Confidence Intervals via graphs and CAS

Confidence intervals (CIs) are a challenging topic for many students, a task made more challenging, in my opinion, because many (most?) statistics texts approach CIs via z-scores.  While repeatedly calculating CI endpoints from standard deviations explains the underlying mathematical structure, it relies on an (admittedly simple) algebraic technique that predates classroom technology currently available for students on the AP Statistics exam.

Many (most?) statistics packages now include automatic CI commands.  Unfortunately for students just learning what a CI means, automatic commands can become computational “black boxes.”  Both CAS and graphing techniques offer a strong middle ground–enough foundation to reinforce what CIs mean with enough automation to avoid unnecessary symbol manipulation time.

In most cases, this is accomplished by understanding a normal cumulative distribution function (cdf) as a function, not just as an electronic substitute for normal probability tables of values.  In this post, I share two alternatives each for three approaches to determining CIs using a TI-Nspire CAS.


In 2010, the mean ACT mathematics score for all tests was 21.0 with standard deviation 5.3.  Determine a 90% confidence interval for the math ACT score of an individual chosen at random from all 2010 ACT test takers.


A 90% CI excludes the extreme 5% on each end of the normal distribution.  Using an inverse normal command gives the z-scores at the corresponding 5% and 95% locations on the normal cdf.


Of course, utilizing symmetry would have required only one command.  To find the actual boundary points of the CI, standardize the endpoints, x, and equate that to the two versions of the z-scores.

\displaystyle \frac{x-21.0}{5.3} = \pm 1.64485

Solving these rational equations for x gives x=12.28 and x=29.72, or CI = \left[ 12.28,29.72 \right] .

Most statistics software lets users avoid this computation with optional parameters for the mean and standard deviation of non-standard normal curves.  One of my students last year used this in the next variation.


After using lists as shortcuts on our TI-Nspires last year for evaluating functions at several points simultaneously, one of my students creatively applied them to the inverse normal command, entering the separate 0.05 and 0.95 cdf probabilities as a single list.  I particularly like how the output for this approach outputs looks exactly like a CI.



The endpoints of a CI are just endpoints of an interval on a normal cdf, so why not avoid the algebra and additional inverse normal command and determine the endpoints via CAS commands?  My students know the solve command from previous math classes, so after learning the normal cdf command, there are very few situations for them to even use the inverse.


This approach keeps my students connected to the normal cdf and solving for the bounds quickly gives the previous CI bounds.

METHOD 2b (Alas, not yet) — CAS and LISTS:

Currently, the numerical techniques the TI-Nspire family uses to solve equations with statistics commands don’t work well with lists in all situations.  Curiously, the Nspire currently can’t handle the solve+lists equivalent of the inverse normal+lists approach in METHOD 1b.


But, I’ve also learned that problems not easily solved in an Nspire CAS calculator window typically crack pretty easily when translated to their graphical equivalents.


This approach should work for any CAS or non-CAS graphing calculator or software with statistics commands.

Remember the “f” in cdf.  A cumulative distribution function is a function, and graphing calculators/software treats them as such.  Replacing the normCdf upper bounds with an x for standard graphing syntax lets one graph the normal cdf (below).

Also remember that any algebraic equation can be solved graphically by independently graphing each side of the equation and treating the resulting pair of equations as a system of equations.  In this case, graphing y=0.05 and y=0.95 and finding the points of intersection gives the values of the CI.



SIDENOTE:  While lists didn’t work with the CAS in the case of METHOD 2b, the next screen shows the syntax to graph both ends of the CI using lists with a single endpoint equation.


The lists obviously weren’t necessary here, but the ability to use lists is a very convenient feature on the TI-Nspire that I’ve leveraged countless times to represent families of functions.  In my opinion, using them in METHOD 3b again leverages that same idea, that the endpoints you seek are different aspects of the same family–the CI.


There are many ways for students in their first statistics courses to use what they already know to determine the endpoints of a confidence interval.  And keeping students attention focused on new ways to use old information solidifies both old and new content.  Eliminating unnecessary computations that aren’t the point of most of introductory statistics anyway is an added bonus.

Happy learning everyone…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s