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TEACHER TO TEACHER

Analyzing data with


mean absolute deviation
BY SUSAN GERMAN

T
eachers need to emphasize mousetrap car B is faster than the center. Although the variabil-
that when analyzing and mousetrap car A with no further ity between the mousetrap car
interpreting data, multiple analysis. Instead, students should data has some similarities or over-
trials produce the best test results. consider the range of each data lap, students struggle with mak-
Yet, students often struggle with set: 3.1–4 seconds for mousetrap ing the judgment call regarding
understanding the significance car A and 2.9–3.4 seconds for which mousetrap car is the fastest.
of this science and engineering mousetrap car B (see Figure 2). Mean absolute deviation
practice and the importance of The overlap in each data set (MAD), a Common Core State
averages, or arithmetic means, indicates that the difference be- Standard for grades 6–7, can help
that result from multiple trials. tween the arithmetic means is students decide whether the dif-
In my class, student groups insignificant. The two averages ference between two averages is
conduct multiple trials to find the are different, but the difference significant. Similar to standard
average time it takes for two dif- between the two may not be large deviation, MAD measures the
ferent mousetrap cars to travel enough to confidently proclaim variability of a data set. When I
5 m (16 ft.). Then, they try to de- that mousetrap car B has a faster introduce MAD to my students,
termine which design is faster by design than mousetrap car A due I assure them the only math they
using data they gathered (Figure to the variability in the data sets. need to know is addition, sub-
1). Typically, students proclaim Variability measures the distance traction, and division. The diffi-
that based on the two averages, the points in a data set are from culty lies in the multistep nature
of MAD. To prevent errors in the
computation, students should en-
| FIGURE 1: Trial run data for two different mousetrap ter the data in a spreadsheet and
use the spreadsheet’s formulas to
car designs
compute the results. This allows
students to spend more time ana-
Trial Mousetrap car A Mousetrap car B
lyzing the results and less time
(seconds) (seconds)
making computations.
1 3.2 3.1 Computing the MAD requires
2 3.1 2.9 students to complete three steps
(Figure 3). First, they compute the
3 3.5 3.2
average of the data points within
4 4.0 3.4 a set. Second, they subtract each
Average 3.5 3.2 data point from the average to

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| FIGURE 2: The range of the data sets “How consistent are our data?
Is it a tight group of values or a
wide group?” Taking into account
middle school students’ less-than-
perfect measuring skills, the data
are considered a tight group if the
variability is within 10% of the
average. If students suggest that
there is a greater variability in the
data set, I ask, “Why do the data
have wide variation?” Invariably,
students suggest the lack of care
when collecting measurements.
As a class, we discuss how to im-
prove their measurements, and
then students collect new data.
find the absolute value of that Materials for an answer key for Further data analysis will
difference. Finally, they find the the guided notes. reveal whether the difference
average of the absolute value. After the teacher-led dis- between two means is signifi-
To improve student learning, cussion, I ask students, “For cant and whether mousetrap car
I include a set of guided notes, mousetrap car A, the mean is B’s design makes it faster than
which are worksheets for stu- 3.5 seconds, and the MAD is 0.3 mousetrap car A. It takes two
dents to follow and complete as seconds. What does that mean?” steps to analyze the averages of
the teacher guides the discus- Students often fail to understand two data sets. First, subtract the
sion. Guided notes (see Online the meaning of the calculations, two averages:
Supplemental Materials) also though they understand the pro-
3.5 seconds - 3.2 seconds = 0.3 seconds.
allow students to focus on the cedures. I am looking for stu-
procedure and meaning of the dents to reply that most of the Then divide the difference
steps of MAD. The notes contain data can be found between 3.2 between the averages by each
reminder cues, instructions and seconds to 3.8 seconds. MAD:
examples of graphing and data Next, I ask students (first Car A: 0.3 seconds/0.3 seconds = 1
tables. See Online Supplemental about mousetrap car A, then B), Car B: 0.3 seconds/0.15 seconds = 2

| FIGURE 3: MAD data table


Trial Mousetrap Subtract Absolute Mousetrap Subtract Absolute
car A the value of the car B the value of the
(seconds) average difference (seconds) average difference
1 3.2 -3.5 = 0.3 3.1 -3.2 = 0.1
2 3.1 -3.5 = 0.4 2.9 -3.2 = 0.3
3 3.5 -3.5 = 0 3.2 -3.2 = 0
4 4.0 -3.5 = 0.5 3.4 -3.2 = 0.2
Average 3.5 MAD 0.3 3.2 MAD 0.15

April/May 2017 31
| FIGURE 4: Chart showing the MAD of the data The MAD (Figure 4) is the
spread in the data. A ratio is
formed when the difference be-
tween the two means is divided
by the variability of the data. The
ratio (1:2) reveals whether the data
are tightly grouped. In this case, a
small difference in averages divid-
ed by a large MAD created a small
ratio, indicating the two data sets
are not different. Conversely, the
smaller the MAD, the greater the
ratio, meaning that the two popu-
lations are more different.
The chart in Figure 5 shows that
the difference between the two
means is insignificant. The chart
is easy for students to understand.
For four trials, for instance, the ratio
| FIGURE 5: MAD chart

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TEACHER TO TEACHER

must be greater than 4.5 for the two with MAD, students can now see wanted to do one to three trials
data sets to be considered different. how the number of trials leads to for any investigation. Now, stu-
Therefore, students can confidently the best test results. dents are more apt to suggest five
say that the difference between the to seven trials when designing an
car designs did not produce a faster
Conclusion investigation. •
mousetrap car because the two av-
erages are insignificant. Using MAD to analyze results ACKNOWLEDGMENT
I would like to thank Matthew Mi-
At this point, I ask students, of a science inquiry helped stu-
rabello, a senior instructor at the
“How many trials are needed dents understand the importance
American Museum of Natural His-
to make a ratio of 2 significant?” of a control in their experimental
tory’s Urban Advantage program, for
After reading the chart, students design. A control shows whether
providing me with the chart used in
reply, “Seven.” I next ask, “How the independent variable has an
Figure 5.
many trials are needed to make effect on the dependent variable.
the ratio of 1 significant?” Stu- Furthermore, my students devel- ONLINE SUPPLEMENTAL
dents reply, “17.” The larger vari- oped a more informed view of sci- MATERIALS
ability in the data creates the need ence through MAD. Prior to using Guided notes, answer key—www.nsta.
for more trials. From data analysis MAD for data analysis, students org/scope1704

Susan German (sgerman@hallsville.org) is a science teacher at Hallsville R-IV School District in Hallsville, Missouri.

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April/May 2017 33
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