The discussion and conclusion
- What is the difference between discussion and conclusion?
- Content order of final thesis chapter
- The research 'implications'
- Research limitations
- Linking the introduction and the conclusion
- Going out with a 'bang'
- Writing the thesis title
This topic within this series of resources on thesis, exegesis and journal article writing in the social sciences, humanities and business focuses on the discussion and the conclusion. The goal of this final step in the research story line is to highlight the importance of the argument or thesis proposition, to draw together the final concluding remarks, point to future directions and implications of the research finding or argument, and to leave a lasting impression in the reader's mind.
The difference between the discussion and the conclusion is one of inference. The discussion section 'discusses', or compares and contrasts the results with other results. Conclusions are more speculative in tone, exploring the possible implications of the results, inferences that may be drawn from results, and what those inferences imply about the theories, methodologies used, or perhaps for the field of practice or policy, or for new questions that need to be answered.
Of course distinctions between results, discussions and conclusions may not be so clear in practice. In conceptual or more scholarly research there are often no 'results' sections or chapters, rather evidence is submitted to build an original take on a problem space in the middle thesis chapters or main body. This evidence might include presentation and interpretation of empirical data, but it might also involve presentation and interpretation of other academic authors, such as in research or scholarship which is based on an original critical analysis of existing scholarship. This kind of research would be typical say in philosophy, literary studies or perhaps law, but it could also occur in many other disciplines. In this type of writing, a comparison and contrast of other authors' work with the analysis of the author occurs within the main body of the thesis, exegesis or journal article. For this reason, scholarly writing may simply have a conclusion chapter, and no separate 'discussion' chapter or section. In much social science writing, empirical data, perhaps especially qualitative data, is also reported and interpreted within a discussion of other authors' texts in the main body. Instances of this are presented in the previous topic on results writing. Here again, there may be no need to write a separate discussion section because other writing in the field has already been discussed in the main body chapters.
Decisions about where to compare and contrast findings with other work in the field will often have implications for the length of conclusions. If there is not a discussion section or chapter, conclusions may be a little longer because more space is needed to lay out and discuss, or compare and contrast, conclusions with other findings, a step that did not occur in results chapters. In writing in which a contrast between the writer's conclusions and the conclusions of other authors is provided in the main body, conclusions may be shorter in length.
The conclusion or last chapter of the thesis contains the following:
- a restatement of the main argument or findings, as well as perhaps the question or uncertainty in the literature that justified the study;
- a concise summary of the methodology and evidence provided that supported the main argument and finding (altogether this should not be too long, perhaps a page or two at most);
- when the conclusion will include a discussion, a contrast and comparison of the study findings with those of other authors highlighting similarities and differences in findings, the reasons for any differences;
- discussion of the implications of the findings of the study, including a discussion of limitations of the study.
All research writing reflects on the 'implications' of research. Conclusions offer solutions to issues and suggest courses of action flowing from the research. These 'implications' of the research might be discussed in relation to one or more of the following:
- the community in the 'real world',
- policy development (government, organisational, institutional),
- professional practice,
- academic debate,
- social or political strategy,
- research limitations and future research.
In the same way that the paper opens with a statement of a problem that is of broad concern, it should close with commentary that highlights the implications of the results for the problem space, whether this refers to policy, practice, theory or to further research. This is why the thesis structure is sometimes depicted diagrammatically as funnel shaped, or wide at the beginning and end, and narrow in the middle. The same broadness of focus is also evident at the beginning and the ending of abstracts.
A discussion of the limitations of the research is a subset of a discussion about research implications. A discussion of limitations arises from the more speculative reflection that underpins conclusion writing. Researchers reflect on what their research reveals, as well as what it did not reveal about the problem space. Writing about limitations tells your reader how to read your findings, what questions may be left unanswered as a result of your findings, and perhaps what further work needs to be done to build upon or confirm what you have done.
A discussion of limitations is not an admission of failure, or an outline of what was wrong with the research. A discussion of limitations builds the credibility and strength of claims by showing that you have thought deeply about the implications of your own methodology and analysis and have offered suggestions to other researchers about the next steps in the field following upon your research. The dot points below may be useful when writing up your limitations section.
A limitations section is not obligatory. In some fields, a discussion of limitations is not a conventional heading or subject of discussion. It may also be that a discussion of the limits of your research adds little to the reader's understanding of your findings or of the kind of research that is needed in the future. In this case, it might be best to leave it out.
Content: What to include in a discussion of limitations?
When discussing a limitation of your research:
- concisely describe the limitation;
- explain why the limitation arose;
- explain why the limitation could not be overcome in your research design (you might choose to refer to similar difficulties of other studies);
- explain the impact of the limitation on your findings and conclusions;
- explain what kind of future research is needed, including, if relevant, details about the research method that would be required to overcome the limitation in a future study.
TIP: If, after careful reflection, you are not sure what to write for points three, four and five above, consider leaving out the discussion of the limitation. A discussion of limitations should contribute to our understanding of the findings of the research, or of research in the field on the problem space.
