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Problem statement 

The problem statement includes the research question(s) addressed by the assignment, and helps to clarify the focus of the assignment. 

The problem statement 

  • points to something that you find intriguing, or something that needs to be investigated. 

  • contains one main question and possibly several sub-questions. 

  • is brief and to the point. 

  • may be highlighted through formatting, for example by writing it in bold or italics. 

  • must include questions that are answered in the assignment. Always make sure that when reading the introduction and the conclusion together, the reader will find that the conclusion answers the question(s) asked in the introduction.  

Note that the problem statement is not the same as 

  • a topic (subject area). 

  • a general problem (the context of the problem statement).  

  • a purpose (what the study can be used for and by whom). 

The topic, general problem and purpose can be described in the introduction, and gives your reader a good overview of the background of the assignment. The problem statement is where you sharpen your focus and tell your reader exactly what you want to investigate in the assignment. 

What is the problem?

A problem statement does not necessarily concern something that is problematic. However, the problem statement must include a problem, i.e. something in need of an answer. Read about the academic problem

Maybe you have observed: 

  • a phenomenon that has not previously been documented (from the same angle or to the same degree, for example). 

  • disagreement in the academic literature about a certain aspect. 

Introduce the problem

There are two ways of presenting the problem statement in academic assignments: 

  1. Sometimes, the problem statement will be highlighted and placed in a separate section at the beginning of the assignment. This is often the case for assignments within social science and sometimes in the humanities. 

  2. Alternatively, the problem statement is integrated into a longer introduction. This applies most often for the humanities. 

Ask your supervisor whether he or she prefers an explicit problem statement in your assignment. 

The problem statement as a tool

The problem statement not only serves to show your teacher that you have learned something and are able to shed light on an academic problem. It can also be used as a tool to guide your assignment, and thereby help you keep focus, for example when searching for literature or making analyses. 

Use your problem statement as a tool to guide your assignment: 

  • keep your problem statement at the back of your mind when searching for literature and taking notes in order to narrow down your literature search and your reading. 

  • assess your choice of method, collection of empirical data, use of theory and the structure of your assignment based on your problem statement. 

  • be prepared to revise your problem statement on an ongoing basis. 

When writing a problem statement, consider: 

  • what you have observed within your topic of choice. 

  • finding one or more questions that you want to answer. 

  • the conclusions you think you will arrive at. 

  • writing down your questions and dividing them into main questions and sub-questions. 

Tips & tricks

  • You need to choose a topic before writing a problem statement. See choice of topics

  • The Unfold the assignment exercise will shed light on your topic from several angles. This may be a step along the way towards identifying a problem within your field. 

  • The Scribo program will guide you when writing a problem statement. Read more about how to use Scribo here

  • Your problem statement is central to your assignment, so it is a good idea to discuss it with your supervisor. See Use your supervisor

  • Ask your fellow students to give you feedback on your problem statement. It might be a good idea to show them a draft outline of your assignment.

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The information about formalities is general guidelines. They do not replace the provisions in your academic regulations, your lecturers ' guidance or information on your course's website. First, please contact the above-mentioned locations. If in doubt, ask your supervisor.