We often hear that the conclusion is where you “tell ’em what you told ’em”. That’s easy advice to follow, but does it really reflect how most essays and articles end? It would be a little odd if that was all there was to it; you can already find a brief summary of what the article says in the abstract, so why would there by another place for doing the exact same thing again? Just for convenience’s sake, so that the reader doesn’t have to flip back to the abstract? I think there’s more that can be done with a conclusion than simply repeating what was in the paper. To be sure, we do need to sum up the paper’s content, but that can be over in a sentence or two. What comes next?
I like to think of the conclusion as working in reverse order from the introduction. That doesn’t mean that it’s an exact mirror image, but rather that the mental scene of communication from the introduction (first establishing context and then narrowing focus through existing research to the thesis statement) gets inverted. A conclusion will instead lead from your thesis statement back through other research to its broader implications outside of the narrow focus of our argument. Here you can finally relax from rigorously concentrating on a single goal (proving your point) and start to consider what it all means. This will involve a small leap of faith: you have to assume that your readers, faced with your evidence and logic, are now on side with you. That means they are now prepared to find out how your argument affects broader academic circles and even the “real world” in some cases.
This will all be easier to see if we have a concrete example. Let’s use Gollwitzer et al. 2009 from my post on why you shouldn’t tell other people about your academic plans. Their conclusion starts by indeed telling what has been told: when you know that other people have heard that you intend to behave in an identity-relevant way, you are less likely to actually carry out that behaviour. So far, so good.
Next, they situate themselves within the research again. How does what they’ve done fit into what others have done? The names that come up here don’t need to be the same names that come in the introduction because the task is different. Before, they were establishing a niche for themselves. Now, they are considering what their research means for other people. Work that has been done before might need to be reinterpreted or modified or expanded in the light of what’s just been shown.
Gollwitzer et al. also consider how their findings might be applied to the real world. After all, committed individuals who want to achieve goals will be interested in knowing how to avoid this discouraging effect. Are there other ways around it than just not talking to people? They consider other research connected with increased/decreased motivation and speculate on strategies that might be adopted to improve work ethic.
Most research papers will have a similar pattern of strategies in their conclusions. Being consciously aware of these strategies and observing them as you read will help you when it comes time to write your own conclusions.
I’ve saved a few notes for the end, as they’re of more use when conducting original research. First, if there are any incompatibilities of your findings with previous research, these should be noted clearly. But think carefully before claiming that your work overturns an established field. Second, if you are aware of any limitations of your approach, it’s in your best interest to make them clear now. You won’t be scoring an own goal by doing this. It’s far better to scour your own paper for weaknesses and make them explicit than to have them discovered by someone else. You have a duty as an academic to seek out the truth, to be sure, but if you need a more selfish reason, consider that honest self-criticism helps to further establish your ethos as a writer. We’re more likely to trust people who are hard on themselves. Finally, you should indicate any new areas for research that you might not have had time to treat in your paper. Are there interesting unexplored paths to take? Indicating them will also help connect your work to what others will do later on.
In brief, your conclusion should be your answer to the question “so what?” from your readers. You’ve spent the paper arguing in favour of something. If your audience is convinced by what you’ve said, they’re going to need to change some things about the way they view the topic. Pointing these things out to them is a great way to bring your paper to a close.