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What is Descriptive and Inferential Statistics

Descriptive Statistics

Descriptive statistics is the term given to the analysis of data that helps describe, show or summarize data in a meaningful way such that, for example, patterns might emerge from the data. Descriptive statistics do not, however, allow us to make conclusions beyond the data we have analysed or reach conclusions regarding any hypotheses we might have made. They are simply a way to describe our data.

Descriptive statistics are very important because if we simply presented our raw data it would be hard to visualize what the data was showing, especially if there was a lot of it. Descriptive statistics therefore enables us to present the data in a more meaningful way, which allows simpler interpretation of the data. For example, if we had the results of 100 pieces of students’ coursework, we may be interested in the overall performance of those students. We would also be interested in the distribution or spread of the marks. Descriptive statistics allow us to do this.

Two general types of statistic that are used to describe data:

Measures of central tendency: these are ways of describing the central position of a frequency distribution for a group of data. In this case, the frequency distribution is simply the distribution and pattern of marks scored by the 100 students from the lowest to the highest. We can describe this central position using a number of statistics, including the mode, median, and mean. You can read about measures of central tendency here.

Measures of spread: these are ways of summarizing a group of data by describing how spread out the scores are. For example, the mean score of our 100 students may be 65 out of 100. However, not all students will have scored 65 marks. Rather, their scores will be spread out. Some will be lower and others higher. Measures of spread help us to summarize how spread out these scores are. To describe this spread, a number of statistics are available to us, including the range, quartiles, absolute deviation, variance and standard deviation.

When we use descriptive statistics it is useful to summarize our group of data using a combination of tabulated description (i.e., tables), graphical description (i.e., graphs and charts) and statistical commentary (i.e., a discussion of the results).

Inferential Statistics:

Inferential statistics use a random sample of data taken from a population to describe and make inferences about the population. Inferential statistics are valuable when examination of each member of an entire population is not convenient or possible. For example, to measure the diameter of each nail that is manufactured in a mill is impractical. You can measure the diameters of a representative random sample of nails. You can use the information from the sample to make generalizations about the diameters of all of the nails.

What are the strengths of using descriptive statistics to examine a distribution of scores?

Other than the clarity with which descriptive statistics can clarify large volumes of data, there are no uncertainties about the values you get (other than only measurement error, etc.).

What are the limitations of descriptive statistics?

Descriptive statistics are limited in so much that they only allow you to make summations about the people or objects that you have actually measured. You cannot use the data you have collected to generalize to other people or objects (i.e., using data from a sample to infer the properties/parameters of a population). For example, if you tested a drug to beat cancer and it worked in your patients, you cannot claim that it would work in other cancer patients only relying on descriptive statistics (but inferential statistics would give you this opportunity).


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