When writing a dissertation or thesis, the results and discussion sections can be both the most interesting as well as the most challenging sections to write.
You may choose to write these sections separately, or combine them into a single chapter, depending on your university’s guidelines and your own preferences.
There are advantages to both approaches.
Writing the results and discussion as separate sections allows you to focus first on what results you obtained and set out clearly what happened in your experiments and/or investigations without worrying about their implications.
This can focus your mind on what the results actually show and help you to sort them in your head.
However, many people find it easier to combine the results with their implications as the two are closely connected.
Check your university’s requirements carefully before combining the results and discussions sections as some specify that they must be kept separate.
The Results section should set out your key experimental results, including any statistical analysis and whether or not the results of these are significant.
You should cover any literature supporting your interpretation of significance. It does not have to include everything you did, particularly for a doctorate dissertation. However, for an undergraduate or master's thesis, you will probably find that you need to include most of your work.
You should write your results section in the past tense: you are describing what you have done in the past.
Every result included MUST have a method set out in the methods section. Check back to make sure that you have included all the relevant methods.
Conversely, every method should also have some results given so, if you choose to exclude certain experiments from the results, make sure that you remove mention of the method as well.
If you are unsure whether to include certain results, go back to your research questions and decide whether the results are relevant to them. It doesn’t matter whether they are supportive or not, it’s about relevance. If they are relevant, you should include them.
Having decided what to include, next decide what order to use. You could choose chronological, which should follow the methods, or in order from most to least important in the answering of your research questions, or by research question and/or hypothesis.
You also need to consider how best to present your results: tables, figures, graphs, or text. Try to use a variety of different methods of presentation, and consider your reader: 20 pages of dense tables are hard to understand, as are five pages of graphs, but a single table and well-chosen graph that illustrate your overall findings will make things much clearer.
Make sure that each table and figure has a number and a title. Number tables and figures in separate lists, but consecutively by the order in which you mention them in the text. If you have more than about two or three, it’s often helpful to provide lists of tables and figures alongside the table of contents at the start of your dissertation.
Summarise your results in the text, drawing on the figures and tables to illustrate your points.
The text and figures should be complementary, not repeat the same information. You should refer to every table or figure in the text. Any that you don’t feel the need to refer to can safely be moved to an appendix, or even removed.
Make sure that you including information about the size and direction of any changes, including percentage change if appropriate. Statistical tests should include details of p values or confidence intervals and limits.
While you don’t need to include all your primary evidence in this section, you should as a matter of good practice make it available in an appendix, to which you should refer at the relevant point.
Details of all the interview participants can be found in Appendix A, with transcripts of each interview in Appendix B.
You will, almost inevitably, find that you need to include some slight discussion of your results during this section. This discussion should evaluate the quality of the results and their reliability, but not stray too far into discussion of how far your results support your hypothesis and/or answer your research questions, as that is for the discussion section.
See our pages: Analysing Qualitative Data and Simple Statistical Analysis for more information on analysing your results.
This section has four purposes, it should:
- Interpret and explain your results
- Answer your research question
- Justify your approach
- Critically evaluate your study
The discussion section therefore needs to review your findings in the context of the literature and the existing knowledge about the subject.
You also need to demonstrate that you understand the limitations of your research and the implications of your findings for policy and practice. This section should be written in the present tense.
The Discussion section needs to follow from your results and relate back to your literature review. Make sure that everything you discuss is covered in the results section.
Some universities require a separate section on recommendations for policy and practice and/or for future research, while others allow you to include this in your discussion, so check the guidelines carefully.
Starting the Task
Most people are likely to write this section best by preparing an outline, setting out the broad thrust of the argument, and how your results support it.
You may find techniques like mind mapping are helpful in making a first outline; check out our page: Creative Thinking for some ideas about how to think through your ideas. You should start by referring back to your research questions, discuss your results, then set them into the context of the literature, and then into broader theory.
This is likely to be one of the longest sections of your dissertation, and it’s a good idea to break it down into chunks with sub-headings to help your reader to navigate through the detail.
Fleshing Out the Detail
Once you have your outline in front of you, you can start to map out how your results fit into the outline.
This will help you to see whether your results are over-focused in one area, which is why writing up your research as you go along can be a helpful process. For each theme or area, you should discuss how the results help to answer your research question, and whether the results are consistent with your expectations and the literature.
The Importance of Understanding Differences
If your results are controversial and/or unexpected, you should set them fully in context and explain why you think that you obtained them.
Your explanations may include issues such as a non-representative sample for convenience purposes, a response rate skewed towards those with a particular experience, or your own involvement as a participant for sociological research.
You do not need to be apologetic about these, because you made a choice about them, which you should have justified in the methodology section. However, you do need to evaluate your own results against others’ findings, especially if they are different. A full understanding of the limitations of your research is part of a good discussion section.
