Numerical Measures of Central Tendency and Variability

Measures of Variability

What is Variability?

Variability refers to how "spread out" a group of scores is. To see what we mean by spread out, consider graphs in Figure 1. These graphs represent the scores on two quizzes. The mean score for each quiz is \mathrm{7.0}. Despite the equality of means, you can see that the distributions are quite different. Specifically, the scores on Quiz 1 are more densely packed and those on Quiz 2 are more spread out. The differences among students were much greater on Quiz 2 than on Quiz 1.

Quiz 1

Quiz 2

Figure 1. Bar charts of two quizzes.

The terms variability, spread, and dispersion are synonyms, and refer to how spread out a distribution is. Just as in the section on central tendency where we discussed measures of the center of a distribution of scores, in this chapter we will discuss measures of the variability of a distribution. There are four frequently used measures of variability: the range, interquartile range, variance, and standard deviation. In the next few paragraphs, we will look at each of these four measures of variability in more detail.