Understanding the Process to Researching Problems

I have always enjoyed blogging because it is a chance to express my own thoughts and opinions in a free-flow form.  Although I greatly enjoy school and learning, research papers have always felt stifling to me and have resulted in my distaste for research (I have been lovingly teased by my peers for being the “engineer” of the group because I am the do-er), but my aversion to research papers has been built on false conceptions.  My early research paper assignments should not have put so much emphasis on dredging up the findings of others; research is about discovery and they should have all begun with a state of questioning to create an environment to foster that discover rather than request that students restate what was already known. In fact, research can be defined as “a systematic attempt to provide answers to questions” (Luo, 2016, p. 18), which means that even a research paper which would not afford someone the opportunity to conduct an empirical experiment would still need to begin with a question – always.  I would now question than in any research assignment or project if it did not start with the element of discovery based on a question or problem.

The Research Process

The process behind researching based on a question or problem utilizes the scientific method (also known as the Baconian method after Sir Francis Bacon’s investigative method).   By utilizing this method, research becomes replicable by other researchers for the purposes of validity and to further the research into new avenues in the future.  The research process “can and should be modified to fit the needs of a specific project” (Bhattacherjee, 2012, p. 20).  It has three primary phases:

  • Exploration/Identification: Define the question/problem; review literature; formulate a testable hypothesis based on previous assumptions and the literature;
  • Design: Operationalize the question/problem; define method, variables, measures, and sampling; draft proposal; and
  • Execution: Pilot testing; collect and analyze data; formulate conclusions; appraise new recommendations.

The Operationalization of a Research Problem

Our daily lives are about exploration, growth, development, and personal journeys; much of this is achieved through self-education (“Hey Siri/Google/Alexa/Your-Device-Name-Here…”), but a formal research project is inevitably going to be handled differently than an informal learning opportunity.  An informal learning opportunity often seeks an answer from what is already known (i.e. “How do I broil Brussels sprouts?”) with little consideration for the discovery of something new.  A formal research project will be reviewing what is already known and look for a gap in the collective knowledge.  The question or problem found must then be converted into an operationalized version of the research problem which will include:

  • Who you will collect data from;
  • What will be your observable construct and measured variable;
  • Why this study will test your hypothesis; and
  • How you will manipulate the variable (if so).

Example of Operationalizing a Research Problem

To demonstrate this difference, I will present an example of how a study might have used an operationalized research problem.  Keep in mind this is all hypothetical.  My study will be: A Study of Standards of Learning in Virginia.

An informal learning question might be in regards to student opinions of the Standards of Learning or for a definition.  These are not operationalized research problems as they have already been answered and defined:

  • What are the Standards of Learning in Virginia?
  • Do students like the Standards of Learning in Virginia?

For my formal research, I would need to dig deeper.  I could compare statistics of opinions on students and collect original data and qualify that as formal research, but for what purpose?  And if that data on student opinions already exists, I might want a different direction.  A state-wide program might want to validate itself by comparison to the national averages in foundational programs (i.e. reading, writing, and math), which would give my research a purposeful problem to solve: are the newly-implemented Standards of Learning having a positive effect on Virginia’s rank in the national student database?  This is something that can be operationalized:

  • Who: 8th graders in Virginia, 8th graders in North Carolina, and 8th grader national average statistics from NCES;
  • What: National Assessment Scale Score statistics in reading, writing, and math; and
  • Why: Determine if implementing new Standards of Learning program at all state schools (who are subject to National Assessment) has increased ranking in national average compared to North Carolina students with whom Virginia students have historically had similar scores.

These three points (above) would be combined into one operational definition of my research problem:

  • The problem of this study was to compare NCES scores in reading, writing, and math of 8th grade students in Virginia and North Carolina against each other and against the national average to determine if the recently implemented Standards of Learning program in Virginia is more effective than previous methodologies which were historically and categorically in alignment with the scores of students in North Carolina.

Again, all of these examples are completely hypothetical and I am not aware of the existence of any special programs in the state of Virginia, nor do I know of any historical alignments between Virginia and North Carolina students.  (Fun anecdote: as I was trying to type that, I wrote “Norginia” which I would define as the merging of Virginia and North Carolina school districts.)



Bhattacherjee, A. (2012). Social science research: Principles, methods, and practices: Scholar Commons, University of South Florida.

Luo, T. (2016). FOUN 612: Applied Research in Education. [PowerPoint slides].

0 thoughts on “Understanding the Process to Researching Problems

  1. Sonia Vanhook

    I enjoyed reading your blogs, and I look forward to learning from you this semester. I teach a Social Media class in the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center’s College for Older Adults.

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