SURF Workshop Resources: Problem Statements
Problem Statements: A Brief Introduction
A problem statement is a move that a document makes to help the reader realize why that document is important. Problem statements can be either formal--like a thesis statement--or they can be informal--usually a sentence that explains how what you are saying will impact the reader. A carefully crafted problem statement will help you to connect with your audience and will help your audience to see why your document is important.
In order to write a strong problem statement you should consider the following questions:
- What does my reader already know about my topic?
- What will I need to explicitly explain to my reader for them to understand the significance of my topic?
In order to answer these questions you will need to consider: the kind of terminology that your audience will be comfortable with; what beliefs, or mindsets, are shared between you and your intended audience; and, what canonical works your audience will be familiar with.
In regards to terminology, you should carefully choose what discipline specific terms to use and how to defined them. This decision should be based on who your audiences is. For example, if you are writing to a lay audience about first and second language users, you would not want to use the terms "L1" and "L2" without first defining them.
When considering the beliefs and mindsets of your audience, you should keep in mind that the audiences' beliefs/mindset may change the way that they interpret or understand the statements that you make in your document.
Finally, canonical research refers to texts and/or theories that the majority of experts in a given field find foundational to their work. When you're writing your problem statement, you want to be careful not to assume that everyone knows of all of the major works that you're referencing.
This serves as a very brief introduction to writing effective problem statements. Protracted examples of each of these can be found in the SURF Workshop: Problem Statements PowerPoint Presentation.
The materials for the workshop include a PowerPoint slide presentation that details how audience considerations affect the construction of problem statements, as well as handouts that provide students with opportunities to share, summarize, and recontextualize their research for different audiences.
Problem Statements PowerPoint Presentation
Problem Statements Handout Instruction
Problem Statements Handout Instruction
The following activities are designed to be sequential. They can done in combination with the Problem Statement PowerPoint Slide Presentation, but they can also be conducted separately. The handouts assume that all the audience participants are working on their projects, and that they might not be entirely familiar with the kinds of research that their peers are conducting.
Instructions for the participants are included in the handouts themselves, but presenters should briefly review the instructions in order to help participants organize their time.
This exercise is designed to help workshop participants discuss how the work they’ve already done fits in with the work of other scholars. It includes quick writing about important aspects about a participant’s project, small group discussion that requires participants to summarize their projects, and listen actively as others describe their projects. This first exercise will take at least fifteen minutes to complete.
If necessary, question #6 in the first exercise, which asks participants to briefly write about their projects, can be skipped or reserved for post-workshop reflection.
This exercise is designed to simulate the effect of having to read about someone’s project on a poster, rather than listening to the researcher’s explanation at length. It includes quick writing to summarize the participant’s own project, reading the summaries of other participants, and discussing the assumptions the participant makes based on those summarizes. This second exercise will take at least ten minutes to complete.
If necessary, question #5 in the second exercise, which asks the participants to briefly write about how they might reframe their projects for different audiences, can be skipped or reserved for post-workshop reflection.
Depending on the time available, presenters could leave time for the final questions from each handout to be filled out, or they could lead a larger group discussion about how participants’ expectations may or may not have been fulfilled.