Teaching mathematics
Teaching mathematics

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

2.2 Analysing data using measures of central tendency and spread

The mean, median and mode are measures of central tendency. Each of these averages gives an indication of the typical or central value in the data set.

The range is a measure of spread. It tells us how much a data sample is spread out or scattered.

These measures can be used to summarise a data set and help us to make conclusions about what the data shows.

The mean

The mean is the most common measure of average. To calculate the mean, add the numbers together and divide the total by the amount of numbers:

Mean = sum of numbers ÷ amount of numbers

Activity 8 Sharing sweets fairly

Timing: Allow 5 minutes

Three friends have each been given some sweets (Figure 10).

Peter has 3 sweets, Aisha has 8 sweets and Holly has 1 sweet.

How could the sweets be shared fairly between the three friends?

A photo showing three children in Halloween outfits holding sweets.
Figure 10 Sharing sweets with friends


This question is asking for the mean average. Between the 3 children there are 12 sweets. Dividing this by 3 would mean that each friend receives 4 sweets.

The mean average is 4.

Activity 9 Reflecting

Timing: Allow 5 minutes

How would you present the question above to your learners?

How would you help them to understand what the mean represents?


Using concrete resources such as counters, cubes or coins can help learners to understand the concept of the mean average (Figure 11). They can physically move the objects to share them out evenly.

Finding the mean with concrete resources
Figure 11 Finding the mean with concrete resources

This can become more challenging when learners are required to find fractions of amounts.

For example:

If four learners have 3, 5, 4 and 2 cubes respectively, what is the mean number of cubes?

3 + 5 + 4 + 2 = 14

14 ÷ 4 = 3½

IIn this example, cubes could be used to show that each learner gets 3 cubes and that there are 2 cubes left over. Depending on the age and experience of the learners, they can then record the mean as 3 remainder 2, or they can discuss how to share the remaining two cubes between four.

It can be helpful to have objects which can be split in half, when working on problems like this for the first time, including edible resources!

Another way would be to use pictorial representations of the problem (see Figures 12 to 14).

A diagram which represents the number of sweets each child has
Figure 12 A diagram which represents the number of sweets each child has
Described image
Figure 13 All sweets together
All sweets shared equally between three children
Figure 14 All sweets shared equally between three children

With pictorial representations, halves, quarters and other fractions can be represented more easily.

The mode

The mode is the value that occurs most often.

The mode is the only average that can have more than one value.

When finding the mode, it helps to order the numbers first.

For example, here are the ages of a group of learners:

10, 8, 11, 9, 10, 12, 13, 11, 10, 11

Putting them in order, from smallest to largest, we have:

8, 9, 10, 10, 10, 11, 11, 11, 12, 13

There are three 10s and three 11s, so there are two modes.

We can call this data set bi-modal. The mode is 10 and 11.

The median

The median is the middle number in an ordered set.

If there are two middle numbers, the median is the mean of those two numbers.

For example, using the same ordered set of data as above, the two middle numbers are 10 and 11, so the median is 10.5 (Figure 15)

A diagram showing how the median is calculated.
Figure 15 Calculating the median

The median is the mean of the two middle values 10 and 11. So the median is 10.5.

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371