the relevance of the issue to the fields concerning the environment. Finally, the issue is condensed and presented in a single sentence. Remember that it does not have to contain all the details. The finer details can be discussed in the succeeding sections. What’s important is for the reader to gather a sufficient understanding of the issue.

Above all, what should be taken into the heart is the significance of the problem statement. When required, it is just as vital as the thesis statement. In a way, this component can serve as the soul of the whole essay. Without it, the existence of the paper and thesis statement loses meaning.

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Hatcher, T. G. & Rocco, T. S. (2011). The handbook of scholarly writing and publishing. John Wiley & Sons.

Kush, M. (2015). The problem statement. Quality Progress, 48(6), 71.

Sani, A. M. (2016). Academic writing essentials: A guide to postgraduate students. UUM Press.

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