What Is the Difference Between a Control Variable and Control Group?

Man checking on plants during an experiment

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In experiments, controls are factors that you hold constant or don't expose to the condition you are testing. By creating a control, you make it possible to determine whether the variables alone are responsible for an outcome. Although control variables and the control group serve the same purpose, the terms refer to two different types of controls which are used for different kinds of experiments.

Why Experimental Controls Are Necessary

A student places a seedling in a dark closet, and the seedling dies. The student now knows what happened to the seedling, but he doesn't know why. Perhaps the seedling died from lack of light, but it might also have died because it was already sickly, or because of a chemical kept in the closet, or for any number of other reasons. 

In order to determine why the seedling died, it is necessary to compare that seedling's outcomes to another identical seedling outside the closet. If the closeted seedling died while the seedling kept in sunshine stayed alive, it's reasonable to hypothesize that darkness killed the closeted seedling. 

Even if the closeted seedling died while the seedling placed in sunshine lived, the student would still have unresolved questions about her experiment. Might there be something about the particular seedlings that caused the results she saw? For example, might one seedling have been healthier than the other to start with?

To answer all of her questions, the student might choose to put several identical seedlings in a closet and several in the sunshine. If at the end of a week, all of the closeted seedlings are dead while all of the seedlings kept in​ the sunshine are alive, it is reasonable to conclude that the darkness killed the seedlings.

Definition of a Control Variable

A control variable is any factor you control or hold constant during an experiment. A control variable is also called a controlled variable or constant variable. 

If you are studying the effect of the amount of water on seed germination, control variables might include temperature, light, and type of seed. In contrast, there may be variables you can't easily control, such as humidity, noise, vibration, and magnetic fields.

Ideally, a researcher wants to control every variable, but this isn't always possible. It's a good idea to note all recognizable variables in a lab notebook for reference.

Definition of a Control Group

A control group is a set of experimental samples or subjects that are kept separate and aren't exposed to the independent variable.

In an experiment to determine whether zinc helps people recover faster from a cold, the experimental group would be people taking zinc, while the control group would be people taking a placebo (not exposed to extra zinc, the independent variable).

A controlled experiment is one in which every parameter is held constant except for the experimental (independent) variable. Usually, controlled experiments have control groups. Sometimes a controlled experiment compares a variable against a standard.

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Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "What Is the Difference Between a Control Variable and Control Group?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/difference-between-control-variable-and-group-609102. Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. (2020, August 27). What Is the Difference Between a Control Variable and Control Group? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/difference-between-control-variable-and-group-609102 Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "What Is the Difference Between a Control Variable and Control Group?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/difference-between-control-variable-and-group-609102 (accessed March 22, 2023).