Research Components

6 Background to the Problem

The story continues…

When Harry recognized the predicament he was now in, he turned to the “know it all” friend, Google. Everything Harry found was pointing toward what he already thought: Siamese cats are a “nuclear” option against mice. Harry Googled, “nuclear option.” Google returned “the most drastic or extreme response possible to a particular situation” (Oxford Languages). Well, Harry thought, there must be something wrong with Pickles, or maybe there is something different about my mice, or…. Maybe I should ask Physicus, my very smart neighbor.

Harry’s neighbor, Physicus, taught research to doctoral students at the local university. Whenever Harry would ask Physicus a question, the neighbor would take a quick pause and then reply, “Well, it depends.” For Physicus, there was always more than one answer to any question.

Physicus met Harry in his pajamas with a cup of coffee and something rolled in a Dunkin’ Donuts napkin. Physicus gestured, “Please, Harry, come in.  Have a cup of coffee and a pumpkin Munchkin. I have some super sharp cheese for you, too. What’s up?”

“My cat, Pickles, does not catch mice, and the mice ate my favorite cheese again,” replied Harry, “And Pickles is a Siamese!”

“Really?” Physicus sounded excited, “So, why do you think Pickles doesn’t catch mice?”

Harry looked right into Physicus’ eyes and replied, “I guess… it depends.” Since this was Physicus’ answer to any question, Harry wanted to entice his help using his own words. The strategy worked! Physicus grabbed his laptop and pressed the power button.

“I have already searched Google about my problem with Pickles,” said Harry.

“Oh, your good friend Google,” Physicus mumbled, “Let us see what science tells us about your cat!”

Interpreting the Story

Harry recognizes that there is no available answer for explaining why Pickles is not catching the mice. Let’s consider some of the facts. Cats catch mice. Siamese cats were bred to catch mice and have done it for centuries. Pickles is distinctly Siamese and there are plenty of mice.  What is known about Siamese cats suggests this situation should not be a problem. Systematically reviewing the problem helps to determine the objective facts about it, possible ways to understand it, and possible avenues to solve it.

The Background

The role of the Background component in research projects is to provide the context and history of the research problem. It explains how the problem arose. Educational problems do not appear out of anywhere. The Background narrative provides the history, context, and evidence the problem actually exists. It also defines the features of the problem and factors contributing to the problem and provides evidence to show the problem is current.

The Background narrative details the context of the problem. The context is important in determining later components of the research project. As in writing a fictional story, “setting the stage” is a key element in the research story too. The context includes the educational setting, characters, and circumstances surrounding the problem. The educational setting explains the institution, e.g., community college, elementary school, alternative school, corporation, etc. The setting also details where the problem is occurring, such as in a chemistry classroom, throughout a district, or in online corporate training sessions. The description should be clear and detailed enough that a set designer or prop master could replicate the scene.

The characters in the research story are the students, instructors, administrators, or institutions. A clear description of the characters involved is required. Specificity in describing the characters is essential to understanding the research problem. Identifying the specific features of the characters provides the reader with a picture of who is in the story and how they relate to the problem.

Educating elementary children is quite different from educating adults. The roles and perspectives of instructors and administrators vary from each other, as well. Specifics, such as second-graders in a low SES urban elementary school, first-generation Latinx college students, and new building principals in an affluent district, are important because they impact the context of the research story differently.

The last element in the context is a comprehensive description of the circumstances the characters find themselves in at the current time. An explanation of the situation surrounding the research problem provides an “opening scene” for the research story. Details about how and when the problem occurs are part of the description. Consider when the problem occurs, e.g., yearly testing sessions, weekly board meetings, or reading groups. Identify to what extent or frequency the problem is observed, e.g., 90% dropout rate, exhibiting no motivation, or daily disciplinary visits to the principal.

In addition to the context, the Background narrative includes the history of and contributing factors to the problem. The events or relevant conditions leading up to the problem are explained in this heading. Determining the contributing factors can be a complicated endeavor. There are many variables to consider. The same educational problem can be studied in a variety of ways by investigating different contributing factors. The contributing factors of the problem are identified and supported with cited evidence to show there is a current problem. This evidence may be statistical trends, recent data, or previously published research findings.

Overall, the Background narrative provides a thorough explanation of why the problem is an educational concern and how it came to be by showing the progression of the problem to the current time. This requires proving there is an educational problem needing attention and demonstrating a gap in research exists. The Background narrative is supported with cited evidence to show the problem has current educational significance, and further, why the problem must be addressed.


Telling the Research Story

The Background explains the setting (context), the conflict (problem or problem of practice), the history and contributing factors, and the “opening scene.” The Background story can be told in a variety of ways, however, the elements must be there. Often, the Background is written by presenting the problem (conflict in the story) first, followed by the history, contributing factors, context (setting), and then the opening scene (current situation). In other cases, the context and the current situation is presented first, followed by the history and contributing factors, and ending with the problem statement.

The Background heading appears in Chapter 1 of the thesis, dissertation, and capstone projects. The heading tells the beginning of the story including the setting, characters, rising tension, and conflict. The Background sets up the research story. Your writing should draw the reader into the story, and inspire the reader to join your research journey.

A stand-alone literature review usually does not have a Background heading. Instead, the published research findings related to the history and contributing factors are presented within the literature review project. Often the background research is found at the beginning of a literature review as it sets up the research story told within this type of research project.


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Graduate Research in Education: Learning the Research Story by Kimberly Chappell and Greg I. Voykhansky is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.