This handout (inspired by the Little Red Schoolhouse approach) explains how to frame a conceptual problem in a paper’s introduction. Students may use this handout to consider the discrete rhetorical moves an introduction involves, especially when creating research problems of their own in WR 15x. 


To help students reflect on the key elements of framing a problem engagingly in order to motivate readers to care about what they’re arguing; to review together an example (in this case, drawn loosely from conversations about the purpose and identity of higher education) and prompt students to reflect on how this example might connect to their own projects.

Key Terms

introduction; problem; question


Step 1: Begin by establishing an element of common ground for your readers.

  • Example: Contemporary high schools emphasize college attendance as the goal for most students. They demonstrate this emphasis through the development of an increasing number of college prep programs and through the consideration of statistics on how many graduates go on to college as a metric for a high school’s “success.”
  • Analysis: This statement serves as common ground because it is likely that very few people would disagree with this statement, especially not the parents, students, or educators who might make up our audience.

Step 2: Continue by offering a problem or complication of which readers may may not already be aware. This problem serves as a destabilizing moment, making readers no longer certain about the common ground.

  • Example: But, in 2006, the Wall Street Journal  published an article that suggested that “skilled [manual] labor is becoming one of the sure paths to a good living.”
  • Analysis: This new piece of information complicates what our audience understands about the contemporary experience of education leading to work.

Step 3: To continue to convince our readers that our conceptual problem is important, we must present the potential consequences if this problem is not resolved, or the rationale for why this problem matters.

  • Example: If we don’t further examine this conflict, our nation’s educational system could be preparing a generation of students for jobs that will be extremely scarce when these students enter the workforce.
  • Analysis: This explanation of the potential consequences gives our audience a chance to see why it is vital that we explore the problem, and how the problem might relate to themselves or students they know.

Step 4: Lastly, we need to propose a solution that demonstrates that there is still something that can be done to forestall the potential consequences–a potential claim, in other words.

  • Example: In addition to rigorous college prep, high schools must   reinvigorate trade studies to better prepare students for a wider variety of employment possibilities.
  • Analysis: Proposing a possible solution completes our problem by offering one way to solve it. The argument now has a direction from our perspective, but it still has room for others to propose their own solutions.