We hope you enjoy Part 2 of this post from Cecile Badenhorst, Professor in the Adult Education/Post-Secondary program in the Faculty of Education at Memorial University, Canada. Cecile explains her approach to teaching postgraduates about research conceptualisation and how this can be woven into the writing.

How can we teach research conceptualization as a process as well as a written product?

In Part 1, we looked at the link between research conceptualization and writing.  In this post, we will focus on a technique to help students conceptualize their research which will then help them write. The research conceptualization technique that I have used in classroom practice with research students is well-known qualitative researcher Sharan Merriam’s (2009) Problem Purpose Statement and Questions (PPS&Q).  Feedback from students indicates that this technique is helpful in guiding them through the beginning stages of their research, as well as the later stages of keeping focused and on track conceptually. The PPS&Q provides scaffolding for making decisions as one sorts out the complexities of setting up a research project. It has specific components and there is an element of alignment where all the components are arranged and placed with coherence and logic.

The structure of the PPS&Q also contains an inherent flexibility.  Although it was developed as a research conceptualization tool within the framework of qualitative research, the components are portable and adaptable and have worked well with researchers working in other paradigms.

Right from the start, Merriam focuses on identifying the research problem as a first step since this allows students to narrow down a general curiosity to a researchable problem.  Once they have identified the key problem to research, the other elements of the PPS&Q can be thought through and developed.

The PPS&Q is a succinct document–no more than a page—that contains only the essential elements of a research project and how these elements relate to each other. It is a document that students can produce at the beginning of a project when their thoughts are as yet unformed and tentative. As they continue through the project, they can re-work the 1-page when necessary to accommodate for changing research ideas.  When ready, the PPS&Q can be expanded into a research proposal and later included in the Introduction section of their thesis or subsequent publications. 

Table 1: Problem Purpose Statements and Questions (Table created from Merriam, 2009)

ComponentConceptualization strategyExplanation
Problem statementArticulating the problem  The problem statement succinctly states the problem in one or two sentences.  This is the constructed articulation of the key problem the research will address. Other problems fall into the background.
 Knowledge gap  The problem statement also includes the knowledge gap.  What is known and not known about this topic? The knowledge gap is about referring to previous research, situating the study within it and providing a reason why the study adds to current research in this area.
 Context (research setting)  The problem statement includes a sentence or two that explains the research setting.  The context refers to the place, time, institution, environment, etc., in which the study takes place.  Without a context, the study is vague, and ungrounded. 
 Conceptual framework (optional)A sentence or two about the larger perspective that informs the research, the system of concepts, perspectives, beliefs or theories is included in the problem statement. This may not be relevant for all studies. 
 Evidence    The problem statement includes evidence from secondary literature to support the arguments outlined in identifying the problem, the knowledge gap and the conceptual framework.
 LogicEach research project will have its own logical progression; as such, the order of the above components will change accordingly.
Purpose statementStating the purpose of the research  This statement is the key conceptual paragraph that frames and guides the research.  The purpose statement for the research as a whole will direct and focus the entire project. Often the purpose statement changes through the research process and is then revised and refined.  Included in the purpose statement is the sentence:  The purpose of this research is to….  This sentence closes the knowledge gap identified in the problem statement.  The purpose statement establishes the broad goals of the research: to expose, explore, investigate, experiment, etc., implies the methodology and can be followed by a sentence or two expanding on the methodology.
Research QuestionsFraming the research intentions as questions    Framed as questions, these sentences unpack the research problem.  The questions give the reader some idea of the scope of the project because they indicate the size of the project and the area it will or will not cover. 

In Table 2, I have constructed an example to illustrate a PPS&Q.

Table 2: Example PPS&Q

Many doctoral students writing dissertations experience anxiety, particularly when receiving feedback on dissertations (context). There is huge emotional investment in writing feedback and for some students their whole sense of self is at stake (Caffarella and Barnett 2000; Young 2000). Yet feedback, particularly from supervisors, is an essential part of formative assessment for research students in their writing and in shaping their identity as scholars (Friedrich-Nel and Kinnon 2015). Feedback is often fundamental to learning, and to producing appropriate quality writing. It is also frequently problematic (problem).  Writing is emotional, and despite a growing field of research that attests to this (Burford 2017), emotions are often not explicitly recognized as part of the doctoral student writing journey.  Little is known about the impact of these emotions on writing after receiving feedback (knowledge gap). Set within a framework of an ethic of care (Robinson 2011) that focuses attention on interpersonal relationships and a relational ontology (conceptual framework), the purpose of the research was to explore the emotions doctoral students experience when they receive feedback on their dissertation writing (purpose statement).  Through in-depth interviews with 13 doctoral students, this project aimed to investigate: 1) What emotions doctoral students experienced when receiving feedback? 2) How were these emotions perceived by doctoral students? 3) What was the impact of these emotions on their writing? (Research questions).

