Academic Writing

Rhetorical functions in academic writing: Discussing limitations


All studies have limitations.

However, it is important that you restrict your discussion to limitations related to the research problem under investigation.

What were the limitations of your study? Think again about the process of your study, and, seeing it from a distance, discuss whether you think you have done it in the best way possible.  It is probable that during the time you spent on the study, you thought of better ways of doing it. It is important not to hide this.

The question you have to answer now is: what aspects of the research could have been done differently? Did you ask the right question? Did you use the best possible techniques to collect the data? Concentrate on what you think are the weakest points of your study, and address them. Don 't hide this: it contributes to your final interpretation of the results.

Possible Methodological Limitations

  1. Choice of the sample
  2. Size of the sample
  3. Availability and reliability of data
  4. Lack of previous research studies on the topic
  5. Methods/Instruments/techniques used to collect the data
  6. Self-reported data

Possible Limitations of the Researcher

  1. Access to data
  2. Time constraints
  3. Longitudinal effects
  4. Cultural and other issues

Research Limitations

  1. Formulation of your research aims and objectives

  2. Your choice of data collection method(s)

  3. Implementation of the data collection method.

  4. Your analysis of the data

  5. Scope of discussions.

Information about the limitations of your study are best placed the beginning of the discussion section of your paper. In this way, your reader will know and understand the limitations before reading the rest of your analysis of the findings. Understanding the limitations can lead to an acknowledgement of the need for further study. However, make sure you look toward the future, but do not end with it. It is important to emphasise what you found in your study, not what you have not found.

Discussion of the limitations of your study should not be hidden in the body of the discussion section unless a limitation is specific to something covered in that part of the paper. If this is the case, though, the limitation should be repeated at the conclusion of the section.

Then, conclude the general discussion with a strong paragraph stating the main point or points again, in somewhat different words than used before.

Discussing the Limitations

  • Make sure you describe each limitation in detail;
  • Explain why each limitation exists;
  • Provide reasons why each limitation could not be overcome;;
  • Evaluate the importance of each limitation to the the overall findings and conclusions of your study; and,
  • If possible, describe how these limitations could be overcome;
  • Point to the need for further research.


The nature of our sample makes it difficult to generalize results to sales forces in other industries. The predominance of men in these sales positions, though quite representative of the automobile industry, might obscure any gender-related issues in feedback research (Schul et al, 1990). Also, the causal directions of our model, though well-grounded theoretically, cannot be supported by cross-sectional data alone. Experimental designs or longitudinal studies would be necessary to check the directions of influence.

Srivastava, R. & Rangarajan, D. (2008). Understanding the salespeople’s “Feedback-Satisfaction” linkage. Journal of Business & Industrial Marketing, 23(3), 151–160.


Limitations and future directions.

Many limitations exist in the current study beginning with the sample being drawn from a population of students at a single, large, public, Midwestern university. Thus, the results may not be generalizable to students at other institutions or with other demographics. Second, the information produced from this study is descriptive and correlational, and causation cannot be inferred. Finally, the accuracy of respondents is questionable in reporting information on large survey studies such as this. For example, respondents were asked to recount how many hours per week he or she typically spends using the Internet, and the degree to which students may be able to accurately report such information is unclear. Future work should actually record logging data so as to determine the veracity of the self-report (though this could involve privacy issues).

Kirschner, P. A. & Karpinski, A. C. (2010).  Facebook and academic performance. Computers in Human Behavior, 6, 1237–1245.


The most obvious limitation in this research was that of a small sample size, a limitation that prevented a clear generalized statement about the role played by WTC in the L2 classroom. The number of participants was too small to adequately address the research questions or to possibly generalize beyond the context of this study. With a larger sample, including a greater number of culturally different participants, any real differences would almost certainly have emerged. Still, the small population did not negate recognition of the importance of WTC in L2 instruction.

This study was further limited by the duration of the research, which was relatively short; so that participants were observed over a relatively short period of time.

Finally, the research findings of this study were limited by the inherent limitations of the instruments, and the statistical treatment of data collected. 7. In particular, while it was beneficial to employ stimulated recall as an introspective method in the interviews, because of the delay in the use of stimulus, accuracy in the recall of the participants' task performance was harmed.

(Bitchener, 2010, p. 207).


The primary limitation to the generalization of these results is the nature of the course used – a large lecture oriented introductory level class where laptop use was not controlled. Obviously, these results are not applicable to every classroom experience. Faculty who tailor their classes to laptops may have an entirely different experience. In many classes and labs, computers are necessary and learning may depend on immediate and constant access to computers during class time.

Fried, C. B. (2006). In-class laptop use and its effects on student learning. Computers & Education, 50, 906–914.


One of the limitations of this study had to do with the small number of participants and the fact that only one department within the college of Education was surveyed. However, it was encouraging to find the results were similar to larger and more inclusive studies.

Bain, S., Fedynich, L. & Knight, M. Fried, C. B. (2009). The successful graduate student: a review of the factors for success. Journal of Academic and Business Ethics, 3, 1-9.


The main limitations of the current study were, first, that we did not measure the self-regulatory mechanisms, personality dimensions, or contextual factors that could underlie participants’ emotional experiences and mediate or moderate the obtained associations between affective patterns and success
(e.g., goal regulation processes, Heckhausen et al., 2010; reappraisal vs. suppression strategies, Gross & John, 2003; traitconsistent affect, Tamir, Robinson, & Clore, 2002).

Barker, E. T., Howard, A. L., Galambos, N. L. & Wrosch, C. (2016). Tracking affect and academic success across university: Happy students benefit from bouts of negative mood. Developmental Psychology, 52, 2022–2030.



The primary limitation to the generalization of these results is ...

Many limitations exist in the current study beginning with ...

One of the limitations of this study had to do with the ...

The main limitations of the current study were ...

The most obvious limitation in this research was the ...

There are two major limitations in this study that could be addressed in future research. First, the study focused on  …. Second ….

As with the majority of studies, the design of the current study is subject to limitations.

This research though is subject to several limitations.


The study was further limited by the ...

The research findings of this study were limited by ...

The results of the present study are also limited due to the fact that ...


The nature of our sample makes it difficult to generalise results to ...

See: Writing Functions 11: DiscussingWriting Functions 12: EvaluatingWriting Functions 16: Reasons