The independent and dependent variables are key to any scientific experiment, but how do you tell them apart? Here are the definitions of independent and dependent variables, examples of each type, and tips for telling them apart and graphing them.
The independent variable is the factor the researcher changes or controls in an experiment. It is called independent because it does not depend on any other variable. The independent variable may be called the “controlled variable” because it is the one that is changed or controlled. This is different from the “control variable,” which is variable that is held constant so it won’t influence the outcome of the experiment.
The dependent variable is the factor that changes in response to the independent variable. It is the variable that you measure in an experiment. The dependent variable may be called the “responding variable.”
Examples of Independent and Dependent Variables
Here are several examples of independent and dependent variables in experiments:
- In a study to determine whether how long a student sleeps affects test scores, the independent variable is the length of time spent sleeping while the dependent variable is the test score.
- You want to know which brand of fertilizer is best for your plants. The brand of fertilizer is the independent variable. The health of the plants (height, amount and size of flowers and fruit, color) is the dependent variable.
- You want to compare brands of paper towels, to see which holds the most liquid. The independent variable is the brand of paper towel. The dependent variable is the volume of liquid absorbed by the paper towel.
- You suspect the amount of television a person watches is related to their age. Age is the independent variable. How many minutes or hours of television a person watches is the dependent variable.
- You think rising sea temperatures might affect the amount of algae in the water. The water temperature is the independent variable. The mass of algae is the dependent variable.
- In an experiment to determine how far people can see into the infrared part of the spectrum, the wavelength of light is the independent variable and whether the light is observed is the dependent variable.
- If you want to know whether caffeine affects your appetite, the presence/absence or amount of caffeine is the independent variable. Appetite is the dependent variable.
- You want to know which brand of microwave popcorn pops the best. The brand of popcorn is the independent variable. The number of popped kernels is the dependent variable. Of course, you could also measure the number of unpopped kernels instead.
- You want to determine whether a chemical is essential for rat nutrition, so you design an experiment. The presence/absence of the chemical is the independent variable. The health of the rat (whether it lives and reproduces) is the dependent variable. A follow-up experiment might determine how much of the chemical is needed. Here, the amount of chemical is the independent variable and the rat health is the dependent variable.
How to Tell the Independent and Dependent Variable Apart
If you’re having trouble identifying the independent and dependent variable, here are a few ways to tell them apart. First, remember the dependent variable depends on the independent variable. It helps to write out the variables as an if-then or cause-and-effect sentence that shows the independent variable causes an effect on the dependent variable. If you mix up the variables, the sentence won’t make sense.
Example: The amount of eat (independent variable) affects how much you weigh (dependent variable).
This makes sense, but if you write the sentence the other way, you can tell it’s incorrect:
Example: How much you weigh affects how much you eat.
(Well, it could make sense, but you can see it’s an entirely different experiment.)
If-then statements also work:
Example: If you change the color of light (independent variable), then it affects plant growth (dependent variable).
Switching the variables makes no sense:
Example: If plant growth rate changes, then it affects the color of light.
Sometimes you don’t control either variable, like when you gather data to see if there is a relationship between two factors. This can make identifying the variables a bit trickier, but establishing a logical cause and effect relationship helps:
Example: If you increase age (independent variable), then average salary increases (dependent variable).
If you switch them, the statement doesn’t make sense:
Example: If you increase salary, then age increases.
How to Graph Independent and Dependent Variables
Plot or graph independent and dependent variables using the standard method. The independent variable is the x-axis, while the dependent variable is the y-axis. Remember the acronym DRY MIX to keep the variables straight:
D = Dependent variable
R = Responding variable/
Y = Graph on the y-axis or vertical axis
M = Manipulated variable
I = Independent variable
X = Graph on the x-axis or horizontal axis
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