The Line of Best Fit (Linear Regression)

Have a look at this picture. What do you notice? "It's a straight line, Colin!" Very good. You could get a ruler out and draw a straight line through the points. Why would you bother doing such a thing? Well, the idea is that if you can model a data set - come up with a formula that describes it - then you can predict what would happen in hypothetical situations. This process is known as linear regression.

This particular straight line has the equation $F = 1.8 C + 32$ . If I wanted to predict the temperature in fahrenheit when I knew it was 28ºC outside, I could plug 28 in as C and get out an answer of 82.4ºF.

... Which is all well and good when you have an immaculate straight line, but how about this one? Less of a straight line, certainly, but still a definite trend.

You could get your ruler out, certainly, and come out with a pretty decent line between the points. But there's something deeply unsatisfying for a mathematician. Surely there's a better way - a more accurate way - of finding the single line of best fit?

Well, of course. Otherwise I wouldn't be writing this. Duh.

There are three ways (depending on the context) of working out the line of best fit. Quick GCSE reminder: a straight line needs a gradient (that you'll remember being $m$) and a $y$-intercept (that you'll remember being $c$). Statistics being statistics, it uses different letters: instead of $y = mx + c$ [1], it uses $y = a + bx$. Your goal, when you do linear regression (which just means finding the line of best fit) is to work out $a$ and $b$.

The simplest way is to do it in Excel. I'll do a screencast on how to do that another time, because you don't have a computer in the exam. If you ask me, that's stupid, but I'm not in charge of the world just now[2]

Linear regression on a calculator

If you have a Casio calculator, the kind with the round button in the middle at the top[3], you can get it to do the heavy lifting for you. This is the way I recommend doing it, because given the choice between adding up huge lists of numbers or letting a machine designed to add up huge lists of numbers, I'd generally leave it to the specialist.

Here's what you do:

  • Press mode and then 'stat', which is number 2 on my calculator. It'll give you a table with $x$ and $y$ at the top of each column.
  • Fill in your data, and read it back to make sure you haven't missed or mistaken anything.
  • Press 'AC' to get into normal calculator mode. It'll say 'STAT' at the top, which is a Good Thing.
  • Press shift then 1 to bring up the statistics menu. You want 'regression', which is 5 on my machine.
  • It'll give you a load of options - you want $a + bx$, which is number 2 for me.
  • Oh look! There's an $a$ and a $b$. I wonder what they are? Actually, I know what they are. They're the $a$ and the $b$ from the equation. Press the number next to $a$ (1 for me) and then equals. It'll give you the value of $a$.
  • Go back to step 4 and do the same thing but press the number for $b$ in the last step. That'll give you (ta-da!) $b$. The calculator has done the linear regression for you!

Linear regression the hard way

That's a lot easier than doing it the long way - which is to use the formulas in the formula book to work out $S_{xy}$ and $S_{xx}$; quite often in exam questions, you're given handy numbers like $\sum x^2$ and $\sum xy$, just like you never are in real life.

Once you've worked those out ($S_{xx} = \sum(x^2) - \frac{\sum(x)^2}{n}$, and $S_{xy} = \sum(xy) - \frac{\sum(x)\sum(y)} {n}$), $b$ is just $\frac{S_{xy}}{S_{xx}}$. To find $a$, you need to know $\bar{x}$ (the mean of the $x$s) and $\bar{y}$ (surprisingly, the mean of the $y$s): $a = \bar{y} - b\bar{x}$ (so that the line goes through $(\bar{x}, \bar{y}$)[4]).

And that's it!

[1] Which, of course, is the baby form of a straight line [2] Vote Colin for Supreme Leader if you think there should be computers in exams! [3] The proper kind [4]


Colin is a Weymouth maths tutor, author of several Maths For Dummies books and A-level maths guides. He started Flying Colours Maths in 2008. He lives with an espresso pot and nothing to prove.


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I teach in my home in Abbotsbury Road, Weymouth.

It's a 15-minute walk from Weymouth station, and it's on bus routes 3, 8 and X53. On-road parking is available nearby.

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