Understanding and Using Statistical Methods
Statistics is a set of tools used to organize and analyze data. Data must either be numeric in origin or transformed by researchers into numbers. For instance, statistics could be used to analyze percentage scores English students receive on a grammar test: the percentage scores ranging from 0 to 100 are already in numeric form. Statistics could also be used to analyze grades on an essay by assigning numeric values to the letter grades, e.g., A=4, B=3, C=2, D=1, and F=0.
Employing statistics serves two purposes, (1) description and (2) prediction. Statistics are used to describe the characteristics of groups. These characteristics are referred to as variables. Data is gathered and recorded for each variable. Descriptive statistics can then be used to reveal the distribution of the data in each variable.
Statistics is also frequently used for purposes of prediction. Prediction is based on the concept of generalizability: if enough data is compiled about a particular context (e.g., students studying writing in a specific set of classrooms), the patterns revealed through analysis of the data collected about that context can be generalized (or predicted to occur in) similar contexts. The prediction of what will happen in a similar context is probabilistic. That is, the researcher is not certain that the same things will happen in other contexts; instead, the researcher can only reasonably expect that the same things will happen.
Prediction is a method employed by individuals throughout daily life. For instance, if writing students begin class every day for the first half of the semester with a five-minute freewriting exercise, then they will likely come to class the first day of the second half of the semester prepared to again freewrite for the first five minutes of class. The students will have made a prediction about the class content based on their previous experiences in the class: Because they began all previous class sessions with freewriting, it would be probable that their next class session will begin the same way. Statistics is used to perform the same function; the difference is that precise probabilities are determined in terms of the percentage chance that an outcome will occur, complete with a range of error. Prediction is a primary goal of inferential statistics.