Introductions and Problem Statements

I often work with students who struggle to write introductions to their academic papers. In graduate writing, introductions usually present a problem that the paper is going to address or a question that the paper is going to answer (for simplicity, call this problem or question section the “problem statement”). This page offers advice and suggestions for improving the introduction-and-problem-statement section of your paper.  

Background

This page is part of my series on the University of Chicago’s “Little Red Schoolhouse” (LRS) approach to writing (see below). More specifically, this page discusses how to write introductions and problem statements for academic papers. It is based mainly on the advice in the excellent text The Craft of Research (3rd ed.) by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams (Joseph Bizup and William T. Fitzgerald contributed to later editions).

The advice on this page complements both (1) the discussion of introductions in the “Constructing Research Papers” section of my Essentials of Graduate Writing page and (2) my Style and Clarity, and Arguments pages, which discuss other aspects of the LRS approach to writing.

The “Little Red Schoolhouse”

Joseph M. Williams was a professor of English and linguistics at the University of Chicago and was one of the founders of the university’s famous writing program, often referred to as “the Little Red Schoolhouse” (LRS) after the nickname of its iconic academic writing course. That program’s methods and insights regarding academic writing can be helpful for students and instructors at all levels (undergrad, graduate, and professional). This page summarizes some of the key ideas of the LRS approach to writing introductions and problem statements.

Introductions and Problem Statements: Key Ideas

As suggested above, I lump introductions (or “intros”) and problem statements together because, for most academic papers, your introduction should, among other things, explain a problem that your paper will help solve. The reason is that you want your paper to be interesting to readers. In Larry McEnerney’s words, you want your paper to offer “value” to the readers. Even more importantly, your paper needs to make it obvious to the reader exactly what kind of value it is offering.

Readers and Value

Remember what I call “McEnerney’s Mantra”: For any type of writing you undertake, you always want to ask yourself two questions: (1) Who’s going to read it? and (2) Why are they going to read it?

The answer to question 2 will show you how to offer value to your readers. For academic papers, readers are usually coming to your paper for information. They want your paper to help them understand something that they didn’t know or didn’t understand before. For research papers (e.g., theses, journal articles) in particular, the readers are expecting you to change their mind about something (or at least try to). That’s why we also have to think about the answer to question 1: Who’s the reader?

Keep in mind that your ideal reader is hypothetical or imaginary. In actual fact, the only person who will read most of the papers you write in grad school is your professor. But if you think about it, your professor won’t give you a good grade if you write the paper with him or her in mind. For example, suppose you’re studying education and you’re writing a paper on how to incorporate culturally relevant pedagogy (CRP) into urban science classrooms. You might think, “I don’t need to explain CRP to my professor. She already knows what that is. Heck, she taught it to us.” But if you take that approach, your professor probably won’t be pleased. She’ll probably mark you down and write some comment like “explain this more” or “provide more context” in the margin. So, clearly your imaginary reader is not your professor. Who is it then?

For the academic papers you write in graduate school, your reader will usually be a hypothetical member of a particular academic community, but possibly one who isn’t a specialist in the specific subtopic that you’re writing about. So, for example, maybe you’re writing a paper on some topic in Medieval literature. Your reader (or audience) then might be the broader academic community of English literature people (i.e., professors, grad students). It might even be narrower; perhaps your audience is English lit people who specialize in the Medieval period. But you probably don’t want to assume that they are experts in the particular subtopic that your paper is about. So, if your paper is on the different subtypes of masculine gender identity that are referenced in Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale, you can safely assume that your readers are English lit people with a specialty (or at least some background in) Medieval literature. But you probably don’t want to assume that they are experts in Chaucer or that they are familiar with the plot of the Knight’s Tale (which you should probably briefly summarize).

Of course, there are exceptions. If you’re presenting a paper at a conference of experts in a very narrow subdiscipline, or writing an article for a highly specialized journal, then by all means assume that your readers are specialists. The point is: always make sure to identify your intended readers.

