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What Is an Independent Variable in Quantitative Research?

Updated April 25, 2017

By Kenneth W. Michael Wills

The foundations of quantitative research are variables and there are three main types:
dependent, independent and controlled. The researcher will manipulate an
independent variable in an effort to understand its effect on the dependent or
controlled variable. In other cases when manipulation is not an option, the
independent variable is presumed to have an effect on the dependent variable and is
called a “status variable” but often treated as an independent variable. However, to
draw precise conclusions about the effects of an independent variable, the scientist
must use a controlled variable for consistency.


An independent variable is a variable in research that causes a change -- or is

presumed will cause a change -- to other variables in the research conducted.
Scientists can control the independent variable to monitor those changes or he can
presume a change and look for evidence of those changes to the other variables.

How it Works

Let’s say a researcher wants to study the growth of coffee beans. The dependent
variables of such study include the number of coffee beans used, the weight of the
plants, height of the plant, the size of the leaves and time it takes for the plant to

The independent variables will impact the results of the dependent variable. Those
variables may include the amount of water present, the use of fertilizer, the amount of
fertilizer used, and temperature; the amount of exposure to sunlight will also affect the
dependent variables.

Controlled Variable Importance

If a scientist wants to monitor how two different types of fertilizer (independent

variables) effect the growth of the coffee beans, he will need to control all other
variables. First he must use the same kind of coffee beans and the same amount of
fertilizer to grow both sets of plants. He will need to make to make sure both sets are
exposed to the exactly the same amount of water, sunlight and temperatures. These
are all controlled variables for the research.

Status Variable

In some situations a researcher cannot manipulate an independent variable, although

it may have an effect on the dependent variable. As a technical term scientists may
refer to this independent variable as a status variable, but still treat it as an
independent variable to further research and record results.

For example, if a social scientist is attempting a quantitative study on cigarette

smoking and lung cancer, he cannot manipulate ethnicity of gender of individual
subjects; although he suspects both independent variables may affect the body’s
reaction to cigarette smoking. These are labeled as status variables and the scientist
may look for consistent effects in both gender and ethnicity, while comparing those
results to other ethnicities and the opposite gender, to ascertain the impact of the
independent variable.

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Quantitative Variables
Because quantitative methodology requires measurement, the concepts being investigated need to be defined in a
way that can be measured. Organizational change, reading comprehension, emergency response, or depression are
concepts but they cannot be measured as such. Frequency of organizational change, reading comprehension scores,
emergency response time, or types of depression can be measured. They are variables (concepts that can vary).

Quantitative research involves many kinds of variables. There are four main types:

 Independent variables (IV).

 Dependent variables (DV).
 Sample variables.
 Extraneous variables.
Each is discussed below.

Independent Variables (IV)

Independent variables (IV) are those that are suspected of being the cause in a causal relationship. If you are asking
a cause and effect question, your IV will be the variable (or variables if more than one) that you suspect causes the

There are two main sorts of IV, active independent variables and attribute independent variables:

 Active IV are interventions or conditions that are being applied to the participants. A special tutorial for the third
graders, a new therapy for clients, or a new training program being tested on employees would be active IVs.
 Attribute IV are intrinsic characteristics of the participants that are suspected of causing a result. For example, if
you are examining whether gender—which is intrinsic to the participants—results in higher or lower scores on
some skill, gender is an attribute IV.
 Both types of IV can have what are called levels. For example:
o In the example above, the active IV special tutorial, receiving the tutorial is one level, and tutorial
withheld (control) is a second level.
o In the same example, being a third grader would be an attribute IV. It could be defined as only one level—
being in third grade—or you might wish to define it with more than one level, such as first half of third
grade and second half of third grade. Indeed, that attribute IV could take many more, for example, if you
wished to look at each month of third grade.
Independent variables are frequently called different things depending on the nature of the research question. In
predictive questions where a variable is thought to predict another but it is not yet appropriate to ask whether
it causes the other, the IV is usually called a predictor or criterion variable rather than an independent variable.

Dependent Variables (DV)

Dependent variables are those that are influenced by the independent variables. If you ask,"Does A cause [or predict
or influence or affect, and so on] B?," then B is the dependent variable (DV).

