Sample size determination

Sample size determination is the act of choosing the number of observations or replicates to include in a statistical sample. The sample size is an important feature of any empirical study in which the goal is to make inferences about a population from a sample. In practice, the sample size used in a study is usually determined based on the cost, time, or convenience of collecting the data, and the need for it to offer sufficient statistical power. In complicated studies there may be several different sample sizes: for example, in a stratified survey there would be different sizes for each stratum. In a census, data is sought for an entire population, hence the intended sample size is equal to the population. In experimental design, where a study may be divided into different treatment groups, there may be different sample sizes for each group.

Sample sizes may be chosen in several ways:

  • using experience – small samples, though sometimes unavoidable, can result in wide confidence intervals and risk of errors in statistical hypothesis testing.
  • using a target variance for an estimate to be derived from the sample eventually obtained, i.e. if a high precision is required (narrow confidence interval) this translates to a low target variance of the estimator.
  • using a target for the power of a statistical test to be applied once the sample is collected.
  • using a confidence level, i.e. the larger the required confidence level, the larger the sample size (given a constant precision requirement).