Just Tell Me What I Need To Know: Problem, Purpose, and Research Questions

I remember feeling frustrated and confused during my first year of the program. Like all I wanted was for someone to tell me what I needed to do!

People would speak in this very theoretical, heady way and had no idea what they were saying let alone meaning.

I just wanted someone to just tell me what I needed to know and do.

I understand that this is not as easy because there is no one way to do a thing and some people are just not good teachers.

Some things to remember:

  • I’m providing a starting point. This is not meant to be taken as the right way to write. It is intended to give you some guidance during a confusing process.
  • It is easier to edit an existing thing than to start from scratch. So...the goal is to write the worst draft ever! This is not about spending hours and hours making the perfect first sentence. Writing is a process. You will spend more hours editing than you think. So the goal is to have something to edit.
  • Show up with something! Always, always, always refer to the Graduate’s school guidelines, your program’s manual, and your advisor/chair. This guide is meant to give you something to show up with.

Part one is about how to write your problem statement, purpose statement, and research questions. For each section, I will provide:

  • A brief overview,
  • Questions or points to address,
  • A fill-in-the-blank guide, and
  • Examples (one I made up and two from published journals)

Let’s jump right in!

Research Problem

The research problem: the “why” of your study. The problem explains the history and context of why your study needs to be conducted. The problem statement should address such questions as:

  • What is going on?
  • What are some reasons that it may be happening?
  • Who does this effect?
  • What is being done about it?
  • What information is missing or needed to solve the problem?

Problem statement: (Existing literature), yet (this is missing).

Ex. Researchers have examined the experiences of first-generation college students at historically White institutions, yet there is little that is known regarding first-generation college students’ experiences at historically Black colleges and universities.

Ex. African American women tend to enroll in institutions of higher education at far greater rates than their male counterparts, with women accounting for approximately 60% of the total enrollment of African American students (Allen, Jayakumar, Griffin, Korn, & Hurtado, 2005). Yet, much of the African American college student literature that has explicitly explored gender has focused on African American men, often comparing them to the racial/ethnic counterparts or documenting their experiences at predominantly White institutions (PWIs; e.g., Bonner, 2010; Harper, 2008b, 2012; Harper & Griffin, 2011). [Greyerbiehl & Mitchell Jr., 2014, p. 282]

Ex. Some popular media outlets have described the importance of social media in sexual violence activism (Ludden, 2014), yet little scholarship has examined the role of social media in campus-based sexual violence activism (Linder, Myers, Riggle, & Lacy, 2016, p. 232).

Research Purpose

The research purpose is the “what’ of your study. The purpose clearly states the goal of your project. Your research problem informs your research purpose.

Think about it as a funnel. The problem section provides a broad overview of the issues. Your writing become more narrow as you get to the purpose statement. The goal is to have a concise statement that provides the reader an overview of your study. Think about a thesis statement. The purpose statement may also include information about the following:

  • Paradigm
  • Methodology
  • Central phenomenon
  • Participants
  • Research Site
  • Theoretical Framework

Purpose statement:

The purpose of this____________ (paradigm) (methodology) study is to _____________ (understand, explore, describe, develop) _____________ (central phenomenon) for _______________ (participants) at _____________ (the site).

Ex. The purpose of the critical narrative inquiry is to examine sense of belonging for first-generation college students at historically Black college and universities.

Ex. In this study, we documented the experiences of African American women involved in historically Black sororities at a PWI using an intersectional social capital framework (Greyerbiehl & Mitchell Jr., 2014, p. 282).

Ex. In this study, we examine the strategies of campus sexual violence activists, including the role of social media in sexual violence activism (Linder, Myers, Riggle, & Lacy, 2016, p. 232).

Side Note On Significance:

Providing a statement of significance is often overlooked by novice researchers because...well...simply, we just want to research what we want to research.

As great as that feels, it’s important to be clear about who this study is for and what they should do with the data. Your significance statement(s) may address:

  • So what?
  • Why are you doing this study?
  • How will this contribute to your field?
  • What are readers supposed to do as a result of reading your study?
  • Who are your ideal readers?

Ex. The findings and implications of this study may benefit practitioners at HBCUs to develop and maintain more intentional programming for first-generation college students, which may also increase retention rates.

Ex. In turn, researchers and practitioners may gain more insight on the experiences of African American women involved in historically Black sororities and build on the findings (Greyerbiehl & Mitchell Jr., 2014, p. 284).

Ex. Finally, we describe and discuss findings from our observations and interviews with sexual assault activists, and provide implications for those supporting campus-based activists (Linder, Myers, Riggle, & Lacy, 2016, p. 232).

Research Questions

Research questions help guide your study. There are different schools of thoughts about questions. Some will say it is the most important thing and that you should only look for information related to those questions.

My philosophy is that your questions provide boundaries to your study with a lot of wiggle room. You don’t know what you are going to find and you shouldn’t limit the possibilities. This comes down to paradigms and understandings of qualitative research. For the purposes of this workshop, we will develop one main research question.

Golden Rule: Always check with your advisor/chair regarding their specific expectations.

Questions: What are the experiences of ______________ (participants) who ____________ (central phenomenon) at _________ (the site)?

How do ______________ (participants) who ____________ (central phenomenon) at _________ (the site)?

Ex. How do first-generation college students experience sense of belonging at HBCUs?

Ex. The research questions for this study included: What are the strategies of campus sexual assault activists? What role did social media play in campus sexual assault activism? (Linder, Myers, Riggle, & Lacy, 2016, p. 235)

Ex. The following research questions shaped the study: (a) What are the experiences of African American women who joined historically Black sororities at a PWI? (b) How does the intersection of race and gender shape their experiences within historically Black sororities at a PWI? (Greyerbiehl & Mitchell Jr., 2014, 282)

There you have it, folks!

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