University Writing Center
September 30, 2016

The Problem Question

The Problem: ALL writing starts with a problem. This is so important it deserves repeating: ALL writing starts with a problem. For a poet, the problem might be been how to convert a clichéd idea like “a fork in the road” into an imaginative metaphor about life’s choices, as in Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” For a political activist, the problem might be how to explain the necessity for civic disobedience, as in Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream.” For a historian, the problem is how to make sense of, or find meaning in, all those facts and dates, to give them a human face. The best way to start to understand a problem is to convert the problem into a question. We can call this a problem question. The problem question should suggest the direction your inquiry should go and even the answer you are looking for. One model for a problem question comes from The Craft of Research, Wayne Booth et al.

I am studying ________________________________________________

In order to find out _________________________________________

Because I want my reader to understand _______________________

Some typical history assignments are:


  • Write a review of a history book;
  • Write an analysis of a primary text;
  • Write a research paper

Let’s turn each of these assignments into a problem question:

Review: I am studying the EXODUS FROM THE ALAMO: The Anatomy of the Last Stand Myth by Phillip Thomas Tucker, in order to find out how contemporary historians are questioning the standard myths that surround the Alamo, because I want my reader to understand how new research methods are contributing to a better understanding of history.

Analysis of Primary Text: I am studying Christopher Colombo’s letters in order to find out how Colombo treated the natives he met on his first voyage, because I want my reader to understand that the long history of mistreatment of Amerindians started with the first contact with Europeans.

Research Paper: I am studying Thomas Morton and the Merrymount Plantation in order to find out how religious and cultural differences led to the failure of this colony, because I want my reader to understand how one account of a historical event becomes part of history and another is forgotten.


(Notice that the research paper problem-question will require study of primary texts: the accounts of Thomas Morton and William Bradford of Morton’s arrest and the consequent burning of Merrymount by the Puritans, as well as study of secondary texts, books and journal articles, written by other historians that draw different conclusions about Thomas Morton and the Merrymount Plantation.)

TRICK #1:  Don’t stay “stuck” with the first draft of your problem question. As you conduct your research, you will learn more and more about what you are studying and your understanding will become more sophisticated. Notice, for instance, that the research question listed above already assumes some familiarity with a fairly obscure moment in colonial history. Unless you’ve taken a class in Colonial History, you may have never heard of the Thomas Morton. So your first problem question might look more like this:

I am studying early colonies that were not Puritan in order to find out how if there were other colonies and colonists (not Puritans) who may have been forgotten in the standard histories, because I want my reader to understand the contributions these colonists made.

As you researched this much vaguer problem question, you might become interested in Merrymount or indentured servants or one of the non-British settlements in North American, such as the Spanish, Dutch, or Swedish settlers, which leads us to the next “trick”:

TRICK #2: As you research your problem question, it should become more focused; the topic should become narrower. For many of us, this sounds counter intuitive. That’s often because we are worried about meeting a length requirement, and we think that the broader the topic, the more we will have to write about. While a broad topic might give us more “words,” it won’t necessarily provide us something significant to say, that is a thesis or argument. And more importantly, it won’t give us a thesis or argument that we can support. In order to write about a broad subject, for instance, the Texas War of Independence, often means jumping from idea to idea so quickly that there is no time to provide the support (more about that later) that turns those ideas into arguments. So, as you’re researching, return to your problem question occasionally and revise it by making it more focused. For instance, we might take a problem question about the Texas War of Independence and refocus it on the Alamo, and then refocus it yet again on the Alamo “myth” vs. the history. Yet a tighter focus might be to ask why the Hispanic defenders of the Alamo are not included in the “myth.”

TRICK #3: Problem questions can be simple or complex. Often, the assignment itself will tell you whether you need a simple or complex problem question. Book reports, for instance, often require a simple problem question while a graduate-level seminar paper would probably require a complex problem question.

A simple problem question asks for facts. Assignments that are designed to teach research methods, that is, how to locate, read, and organize historical materials, might require a simple problem question. The emphasis in a simple problem question is on a "coherent account" and emphasizes strategies for finding historical facts and being able to convey those facts clearly and coherently. Often, a simple problem question requires finding out what other historians have already written about an event and reorganizing that material into your own account.

A complex problem question digs deeper than the facts. Many instructors, even at the most basic level, will want you to judge the factuality of various accounts and to interpret. The most complex problem questions often require that you analyze, synthesize, and interpret the facts rather than simply organize those facts. The emphasis in a complex problem question is a "patterned, coherent account."

These questions often require comparing various other interpretations of an event, both contemporary accounts and accounts by other historians. Compare the simple problem question about the impeachment trial of President Clinton to the two complex problem questions that follow:

SIMPLE: "Did Bill Clinton have sex with Monica Lewinsky?" This question might give you a page or two to write depending on how you answer Clinton's own question: "It depends on what you mean by sex." The question, however, is a factual one, and requires little or no exploration of what that fact means.

COMPLEX: "Did Bill Clinton's misconduct make him a bad president?" This question requires a deeper exploration of the facts—and organizing the facts into a "patterned, coherent account." This question leads to deeper questions of meaning, for instance, should the president of the United States be seen as a "role model" or an "administrator" whose private life does not affect their performance. Both of these positions were argued during the impeachment hearings.

COMPLEX: "How much did Bill Clinton's misconduct as President of the United States affect the ongoing power struggle between the president and congress?" This question requires placing the Clinton presidency in the context of presidential power, the role of the president and congress, the shift in power from congress to the president during the Reagan administration, and to what extent presidential power was set back by the trial.

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