Before embarking on a study journey, there is need to succinctly identify an area of study you wish to investigate. Identifying a research problem is the first and foremost step that every researcher has to undertake. At times, it becomes rather difficult for an inexperienced student of research to conceptualize a research problem if it is not based on social need. In general, a research problem should be understood as some difficulty, unclear situation which a researcher experiences in practical or theoretical context and wants to obtain a tangible explanation, clarification or offer solution to it. For students, this problem may be as a result of theoretical encounter in the area of specialization. As such, before embarking on any research, you should identify the major research area of your interest.

Sources of research area of study

How do I identify an area of study? The following are the major sources of research area(s):

  • Your own experience or the experience of others may be a source of problem supply,
  • Scientific literature:  you may read about certain findings and notice that a certain field was not covered or there is knowledge gap that you need to fill in.  This could lead to a research problem.
  • Theories could be another source. Shortcomings in theories could be researched.
  • The sources of research problem thus can give you the direction of stating the research problem.

Once you are clear about your source of research problem, you need to narrow down the area by selecting a particular topic. This should be done after going through most of the literature related to the area. The topic should further be narrowed down to a specific researchable problem.

A good research area of investigation should essentially consist of  the following components:

  • An individual or community or an organization/institution to whom the problem could be attributed. These occupy a certain geographical area. For instance, teacher/parental factors affecting students performance in private secondary schools in Embu Municipality. In this study, there are individuals (parents, teachers, students), there are institutions (private secondary schools), and there is the area of study (Embu Municipality).
  • Some Objectives for pursuing the problem. There must be some objectives pursuing the problem, otherwise it would be repugnant to reason and common understanding to undertake the research. For example: To find out teacher/parental factors affecting the students academic performance in private secondary schools in Embu Municipality.
  • Some lines of action to be taken. There must be at least two lines of action to be taken to attain the objective. For example, poor academic performance may be attributed to negative teacher and parental factors. Thus altering negative teacher factors and parental factors become the lines of action to be pursued. Here, the underlying question is “what is the cause of this problem – poor academic performance?” It is in answering this question that you must pursue some lines of action through stating some variables (teacher factors and parental factors).

Kerlinger (1999) identifies three criteria of a good research problem:

  1. The problem should be concerned with a relation between two or more variables. However there are exceptions to this rule particularly in descriptive and quantitative studies.
  2. It should be stated clearly and unambiguously in question form. For example “What are the teacher and parental factors influencing the academic performance of students in private secondary schools in Embu Municipality?”
  3. It should be open to to empirical testing

Specifically, identifying an area of study should be guided by the following:

  • Research area is of interest to the researcher (could be in the field of one’s  specialization),
  • Research area is researchable – measurable and sample is accessible,
  • Research area is manageable in size (given your time and resources),
  • Research area is within your range of competencies and skills,
  • Research area makes a contribution to knowledge,
  • Research area has a theoretical basis 


Kerlinger, F.N. & Lee, H.B (1999). Foundations of Behavioral Research (4th Ed.). Belmont, California: Cengage Learning.