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Understanding data

Find out how to use data tables and graphs, and what to do with the information you extract

Learning to identify and use data could be a key part of your degree, depending on your subject. 

Essential things to look for in a table or graph

 

What to look at Things to consider for later analysis
What exactly is being shown – people, objects, events? Does the information help me draw wider conclusions?
How are items measured, and in what units? Does the scale use absolute numbers, or proportions (like a percentage)?
Where (geographically) does the data come from? Does the geographical location impact the data? Would results from elsewhere be different? 
When was the data generated?  When does the data refer to?  Is the data up-to-date? Does it need to be? Would this data be different in other time periods?
Who compiled the data? Was it an organisation or an individual?  How authoritative is the compiler? Do I think they have any bias, or are trying to persuade me of something?

Prompts for describing, interpreting and analysing data

Questions to help you interpret data: 

  • What is the range of data (highest and lowest values)?
  • Can you see any trends? What kind of trends can you see?
  • Are there clusters of data/groups of similar values? How do the clusters compare with each other?
  • Are there anomalies that don't fit the trends or clusters?
  • How does the data compare to similar data from other places, or to similar data on a different scale?
  • How does the data compare with similar data from other time periods? 

Most importantly: 

  • What possible explanations, if any, can you give for any patterns you find?

Download our basic data interpretation revision sheet

Download this page as a PDF for your data interpretation revision notes.

Using data

You can use figures, tables and charts to explain your results or the research of others. Limit the tables and graphs you include in your assignment and focus on presenting the significant data relevant to your study. 

Structuring your data commentary 

There are different ways to structure your data commentary in your assignments, but you could:  

  • introduce the general subject of the data, main trend and any obvious features, including the range of data
  • write about any trends and clusters of data or grouping of similar values and how they compare to each other – you can compare and contrast aspects of your data to define significant features
  • discuss reasons for singular anomalies that don't fit into patterns
  • contrast your data against measured research with similar aims to explain the anomalies
  • make deductions, implications and reasons for any significant features as long as it is supported by cited research

Adapted from: McCormack, J and Slaght, J. (2008) Extended Writing and Research Skills Reading: Garnet

Download our using basic data revision sheet

Download this page as a PDF for using data notes.

Do you want help with interpreting and using data?

We can help. Book your Academic Skills Unit (ASK) tutorial now at academicskills@port.ac.uk

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