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More about problem statements and purposes

More about problem statements and purposes

For some reason, distinguishing problems and purposes seems to be one of the most difficult barriers students must overcome so I will discuss it using examples.

The Problem

What is a problem for doctoral research?


Checklist (must meet all three criteria):

  1. An existing condition, situation, phenomenon, state. Whatever word you use, it is something that is happening that is not working correctly.
  2. Scholars in the field have identified it as a problem.
  3. Scholars in the field recommend further research about it.

NOTE: The Only Way to Find a Problem is to First Do a Thorough Investigation of Current Scholarly Works. Do the legwork needed to find the hot topics.


Some things that are NOT problems

Any plan to resolve an issue is NOT a problem.

Action Example 1: Schools should provide more professional development training for elementary math teachers.

Action Example 2: Schools should implement new strategies for teaching math skills.

While these may be true in some schools, this statement implies that all schools need to do one or both of these things. These are solutions to some not-yet-described problem. Both of the above statements describe actions but do not describe a problem to address.

Actions can be problems when reported as an existing condition, situation, state, or phenomenon.

Problem Example: Many teachers are not sure how to use available resources for teaching X.

Problem Example: Average math scores for X graders on national achievement tests are lower when taught by new teachers (those with less than 5 year’s experience).

Both of the above statements describe an existing condition and could be problem statements if they meet all three criteria listed earlier.


The Purpose

Once you have a valid, documented problem, it’s time to design a purpose to address it.

A purpose is not meant to fix a problem.

Addressing a problem in most cases does not mean you are attempting to solve the problem. How can you fix it if you don’t understand it? At this point, you must know more about the problem. That is research, to learn more about why a problem is occurring, how it is perpetuated, or what is already being done about it.

I often see students who think a purpose is a plan to fix a problem. Research is a plan to learn more about the problem so others (or you after the dissertation) can design a plan to fix it.

What is NOT a purpose statement

Example: The purpose of this study is to develop teaching strategies that will improve students’ math achievement scores.

Example: The purpose of this qualitative study is to provide professional development for new teachers to improve math instruction.

In both of these examples, the researcher has no idea at this point why the problem is occurring yet plans to fix it. Hmmm. How can we fix something when we don’t know what is causing it? Our research is about investigating the problem so someone might later find a solution.

Note that action research is an exception as it is a collaborative effort, a researcher-researched search for solutions to a problem.

What IS a purpose statement

Example: The purpose of this qualitative case study is to explore how teachers are currently using available resources to teach mathematics skills to X grade students.

Example: The purpose of this quantitative correlation study is to examine the relationship between the amount of teacher professional development and teacher self-efficacy for X grade mathematics skills teachers.

We are not attempting to resolve a problem but to explore it to learn more about it. We aligned these purpose statements with the previously identified problem, in this case, “Average math scores for X graders on national achievement tests are lower when taught by new teachers (those with less than 5 year’s experience).”


The purpose and problem must align.

This means the purpose addresses the problem. If I use one of the earlier problem statements,

Average math scores for X graders on national achievement tests are lower when taught by new teachers (those with less than 5 year’s experience).

and then a purpose statement,

The purpose of this quantitative correlation study is to determine the relationship between achievement test scores and amount of parent involvement in their children's education programs.

the two statements are mis-aligned. The purpose does not address the problem.

This is stretching the purpose statement to match the researcher's idea for research. In the example, the researcher must first find current authors who identify a problem that will align with the purpose or the purpose must be changed to align with the problem.

Revised problem statement: Average math scores for X graders on national achievement tests are lower than the national average for all grades.

now aligns with

The purpose of this quantitative correlation study is to determine the relationship between achievement test scores and amount of parent involvement in their children's education programs.

There could be many reasons for this phenomenon, including parental influences, so the purpose aligns with this problem.


None of this matters unless there is strong scholarly support from current studies. The problem must be something of concern to those in the field.

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