How to write a discussion section
The discussion chapter is where you delve into the meaning, importance and relevance of your results. It should focus on explaining and evaluating what you found, showing how it relates to your literature review and research questions, and making an argument in support of your overall conclusion. There are many different ways to write this section, but you can focus your discussion around four key elements:
- Interpretations: what do the results mean?
- Implications: why do the results matter?
- Limitations: what can’t the results tell us?
- Recommendations: what practical actions or scientific studies should follow?
There is often overlap between the discussion and conclusion, and in some dissertations these two sections are included in a single chapter. Occasionally, the results and discussion will be combined into one chapter. If you’re unsure of the best structure for your research, look at sample dissertations in your field or consult your supervisor.
Summarise your key findings
Start this chapter by reiterating your problem statement and research questions and concisely summarising your major findings. Don’t just repeat all the data you have already reported – aim for a clear statement of the overall result that directly answers your main research question. This should be no more than one paragraph.
- The results indicate that…
- The study demonstrates a correlation between…
- The analysis confirms…
- The data suggests that…
Give your interpretations
The meaning of the results might seem obvious to you, but it’s important to spell out their significance for the reader and show exactly how they answer your research questions.
The form of your interpretations will depend on the type of research, but some typical approaches to interpreting the data include:
- Identifying correlations, patterns and relationships among the data
- Discussing whether the results met your expectations or supported your hypotheses
- Contextualising your findings within previous research and theory
- Explaining unexpected results and evaluating their significance
- Considering possible alternative explanations and making an argument for your position
You can organise your discussion around key themes, hypotheses or research questions, following the same structure as your results section. You can also begin by highlighting the most significant or unexpected results.
- In line with the hypothesis…
- Contrary to the hypothesised association…
- The results contradict the claims of Smith (2007) that…
- The results might suggest that X. However, based on the findings of similar studies, a more plausible explanation is Y.
Discuss the implications
As well as giving your own interpretations, make sure to relate your results back to the scholarly work that you surveyed in the literature review. The discussion should show how your findings fit with existing knowledge, what new insights they contribute, and what consequences they have for theory or practice. Ask yourself these questions:
- Do your results agree with previous research? If so, what do they add to it?
- Are your findings very different from other studies? If so, why might this be?
- Do the results confirm or challenge existing theories?
- Are there any practical implications?
Your overall aim is to show the reader exactly what your research has contributed and why they should care.
- These results build on existing evidence of…
- The results do not fit with the theory that…
- The experiment provides a new insight into the relationship between…
- These results should be taken into account when considering how to…
- The data contributes a clearer understanding of…
- While previous research has focused on X, these results demonstrate that Y.
Acknowledge the limitations
Even the best research has some limitations, and acknowledging these is important to demonstrate your credibility. Limitations aren’t about listing your errors, but about providing an accurate picture of what can and cannot be concluded from your study.
Limitations might be due to your overall research design, specific methodological choices, or unanticipated obstacles that emerged during the research process. You should only mention limitations that are directly relevant to your research objectives, and evaluate how much impact they had on achieving the aims of the research.
For example, if your sample size was small or limited to a specific group of people, note that this limits its generalisability. If you encountered problems when gathering or analysing data, describe these and explain how they influenced the results.
After noting the limitations, you can reiterate why the results are nonetheless valid for the purpose of answering your research questions.
- The generalisability of the results is limited by…
- The reliability of this data is impacted by…
- Due to the lack of available data, the results cannot confirm…
- The methodological choices were constrained by…
- It is beyond the scope of this study to…
State your recommendations
Based on the discussion of your results, you can make recommendations for practical implementation or further research. Sometimes the recommendations appear in the conclusion.
Suggestions for further research can lead directly from the limitations. Don’t just state that more studies should be done – give concrete ideas for how future work can build on areas that your own research was unable to address.
- Further research is needed to establish…
- Future studies should take into account…
What to leave out of the discussion
There are a few common mistakes to avoid when writing the discussion section of your dissertation.
- Don’t introduce new results – you should only discuss the data that you have already reported in the results chapter.
- Don’t make inflated claims – avoid overinterpretation and speculation that isn’t supported by your data.
- Don’t undermine your research – the discussion of limitations should aim to strengthen your credibility, not emphasise weaknesses or failures.
As there is not always a clear separation between the discussion and the conclusion, we have combined them into one checklist. Most of these components can appear in both sections.