 Dependent variables are variables that depend on or are influenced by the independent variables.
 They are outcomes or results of the influence of the independent variable.
 Dependent variables answer the question: What do I observe happening when I apply the intervention?
 The dependent variable receives the intervention.
In questions where full causation is not assumed, such as a predictive question or a question about differences
between groups but no manipulation of an IV, the dependent variables are usually called outcome variables, and the
independent variables are usually called the predictor or criterion variables.

Sample Variables
In some studies, some characteristic of the participants must be measured for some reason, but that characteristic is
not the IV or the DV. In this case, these are called sample variables. For example, suppose you are investigating
whether servant leadership style affects organizational performance and successful financial outcomes. In order to
obtain a sample of servant leaders, a standard test of leadership style will be administered. So the presence or
absence of servant leadership style will be a sample variable. That score is not used as an IV or a DV, but simply to
get the appropriate people into the sample.

When there is no measure of a characteristic of the participants, the characteristic is called a "sample characteristic."
When the characteristic must be measured, it is called a "sample variable."

Extraneous Variables
Extraneous variables are not of interest to the study but may influence the dependent variable. For this reason, most
quantitative studies attempt to control extraneous variables. The literature should inform you what extraneous
variables to account for.

There is a special class of extraneous variables called confounding variables. These are variables that can cause the
effect we are looking for if they are not controlled for, resulting in a false finding that the IV is effective when it is not.
In a study of changes in skill levels in a group of workers after a training program, if the follow-up measure is taken
relatively late after the training, the simple effect of practicing the skills might explain improved scores, and the
training might be mistakenly thought to be successful when it was not.

There are many details about variables not covered in this handout. Please consult any text on research methods for
a more comprehensive review.

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Updated April 20, 2018

By Maria Cook
The scientific method involves asking a question, doing research, forming a
hypothesis and testing the hypothesis via an experiment, so that the results can be
analyzed. Every successful science experiment must include specific types of
variables. There must be an independent variable, which changes throughout the
course of an experiment; a dependent variable, which is observed and measured; and
a controlled variable, also known as the "constant" variable, which must remain
consistent and unchanging throughout the experiment. Even though the controlled or
constant variable in an experiment does not change, it is every bit as important to the
success of a science experiment as the other variables.

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)

TL;DR: In a science experiment, the controlled or constant variable is a variable that

does not change. For example, in an experiment to test the effect of different lights on
plants, other factors that affect plant growth and health, such as soil quality and
watering, would need to remain constant.

Example of an Independent Variable

Let's say that a scientist is performing an experiment to test the effect of different
lighting on houseplants. In this case, the lighting itself would be the independent
variable, because it is the variable that the scientist is actively changing, over the
course of the experiment. Whether the scientist is using different bulbs or altering the
amount of light given to the plants, the light is the variable being altered, and is
therefore the independent variable.

Example of a Dependent Variable

Dependent variables are the traits that a scientist observes, in relation to the
independent variable. In other words, the dependent variable changes depending on
the alterations made to the independent variable. In the houseplant experiment, the
dependent variables would be the properties of the plants themselves, which the
scientist is observing in relation to the changing light. These properties might include
the plants' color, height and general health.

Example of a Controlled Variable

A controlled or constant variable does not change throughout the course of an

experiment. It is vitally important that every scientific experiment include a controlled
variable; otherwise, the conclusions of an experiment are impossible to understand.
For example, in the houseplant experiment, controlled variables might be things such
as the the quality of soil and the amount of water given to the plants. If these factors
were not constant, and certain plants received more water or better soil than others,
then there would be no way for the scientist to be sure that the plants weren't
changing based on those factors instead of the different kinds of light. A plant might be
healthy and green because of the amount of light it received, or it could be because it
was given more water than the other plants. In this case, it would be impossible to
draw proper conclusions based on the experiment.

However, if all plants are given the same amount of water and the same quality of soil,
then the scientist can be sure that any changes from one plant to another are due to
changes made to the independent variable: the light. Even though the controlled
variable did not change and was not the variable actually being tested, it allowed the
scientist to observe the cause-and-effect relationship between plant health and
different types of lighting. In other words, it allowed for a successful scientific

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