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.

Summarize your key findings

Start this chapter by reiterating your research problem and concisely summarizing 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.

Examples

  • The results indicate that…
  • The study demonstrates a correlation between…
  • This analysis supports the theory that…
  • 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
  • Contextualizing 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 organize 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.

Examples

  • In line with the hypothesis…
  • Contrary to the hypothesized 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.

What can proofreading do for your paper?

Scribbr editors not only correct grammar and spelling mistakes, but also strengthen your writing by making sure your paper is free of vague language, redundant words and awkward phrasing.

See editing example

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 support 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.

Examples

  • 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 generalizability. If you encountered problems when gathering or analyzing data, explain how these influenced the results. If there are potential confounding variables that you were unable to control, acknowledge the effect these may have had.

After noting the limitations, you can reiterate why the results are nonetheless valid for the purpose of answering your research questions.

Examples

  • The generalizability of the results is limited by…
  • The reliability of this data is impacted by…
  • Due to the lack of data on X, 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 are saved for 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 emphasize weaknesses or failures.

Checklist

Checklist: Discussion

0 / 8

Well done!

You've written a great discussion section. Use the other checklists to further improve your thesis or dissertation.

See all other checklists Return to checklist

Frequently asked questions about the discussion

What goes in the discussion chapter of a dissertation?

In the discussion, you explore the meaning and relevance of your research results, explaining how they fit with existing research and theory. Discuss:

  • Your interpretations: what do the results tell us?
  • The implications: why do the results matter?
  • The limitations: what can’t the results tell us?
What’s the difference between results and discussion?

The results chapter or section simply and objectively reports what you found, without speculating on why you found these results. The discussion interprets the meaning of the results, puts them in context, and explains why they matter.

In qualitative research, results and discussion are sometimes combined. But in quantitative research, it’s considered important to separate the objective results from your interpretation of them.

What’s the difference between the discussion and the conclusion?

In a thesis or dissertation, the discussion is an in-depth exploration of the results, going into detail about the meaning of your findings and citing relevant sources to put them in context.

The conclusion is more shorter and more general: it concisely answers your main research question and makes recommendations based on your overall findings.

Is this article helpful?
Shona McCombes

Shona has a bachelor's and two master's degrees, so she's an expert at writing a great thesis. She has also worked as an editor and teacher, working with students at all different levels to improve their academic writing.

6 comments

Dipika
January 21, 2021 at 2:36 AM

The article and answers are beneficial Shona. Thank you! Just a query that would be appropriate in the Discussion section - can we use percentage directly to discuss a topic? For example, 90% mentioned a topic or just mentioned the majority of the participants mentioned on the topic.
Thanks

Reply

Shona McCombes
Shona McCombes (Scribbr Team)
February 12, 2021 at 2:57 PM

Hi Dipika,

You can use a percentage if this accurately reflects the number of respondents that mentioned the topic. However, if you're dealing with a small number of participants, it might be clearer to simply state the actual number, for example: "18 out of the 20 interviewees mentioned this topic." Don't use percentages as approximations – if you haven't calculated the precise number, it's better to use a phrase like "the majority of".

I hope that helps!

Reply

Hamzeh
January 17, 2021 at 9:27 PM

Hello Shona,

Many thanx for your article. It helps me much. But still confused concerning literary works such as analysing Novels. Do we need to do the discussion part in phd theses?! Or only Analysis and that's it?

Thanks again

Reply

Shona McCombes
Shona McCombes (Scribbr Team)
January 19, 2021 at 12:13 PM

Hi Hamzeh,

The thesis structure outlined in this category is applicable to empirical research in the (social) sciences. Theses in literature (and other humanities disciplines) don't follow this structure, as they generally don't involve systematic data collection and there are no separate "results" to report.

You can think of a literature thesis as more like an extended essay: it aims to build a clear, focused argument through close reading and analysis of the novels or other texts. Like an essay, there are no set rules in structuring it – apart from the introduction and conclusion, the other chapters are entirely up to you. One common approach is to focus each chapter on a different text, author, or theme.

I hope that answers your question!

Reply

sarah
November 9, 2020 at 4:55 PM

Hi, thanks for all the help, recently came across this page and it's amazing. i have a question regarding the discussion section, how would you go about comparing your data collected to other alike studies if there is little to no research that is the same as yours? (so no one has collected the same data as me for me to compare mine with)

thankss

Reply

Shona McCombes
Shona McCombes (Scribbr Team)
November 17, 2020 at 8:26 PM

Hi Sarah,

It's fine if there are no studies exactly the same as yours – most research aims to address a gap and contribute something unique. You might still want to mention studies that explored questions related to yours, that collected similar data from different populations, or that looked at different aspects of the same topic; alternatively, you might discuss how well your data fits with theories or models on the topic.

Keep in mind that there is no universal formula for the discussion – your aim is just to explain your findings as thoroughly and convincingly as possible. But it's rare that absolutely no research has been done on your topic, and your explanation will be more convincing if you can show how your findings relate to existing knowledge.

Hope that helps!

Reply

Still have questions?

Please click the checkbox on the left to verify that you are a not a bot.