1. Define the problem: the research question

The research question

Before you start searching for information, it is important to have a clear idea of what you are exactly searching. Starting without a clear idea doesn't often lead you (or at least not quickly) to the right and reliable information. Defining the problem or research question saves you a lot of time and work, because you can effectively search for the wanted information. Ask yourself: what information do I want to find? Do I want to find general information about my topic, or am I looking into one specific aspect?

1.1 From topic to research problem

The assignment

By thinking about the following questions, you can formulate a specific and well defined problem.

  • How much time did I get to finish this assignment? Finding and reading articles takes time, so have a realistic idea of how much time you want to spend on searching literature.
  • How detailed does my report need to be? Sometimes you are given a publication date range (articles must be younger than 5 years for instance), but other assignment require you to do extensive research into a large publication date range.
  • Are there literature research criteria mentioned in the assignment? Sometimes a lecturer will ask you to find literature, but in another assignment you are asked to critically compare literature.


The topic

The most common problem with doing literature research isn't having too litlle information. It is having so much information that you digress from what you wanted to research. To increase the focus in your assignment, it helps to formulate a main research question. Your literature research aims to answer this central question.

Try to also think of sub questions. These sub questions help to answer the main research question.

A good research question comprises different, well-defined, measurable elements. A well-defined topic leads to a more precise research question.

The problem definition
A problem definition can be based on for instance the W's and H questions:
  • WHAT do you want to research? What specific phenomenon are you looking into? 
  • WHY do you want to research this? What motivates you? What is the added value of the research from an academic and societal perspective? 
  • WHERE: In what domain is your topic located? What (scientific) theory or model is the base for your research?
  • HOW are you going to search? Are you using a specific method to find literature? How do you plan on analyzing the results?
  • WHICH specific question are you posing? What answers are you expecting to roll out of your literature research?


1.2 Types of problem definitions

Different types of problem definitions

Type of problem defintion
Example of how to formulate

 Appropriate when you are looking into a new phenomenon. First the phenomenon need to be explored.

- What are key characteristics of x?

- What are the most important results of y?

Explaining  When you try to find (causal) relations between different phenomena and developments, this is the right problem definition type.

What are the causes of x?

What is the relation between x and y?


 Appropriate when you want to make evaluative statements about phenomena or measures What is the value/quality/effect of x
Advising Aims to provide readers with advice on your research topic.  

Which measures are necessary to solve problem x?

How can y best be approached?

Perscriptive Aims to develop a better theoretical explanation or methodological approach of the research topic.

How must x be executed?

Which steps are necessary for process y

What policy needs to be in place in regards to z?

Go to step 2


Tips voor een goede probleemstelling

open vraag
  • formuleer je vraagstelling in de vorm van een 'open', maar gerichte vraag;
  • de woorden 'hoe', 'op welke manier', 'in hoeverre', 'in welke mate', 'welke', 'waarom' etc. zijn vaak voldoende om een gesloten vraag in een open vraag te veranderen; 
hoofdvraag en deelvragen
  • streef ernaar om uiteindelijk maar één vraag te stellen;
  • stel je meerde vragen, bepaal dan welke vraag de hoofdvraag is en welke vragen de daarvan afgeleide deelvragen zijn, dus in hoeverre deze deelvragen je helpen om een antwoord op je hoofdvraag te verkrijgen;
betoog i.p.v. beschrijving
  • in plaats van een pure beschrijving van bepaalde fenomenen schrijf een betoog over deze fenomeen, dat stap voor stap inzicht geeft in verbanden tussen verschijnselen, gebeurtenissen, ontwikkelingen, factoren enz.;
woorden met gewicht
  • gebruik in de formulering van je vraagstelling woorden als 'verband', 'verhouding', 'relatie', 'oorzaak', 'gevolg', 'wisselwerking', 'rol', 'betekenis', 'in welke verhouding', 'in hoeverre wisselwerking', 'welke rol speelde', etc.;


Gebruikte bronnen

Janssen, D. (2012). Zakelijke communicatie voor professionals. Groningen: Noordhoff.

Müller, E. (2005). Het schrijven van een probleemstelling volgens de Schijf van Vijf. Geraadpleegd op 29 mei 2019, van https://students.uu.nl/sites/default/files/ gw_algemeen_schijf_van_vijf.pdf .