The Discussion section

The Discussion is the most important part of a scientific research paper or report and is usually the longest section.  The section allows you to display your ability to synthesise and evaluate the topic critically, and develop an informed understanding of the research issue by  answering the research question(s) or confirming or disconfirming your hypothesis. It provides a crucial link between the Introduction, the Findings and the Conclusion of your paper. It should have a specific to general structure comprising the following:

  • Remind the reader what your aim was (this should be in your Introduction);
  • Remind the reader of the main findings from your Results/Analysis section and say whether and how they support/illuminate your aims, hypotheses or research question(s);
  • Explain these findings or at least speculate about them (i.e., discuss the evidentiary support from the data you collected and explain the extent to which this answers your research question/hypothesis);
  • Briefly outline the limitations of the study that might restrict any conclusions that can be drawn from your study;
  • Restate findings briefly and finish the section by speculating on further work that might be done in the area of research. This section might end the paper, or it might be followed by a Conclusion and/or (in the case of a Business report) a Recommendations section.

Key things to remember when writing the Discussion section

It is important to broaden out from your narrow aim statement to the results, and explanations of results, and then say why the study overall might have limitations. Any variation from this is likely to result in a confusing Discussion.

  • The aim statement recapitulation should remind the reader of the significance of your research question for scholarship in the field.
  • This should be followed with your answer to the research question or hypothesis posed in the Introduction. Did you find what you intended to find? Why? Why not? What is your “take” on the topic?
  • The explanation of the findings should follow from this. It should outline exactly why and how the findings provide an answer to the research question or hypothesis posed in the Introduction.
  • Following this, an outline the advantages and strengths and/or implications of your approach to the topic should be provided (if, that is, the findings support your approach. If they don’t, conjecture as to why this might be the case). How do your findings provide an improved understanding of the topic compared to analyses that use different approaches? Here you try to justify why your study is an improvement on other approaches, and how your work contributes to the literature.
  • The limitations section should be an honest appraisal about how the study could be improved and what might have been done better. This is not meant to be self-flagellation, just a balanced assessment of how future studies can learn from what you did and neglected to do.

To sum up:

  • Remind the reader of the aim
  • State whether the research question/hypothesis was answered
  • Explain the findings and show how they answer the question
  • Outline the advantages of your approach and justify its contribution to the literature
  • State any limitations of the study
  • Conclude by noting further work needed.

How to write the Discussion section

In the case of a scientific report, it is written using both the simple past tense to summarise findings, and the simple present tense to interpret the results and make them relevant or significant to readers now. Hedging verbs are used to express tentativeness (‘appears that …’, ‘suggests that…’ ‘seems that’…). This is done as few reports are ever completely certain in terms of outcomes and further work is often needed. The Discussion should contain the following elements and language:

Reference to purpose/aim/hypothesis of the study (past tense)

  • ‘This paper aimed to investigate … / The hypothesis for this paper was …/In this paper we proposed to …’

Answer research question (past and present + hedging verbs)

  • The principle of … was not followed in conducting the research about X. We originally assumed that physical decrements would be more apparent in speed jobs than in skill jobs. However, we saw that … and that there was a …’
  • Leaf carbon and phenolic content did not appear to differ across sites indicating that the response of secondary plant chemicals is complex

Review and explain important Findings (past and present + hedging verbs)

  •  ‘We found that … Results showed that participants might be less inclined to assist managers, if … This seemed to indicate that …
  • ‘It seems that microbial activity caused immobilisation of labial soil phosphorous, however it is unlikely that…
  •  ‘Results seem to indicatethat there was a …
  • This suggests that … On the other hand, there may be a …’
  • This can possibly be explained by …’

Justify and outline implications of Findings: (present tense + hedging verbs)

  • Our Findings appear to contradict …
  • We found there is a significant difference in how … This offers a new way of looking at …

Limitations of study (past and present tense).

  • ‘Our findings are not in line with … / a limitation of the study was that …
  • ‘While there is little chance of … The study is not concerned with establishing … the aim is not to … but to …
  • We did not attempt to … only to look at …’.

