Quantitative Skills > Teaching Methods > Understanding Uncertainty

Understanding Uncertainty

Developed by Keith Sverdrup, Bob MacKay, and Swarn Gill in conjunction with the 2004 Workshop
Histogram created with Online Statistical software. Details

Students often encounter problems understanding measurement uncertainty, how this uncertainty influences results calculated from measurements, and how to appropriately report their data and results to reflect these uncertainties. This Module is designed to help you teach your geoscience students about these important issues.


Uncertainty is inherent in any measurement. Students must learn how to both minimize uncertainty and how to honestly report the uncertainty associated with all measured or calculated values.


"Everything is vague to a degree you do not realize till you have tried to make it precise."
Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) "The Philosophy of Logical Atomism"


The precision of numerical data can be influenced by such factors as instrumentation, personal, and environmental conditions. Teaching students how to appropriately report data and associated calculations is an extremely important learning objective in any geoscience program.
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The propagation of errors in individual mathematical operations, such as addition, multiplication, raising numbers to powers, etc. can be determined with specific analytical formulas.
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Precision and accuracy are often used synonymously but they are in fact different things. It is possible to have very precise measurements that are not at all accurate.
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Anytime data is presented in class, it is important that students understand the errors associated with that data.
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