Interpreting Your Results: The Role of the Literature Review


So, you have your results. You’re feeling good. Although there is still work to do, the end of your dissertation is in sight. There is just one thing left… the discussion chapter.

Many people are unsure about what the discussion is and what it should contain. This is especially true of the Interpretation of the Findings section, which is the core of the discussion chapter. People often simply summarize their results because they do not know how to interpret their findings. Summary, however, is not interpretation.

Interpreting your findings is about seeing whether what you found confirms or does not confirm the findings of previous studies in your literature review. Your findings may also offer novel insights or information.

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For quantitative studies, organize the Interpretations of the Findings section around your research questions or hypotheses. For qualitative studies, organize this section around your themes. For each question or theme, go back to your literature review and look at the major findings of previous studies. Relate your findings to the findings of those previous studies and indicate where your findings aligned and where they did not align. Offer possible explanations as to why your findings corroborated or contradicted the findings of previous studies.

If your findings are novel, mention and expand on that. In short, the Interpretation of the Findings section is your opportunity to make sense of your findings by situating them in relation to previous findings.

But what if the findings of your quantitative study were not significant? Interpreting non-significant findings can be challenging. However, it your job as an academic researcher to explain non-significant findings, which can provide insight into your study or phenomenon.

Methodological weaknesses, for example, can partly explain non-significant findings. Non-significant findings can also indicate that an intervention is not effective, or that a variable, construct, or instrument may not be appropriate for the study of a particular phenomenon.

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Interpreting your results is important. All of your work setting up the proposal and collecting data has been leading to the interpretation of your findings. Additionally, other key sections of your discussion follow from your interpretations, including the implications, recommendations for further research, and conclusions.

Finally, it also helps to think of your discussion not as the final hurdle to be cleared, but as an opportunity for you to make sense of your findings and offer readers a final message about the meaning of your research.