With that said, let’s return to our original question: How do we write our papers so that they offer value to the reader? How do we catch readers’ attention, spark readers’ interest, and convince readers that the paper will change their mind or add to their knowledge in some way? Here are some possible answers:

  • Argue that the academic community (the community that your imaginary reader belongs to) is wrong about some aspect of the topic being discussed by the paper. An obvious example is Albert Einstein’s 1905 paper “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” that argued that physicists had wrongly assumed that space and time coordinates could be treated as absolute and observer-independent, rather then being dependent on the standpoint of the observer. Obviously, this is a particularly ingenious example—your paper needn’t be this groundbreaking or earth-shattering or original. But, if you think carefully about your topic, you’ll likely find that there are areas of confusion or areas that could benefit from new thinking.
  • Argue that the academic community needs to examine a word or concept in more detail, because we (i.e., the academic community) haven’t thought about it carefully enough or realized how complicated it is. For one example that Larry McEnerney likes to use, William H. Sewell argued in a 1996 paper that historians up to that point had never deeply analyzed the concept of a historical “event.” They’d discussed all sorts of events—battles, wars, blockades, coronations—but they’d never adequately theorized about what events, in general, are.
  • Argue that the academic community is generally correct about the topic, but they haven’t adequately applied their analysis or theory to a specific subtopic or population. For example, “Researchers have studied the effectiveness of culturally relevant pedagogy (CRP) in boosting achievement for urban science students, but few studies have looked at how to modify CRP to support urban science students with disabilities.”

Pat Thomson (Professor of Education, The University of Nottingham) also offers some similar examples along these lines (read her excellent blog post here or here).

These examples represent just a partial list to spark your thinking. They certainly doesn’t exhaust all the ways to offer value to readers. But if your paper does one of the above, your readers are more likely to find it interesting and keep reading.

With these ideas about “value” in mind, let’s tackle the actual structure of the Introduction + Problem Statement.

The Structure of Introductions: Common Ground + Problem + Solution

As Booth, Colomb, & Williams state in The Craft of Research (3rd ed.), almost all academic papers do the following 3 things in their introduction:

  1. State a Common Ground (or context). I like to think of this as the “Research has shown…” part. It describes something that is known about the topic, or something that everyone (who is informed) could agree on.
  2. Disrupt the common ground to state a Problem: “However, few studies have examined…”
  3. Respond to the Problem by stating a proposed Solution or what you’re going to do about the problem. For example: Therefore, this paper will review the literature on [topic] to identify the most effective method for achieving [desired outcome].

(Side Note: Here, I’m calling #3 the “proposed solution,” but in the video later on, I follow Booth, Colomb, and Williams in calling it the “response”–either way, it’s the same thing)

Here’s a partly-fleshed-out example:

Common Ground (What everybody knows or what everybody would know if they reviewed the literature on this topic): Popular media like movies and TV reinforce negative images and stereotypes regarding Brown and Black Youth. [Explain/elaborate/provide evidence]: Research has shown that such stereotypes are prevalent in the media (Hernandez, 2011; Tanizaki, 2017). For example, one study by Johnson and Abdel Qader (2020) found that… More specifically, media narratives tend to reinforce deficit thinking and criminalization of Black and Brown youth.

Problem (the “However” or destabilizing moment): However, one area that has not been examined closely enough is how these media stereotypes manifest and operate in the classroom. [Explain/elaborate/provide evidence]: For example, studies of stereotypes in the classroom environment (e.g., Camarillo et al., 2018) have tended to focus on microaggressions and exclusion of people of color from the curriculum… But few studies have examined the influence of media-based stereotypes on what happens in the classroom.

Proposed solution (the “Therefore, this study will examine…” part): Therefore, this thesis will explore the experiences of students of color in a group of urban high school classrooms to determine the extent to which these experiences reveal the presence of harmful media-derived stereotypes. The goals of the study are to identify such stereotypes in the classroom and to propose effective methods for neutralizing them…

This example is not perfect, of course. Perfection is a myth anyway, and all examples should be approached with caution and critical thinking. But hopefully it offers a useful, if rough, template for constructing an introduction that offers value to the reader.

