# 7.2: Small Sample Estimation of a Population Mean

Learning Objectives

1. To become familiar with Student’s $$t$$-distribution.
2. To understand how to apply additional formulas for a confidence interval for a population mean.

The confidence interval formulas in the previous section are based on the Central Limit Theorem, the statement that for large samples $$\overline{X}$$ is normally distributed with mean $$\mu$$ and standard deviation $$\sigma /\sqrt{n}$$. When the population mean $$\mu$$ is estimated with a small sample ($$n<30$$), the Central Limit Theorem does not apply. In order to proceed we assume that the numerical population from which the sample is taken has a normal distribution to begin with. If this condition is satisfied then when the population standard deviation $$\sigma$$ is known the old formula $$\bar{x}\pm z_{\alpha /2}(\sigma /\sqrt{n})$$ can still be used to construct a $$100(1-\alpha )\%$$ confidence interval for $$\mu$$.

If the population standard deviation is unknown and the sample size $$n$$ is small then when we substitute the sample standard deviation $$s$$ for $$\sigma$$ the normal approximation is no longer valid. The solution is to use a different distribution, called Student’s $$t$$-distribution with $$n-1$$ degrees of freedom. Student’s $$t$$-distribution is very much like the standard normal distribution in that it is centered at $$0$$ and has the same qualitative bell shape, but it has heavier tails than the standard normal distribution does, as indicated by Figure $$\PageIndex{1}$$, in which the curve (in brown) that meets the dashed vertical line at the lowest point is the $$t$$-distribution with two degrees of freedom, the next curve (in blue) is the $$t$$-distribution with five degrees of freedom, and the thin curve (in red) is the standard normal distribution. As also indicated by the figure, as the sample size $$n$$ increases, Student’s $$t$$-distribution ever more closely resembles the standard normal distribution. Although there is a different $$t$$-distribution for every value of $$n$$, once the sample size is $$30$$ or more it is typically acceptable to use the standard normal distribution instead, as we will always do in this text. Figure $$\PageIndex{1}$$: Student’s $$t$$-Distribution

Just as the symbol $$z_c$$ stands for the value that cuts off a right tail of area $$c$$ in the standard normal distribution, so the symbol $$t_c$$ stands for the value that cuts off a right tail of area $$c$$ in the standard normal distribution. This gives us the following confidence interval formulas.

Small Sample $$100(1−α)\%$$ Confidence Interval for a Population Mean

If $$σ$$ is known:

$\overline{x} = ±z_{α/2} \left( \dfrac{σ}{\sqrt{n}}\right)$

If $$σ$$ is unknown:

$\overline{x} = ±t_{α/2} \left( \dfrac{s}{\sqrt{n}}\right) \label{tdist}$

with the degrees of freedom $$df=n−1$$.

The population must be normally distributed and a sample is considered small when $$n < 30$$.

To use the new formula we use the line in Figure 7.1.6 that corresponds to the relevant sample size.

Example $$\PageIndex{1}$$

A sample of size $$15$$ drawn from a normally distributed population has sample mean $$35$$ and sample standard deviation $$14$$. Construct a $$95\%$$ confidence interval for the population mean, and interpret its meaning.

Solution:

Since the population is normally distributed, the sample is small, and the population standard deviation is unknown, the formula that applies is Equation \ref{tdist}.

Confidence level $$95\%$$ means that

$α=1−0.95=0.05$

so $$α/2=0.025$$. Since the sample size is $$n = 15$$, there are $$n−1=14$$ degrees of freedom. By Figure 7.1.6 $$t_{0.025}=2.145$$. Thus

\begin{align} \overline{x} &= ±t_{α/2} \left( \dfrac{s}{\sqrt{n}}\right) \\ &=35 ± 2.145 \left( \dfrac{14}{\sqrt{15}} \right) \\ &=35 ±7.8 \end{align}

One may be $$95\%$$ confident that the true value of $$μ$$ is contained in the interval

$(35−7.8, 35+7.8) = (27.2,42.8).$

Example $$\PageIndex{2}$$

A random sample of $$12$$ students from a large university yields mean GPA $$2.71$$ with sample standard deviation $$0.51$$. Construct a $$90\%$$ confidence interval for the mean GPA of all students at the university. Assume that the numerical population of GPAs from which the sample is taken has a normal distribution.

Solution:

Since the population is normally distributed, the sample is small, and the population standard deviation is unknown, the formula that applies is Equation \ref{tdist}

Confidence level $$90\%$$ means that

$α=1−0.90=0.10$

so $$α/2=0.05$$. Since the sample size is $$n = 12$$, there are $$n−1=11$$ degrees of freedom. By Figure 7.1.6 $$t_{0.05}=1.796$$. Thus

\begin{align} \overline{x} &= ±t_{α/2} \left( \dfrac{s}{\sqrt{n}}\right) \\ &=2.71 ± 1.796 \left( \dfrac{0.51}{\sqrt{12}} \right) \\ &=2.71 ±0.26 \end{align}

One may be $$90\%$$ confident that the true average GPA of all students at the university is contained in the interval

$(2.71−0.26,2.71+0.26)=(2.45,2.97).$

Compare "Example 4" in Section 7.1 and "Example 6" in Section 7.1. The summary statistics in the two samples are the same, but the $$90\%$$ confidence interval for the average GPA of all students at the university in "Example 4" in Section 7.1, $$(2.63,2.79)$$, is shorter than the $$90\%$$ confidence interval $$(2.45,2.97)$$, in "Example 6" in Section 7.1. This is partly because in "Example 4" in Section 7.1 the sample size is larger; there is more information pertaining to the true value of $$\mu$$ in the large data set than in the small one.

## Key Takeaway

• In selecting the correct formula for construction of a confidence interval for a population mean ask two questions: is the population standard deviation $$\sigma$$ known or unknown, and is the sample large or small?
• We can construct confidence intervals with small samples only if the population is normal.