The PPS&Q is not meant to be used as a fixed template but rather a guide that is adapted to specific topics, paradigms and disciplines.

Teaching the PPS&Q

This is how I incorporate the PPS&Q into teaching:

  1. The first step in the process is to explain all the components of the PPS&Q to a new student. Their first task is to think about a research problem. I encourage them to spend a week writing down all the research problems related to their topic. Once they have a list, they can begin to narrow down the research problems according to interest, pragmatics, or any other relevant criteria. At the beginning of a project, I encourage them to keep thinking about several research problems and discourage quick decision making.
  • Once they have a research problem, articulated as a problem, they begin to fill in the other components of the PPS&Q. Since the whole piece is one page, they will write a sentence or two for each component. If the PPS&Q is longer than a page, the student has to rework it until it fits on a page. This gets them to focus on what is key to the research. Most students find the knowledge gap difficult because they possibly have not read enough at that point. I emphasize that this one-page document is a work-in progress, so it can be adapted and changed.
  • Once they have something, no matter how unfinished and rough, I divide students into groups of three (if I’m teaching a course) and ask each student to read their PPS&Q aloud. The others in the group are not allowed to comment on the proposed research. All they do is to repeat back to the reader what the various components are. For example, a listener might say: “So your research problem is in the second sentence”. If this is correct, then the writer knows that their research problem is clear. If not, they have to rework their articulation of the problem. As a supervisor, I play the role of listener and the student reads out their PPS&Q to me.
  • Students re-work the PPS&Q until they (and their supervisors) feel they have reached the level of depth and clarity they want. At that point, they expand the PPS&Q into the Research Proposal by developing each of the components into sections. The problem and context, as well as the PPS&Q, gets expanded into the Introduction section of the proposal, the knowledge gap becomes the literature review, the purpose statement becomes the methodology.

I have created videos are available on YouTube that explain the PPS&Q in more detail: Research basics; Conceptualizing research: Problem purpose statements and questions (PPS&Q); Problem formulation and gap setting; Problem Purpose Statement & Questions (PPS&Q) tips.

Merriam’s (2009) PPS&Q provides a useful stepping-stone to developing the Problem Statement, and towards writing the Research Proposal.  The PPS&Q is flexible, adaptable and accessible to students.  As a pre-writing process, the PPS&Q allows students to grapple with the complexities of problem formulation and gap-spotting from the start of their research projects and to transfer their research conceptualization into writing when they develop their Research Proposals and other chapters. 

Yet, there is a caution that needs to be noted. Although genres illustrate fairly consistent rhetorical features, conventions differ greatly with different contexts, languages, and audiences, even win the same field (Yayli & Canagarajah 2014).  Using Merriam’s (2009) PPS&Q allows us to make the invisible nature of thesis writing genres visible but we also need to encourage a critical awareness in students to see the key role disciplinary contexts play in shaping the rhetorical and textual features of research texts. I would be interested to hear if anyone has alternative methods of helping students conceptualize their research.  If you do, or would like to add anything to this discussion, please comment below.


Badenhorst, C.M. (2021). Research conceptualization in doctoral and masters research writing. Writing & Pedagogy, 12 (2-3), 423-444. https://journal.equinoxpub.com/WAP/article/view/19542

Ellis, T. J., & Levy, Y. (2008). Framework of problem-based research: A guide for novice researchers on the development of a research-worthy problem. Informing Science: International Journal of an Emerging Transdiscipline, (11), 17-33. https://doi.org/10.28945/3288

Jacobs, R.L. (2013). Developing a dissertation research problem: A guide for doctoral students in human resource development and adult education. New Horizons in Adult Education and Human Resource Development 25(3), 03-117. https://doi.org/10.1002/nha3.20034

Lim, J. M-H., Loi, C-K., Hashim, A. & Liu, M. S-M. (2015). Purpose statements in experimental doctoral dissertations submitted to U.S. universities: An inquiry into doctoral students’ communicative resources in language education. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, (20), 69-89. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jeap.2015.06.002

Luse, A., Mennecke, B., & Townsend, A. (2012). Selecting a research topic: A framework for doctoral students, International Journal of Doctoral Studies (7), 143-152. https://doi.org/10.28945/1572

Merriam, S.B. (2009). Qualitative research, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Paré, A. (2018). Thinking rhetorically: A pragmatic approach to texts. In S. Carter and D. Laurs (Eds.), Developing research writing (pp.224-231), Routledge.

Yayli, D., & Canagarajah, A.S., (2014). A missing move and an emergent step: Variation in the RA introductions of two composition journals.  The Reading Matrix, 14(1), 95-111. https://readingmatrix.com/articles/april_2014/yayli_canagarajah.pdf