Writing The Discussion Section Of A Qualitative Research Paper

The discussion section is a very important part of your dissertation or research paper. It is also one of the most difficult parts to write, and sometimes the longest. Yet, many students write it in a rushed manner. Eager to reach the finishing line, they miss the opportunity to fully explore their findings and put them in the context of other research in the field. The first rule that applies to writing your discussion is therefore to allow enough time to give it the credit that it deserve. Your discussion section allows you to take a fresh perspective on your findings, so you can dig deep and provide new and original ideas from your research.

Here are some of the common mistakes people make when writing their discussion section:

  • Simply repeating their results section, with little reference to existing literature.
  • Making conclusions that cannot be made from their data — you need to be able to differentiate between strong and weak results (do not exaggerate your findings).
  • Focusing too much on the limitations of the study, which can make readers question the relevance of the work. In contrast, some can completely forget to acknowledge the limitations of their study.
  • Repeating what was already said in the introduction without linking it to the results.
  • Providing no conclusions.
  • Introducing topics that were not covered by the study’s results/findings.

To avoid these mistakes, bear in mind that in your discussion section you are expected to interpret and explain your results, link them to other studies, answer your research question(s) and evaluate your study. You can consider following this sequence: (1) refer to your research question; (2) provide the answer; (3) justify it with relevant results; (4) link your work to the work of others.

Your discussion section is a review of your findings, and it should show you really understand them. It is generally written in the present tense, and can have subheadings to make it easier to read.

The following strategies can help you draft a good discussion:

  • Explain how your findings/results relate to what is already known in the field as well as to what you expected to find. You should refer back to your introduction and establish if what you found was consistent with the existing literature, or if it was somewhat unexpected or controversial.
  • If your findings were unexpected and/or contradictory, you need to explain why you think that was. Did your sampling method contribute to it? Or your choice of methodology? At this point, make sure you have sufficiently justified your methodological decisions in the methodology part of your thesis. Unusual findings can be good, but they might also elicit more questions from the committee and other readers, so make sure you have all the answers.
  • Try to show both sides of your argument. Be your own devil’s advocate. This will give your conclusions more credence.
  • Again, somewhere in your discussion section show that you are aware of the limitations of your study.
  • Provide one or two recommendations for future research or follow-up studies.
  • Make sure you address all your results, including those that were not statistically significant.
  • You might also want to revisit your introduction section at this point and put more emphasis on studies that have proven relevant for the interpretation of your results.

What is the difference between a discussion section and your conclusion?

There are some similarities between the terms discussion and conclusion in academic writing. These two terms usually represent two separate concepts. While you might have noticed some similarities between the two, they both generally have a different purpose. The discussion is a detailed presentation of your findings and provides scientific back-up for your arguments. It explains your findings and interprets them in context of previous work, as well as provides some suggestions for future research. The conclusion, on the other hand, is generally brief and provides just the main points of your dissertation; i.e. the take-home message. It can be seen as a summary of your discussion and tells the reader why your research matters. For a more thorough description of the term conclusion as it applies to academic writing, you can refer to this post. If you decide to combine these two concepts, it is important that you cover all of your required topics in a systematic way. At all times, cultivate creative thinking and make sure you are telling the reader a coherent narrative that is hopefully making them excited about your results.

This article gives doctoral dissertation students valuable guidance on how to go about writing their Discussion chapter. The article starts by outlining the main goals and writing approaches. Then the article explains 12 specific steps to take to write an effective Discussion chapter.

Discussion Chapter: Main Goals and Writing Approaches

You should always keep in mind the main goals when writing your Discussion chapter. These include stating your interpretations, declaring your opinions, explaining the effects of your findings, and making suggestions and predictions for future research.

With the main goals mentioned, it is interesting to note how to go about writing this chapter. To do this, follow three important suggestions:

  • Answer those questions posed in the introduction (central research questions)
  • Show how the answers are supported by the results
  • Explain how the answers fit relative to the existing body of knowledge about the subject

Keep in mind that the Discussion chapter can be considered the most important part of your dissertation. Therefore, don’t be surprised if you may need more than one writing attempt for this chapter.

The 12 Steps to an Effective Discussion Chapter

To make sure your message remains crystal-clear, the Discussion chapter should be short and sweet, but it should fully state, support, elaborate, explain, and defend your conclusions. Take great care to ensure the writing is a commentary and not simply a regurgitation of results. Side (distracting) issues should not be written about because they will cloud the essence of your message. There is no perfect dissertation, but help your reader determine what the facts are and what is speculation.

Here are 12 steps to keep in mind when writing your Discussion Chapter:

  1. Always try to structure your Discussion chapter from the ‘specific’ to the ‘general’: expand and transition from the narrow confines of your study to the general framework of your discipline.
  2. Make a consistent effort to stick with the same general tone of the introduction. This means using the same key terms, the same tense, and the same point of view as used in your introduction.
  3. Start by rewriting your research questions and re-stating your hypothesis (if any) that you previously posed in your introduction. Then declare the answers to your research questions – make sure to support these answers with the findings of your dissertation.
  4. Continue by explaining how your results relate to the expectations of your study and to literature. Clearly explain why these results are acceptable and how they consistently fit in with previously published knowledge about the subject. Be sure to use relevant citations.
  5. Make sure to give the proper attention for all the results relating to your research questions, this is regardless of whether or not the findings were statistically significant.
  6. Don’t forget to tell your audience about the patterns, principles, and key relationships shown by each of your major findings and then put them into perspective. The sequencing of this information is important: 1) state the answer, 2) show the relevant results and 3) cite the work of credible sources. When necessary, point the audience to figures and/or graphs to ‘enhance’ your argument.
  7. Make sure to defend your answers. Try to do so in two ways: by explaining the validity of your answer and by showing the shortcomings of others’ answers. You will make your point of view more convincing if you give both sides to the argument.
  8. Also make sure to identify conflicting data in your work. Make a good point of discussing and evaluating any conflicting explanations of your results. This is an effective way to win over your audience and make them sympathetic to any true knowledge your study might have to offer.
  9. Make sure to include a discussion of any unexpected findings. When doing this, begin with a paragraph about the finding and then describe it. Also identify potential limitations and weaknesses inherent in your study. Then comment on the importance of these limitations to the interpretation of your findings and how they may impact their validity. Do not use an apologetic tone in this section. Every study has limitations.
  10. Conduct a brief summary of the principal implications of your findings (do this regardless of any statistical significance). Make sure to provide 1-2 recommendations for potential research in the future.
  11. Show how the results of your study and their conclusions are significant and how they impact our understanding of the problem(s) that your dissertation examines.
  12. On a final note, discuss everything this is relevant but be brief, specific, and to the point.

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