The secret to a compelling statement of the problem


If you’re an academic in a writerly discipline, such as the humanities, the most important part of your work—practically and spiritually—is writing. Many academics think of themselves, correctly, as writers. And yet a successful piece of academic prose is rarely judged so by “ordinary” standards. Ordinary writing—the kind you read for fun—seeks to delight (and, sometimes, to delight and instruct). Academic writing has a more ambiguous mission. It’s supposed to be dry but also clever; faceless but also persuasive; clear but also completist.

The most important part of this type of writing is its problem statement: How do you craft a compelling statement of the problem?  

In the quest to guide researchers on this pivotal first step, the Strathmore University Writing Center hosted an insightful webinar. Dr. Stephen Macharia, Director of the Center, simplifies the task, labeling it “the easiest yet most crucial” element. A problem statement is the blueprint for your intellectual voyage, its purpose is to bridge the gap between reality and your aspiration. It demands addressing the “what” and “why,” Think of it as identifying a gap in the road that your research aims to fill.

Think of it this way: You’ve spotted a pothole on your favorite cycling route. That’s your ‘what’. Now, why does it matter? Because it’s a hazard for you and other cyclists — that’s your ‘why’. You’ll need to measure the size of the pothole and show how it’s causing trouble. That’s like using data to back up the existence of your research gap.

Without a clearly defined problem, there is no research. There are various ways to classify a gap, such as evidence-based, conceptual, or knowledge gaps. Before finalizing your problem statement, ensure that you have: identified a gap, provided context for its existence, and highlighted the significance of addressing this gap.

What are the steps?

1. Conduct a Thorough Literature Review

Dive deep into existing research related to your topic. Look for inconsistencies, unanswered questions, or areas where methodologies could be improved. This groundwork will provide the foundation for your problem statement. Using Google Sheets or excel might help you.

2. Identify the Gap

Based on your review, pinpoint the specific knowledge gap that your research aims to fill. Be precise about what is missing in the current literature.

3, Formulate Your Problem Statement

Start by stating the gap clearly and concisely. Follow this with a rationale explaining why this gap is significant and needs addressing. Ensure your language is engaging and direct. Example: “Despite extensive research on climate change’s impact on biodiversity, there remains a significant gap in understanding how micro-climates within fragmented habitats influence species survival. This oversight limits our ability to develop effective conservation strategies.”

  4. Refine and Polish

Revise your problem statement for clarity, coherence, and conciseness. Seek feedback from peers or mentors to ensure your statement is compelling and effectively communicates the essence of your research.

In addition to this Dr. Harry K. Bett adds depth, advocating for a comparative approach. Envision the ideal scenario, then confront the current reality, grounded in scientific fact. Explore the repercussions of this reality and evaluate how past studies have grappled with the issue. The key is to innovate, ensuring your research stands distinct in its contribution. Another  critical insight shared was the value of organization. Reviewing literature  on platforms like Word or Google Sheets before starting your research ensures that you can keep your eyes on the problem and indeed the gaps in previous studies.

The webinar’s climax features a timeless reminder: the act of crafting is a commitment. “Block time and do it” or enroll for this bootcamp by the Strathmore Writing Center here  or at 

Article written by Keith Albert

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