Display or Graph Your Dissertation Data - dummies

By Carrie Winstanley

Whether your data is quantitative or qualitative you need to present your data in a way that can be easily understood by the examiner. While you’re initially surveying your collection of data, it may not be immediately obvious how best to lay out your data so that your reader can make sense of your ideas.

Always use a method for displaying your data that’s appropriate to your sample size. If you have only two subjects for example, don’t attempt to use percentages to put across their views. Fifty per cent of two is one. You just need to say ‘One of the subjects feels . . . but the other thinks . . .’

Aim for clarity. Your examiner isn’t looking to be impressed by your advanced computer skills or superb colour illustrations.

Dissertation tables, charts and lists

In general, when you write essays you avoid using bullet points and lists, but in a dissertation the chapter where you present your data is an exception to this rule. Clearly introduced bullet points are fine in these cases. Here are some other ways of presenting your data:

  • Pie charts show percentages and are presented in a circle. Try to limit the pie chart to less than eight segments for clarity. Merge very small values into a segment labelled ‘other’.

  • Bar charts show how different data compare with one another. Try not to have too many entries and keep the distinguishing features clear. Make the scale match the data equally and don’t skew the data too far just to fit in a value deviating from the norm. (Note: histograms appear to be like bar charts, but histograms are different.)

  • Line graphs show how things have changed over time – trends and developments (always moving from left to right). For clarity you may want to label your lines on the diagram rather than in a key.

  • Histograms show data that’s presented in a continuous scale. The bars touch one another to show these links (it may be data like ages, say 10–15 years, 16–19 years, 20–14 years, and so on).

There are other ways of displaying data, but pie and bar charts, line graphs and histograms are likely to be the best ways of displaying data in an undergraduate dissertation.

Tables of all sorts can be easily put together using basic word processing and spreadsheet software. Tables and spreadsheets need to be concise. Give your table a heading and each cell of a spreadsheet may possibly need a brief description only. Keep tables and spreadsheets compact and tidy.

If your data starts to spread or becomes unwieldy, you’ve got too much detail, or you need to make more than one table. The other possibility is that the data isn’t suitable to present as a table, and you may need to think of another way of presenting your data.

Always make tables and charts readable by making sure that they’re contained on one page. (Use a foldout sheet if necessary.)

What looks clear and simple on your computer screen can come out muddled and confusing once it’s printed out, particularly when you’re printing out a colour chart in black and white. You want your reader to be enlightened, not perplexed. Limit your colours so that your chart is easy to read and avoid using too many complicated black and white patterns and textures that can be difficult to follow.

Dissertation case studies and other narratives

If you’re writing a non-empirical dissertation involving a case study it’s likely you’re going to be using a narrative format for analysing your data. Some form of discourse analysis is likely to form part of the study of your narrative, but this is probably going to be a micro examination of the structure and use of language. However, if you only focus on the micro aspect of your data, you may miss the broader picture.

Your narrative needs a plot line or chronology and clear statements about what’s happening. Usually you highlight key features like any significant changes occurring or any shifts in the subject’s ideas and views. It’s best to explain such happenings with a timeline (a linear outline of the development of the ‘story’ and explanation of the key ‘events’).

There may be particular characters or actors featuring in the narrative (real or fictional) and you can place them in your narrative using a thumbnail sketch. You may also need to outline your characters’ setting and show the results of actions that are central to the story.

A flow chart can be a useful device in a narrative because flow charts show horizontal and backwards connections as well as links that are vertical and forwards.

Try keeping in mind the value of researching an idea through narrative, biography, diary and storytelling:

  • Storytelling conveys meaning.

  • Narratives are good for resolving dilemmas, reducing tension, bringing problems out into the open.

  • Diaries and memoirs are useful for helping to explain actions and for following changes in behaviour.

  • Narratives allow you to stand back and give opportunities for seeing patterns and logic in apparently disconnected and chaotic events.

Interpreting people’s diaries and memoirs can be a very time-consuming and complicated activity. You’re going to need a coding method: coloured tabs, highlighters and other materials do the job. Because a diary is a personal document you may be better off making a photocopy or even have an electronic version so that you can start getting on with the analysis as soon as possible.

Including dissertation data in an appendix

Broadly speaking, you need to include information that’s necessary, but that doesn’t interrupt the flow of your work. For example, you may want to include the permission letter if it’s significant, or a blank version of your questionnaire, or an interview schedule. You can also include details of your coding system if your coding threw up interesting categories, or you may have samples of handwriting or extracts from transcripts you want to put into your appendix.

Keeping hold of all your raw data until you get your official confirmation that you’ve passed your dissertation is a must. If a query arises and you’ve shredded your data and put it on your organic compost heap you’re going to be in serious trouble.