Limitations versus Challenges: What’s the Difference?

Posted September 24, 2019

In the Discussion chapter of a dissertation, it is customary to discuss the limitations of your study and mention shortcomings that may have affected the results. However, students will often write about challenges they have had with their study rather than actual limitations. So, what is the difference between limitations and challenges, and what should you include in the Discussion section?

Limitations are shortcomings or weaknesses that may have affected your results. You should mention any limitation to your study in the Discussion chapter. This lets readers know they should interpret your findings with these limitations in mind. In quantitative studies, for example, having a small sample size is a limitation. If your sample size was smaller than expected, your statistical analyses may have been underpowered, meaning that you were less likely to find statistically significant results. Low sample sizes can also represent limitations in qualitative studies designed to collect in-depth information. Although sample sizes are usually considerably lower in qualitative studies than in quantitative studies, low sample sizes can represent a limitation because you may not have interviewed enough participants to have achieved saturation (the point at which no new ideas are emerging from the interviews). These are just a couple examples of limitations that can affect results.

However, students will often write about challenges they encountered when conducting their studies. If something was difficult about your study but did not affect the results, it probably was a challenge and not a limitation. As such, challenges should not be mentioned in your Discussion chapter. For example, if you had trouble getting participants but ultimately obtained enough for your study to be adequately powered, this would be a challenge not a limitation. If you had trouble contacting certain parties or agencies for permission, for example, but finally contacted them, this too would be a challenge and not a limitation.

All studies have challenges, and all studies have limitations. So, it is important to know the difference. Limitations can affect your results and, consequently, should be mentioned in your Discussion chapter. Challenges are difficulties. If they did not affect your results, you do not need to mention them.

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