# Calculating standard deviation step by step

## Introduction

In this article, we'll learn how to calculate standard deviation "by hand".

Interestingly, in the real world no statistician would ever calculate standard deviation by hand. The calculations involved are somewhat complex, and the risk of making a mistake is high. Also, calculating by hand is slow. Very slow. This is why statisticians rely on spreadsheets and computer programs to crunch their numbers.

So what's the point of this article? Why are we taking time to learn a process statisticians don't actually use? The answer is that learning to do the calculations by hand will give us insight into how standard deviation really works. This insight is valuable. Instead of viewing standard deviation as some magical number our spreadsheet or computer program gives us, we'll be able to explain where that number comes from.

## Overview of how to calculate standard deviation

The formula for standard deviation (SD) is

where $\sum$ means "sum of", $x$ is a value in the data set, $\mu$ is the mean of the data set, and $N$ is the number of data points in the population.

The standard deviation formula may look confusing, but it will make sense after we break it down. In the coming sections, we'll walk through a step-by-step interactive example. Here's a quick preview of the steps we're about to follow:

**Step 1:**Find the mean.

**Step 2:**For each data point, find the square of its distance to the mean.

**Step 3:**Sum the values from Step 2.

**Step 4:**Divide by the number of data points.

**Step 5:**Take the square root.

## An important note

The formula above is for finding the standard deviation of a population. If you're dealing with a sample, you'll want to use a slightly different formula (below), which uses $n-1$ instead of $N$. The point of this article, however, is to familiarize you with the the process of computing standard deviation, which is basically the same no matter which formula you use.

## Step-by-step interactive example for calculating standard deviation

First, we need a data set to work with. Let's pick something small so we don't get overwhelmed by the number of data points. Here's a good one:

### Step 1: Finding $\goldD{\mu}$ in $\sqrt{\dfrac{\sum\limits_{}^{}{{\lvert x-\goldD{\mu}\rvert^2}}}{N}}$

In this step, we find the mean of the data set, which is represented by the variable $\mu$.

### Step 2: Finding $\goldD{\lvert x - \mu \rvert^2}$ in $\sqrt{\dfrac{\sum\limits_{}^{}{\goldD{{\lvert x-\mu}\rvert^2}}}{N}}$

In this step, we find the distance from each data point to the mean (i.e., the deviations) and square each of those distances.

For example, the first data point is $6$ and the mean is $3$, so the distance between them is $3$. Squaring this distance gives us $9$.

### Step 3: Finding $\goldD{\sum\lvert x - \mu \rvert^2}$ in $\sqrt{\dfrac{\goldD{\sum\limits_{}^{}{{\lvert x-\mu}\rvert^2}}}{N}}$

The symbol $\sum$ means "sum", so in this step we add up the four values we found in Step 2.

### Step 4: Finding $\goldD{\dfrac{\sum\lvert x - \mu \rvert^2}{N}}$ in $\sqrt{\goldD{\dfrac{\sum\limits_{}^{}{{\lvert x-\mu}\rvert^2}}{N}}}$

In this step, we divide our result from Step 3 by the variable $N$, which is the number of data points.

### Step 5: Finding the standard deviation $\sqrt{\dfrac{\sum\limits_{}^{}{{\lvert x-\mu\rvert^2}}}{N}}$

We're almost finished! Just take the square root of the answer from Step 4 and we're done.

*Yes! We did it! We successfully calculated the standard deviation of a small data set.*

### Summary of what we did

We broke down the formula into five steps:

**Step 1:**Find the mean $\mu$.

**Step 2:**Find the square of the distance from each data point to the mean $\lvert x-\mu\rvert^2$.

$x$ | $\lvert x - \mu \rvert^2$ | |
---|---|---|

$6$ | $\lvert6-\blueD{3}\rvert^2 = 3^2 = 9$ | |

$2$ | $\lvert2-\blueD{3}\rvert^2 = 1^2 = 1$ | |

$3$ | $\lvert3-\blueD{3}\rvert^2 = 0^2 = 0$ | |

$1$ | $\lvert1-\blueD{3}\rvert^2 = 2^2 = 4$ |

**Steps 3, 4, and 5:**

## Try it yourself

Here's a reminder of the formula: