Types of Variable

All experiments examine some kind of variable(s). A variable is not only something that we measure, but also something that we can manipulate and something we can control for. To understand the characteristics of variables and how we use them in research, this guide is divided into three main sections. First, we illustrate the role of dependent and independent variables. Second, we discuss the difference between experimental and non-experimental research. Finally, we explain how variables can be characterised as either categorical or continuous.

Dependent and Independent Variables

An independent variable, sometimes called an experimental or predictor variable, is a variable that is being manipulated in an experiment in order to observe the effect on a dependent variable, sometimes called an outcome variable.

Imagine that a tutor asks 100 students to complete a maths test. The tutor wants to know why some students perform better than others. Whilst the tutor does not know the answer to this, she thinks that it might be because of two reasons: (1) some students spend more time revising for their test; and (2) some students are naturally more intelligent than others. As such, the tutor decides to investigate the effect of revision time and intelligence on the test performance of the 100 students. The dependent and independent variables for the study are:

Dependent Variable: Test Mark (measured from 0 to 100)

Independent Variables: Revision time (measured in hours) Intelligence (measured using IQ score)

The dependent variable is simply that, a variable that is dependent on an independent variable(s). For example, in our case the test mark that a student achieves is dependent on revision time and intelligence. Whilst revision time and intelligence (the independent variables) may (or may not) cause a change in the test mark (the dependent variable), the reverse is implausible; in other words, whilst the number of hours a student spends revising and the higher a student's IQ score may (or may not) change the test mark that a student achieves, a change in a student's test mark has no bearing on whether a student revises more or is more intelligent (this simply doesn't make sense).

Therefore, the aim of the tutor's investigation is to examine whether these independent variables - revision time and IQ - result in a change in the dependent variable, the students' test scores. However, it is also worth noting that whilst this is the main aim of the experiment, the tutor may also be interested to know if the independent variables - revision time and IQ - are also connected in some way.

In the section on experimental and non-experimental research that follows, we find out a little more about the nature of independent and dependent variables.

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Experimental and Non-Experimental Research

Categorical and Continuous Variables

Categorical variables are also known as discrete or qualitative variables. Categorical variables can be further categorized as either nominal, ordinal or dichotomous.


Continuous variables are also known as quantitative variables. Continuous variables can be further categorized as either interval or ratio variables.

Ambiguities in classifying a type of variable

In some cases, the measurement scale for data is ordinal, but the variable is treated as continuous. For example, a Likert scale that contains five values - strongly agree, agree, neither agree nor disagree, disagree, and strongly disagree - is ordinal. However, where a Likert scale contains seven or more value - strongly agree, moderately agree, agree, neither agree nor disagree, disagree, moderately disagree, and strongly disagree - the underlying scale is sometimes treated as continuous (although where you should do this is a cause of great dispute).

It is worth noting that how we categorise variables is somewhat of a choice. Whilst we categorised gender as a dichotomous variable (you are either male or female), social scientists may disagree with this, arguing that gender is a more complex variable involving more than two distinctions, but also including measurement levels like genderqueer, intersex and transgender. At the same time, some researchers would argue that a Likert scale, even with seven values, should never be treated as a continuous variable.