One element that is missing from the above example, but which is often helpful in introductions, is the Significance, which answers the question “Why should anyone care about this problem?” The significance is often (but not always) posed in terms of the consequences of NOT solving the problem. And problems can be practical or theoretical. For example, for a practical problem like melting ice caps as a result of climate change, there are obvious practical consequences of ignoring it, for example rising sea levels that will swallow up large areas of coastal cities. Ignoring those problems will likely be costly in terms of money and human life. For a theoretical problem, failing to solve it may have deep consequences for the legitimacy of the theory or for broader concerns that underlie the entire discipline. For example, the mathematician W. Hugh Woodin argues that whether we can resolve questions about the continuum hypothesis in set theory has deep-seated implications for the nature of mathematics itself. Failing to resolve such foundational questions may make it harder to answer key questions or harder to demonstrate the value of the discipline itself (which in turn might affect the ability to secure funding!).

Significance is also often talked about in terms of “stakeholders” or concerned parties. For example, suppose you’re writing an education paper on whether a new law will adequately meet the needs of English learner (EL) students. Explaining the significance of this topic might involve answering the following questions: Why should teachers care about this? (or: How does this problem affect teachers and their work?) Why should educational administrators care about this? Why should taxpayers and the general public care about this? Depending on the paper, you might even be expected to explain why the EL students themselves, or their families, should care about it. Of course, some of these types of significance might be obvious to the reader, and thus not worth saying. If you over-explain obvious things, you risk insulting the reader’s intelligence or boring the reader. If you under-explain complex (or non-obvious) things, you risk confusing the reader. Deciding whether something is obvious requires going back to our earlier question about who we expect to read the paper (the general public? educators? specialists in language acquisition?). Determining the intended reader will help you decide what to include in your discussion of significance.

For an example of an Intro/Problem Statement that includes a discussion of significance, take a look at the opening paragraph of William Sewall’s 1996 paper, which was mentioned earlier, on “Historical events as transformations of structures”:

Video (50 min)

Below you can watch a video in which I cover the main ideas discussed on this page.

And here you can download the PowerPoint slides from the video:

Finally, here’s a helpful Handout from the Temple University Writing Center:

Coming Up with Questions and Problems

But now you might be thinking: “Ok, common ground-problem-solution is a great structure if I already know what my research problem is. But what if I can’t come up with a problem?” As touched on above, students often have a hard time coming up with “researchable” problems and research questions. They often wonder (and ask me): How can I come up with interesting problems like the ones in the examples or the ones I see in research papers? Especially if you’ve only recently started studying a topic, identifying areas of ignorance, confusion, poor definitions, and so on can be really difficult.

To get started, here are some useful tips (quoted directly from The Craft of Research, 3rd ed.):

 “Your first task is to find a research problem that might be worth solving. Here are four steps to that end:

1. Find a topic specific enough to let you master a reasonable amount of information on it in the time you have: not, for example, the history of scientific writing, but essays in the Proceedings of the Royal Society (1675–1750) as precursors to the modern scientific article; not doctors in seventeenth- century drama, but Molière’s mockery of doctors in three early plays.

2. Question that topic until you find questions that catch your interest. For example, How did early Royal Society authors demonstrate that their evidence was reliable? Or, Why did Molière mock doctors?

3. Determine the kind of evidence your readers will expect you to offer in support of your answer. Will they accept reports of facts from secondary sources, or will they expect you to consult primary sources…? Will they expect quantitative data, quotations from authorities, or firsthand observations?

4. Determine whether you can find those data. There’s no point starting research on a topic until you know you have a good chance of finding data on it.” (pp. 31-32).

In academic circles, this process of identifying the question/problem is often described in terms of finding a “gap.” The “Thesis Whisperer” Inger Mewburn (PhD, Director of Research Training at Australia National University) breaks down the things you need to think about to identify the gap:

“The general area is a particular conversation among academics in the field of study.
The specific area is your focus on a particular part of the bigger conversation (a sub-set of the larger conversation).
The Gap is what you notice needs to be said in the conversation that has not been said before or that needs addressing in more detail.
The research question/hypothesis/aim asks something to address The Gap in the conversation.
The thesis statement is your proposed answer to this question…
To this we can add a Thesis Outline: a courtesy statement or statements to the reader of where your thesis is going and the shape and structure it is going to take. (You owe them this if they are going to plough through 80-100,000 words for you.)” Source: Mind the Gap.

All of these elements listed by Dr. Mewburn are helpful pieces to include in the final draft of your introduction (but you probably won’t be able to include all of them in your first “rough” draft, so don’t expect yourself to).

