ENGL 3880: What is a Problem Statement?


Theory and definition

Format: Parts of a problem statement
Problem statement samples


Theory and Definition


A "Problem Statement" is a brief, three-part overview of a difficulty or lack and the way you propose to address that difficulty or lack.  The ultimate goal of a problem statement is to transform a generalized problem (something that bothers you; a perceived lack) into a targeted, well-defined problem—one that can be resolved through focused research and careful decision-making.


Writing a Problem Statement can help you clearly identify the purpose of the project you will propose.  Often, the Problem Statement will also serve as the basis for the introductory section of your final proposal, directing your reader’s attention quickly to the issues that your proposed project will address and providing him or her with a concise statement of the proposed project itself.


So, what is a problem?  We've talked about this issue already in class. A problem, as I use the term here, is either a gap between the real and the desired or a contradiction between principle and practice.  It’s easy to identify things that bother us—high taxes or tuition; spending $6 on a burger that’s worth $2.50; a dorm room that stays 90 degrees and humid till October; having to drive to Raleigh just to see a good film.  It’s always possible (even pleasurable) to complain that tuition should be lower, burgers cheaper, dorms cooler, and theaters nearer.


But what is the nature of the problem in these cases?  Specifically, what is the nature of the problem from the perspective of some relevant audience with the power to make changes?  Here’s where you need to be able to highlight the clash between one set of conditions, principles, or ideals and another.  Generally, the clash should be between your audience’s desired "ideal situation" and the undesirable, real situation. 


Consider the “hot and humid dorms” example.  While it’s delightful to complain about the cheapness and rudeness of university administrators (who, after all, have temperate offices and homes), this approach does not define the problem in a solvable way.  After all, if all administrators are stingy creeps, you’re stuck—it’s just who they are and you can’t change them.


Instead of adopting such a fatalistic view, it's best to take a different approach. Determine how the problem relates to the implicit or explicit principles, ideals, and values of the institution.  ECU is committed to providing students with a safe, healthy, and productive learning environment—it says so in the mission statement (I haven’t actually looked, but I’m sure it does).  ECU is also committed to making the college experience enjoyable for students—it says so in all those brochures sent out to prospective students (I haven’t actually looked, but I’m sure it does).  These are some of the principles, ideals, values of the institution. 


What do these things have to do with humid dorms?  You can’t have productive, safe, healthy and happy students if they live and work in humid dorms.  There’s a clash between the ideals of the institution and the present realities of student life.  Or at least this is what you’ll want to suggest, using the “problem statement” format outlined below.



Format: Parts of the Problem Statement (two types)


Solution Proposal:

1.      Part A:  Describes a desired goal or ideal that your audience considers important; explains how things should be.

2.      Part B:  Describes a condition that prevents the goal, state, or value in Part A from being achieved or realized at this time; explains how the current situation falls short of the goal or ideal.

3.      Part C: Identifies the way you propose to improve the current situation and move it closer to the goal or ideal.


Research Proposal:

1.      Part A: Describes a desired goal or ideal that your audience considers important; explains how things should be.

2.      Part B: Identifies significant gap in knowledge that prevents the goal, state, or value in Part A from being realized at this time.

3.      Part C: Identifies research method(s) you propose to use in order to fill that gap in knowledge.



Sample 1: Air Conditioning in ECU Dormitories


A.     According to the ECU mission statement, the university seeks to provide students with a safe, healthy learning environment.  Dormitories are one important of that learning environment, since 55% of ECU students live in campus dorms and most of these students spend a significant amount of time working in their dorm rooms.




B.     Students living in dorms W, X, Y, and Z currently do not have air conditioning units, and during the first month of the Fall semester, it is common for room temperatures to exceed 80 degrees F.  Many students report that they are unable to do homework in their dorm rooms.  Others report problems sleeping because of the humidity and temperature.  The rooms are not only unhealthy, but they inhibit student productivity and academic achievement.


C.     In response to this problem, our group proposes to investigate several options for making the dorms more hospitable.  We plan to investigate options for purchasing air conditioners (university-funded; student-subsidized) and different types of air conditioning systems.  We will also consider less expensive ways to mitigate some or all of the problems noted above (such as creating climate-controlled dorm lounges and equipping them with better study areas and computing space).



Sample 2: Safe Rides Program (from a past student group)

According to the ECU police mission statement, the goal of the university is to assist students faculty and staff in maintaining a safe environment and to enhance the quality of life at East Carolina University. Consequently every weekend numerous students venture downtown to enjoy a good time filled with dancing partying and drinking.


After a night filled with drinking many students well over the legal limit still climb into the driver seat of their cars to get home. Each weekend is full of Greenville Police and ECU police reports of students receiving DUI'S (driving under the influence). Not infrequently there are additional reports of accidents and injuries due to drinking and driving. This produces not only a campus problem but a community problem as well.


In response to this problem, our group proposes to investigate the option of establishing a safe-rides program to the university. What program would consist of is a group of students who would be "on-duty" Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. A phone number would be provided so that students who have been drinking could call and the "on-duty" students would go pick them up and bring them home. Our group plans to investigate the existence of this program at surrounding universities or alternative programs they might have like this. Second, we will investigate the average number of drinking and driving reports in a weekend from Greenville police and ECU police. Third, we will explore through student organizations how a program like this would get off the ground.



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