Writing your discussion

[You might also want to look at my posts on introductions and results].

Each year, at about this time, I get emails from my project students, asking questions about how to write up their projects, particularly the discussion. Each year, at about this time, I knock out several versions of an email explaining how I would go about writing a discussion. So this year, having knocked out the first version, I have decided it would be a good idea to save it for posterity, and for the next project student. So here we have (as sent to the student):

How I write a discussion

For your discussion, I think the key thing is to make sure you are actually discussing your results. This might sound silly, but so often I see discussions which are a literature review and don’t relate that literature to the findings of the project.

Start with a summary (one paragraph) of what you found in relation to your hypotheses. Don’t explain the hypotheses again, or review where the question came from (you did that in the introduction) but focus instead on what you found. Make sure you really highlight the interesting/key findings here. It’s not a repeat of the methods or results, so focus more on what it means (as in, don’t talk about significant differences between things, but talk about support for hypothesis A and no support for hypothesis B, making sure you mention briefly what they actually are).

Then, the way I think about it is to pick out each individual result you want to discuss and think about how you can devote a paragraph to that result. Think about whether the result fits with existing literature or contradicts it, and make a statement to that effect (“the finding that large fish ate more is consistent with previously published research”), then review that literature. Make sure you are doing some critical thinking/writing, so bring together examples that show the same thing and contrast them against examples that don’t, rather than just listing studies. Try to tie every paragraph to something about your results or your project generally.

I find a helpful way to approach this is to write subheadings (later deleted) for each paragraph, such as “fish size and appetite: big fish eat more” and “fish size and appetite: why do big fish eat more?”. I can then draft out each paragraph under the heading and if necessary, split or combine paragraphs later. I keep the subheadings in until I am happy with the overall discussion, then delete them.

For each paragraph, think about the PEE framework*. Point. Evidence. Explain. Start the paragraph with the point you want to make, give the evidence to support that point, the explain how the evidence supports the point (this part might be obvious). The key thing is to use plenty of literature here and think about what your results mean and how they fit in with what we (the scientific community) already know.

Think also about the limitations of your study and how it could have been better. There are two ways to do this. One is to have a ‘limitations’ paragraph (or two) where you say what you might have done differently and why. The other is to intersperse the limitations with the rest of the discussion, so for example if you wanted to mention that one limitation was that you only tested one group size, you could drop that in as an opportunity for further work, or something to be considered, at the end of a paragraph where you are discussing something related. If I am writing a paper, I prefer the latter approach, unless my limitations/opportunities don’t fit well with the other key things I want to discuss.

Try not to turn the limitations section/bits into an opportunity for self-flagelation. I have seen projects where there are several paragraphs about how sh*t the project** was and how nothing went right. Rarely do you need to do that and it is much better to focus your discussion on what you did find, rather than what you might have found had you had 15 years and millions of pounds to carry out the research. If you can, turn limitations into opportunities for future research, and remember to use references here to support your ideas.

At the end, you want to try to bring everything together into some sort of conclusion/wider context paragraph. Don’t do too much restating of what you have already said, but also don’t bring in too many new ideas here. The idea is to round everything off and end on a high note/take home message.

In terms of the word count***, I don’t think there is any particular expectation for the discussion. In my opinion, it is better to have a well-written, focused discussion that covers all the key areas, than to have a long rambling discussion with the sole aim of getting it up to some sort of arbitrary word count. As the handbook says “there is no benefit to excessive padding”.

More useful resources

I have started collating together some useful websites for projects and writing, have a look here. Let me know if you find it helpful or if you have come across other useful resources while doing your project.

You might also want to look at my posts on introductions and results.

*I first learnt about the PEE framework a few years ago from a colleague whose kids were doing it in school. It’s apparently part of Key Stage 3 English (KS3 is years 7-9 of school, or kids aged 11-14ish). It doesn’t work for every paragraph, but if you think about writing paragraphs using this sort of framework, you can tweak them later to flow better. When we first started mentioning it, our students faces were blank, but now some of them do acknowledge that they have heard of this.

**I’m not denying it, some of these projects were supervised by me. They weren’t sh*t, they just ended with non-significant results, but this often translates in a student’s mind to “this project didn’t work”. I wonder if we perhaps don’t given them many opportunities to do practical work that doesn’t succeed in achieving whatever we wanted it to achieve.

***Students always worry about the word count. I worried about the word count when I was a student too, but mostly in terms of fitting everything I wanted to say in to it, rather than including enough stuff to reach it. I have to remind myself (as all academics should on a regular basis) that I was not a typical student. Still a problem, only now it’s character counts and page limits.


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