Of course, “gap talk” also has its limits. I recommend reading Pat Thomson’s insightful post, The Problem With Gap Talk (also linked above), which offers some constructive critique of the gap concept and provides some rough templates for research problems. I also recommend the section of my Literature Reviews page called “Developing a Research Question.”

Finally, keep in mind that this process of identifying researchable questions is not simple or linear. As Colomb, Booth, and Williams state in The Craft of Research:

You’ll discover, however, that you can’t march through those steps in the neat order we present them. You’ll think of a tentative answer to your research question before you have all the evidence you need to support it. And when you think you have an argument worth making, you may discover that you need more and maybe different evidence from new sources. You may even modify your topic. Doing research is not like strolling along an easy, well-marked path to a familiar destination; it’s more like zigzagging up and down a rocky hill through overgrown woods, sometimes in a fog, searching for something you won’t recognize until you see it.


But no matter how indirect your path, you can make progress if at each step of the way you plan for predictable detours (and maybe even avoid some of them). Resolve to do lots of writing along the way. Much of it will be routine note-taking, but you should also write reflectively, to understand: make outlines; explain why you disagree with a source; draw diagrams to connect disparate facts; summarize sources, positions, and schools; record even random thoughts. Many researchers find it useful to keep a journal for hunches, new ideas, random thoughts, problems, and so on. You might not include much of this writing- to- discover- and- understand in your final draft. But when you write as you go, every day, you encourage your own best critical thinking, understand your sources better, and, when the time comes, draft more productively.

(pp. 32-33)

Putting it all together

In this section, I walk through the process of coming up with an intro and problem statement from a student’s perspective.

As noted above, introductions and problem statements (in academic writing) are usually the same thing: the opening section of your paper.  Two of the most common obstacles that students face regarding introductions and problem statements are:

(1) Figuring out what to say (by answering the question: What is the problem or question that I’m writing about?)

(2) Figuring out how to say it (by answering the question: I know what to say, but what’s the best order for me to say it in?)

Let’s tackle these in turn by looking at a particular example.

Figuring out what to say

Suppose I have to write a paper on an issue or problem in healthcare for a graduate class in nursing. The paper needs to identify a problem, offer a brief review of relevant literature, and provide recommendations for solving the problem. That’s what the professor’s prompt (or assignment description) tells me. But how do I turn this prompt into an actual paper? How do I identify the particular healthcare problem to write about?

Let’s get one thing out of the way at the outset: You do not need to write your introduction/problem statement first. As academic writers, we often don’t really know exactly what we’re trying to say until we start saying it. In other words, we need to do some writing to think through what it is we’re trying to say. In fact, the more complex our topic is, the more we have to put words down on paper as a means of figuring out what we think about it (for more on this point and related ideas, see this page, this page, or this page). Once we figure that out, it’s much easier to go back and write a well-formed introduction/problem statement.

So, one valuable piece of advice is to start anywhere. Think of some entry point you have on the topic—some aspect that interests you and that you have thoughts about—and just start writing out those thoughts. It doesn’t have to be good. In fact, your first efforts on any given paper will almost certainly be bad. That’s OK—embrace this fact. Write what Anne Lammott calls a “shitty first draft” just to get your thoughts rolling and creative juices flowing. Later on, you can edit what you’ve written into something better. But for now, you’re just trying to figure out what you think about the topic.

So, returning to the essay prompt: I have to write a paper on an issue or problem in healthcare. Maybe I’ve thought about what I’m interested in, and I’ve decided to focus on mental health challenges that nurses deal with. This is still too broad to be the actual topic of my paper, but it’s a start. I’m narrowing the larger topic and starting to zero in on a subtopic.

Now, suppose I’ve collected a bunch of research literature on mental health challenges that arise in nursing, but I don’t know which one to focus on. However, I read an interesting journal article about how a group of emergency room nurses received CBT training to help them cope with the stresses of their job. I found this article to be really compelling and I have a few things to say about it. So, I should start writing here. I don’t know what the ultimate focus of my paper will be, but at least I can get started writing on this topic. I can write things like:

One study of emergency room nurses found that…. (jot down or type the key finding of the study). The study involved a sample of N=25 nurses at… (mention the location and other key details) This study is significant because it shows the value of…. (note why this study is important)

Maybe in writing about this topic, I realize that I’m most interested in the coping strategies used by emergency room nurses. Good. Coping strategies used by emergency room nurses will be the focus of my paper:

Larger topic: Mental health issues in healthcare

My subtopic or focus: Coping strategies used by emergency room nurses to deal with job-related mental health issues like stress and anxiety.

