By Judy Parr and Susan Carter
Judy Parr is a Professor of Education in the School of Curriculum and Pedagogy at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Highly effective, much esteemed, and generous with her time, Judy has been a mentor and model for Susan who is delighted to bring a combined post to you.
This post assembles some general advice for the writing, feedback and revision of a doctoral Discussion chapter. It’s a very important part of the thesis that needs to conceptualise and position what has been done in the doctoral study within the wider discourse.
This post has been prompted, as is often the case with DoctoralWriting posts, by practice: recently, we have been giving feedback on Discussion chapters both together and separately (and we acknowledge others we supervise with – we draw from their tips and strategies too).
First, Judy shares the type of questions and comments that can direct self-revision of the Discussion chapter. Of course, some of these will not apply and some you will feel have been addressed adequately, but other questions may be worth encouraging candidates to think about.
REVISION QUESTIONS FOR CANDIDATES
- Will the reader understand how theory/empirical work and my data interact here?
- Am I discussing the higher-level findings, ensuring that I am not presenting raw data or repeating what was said previously (the fine line between reiterating major trends and giving the reader an unwelcome sense of déjà vu)?
- Am I clear when I am extrapolating and moving further from what the data might allow into more speculative territory? Is it relevant to speculate like this?
- Have I gone beyond what is essentially a narrative that links to the current literature? Am I mindful of theory and the contribution to that from the data and do I draw out implications of my findings (while I appreciate these may be further developed in the conclusion)?
- Have I emphasised accurately and defensibly what aspect is a major contribution to knowledge in the field? (e.g. the model/the concept/the new interpretation of previous findings, the major significant outcome from your work)
THREE IMPORTANT THINGS FOR DOCTORAL WRITERS TO KEEP IN MIND
- You need to use your own voice when developing a discussion i.e.: avoid describing in detail what the literature says because you have done this earlier (in the literature review) and do not describe your findings again. Think carefully about the chapter as a whole and work out what your central argument or position is, then how you will develop this section by section.
- You also need to check that you make links throughout your discussion to your research questions, your theory, and your methods to ensure internal consistency.
- You need to contextualise your study within the discourse of your field to establish yourself there.
DISCUSSION MEANS THINKING HOLISTICALLY
Revision of the discussion chapter gives the opportunity to check for consistency with what you found and reported in the findings, and to revise that chapter too. That might include revising structure in the findings chapter if you realise that the order of presentation affects the narrative sense of content.
There’s a chance that some material from the literature review should be present in the findings. We’re not suggesting repeating things already covered, but that writing and revising the discussion chapter is a good time to rework other parts of the thesis so that it forms a more coherent whole.
Usually the discussion is written as submission begins to get closer, when the student is becoming more aware that the thesis has to read as a coherent whole. So, in writing the discussion, ensure that candidates take the opportunity to tighten other parts, maybe repositioning things at the same time as eliminating repetition. We suggest overriding any sense that full chapter drafts are completed: they will need to be reconsidered in light of the rest of the document and the thinking that sits behind the discussion chapter emerges from a holistic view, too.
Next Susan suggests that thinking about the purpose of the discussion helps with establishing a structure that will deliver it in a style that best suits it.
DISCUSSION STRUCTURE PRINCIPLES
There’s no formula for a discussion structure, but a useful guiding star is the need to demonstrate critical analysis.
This suggestion comes from talking with one candidate where, throughout the thesis writing, I’d been advising on research questions, methods, and findings that it was a good idea to consistently present things in the same order and with about the same amount of writing. If findings are structured according to research questions (that is, discussed in the same order as the questions were first presented), readers will find the chapters accessible.
But as we looked at the discussion section, we realised that this past framework or guiding principle needed to change for the discussion.
A guiding principle for structuring the discussion is give word space in accordance with the original contributions to theory and practice: what is important? Where there are findings that are not of use to others’ practice or are non-generalizable in terms of theory, they should not get much space, if any, in the discussion. Findings that could inform practice, and those that clearly add to what is known in ways that expand theory, should be dealt with in detail. Anything surprising, and therefore not mentioned in the original research questions, may get space if it raises new questions.
It’s quite hard to let go of rules for structure that have applied successfully to other parts of the thesis, but it is also satisfyingly enabling.
The Discussion tackles the rhetorical task of persuading readers that the entire doctoral project has been worthwhile. To do that, the Discussion must be accurate with hedging and boosting, because this demonstrates researcher ability to understand what has happened in the project, and it also establishes the writer’s trustworthiness.
As is almost always the case with doctoral writing revision, it helps to read other theses in the author’s discipline, looking just for voice and rhetoric. You may find that where passive verbs were used in previous chapters, there’s a predominance of active verbs in the Discussion. The first person pronoun might be employed as the author speculates on what findings mean. There’s often, maybe usually, a stronger sense of the author’s presence in the Discussion.
Always, with each candidate and their writing, advice will be tailored. We hope though that this post might prove helpful as a starter for Discussion revision. If you have other suggestions, please comment, or if you run workshops on writing the Discussion and would be willing to offer another post on this topic, please get in touch.