Centre collégial de développement de matériel didactique

1. Problem Formulation

While the student/researcher is becoming familiar with a topic, questions surface that invite investigation. These questions function as starting points for formulating problem statements.

1.1 Research question

  • Research questions aim to provoke new understanding, deepen existing knowledge or provide clearer explanations of hitherto unknown aspects of a topic.
  • You will not be able to advance in the research cycle without a question.
  • Having a researchable question for a paper is like having fuel to travel in a car: there can be no journey without the fuel.
  • The question itself requires formulation into a problem statement, however – a hypothesis or a thesis statement.

1.2 Types of problem formulations

Questions eventually become converted into declarative statements where a position or prediction is set up for testing. The question “Why is the rate of death due to suicide so high in Inuit communities in Canada?” is open-ended. It does not state a position or predict a relationship or a possible explanation the way a hypothesis or a thesis does. That is why questions are typically converted into either a hypothesis, such as “High suicide rates among the Inuit are associated with macro-social forces and socio-economic realities” (Stevenson 1996), or a strongly worded thesis such as “Cultural discontinuity and the legacy of colonialism explain the unusually high rates of suicide for the Inuit in Canada.” Note how the hypothesis and the thesis are set up as declarative statements as opposed to open-ended, directionless questions.

Hypotheses and thesis statements contain evident positions or problem statements that provoke investigation. Devising a hypothesis or a thesis takes even the most practised researchers time to develop. 


A hypothesis is usually stated in precise terms, as an educated guess or prediction about the expected behaviour of a variable or a set of variables in a relationship or about differences between groups.

The data are usually in the form of numbers and the intended path to empirically test the data is linear. In contrast to a thesis statement, a hypothesis lends itself more readily to statistical tests. Precisely defined variables measure phenomena in uniform ways to make it easier to process and analyze with data management software. Replication, the practice of repeating the same tests, is assumed. Information about procedures and measures are so specific that they are often regarded as recipes that can be easily replicated by fellow researchers.


A thesis is a declarative statement that is arguable (“not a statement of fact, but a statement about the facts”). In contrast to a hypothesis, a thesis is regarded as more open-ended and interpretive in orientation, with general concepts defining the parameters of the investigation as opposed to pre-set, standardized variables. The expression “working thesis” is often used to describe the ad hoc way that a thesis typically develops. As the researcher becomes more immersed in the field, the thesis becomes more cogent. Generally, the path to gathering, processing and analyzing the data is non-linear.

1.3 Approach for collecting and analyzing data

Research decisions are generally guided by one of these three standard goals. Sometimes a study may function with multiple goals.


Time, skills and funds are required to conduct an in-depth explanatory study, which seeks to understand “why” something occurs, as opposed to the more exploratory or descriptive “how” approach. Pitched at the high-stakes level of testing a theory such as social learning theory as it pertains to a new phenomenon or finding fundamentally new ways to explain a relationship, this goal is usually outside the reach of most novice researchers. Explanatory studies often come after descriptive and exploratory studies have set the stage for a more involved investigation. Here is Neuman’s (2009) list of explanatory purposes:

  • Test a theory’s predictions or principles
  • Elaborate and enrich a theory’s explanation
  • Extend a theory to new issues or topics
  • Support or refute an explanation or prediction
  • Link issues or topics with a general principle
  • Determine which of several explanations is best (p. 15)


The intent of most exploratory studies is to improve understanding or pilot a measurement scale or a new way of examining phenomena. Exploratory research involves relatively simple designs. Using samples that are usually small and non-representative, the findings are usually suggestive and revealing as opposed to generalizable and significant.

According to Neuman (2009), some purposes of exploratory research are to:

  • Become familiar with the basic facts, setting and concerns
  • Create a general mental picture of conditions
  • Formulate and focus questions for future research
  • Generate new ideas, conjectures or hypotheses
  • Determine the feasibility of conducting research
  • Develop techniques for measuring and locating future data (p. 15)


Most social research is descriptive in orientation. It is best known for its rich, detailed, accurate accounts of how individuals, groups, organizations and entire societies live, learn or work. The aim is to provide a neutral report that is accurate and full of detail.

Much of the emphasis is on advancing existing scholarship on the topic, especially for conceptual and philosophical debates. Descriptive goals have close affinities with most post-secondary level analytic essays.

According to Neuman (2009), typical purposes for descriptive research are to:

  • Provide a detailed, highly accurate picture
  • Locate new data that contradict past data
  • Create a set of categories or classify types
  • Clarify a sequence of steps or stages
  • Document a causal process or mechanism
  • Report on the background or context of a situation (p. 15)