At this stage, you may want to revisit your literature review, unless you submitted it as a separate submission earlier, and revise it to draw out those studies which have proven more relevant.
Conclude by summarising the implications of your findings in brief, and explain why they are important for researchers and in practice, and provide some suggestions for further work.
You may also wish to make some recommendations for practice. As before, this may be a separate section, or included in your discussion.
The results and discussion, including conclusion and recommendations, are probably the most substantial sections of your dissertation. Once completed, you can begin to relax slightly: you are on to the last stages of writing!
On Twitter this week two people asked me for advice for starting the discussion chapter of their thesis / dissertation (I’m going to use the word thesis from now on because I am Australian). I didn’t feel up to answering in 140 characters or less, so I promised a post on it today.
If you are feeling anxious about the discussion section rest assured you are not alone. It’s an issue that comes up time and time again in my workshops. There’s no one answer that can help everyone because every project is original, so I thought I would offer a few thoughts on it by way of starting a conversation.
Evans, Gruba and Zobel, in their book “How to Write a Better Thesis”, describe the discussion chapter as the place where you:
“… critically examine your findings in the light of the previous state of the subject as outlined in the background, and make judgments as to what has been learnt in your work”
Essentially the discussion chapter tells your reader what your findings might mean, how valuable they are and why. I remember struggling with this section myself and, looking back, I believe there were two sources of anxiety.
The first is scholarly confidence. At the University of Melbourne we used to talk about how a good thesis has a ‘Ph Factor’. The Ph factor is somewhat elusive and hard to describe, but basically it means you have to make some knowledge claims. You need to have the confidence to say something is ‘true’ (at least, without getting too post modern about it, true within the confines of your thesis). This can feel risky because, if you have been approaching the thesis in the right spirit, you are likely to be experiencing Doubt.
The second source of anxiety is the need to think creatively. Most of the rest of the thesis asks us to think analytically; or, if you are in a practice based discipline, to make stuff; or perhaps, if you are an ethnographer, to observe the world in some way. Creative thinking involves your imagination, which means you have to switch gears mentally.
So the problem of the discussion chapter is a problem of creative thinking and confidence, but there are some stylistic conventions and knowledge issues that complicate the task. Every thesis needs to have discussion like elements, but they may do it in different ways.
In a conventional thesis, what we call the IMRAD type (introduction, methods, results, discussion and conclusion) the discussion chapter appears a discrete chapter. Before you worry about the discussion chapter too much, consider whether you need to treat the discussion as a separate section at all. You need to keep in mind that the IMRAD structure is best used to write up empirical research work (the type where you collect data of some kind).
In the past I have referred to the IMRAD formula as the ‘dead hand of the thesis genre’; a phrase I picked up from my colleague Dr Robyn Barnacle. It’s a dead hand because of the role it plays in the imagination of the research community throughout the world. The IMRAD formula is the most widely understood format because it is the type most widely described in the ‘how to’ genre and has a close and abiding relationship to the scientific method. Many students try to make their research fit into the IMRAD format, when it is not appropriate to do so.
I can be easy to feel ‘blocked’ if you are a non scientist trying to separate out the discussion from the rest of what you are writing. Remember there are many ways to skin the discussion cat. For example, an artist may discuss each project and what it means separately. An ethnographer might devote a chapter to each theory they have built from observation. Likewise a historian may break the thesis up into time periods and do critique and evaluation throughout the whole.
So I have diagnosed some of the problems, are there any easy solutions? Well, the best way to start in my view is just to write, but perhaps start to write without the specific purpose of the discussion chapter in mind. Write to try and work out what you think and then re-write it later.
You can use a couple of basic techniques to help you with this process:
- Try the old ‘compare and contrast’ technique. Draw up a table describing where your work is similar to others and where it differs. Use each of these points as a prompt to write a short paragraph on why.
- Use the “The big machine” trick as suggested by Howard Becker in his book ‘tricks of the trade’ (now only $3.99 on Kindle? Bargain!). Pretend your results are produced by a machine then describe the machine. How would the machine work? What would it look like? What parts would it need? What might make the machine break?
- Another useful suggestion from Howard Becker is the null hypothesis technique; write down why the results mean nothing. Sometimes forcing yourself to argue the reverse position can highlight the relationships or ideas worth exploring.
- Sometimes having an audience can help. Explain the results to a friend and record yourself, or use voice recognition software to tell your computer some of your preliminary thoughts. Many people find talking an easier way to get ideas out. Alternatively write them in an email to someone.
- Explain the limitations of the work: what is left out or yet to do? Sometimes, like the null hypothesis, talking about the limitations can help you better define the contribution your study has made.
I hope some of these suggestions help to get you started. Do you have any more? Are there ‘tricks’ you have used to help you get your creative juices flowing?
The Dead Hand of the Thesis Genre?
Ambivalence: can it help with your PhD?