Structure: Where to put the discussion of limitations?
- If the limitation pertains to the entirety of the findings, consider putting it toward the beginning of the discussion. This is because the discussion of limitations will clarify your overall discussion of the findings.
- If the limitation pertains to a discussion of research arising from your findings, consider placing it towards the end of your discussion where future research is referred to.
- Try not to bury a discussion of limitations in the middle of discussion/conclusion chapters/sections.
In empirical positivist or realist research, limitations might occur in relation to methodology, including limitations surrounding:
Representativeness of sample—size and characteristics
The findings generated from the sample may not accurately represent the experience or phenomenon in its fullness. Here it is important to explain why and how the sample is not representative or generalizable; what might have been missed or only partially understood; how findings may have been skewed, and what this implies for future research.
Lack of available and/or reliable data
Data can be insufficient to make strong conclusions. In this instance, offer reasons to explain missing or unreliable data. You may conclude that more research is needed to address these problems, but if you do, explain how the research design would need to be different, and how this would overcome the limitation. Problems arising from a lack of unfettered access to participants, data or documents that affect the results can be described.
Limitations arising from the measure used to collect the data
Definitions of phenomena, and the tools used to capture phenomenon, shape what is known about those phenomenon. Limitations arising from this pertain to the comprehensiveness of a survey or interview schedule with regard to the research question, field of practice, or problem space. Here you can comment also on how definitions or tools would need to be revised to enlarge or confirm understandings of the phenomenon.
Subjective or perceptual bias
Data which reports participants opinions and perceptions reflects what participants perceive is happening, not necessarily what is actually happening. When this pertains to the reliability of your answer to the research question, you can reflect on the possible bias of perception among your sample. This might refer to respondents engaging in the following:
- selective memory—selective remembering or failure to remember specific aspects of experience or events;
- telescoping—recalling events that occurred at one time as if they occurred at another time;
- attribution—attributing positive outcomes to oneself, and negative outcomes to others or to external forces;
- exaggeration—embellishing experience or events or describing them as more important than others perceive them to be.
Linking the introduction and conclusion
Once you have drafted your final chapter or section, try reading the introduction and the conclusion one after the other. They should flow. The conclusion brings the reader back to the opening questions, and brings those questions to a close. If you have used examples, metaphors or other illustration as a device to highlight the problem or significance of the research, consider returning to the same device in the conclusion.
You can avoid repeating information that has already been provided by drawing the findings together into an overall point that has not been made yet. The sum may be a more powerful conveyor of meaning than the parts.
Consider using the last paragraph or sentence to provide a clear message that answers the overall question of the research, or the implication arising from it. Pay careful attention to the last paragraph and sentence. Try to go out with a bang!
Since both the title and the conclusion contain the core conclusions or message of the thesis, it is a good idea to review your title at the same time that you finalise your conclusion chapter. The title often contains two parts, although this is not obligatory. The first part of the title contains the 'thesis', and the second part frames the thesis. A colon is often used to link the two parts together. Preference is for concise titles.
The thesis element of the title is a summary of the main point of the thesis, linking back to the key conclusions of the thesis. The thesis may be expressed in the title as the key finding, or the key argument. It is common to use a question format, or to offer a short, and perhaps somewhat risky or provocative assertion. The aim is to introduce the thesis, and to catch the reader's attention and interest.
The title should also tell the reader the precise focus of the research, or tell the reader what the research is about. The second part of the title might include the methodology, key variables, theories, and context. What goes into this part of the title will vary by project, but it should capture the key elements that frame and make sense of the first part of the title.
For example: Good and mad women: The historical construction of femininity in twentieth-century Australia
In this example the first part of the title points to the heart of the central argument (which suggests there is a social double bind for women who must conform to moral norms or have their mental status questioned, which was the core thesis of this book). The second points to the methodology, focus and context of the argument (this title tells us that the statement refers to an historical period and analysis, that is, twentieth-century Australia). The title is catchy and provocative, and it carries core information about the study using only a few words.
‘Acknowledgements’ at the beginning of theses and at the end of journal papers provide an opportunity to thank people, organisations and institutions that provided assistance with the research or writing process. Acknowledgements in journal papers are shorter and might refer to the following kinds of assistance:
- substantive feedback on drafts,
- technical and administrative,
- equipment or other materials,
- art work,
- care of animals.
Thesis acknowledgements are typically longer and more personal often including references to supervisors and other mentors, proof readers and editors, family, colleagues, friends, sources of spiritual and intellectual support, and even pets or good health. Thesis acknowledgements come in many different lengths and there is considerable latitude in their style and tone. You may not choose to give names for personal relationships, but these should be provided for university and other professional or formal support.
Suggestions for writing thesis acknowledgements:
- consider opening with a preamble that introduces the significance of the research journey for you,
- note that the research could not have been done without support and that you’d like to thank those who made it possible,
- provide full name of persons in formal roles,
- provide full name of organisations,
- say what was contributed,
- move from formal support to personal support,
- consider putting those who gave most closer to the top.
This resource was developed by Wendy Bastalich