What’s the Difference Between a Research Problem and a Clinical Problem?

Difference Between Research and Clinical Problems

Many graduates and other students confuse the terms “clinical problem” and “research problem.” It is understandable but they are not one and the same. There is an important distinction that has practical implications for people interested in engaging in research.

Clinical problems often inform research problems but they are not synonymous. Clinical problems relate to the day-to-day work that one does. For instance, a teacher who has several students with reading difficulties without a clear plan to assist them is a clinical problem.

A research problem is a statement that describes an important area that needs to be addressed but has not been sufficiently investigated and understood by the scholarly literature. In other words, researchers have not clarified the particular problem through adequate empirical study. Research problems include areas that have any of the following characteristics (not limited to these):

  • Controversial findings
  • Dearth of study
  • Mixed results
  • Poor quality research studies

Of course, a research problem must be important from an educational, social, economic, health, or another relevant perspective. It is critical to address the research problem/clinical problem distinction because one can have a clinical problem that is not a research problem. If a particular clinical problem is not a research problem then doing a study about the clinical problem is likely not justified. That’s right, there is no real reason to study the clinical problem further.

Let’s say that you have students in your elementary class who are having significant problems reading. Well, the Response to Intervention (RTI) approach has been shown to help these kinds of students. So to address your clinical problem you implement an RTI intervention that has empirical support.

That’s pretty much it. It will likely have some effectiveness if implemented correctly and your problem will be resolved. End of story.

However, let’s say you wanted to figure out how to use general education instruction for all the students in the classroom, not just the ones having difficulty. That’s where the RTI literature falls short in terms of offering a clear direction for clinical action.

So you have a research problem because the literature is unclear about what to do. Therefore, this particular area could be worthy of additional research and could make an important study or possibly a dissertation.

In the video above I also used an example of a recently published experimental study of a Social-Emotional program by Rimm-Kaufman et al. (2014) to illustrate my point. Their paper is available online along with a brief video describing their work.

During every academic term, this issue comes up with my research, evaluation, and dissertation students so I thought it worthy of further attention.

Let me know what you think by leaving a comment.


James Pann smiling at the camera, sitting in front of green trees

James Pann, Ph.D. is a Professor at Nova Southeast University and a highly experienced psychologist and evaluator with nearly 25 years of experience. He conducts research and evaluation projects with non-profit organizations in the fields of health, human services, and education, and has received funding from multiple government agencies.

James holds multiple degrees including a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology, an M.S. Ed. from the University of Miami, and a BBA in Accounting from the University of Texas at Austin. He is also the host of the EvalNetwork podcast, a frequent conference presenter, and has published several peer-reviewed research articles and co-authored a book. James currently resides in Miami, Florida with his family and enjoys backpacking trips. Find out more about his work here.


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