How to Write a Conclusion for a Research Paper
The “conclusion” of a research paper is more than an ending. A strong conclusion should offer a retrospective roadmap to your essay: explaining your findings, showing why your results matter, suggesting how you might improve your research process, and posing questions that may inspire other scholars to build on your findings. That’s a lot to fit into one section. This blog will offer some strategies for how to start working on your conclusion while you’re writing the rest of your essay. Students with quantitative and/or experimental projects may wish to focus on the first section of this blog. Humanities and qualitative researchers, my last section is for you.
STEM & Quantitative Social Science Conclusions: The Discussion Section
STEM students, I have good news. When you’re writing your research question and hypothesis near the beginning of your paper, you’re also writing your conclusion: the “discussion” section of a scientific paper. To begin writing your discussion, you should simply copy/paste the exact language of your question and hypothesis with a few introductory phrases (e.g., this experiment was designed to ask… our hypothesis was…). Then, tell your reader if your hypothesis was correct. Offer this information is the first step towards the two subsections of your discussion.
The first part of your discussion should explain why you think your experiment yielded the results that it did. In the results section of your paper (the penultimate section), you will have already described what happened in your experiment, so the discussion is your chance to address your questions about these results:
If something went wrong or surprised you, why do you think that was?
Can you imagine improving your experimental method in any way, to get different or better results?
You probably will have thoughts in reply to these questions while you are writing your “methods” and “results” sections, so jot down these ideas to inspire your “discussion” section.
After you’ve discussed why your experiment went the way it did, think about your results in the larger context of your field. The second part of your discussion should put your findings in conversation with other researchers’ work. Ask yourself these questions:
Even if your hypothesis was incorrect, are there any parts of your method or results that may be useful to other scientists in fields adjacent to yours?
Should this experiment be replicated?
Do your results build upon or complicate the results of the other studies that you mentioned in your introduction section?
Are there any questions that your results raise that you would like future studies to address?
If you’re having trouble coming up with questions for future research or writing your discussion section in general, reach out to a CRI mentor. CRI will find a subject-area specialist to aid your research and writing process!
Humanities & Qualitative Social Science Conclusions
Humanities students, the process of writing your conclusion will be more complicated. I often tell my undergraduate writing students that in a first draft, the real thesis tends to show up in the conclusion. While you may attempt to write a clear thesis in your draft’s introduction, the intellectual work of writing up your analysis will give you a clearer, deeper understanding of your paper’s main claim—so a stronger version of your claims will appear at the end of your draft writing. I ask my students to copy/paste the thesis from the draft 1 conclusion into the draft 2 introduction. With each paper draft, your thesis will grow more nuanced, and you will convert bits of your conclusion into your new introduction.
How can you possibly come up with a conclusion, using this circular process of drafting and learning? There will come a point (probably in 3 or 4) when your ideas about your thesis are too complicated to put into a single sentence in your introduction. These thoughts may include caveats, key terms that arose through your essay, or problems with your initial claim—and you may have these thoughts while writing the body paragraphs of your paper. Your conclusion should begin with this more complicated version of your thesis.
It should then summarize the analytical moves that the body of your paper made to arrive at this nuanced claim. You can pull most of this summary from the mini-conclusions in each body section of your paper, but remember to rephrase it. This is a key distinction between humanities and STEM conclusions—humanities conclusions should not repeat the exact language that they use elsewhere in their paper, but should instead seek to offer new insights about their claims by rewriting their ideas in the conclusion
After you’ve delivered a summary of your paper’s claim and analytical work, reflect on how you might have improved that work:
Are there any additional sources that you could have consulted? What about kinds of theory that might have deepened your insights?
Can you imagine a different methodological approach to your questions?
What avenues adjacent to your topic has your project left unexplored?
Just as STEM researchers consider ways in which to improve their experiments, it is good for humanities researchers to be self-conscious about our ways of thinking and the scholarly interlocutors that we select. This invitation to critically consider the premises and limitations of your research will naturally lead you to pose questions for further research. If you’d like a specialist in your field to discuss these meta-level considerations with you—or help you with any part of your research process—reach out to a CRI mentor.