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Discrete vs. Continuous Data

Discrete vs. Continuous Data

Author: Katherine Williams

Differentiate between discrete and continuous data.

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This tutorial covers continuous and discrete data. Continuous data is data that can be measured as finely as is practical. Some examples are temperature, time, and weight.

So with temperature, we typically say, oh, it's 98 degrees out. But you could use a decimal. You could say, it's 98.4 degrees out, or we talk about the common average temperature of a human is 98.6. If we needed to, we could measure that even more finely. We could say it's 98.62 if we had a thermometer that measured in that way. So because we can keep getting finer and finer measurements, this is continuous data.

Similarly with time, you could report something in hours. That took me 2 hours to do. But you could break it down further, an hour and 52 minutes or an hour and 52 minutes and 13 seconds. So because you can keep breaking it further and further down, it's continuous. Some scientists even get down to the millionth of a second or even further when you're talking about how fast the atomic speed is or what an atomic clock measures. So even though we stop at a point, you can still keep breaking time further and further down.

Finally, with weight, you can report weight in pounds, or you could go to ounces, or even those teeny, tiny grams. Again, because we can measure as finally as we possibly can, these are all types of continuous data.

On the other hand, we have discrete data. Discrete data is measured in chunks, in integral amounts. It's easy to distinguish one piece from the next piece. So for example, people-- we measure in whole people. I am one person. You are another person. So together, those are two people. We don't really talk about 1/2 of a person. So people is a piece of discrete data.

Similarly, the number of items produced-- maybe a company made 500 TVs. If they made 500 and 1/2 TVs, yes, it's possible to get halfway through the process of making a television. But that doesn't really help us. It doesn't make sense. You can't really do anything with that 1/2 of a television. So an item or something that we're producing is typically measured in a discrete unit, in a chunk. And so that's something that would be discrete.

Finally, cans of soda-- if you have a 12 pack of soda, you have 12 cans. That is a discrete, distinguished amount. Each can is its own thing. Sure, you can pour out 1/2 the can of soda and have 1/2 a can of soda, but it's not even really a full can. It's not exactly something that we would measure like that. You would say that you had one can. So that's, again, discrete. It's measured in a defined amount.

Let's sort some examples. In this example, we're going to pretend that we're running a muffin shop. Behind me, I have a set of variables that we might be looking at when we're running a muffin shop. We'll decide whether it's continuous data or discrete data.

The first example is the number of raisin used to make the muffin. Raisins are an item. They're a chunk. You could cut one in half, but really here, we're talking about solid, whole number things. So that's going to be discrete data.

The value of the muffins we sold-- value is reported in money, and money can be talked about in dollars or broken down into coins or cents. So because we can keep breaking the measurements down and get as fine as we possibly want to, that's continuous data.

The weight of the muffins-- weight, like we talked about before, is something that can be broken down into finer and finer measurements. So that's another type of continuous data.

The time to cook a tray of muffins-- we mentioned time before. Because we can break down further and further and further and measure it as finely as we want to, that's continuous data.

And our last example is muffins sold. When we talk about muffin sold, we're talking about the number of muffins we sold or the number of trays of muffins we sold. So that is a piece of discrete data. Even though it doesn't give us that hint with number of muffins sold, we can still use that clue to help us decide that it's discrete. You're not going to sell 1/2 of a muffin or 1/4 of a muffin, you're going to sell a whole muffin or two whole muffins. So that's another example of discrete data.

This has been your tutorial on continuous and discrete data.

Terms to Know
Continuous Data

Data that can take any value within an interval.

Discrete Data

Data that can only take so many different values.