Continuous Variable in Statistics: Definition & Examples

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Elizabeth Weaver

Elizabeth has taught college Mathematics and has a master's degree in Mathematics.

When dealing with statistics, data can take many different forms. This lesson will explain what kind of data can be classified as continuous and how to determine if data gathered is continuous or something else.

Definition of a Continuous Variable

My niece once did a research project on popcorn and measured the time it took for bags of popcorn to stop popping. If you've ever made popcorn, you probably remember the time given on the package is just an estimate of the time it should take, but to really gauge when the popcorn is done, you listen for pops to slow to only one every couple of seconds. Each bag of popcorn is different, even if they're made by the same company.

By measuring the exact time it took for pops to slow down to the point of having two seconds in between each pop, my niece was able to collect several values of x, where x was the continuous variable that measured the time it took for a bag of popcorn to pop.

A continuous variable is a specific kind a quantitative variable used in statistics to describe data that is measurable in some way. If your data deals with measuring a height, weight, or time, then you have a continuous variable.

Let's further define a couple of the terms used in our definition. A variable in statistics is not quite the same as a variable in algebra. In statistics, a variable is something that gives us data. Some examples of variables in statistics might include age, eye color, height, number of siblings, gender, or number of pets. Our definition of a continuous variable also mentions that it's quantitative. Quantitative data involves quantities or numbers. In the examples of variables listed earlier, your age, height, number of siblings, and number of pets are all quantitative variables.

The definition also mentions that the data is measurable in some way. To understand this, you need to understand discrete variables. Data is considered to be discrete if the data is a count. When we count things, we use whole numbers like 0, 1, 2, and 3. My favorite example of a discrete variable is how many eggs a chicken lays. Each day a hen may or may not lay an egg, but there are two things that can never happen. There can never be a negative number of eggs, and there can never be a fraction or a portion of an egg.

Continuous variables are variables that measure something. My favorite example of a continuous variable is how many gallons of milk a cow gives. To the best of my knowledge, cows don't know how to stop producing or giving milk after exactly 4 gallons! Bessie may give 4.17 gallons on Monday, 3.89 gallons on Tuesday, and 4.2 gallons on Wednesday. Notice continuous variables allow us to have decimals, or fractions.

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