Now, I’m getting somewhere. But I still only have a subtopic. I still don’t have a specific problem to tackle.   

Here’s where I’ll adopt the advice of Booth, Colomb, and Williams (quoted above under “Coming Up With Questions and Problems”): I’ll ask myself questions about the topic until I find one that really interests me.

What is it that I really want to know? Well, maybe I’m a nursing student and I want to know exactly what coping strategies emergency room nurses use. Do they go to therapy? Do they use holistic or alternative medicine for self-care? Do they vent to other nurses?

Actually, maybe in asking the last question, I realize that that’s what I’m most interested in: I want to know whether emergency room nurses create informal support networks to help each other deal with the mental health challenges of their jobs. I’m interested in this because I’m a nursing student who works part-time in an elder care facility, and I meet with some of my fellow nurses for lunch once a week. We spend a lot of time sharing notes, venting, and offering support to each other, and I’m wondering if this kind of thing is common among emergency room nurses. Are there a lot of informal support networks among these nurses? Has anyone studied this? If so, are there recommendations for emergency room nurses trying to create such support networks? And how can employers (e.g., care facilities) support these efforts. If no one has researched this, they should.

I go back to the articles (literature) I’ve already found and search for some new ones. I find that there are studies on nurses going to therapy, and other studies on nurses using various self-care practices, but there’s very little on informal support networks among nurses. There is also very little research on emergency room nurses in particular. Excellent, I’ve found a problem (or two). Now I just have to put it all these ideas together into a rough draft, which brings us to the next section.

Figuring out how to say it

Let’s use the template discussed earlier on this page: Common ground + Problem (that destabilizes the common ground) + Solution (what I’m going to do about the problem).

Here’s what I put together:

[Common Ground] According to the American Nurses Association (2016), emergency room (ER) nurses suffer from employment related anxiety, depression, and stress at significantly higher rates than other medical professionals, and numerous studies have examined the coping strategies that ER nurses use to deal with these mental health challenges (Camarillo et al., 2011; Ekwonye, 2018; Tanizaki and Williams, 2020). For example, Samahang (2017) discusses the use of on-site therapy for ER nurses at a medical facility in Austin, Texas… The coping strategies that the literature reports are most commonly used by ER nurses are cognitive behavioral therapy (Aquino, 2018), mindfulness (Zamyatin, 2015), exercise (Johnson, 2004), and journaling (Iyayi, 2017).

[Problem] However, few studies have examined the role of informal support networks among ER nurses. For example, a study by Huston (2010) presented case studies of ER nurses who employed informal interpersonal support as a coping strategy for work-related stress, but the study did not describe in detail how the informal support took place. Jackson (2011) described an informal support network in detail, but the sample size was small (n=8), and the results may not be broadly applicable to other settings… A larger study (Weinberg, 2016) examined informal support networks among nurses in a Midwestern HMO network, but the study did not disambiguate ER nurses from other nursing professionals… Thus, more work is needed to explain how prevalent informal support networks are among ER nurses and what benefits they offer compared to the other coping strategies discussed in the literature on ER nurses.

[Solution] Therefore, this paper reviews the literature on the mental health challenges facing ER nurses and the coping strategies these nurses use. Next, the benefits of informal support networks among ER nurses are discussed, followed by recommendations for healthcare leaders to facilitate and foster such informal support networks.

Obviously, the examples on this page are not perfect. But hopefully they stimulate your thinking and improve your understanding of the essential elements of introductions  and problem statements.

Further Reading

Booth, W. C., Colomb, G. G., & Williams, J. M. (2008), The craft of research (3rd ed.). University Of Chicago Press.

Williams, J. M., & Colomb, G. G. (2003). The craft of argument (2nd. ed.). Pearson.

Cain Project Writing Modules

The Cain Project in Engineering and Professional Communication has an excellent set of 3 modules based on the work of Williams, Colomb, Booth, and others. The third module focuses on many of the topics discussed on this page.

You can download module one in PowerPoint format here:

You can also download all 3 modules in PDF “book” form here:

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