A Model Discussion

Model Discussion (example with sections highlighted in italics)  

Reference to aim/purpose/hypothesis: The aim of this study was to investigate whether shift-problem lessons, lessons in which the design principles that underpin shift-problem lessons are applied for the topic of early algebra, would result in more and qualitatively better mathematical discussions and more mathematical level raising than conventional collaborative lessons.   According to Freudenthal (1991), discussion and reflection are the main activities in mathematical level raising. We expected that more mathematical discussions, in which students are challenged to reflect on mathematical structures and activities, would occur in the shift-problem condition and that more mathematical level raising would occur in the shift-problem condition than in the conventional textbook condition.  

Review of important findings: First, our study showed that shift-problem lessons on the topic of early algebra in the seventh-grade students elicited more and qualitatively better mathematical discussions than conventional textbook lessons. Whereas mathematical discussion did occur in the shift-problem lessons, it was hardly or not found in the conventional textbook lessons.   In addition, we examined the quality of the discussion. A mathematical discussion is considered to be of good quality if it consists of all key activities, tell/show work, explain work, justify work, and reconstruct work. The key activity that occurred most in the discussions was tell/show work. Furthermore, we found that the discussions in the shift-problem condition were of better quality compared to the conventional textbook condition. Other key activities were found in the shift-problem condition, such as justify work and reconstruct work. Additionally, more regulating activities were found, such as ask to show work and criticize work. For the one group in the conventional textbook conditions in which mathematical discussions did occur, only ask to show work and one time explain work was found. It thus can be concluded that the shift-problem lessons did indeed elicit more mathematical discussions and that these discussions were of better quality. Still, improvement is necessary as most activities were telling and showing work. To gain a deeper understanding more explaining, justifying and reconstruction activities should occur (Dekker and Elshout-Mohr 1998). With respect to our second hypothesis, we found that students’ mathematical levels were raised in both conditions. However, multilevel analyses did not show differences between the conditions.  

Possible explanations for, or speculations, about findings: A possible explanation for not finding more mathematical level raising in the shift-problem lessons might be found in the quality of the discussions. As indicated before, the quality of the discussion is related to learning (Van der Linden et al. 2000). Key activities as formulated by Dekker and Elshout-Mohr (1998) are associated with reflection, which is related to mathematical level raising (Freudenthal 1991). Although the quality of the mathematical discussion was better in the shift-problem condition, as more and more diverse activities occurred, the fact that the key activity tell/show work occurred by far the most might explain why students did not achieve more level raising in the shift-problem condition.  

Implications of Findings: Our findings are not in line with the finding of Palha et al. (2014). A first difference between the two studies is the topic, early algebra versus integral calculus. However, in our experience, the design principles were well suited to design lessons for early algebra. Second, the teachers in Palha’s study had a higher teacher degree, which is required to be able to teach at pre university level in the Netherlands, than the teachers in our study. Third, students in the experiment of Palha et al. (2014) were older, had more knowledge of mathematics, and had chosen a profile with a difficult variant of mathematics. More research is needed to determine what the effects of shift-problem lessons are for different topics and different levels and ages of students.  

Limitations of study: This study was conducted at one school, which has limitations for the generalization of our findings. Still, several classes and several teachers participated in this study. This research could be replicated on a larger scale to find more robust findings. For the analysis of the interaction processes, a limited number of group discussions were randomly selected for analysis. Weaker or stronger groups could have been selected for analysis, which might have influenced our findings. It might thus be interesting to analyse discussions of other groups and of other lessons.   Our coding scheme enabled us to analyse in detail students’ conversations during group work and most importantly the quality of the mathematical discussions. This analysis sheds light on the learning processes that occurred. Still, it is difficult to capture all learning processes that occur. For example, the key activity reconstruct work also might occur in students’ minds, which cannot be measured (Calor et al., 2019).

For a downloadable helpsheet, see Writing the Discussion section. See also: