This post deals only with quantitative data.
When you have a quantitative dataset, it is always a good idea to look at a graphical display of it: usually a histogram or boxplot, although there are others. What you are looking to describe is the shape of the data (the subject of a recent post), the approximate center of the dataset, the spread of the values, and any unusual features (such as extremely low or high values -- outliers). We'll take them one at a time.
The shape of the dataset helps us determine how to report on the other features. We went into detail about shape in a very recent post ("The Shape of a Quantitative Distribution"). If the display is basically symmetric, you will use the mean to describe the center and a measure called the Standard deviation to describe the spread. If the display is non-symmetric, you will use the median to describe the center and the interquartile range to describe the spread. Here's a handy chart to summarize this.
In a symmetric distribution the mean and median are at approximately the same place; however, statisticians use the mean. In a non-symmetric distribution, the median is used because by its very definition, it is not calculated using any extreme points or points that skew the calculation.
Notice that the range (which is the difference between the largest and smallest data value in the set) is not generally used to describe the spread. In a symmetric distribution we use the standard deviation, which has a complicated formula but a simple description: the Standard Deviation is the average squared difference between each value in the dataset and the mean of the dataset. You can find the standard deviation using a graphing calculator or a tool like MS-Excel. The symbol for Standard Deviation is
Standard deviations are relative. By that I mean that you can't tell just by looking at its value whether it's large or small -- it depends on the values in the dataset. Standard deviations are good for comparing spreads if you have two distributions. And, we'll soon find out that the standard deviation has an extremely important use in statistics. Here's an example for finding the mean and standard deviation using MS-Excel:
In a non-symmetric distribution we use the Interquartile Range (IQR) because this tells the spread of the central 50% of the data values. Like the median, the IQR isn't influenced by outliers or skewness. Here's an example of finding the median and IQR using MS-Excel:
As mentioned above, unusual features include extreme points (if any), also known as outliers. In an earlier post, we covered how to determine the boundaries for outliers. If a data value lies outside the boundaries, we call it an outlier. If a value isn't quite an outlier but close, it's worth mentioning in a description of a distribution. Just call it an "extreme point."