The Box-and-Whisker Plot For Grown-Ups: A How-to

Author’s note: This post is a follow-up to the webinar, Percentiles and How to Interpret a Box-and-Whisker Plot, which I created with Eva Murray and Andy Kriebel. You can read more on the topic of percentiles in my previous posts.

No, You Aren’t Crazy.

That box-and-whisker plot (or, boxplot) you learned to read/create in grade school probably IS different from the one you see presented in the adult world.

versions

The boxplot on the top originated as the Range Bar, published by Mary Spear in the 1950’s. While the boxplot on the bottom was a modification created by John Tukey to account for outliers. Source: Hadley Wickham

As a former math and statistics teacher, I can tell you that (depending on your state/country curriculum and textbooks, of course) you most likely learned how to read and create the former boxplot (or, “range bar”) in school for simplicity. Unless you took an upper-level stats course in grade school or at University, you may have never encountered Tukey’s boxplot in your studies at all.

You see, teachers like to introduce concepts in small chunks. While this is usually a helpful strategy, students lose when the full concept is never developed. In this post I walk you through the range bar AND connect that concept to the boxplot, linking what you’ve learned in grade school to the topics of the present.

The Kid-Friendly Version: The Range Bar

In this example, I’m comparing the lifespans of a small, non-random set of animals. I chose this set of animals based solely on convenience of icons. Meaning, conclusions can only be drawn on animals for which Anna Foard has an icon. I note this important detail because, when dealing with this small, non-random sample, one cannot infer conclusions on the entire population of all animals.

1) Find the quartiles, starting with the median

Quartiles break the dataset into 4 quarters. Q1, median, Q3 are (approximately) located at the 25th, 50th, and 75th percentiles, respectively.

Finding the median requires finding the middle number when values are ordered from least to greatest. When there is an even number of data points, the two numbers in the middle are averaged.

median
Here the median is the average of the cat and dog’s longevity. NOTE: If, with an even set of values the two in the middle were different, the lower of the two values would be in the 50th percentile and would not be the same measure as the median.

Once the median has been located, find the other quartiles in the same way: The middle value in the bottom set of values (Q1), then the middle value in the top set (Q3).

quartiles
Here we can easily see when quartiles don’t match up exactly with percentiles: Even thought Q1 = 8.5, the duck (7) is in the 25th percentile while the pig is above the 25th percentile. And the sheep is in the 75th percentile despite the value of 17.5 at Q3.

2) Use the Five Number Summary to create the Range Bar

The first and third quartiles build the “box”, with the median represented by a line inside the box. The “whiskers” extend to the minimum and maximum values in the dataset:

range bar

But without the points:

animal box no points

The Range Bar probably looks similar to the first box-and-whisker plot you created in grade school. If you have children, it is most likely the first version of the box-and-whisker plot that they will encounter.

school example
from elementary school Pinterest

Suggestion:

Since the kid’s version of the boxplot does not show outliers, I propose teachers call this version, “The Range Bar” as it was originally dubbed, to not confuse those reading the chart. After all, someone looking at this version of a boxplot may not realize it does not account for outliers and may draw the wrong conclusion.

The Adult Version: The Boxplot

The only difference between the range bar and the boxplot is the view of outliers. Since this version requires a basic understanding of the concept of outliers and a stronger mathematical literacy, it is generally introduced in a high school or college statistics course.

1) Calculate the IQR

The interquartile range is the difference, or spread, between the third and first quartile reflecting the middle 50% of the dataset. The IQR builds the “box” portion of the boxplot.

IQR 2

2) Multiply the IQR by 1.5

IQR

3) Determine a threshold for outliers – the “fences”

1.5*IQR is then subtracted from the lower quartile and added to the upper quartile to determine a boundary or “fences” between non-outliers and outliers.

IQR 1

4) Consider values beyond the fences outliers

outliers

Since no animals’ lifespans are below -5 years, it is not possible for a low-value outlier in this particular set of data; however, one animal in this dataset lives beyond 31 years – an outlier in higher values.

5) Build the boxplot

Here we find the modification on the “range bar” – the whiskers only extend as far as non-outlier values. Outliers are denoted by a dot (or star).

boxplot 12
The adult version also allows us to apply technology, so I left the points in the view to enhance the distribution’s view.

Advantage: Boxplot

In an academic setting, I use boxplots a great deal. When teaching AP Statistics, they are helpful to visualize the data quickly by hand as they only require summary statistics (and outliers). They also help students compare and visualize center, spread, and shape (to a degree).

When we get into the inference portion of AP Stats, students must verify assumptions for certain inference procedures — often those procedures require data symmetry and/or absence of outliers in a sample. The boxplot is a quick way for a student to verify assumptions by hand, under time constraints. When coaching doctoral candidates through the dissertation stats, similar assumptions are verified to check for outliers — using boxplots.

TI83plus
My portable visualization tool

Boxplot Advantages:

  • Summarizes variation in large datasets visually
  • Shows outliers
  • Compares multiple distributions
  • Indicates symmetry and skewness to a degree
  • Simple to sketch
  • Fun to say

laser tag competitive analysis
I took my students on a field trip to play laser tag. Here, boxplots help compare the distributions of tags by type AND compare how Coach B measures up to the students.


So What Could Go Wrong?

Unfortunately, boxplots have their share of disadvantages as well.

Consider:

A boxplot may show summary statistics well; however, clusters and multimodality are hidden.

In addition, a consumer of your boxplot who isn’t familiar with the measures required to construct one will have difficulty making heads or tails of it. This is especially true when your resulting boxplot looks like this:

example q2 and q3 equal
The median value is equal to the upper quartile. Would someone unfamiliar recognize this?

Or this:

example no upper
The upper quartile is the maximum non-outlier value in this set of data.

Or what about this?

example no whiskers
No whiskers?! Dataset values beyond the quartiles are all outliers.


Boxplot Disadvantages:

  • Hides the multimodality and other features of distributions
  • Confusing for some audiences
  • Mean often difficult to locate
  • Outlier calculation too rigid – “outliers” may be industry-based or case-by-case

Variations

Over the course of the years, multiple boxplot variations have been created to display parts (or all) of the distribution’s shape and features.

no whisker
No Whisker Box Plot Source: Andy Kriebel

Going For It

Box-and-whisker plots may be helpful for your specific use case, though not intuitive for all audiences. It may be helpful to include a legend or annotations to help the consumer understand the boxplot.

boxplot overview

Check Yourself: Ticket out the Door

No cheating! Without looking back through this post, check your own understanding of boxplots. Answer can be found on the #MakeoverMonday webinar I recorded with Eva Murray a couple weeks ago.

data quiz

Cartoon Source: xkcd

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