What Is a Variable in Science?

Understanding Variables in a Science Experiment

Solubility
In an experiment measuring the effect of temperature on solubility, the independent variable is temperature. Gyro Photography / Getty Images

Variables are an important part of science projects and experiments. What is a variable? Basically, a variable is any factor that can be controlled, changed, or measured in an experiment. Scientific experiments have several types of variables. The independent and dependent variables are the ones usually plotted on a chart or graph, but there are other types of variables you may encounter.

Types of Variables

  • Independent Variable

    The independent variable is the one condition that you change in an experiment.

    Example: In an experiment measuring the effect of temperature on solubility, the independent variable is temperature.

  • Dependent Variable

    The dependent variable is the variable that you measure or observe. The dependent variable gets its name because it is the factor that is dependent on the state of the independent variable.

    Example: In the experiment measuring the effect of temperature on solubility, solubility would be the dependent variable.

  • Controlled Variable

    A controlled variable or constant variable is a variable that does not change during an experiment.

    Example: In the experiment measuring the effect of temperature on solubility, controlled variable could include the source of water used in the experiment, the size and type of containers used to mix chemicals, and the amount of mixing time allowed for each solution.

  • Extraneous Variables
    Extraneous variables are "extra" variables that may influence the outcome of an experiment but aren't taken into account during measurement. Ideally, these variables won't impact the final conclusion drawn by the experiment, but they may introduce error into scientific results. If you are aware of any extraneous variables, you should enter them in your lab notebook. Examples of extraneous variables include accidents, factors you either can't control or can't measure or factors you consider unimportant. Every experiment has extraneous variables.

    Example: You are conducting an experiment to see which paper airplane design flies longest. You may consider the color of the paper to be an extraneous variable. You note in your lab book that different colors of papers were used. Ideally, this variable does not affect your outcome.

    Using Variables in Science Experiment

    In a science experiment, only one variable is changed (the independent variable) to test how this changes the dependent variable. The researcher may measure other factors that may either remain constant or else change during the course of the experiment, but are not believed to affect its outcome.

    These are controlled variables. Any other factors which might be changed if someone else conducted the experiment, but seemed unimportant, should also be noted. Also, any accidents that occur should be recorded. These are extraneous variables.