Precision refers to the ability to consistently repeat the same task or obtain the same results across multiple attempts.
For example, a baseball player who can consistently hit the ball to the same part in the park has a very precise hit. Similarly, someone who can turn up on time to work day-in, day-out has precise time management.
Precision can be achieved through habit and training. For example, when conducting a physical task, we gain precision through the development of muscle memory, wherein our muscles learn to repeat the task exactly the same way over and over again.
Precision vs Accuracy
Precision differs from accuracy. Accuracy refers to obtaining results that are proximate to a target value, precision refers to proximity of results to one another.
Precision doesn’t have anything to do with hitting a target. In fact, you could be regularly way off the target and still precise, so long as all of your attempts tend to be the same. Take the example of a darts player, who seems to always hit the target 2 inches to the right of the target. They’re inaccurate, but highly precise.
Simply put, accuracy is a measure of proximity to an objective external measure. Precision is a measure of proximity of things to one another.
This is much easier to demonstrate in a diagram, which I’ve done below:
1. Laboratory Weighing Scales
In a laboratory, weighing scales are expected to have a high degree of precision. If a scale is calibrated to show the same reading when the same mass is added repeatedly, it’s demonstrating precision. The consistent reading might not match the actual weight (accuracy), but the constancy in readings is an indicator of precision.
2. Basketball Free Throws
Free throws in basketball require precision in the execution of the technique. A player who consistently throws the ball using the same strength, angle, and grip, even if the ball doesn’t always go into the basket, demonstrates precision. It’s not necessarily about making every shot (accuracy), but it’s about replicating the same technique consistently.
3. Medical Testing
Precision in medical testing refers to obtaining the same results from the same samples multiple times. For instance, a high-precision blood testing machine will consistently return the same results when testing the same patient’s sample repeatedly. This does not necessarily mean the test results are accurate (close to the actual blood content levels), so we need to ensure our medical instruments are both precise and accurate.
4. Ten-Pin Bowling
Bowling offers a clear illustration of precision, wherein a bowler aims to roll the ball along the same path on each attempt. Oftentimes, a novice bowler (like me!) will consistently bowl the ball a little too much to one side. They try over and over again but they seem to keep missing the target by the same amount each time!
5. GPS Devices
A GPS device demonstrates precision through its ability to consistently provide the same coordinates for a location. A highly precise GPS can provide nearly identical readings for latitude and longitude each time you check your location at home.
6. Measuring Sticks
A measuring stick is another instance of precision in measurement tools. If we have multiple sticks of the same length, we can use them to make precise comparisons of the length of various objects. We don’t need an accurate and objective cm or inches measure, we can still do comparative measuring using precise sticks.
7. Digital Artist
Consider a digital artist who uses a stylus to draw on a tablet. The artist may draw the same line over and over again with slight variations (thus not being accurate), but the consistency in those lines, their length, their curve angle, displays the precision of the artist. It demonstrates the artist’s ability to recreate the same stroke consistently, even if the lines do not always match up with the initial drawing plan precisely.
8. Baking Recipes
In baking, precision is required in measuring ingredients. For example, a baker who consistently adds the same amount of flour and sugar in his homemade bread is demonstrating precision. Even if the bread doesn’t taste exactly as intended (accuracy), the consistent measurements of the ingredients keep the taste relatively stable, highlighting precision.
9. Time Keeping
Analog watches are engineered to keep precise time, and precision is demonstrated by how consistently they advance from second to second. The watch may not necessarily show the true current time according to Grenwich Time standards (accuracy). However, so long as it’s precise, we can measure the passing of time from moment to moment.
10. Birdsong Patterns
Birds that reproduce the same song patterns with little variation demonstrate precision. The bird might not exactly mimic the song it learnt (accuracy), but its ability to reproduce the same pattern and tone each time illustrates precision. Birdsong precision is therefore not about being identical to the original song, but rather about the consistency in repeating the same song pattern.
11. Golf Swings
A golfer’s swing can exhibit precision when each motion is consistently replicated. The golfer’s club might not always strike the ball in a way that directs it towards the intended location (accuracy), but repeating the same swing reliably demonstrates precision. In golf, precision refers to the consistency of the swing mechanics, irrespective of the ball’s final location.
Precision in thermometers is about giving the same temperature reading for the same environment consistently. If a thermometer always shows the same reading for room temperature, it shows precision. The number displayed might not directly correspond to the actual room temperature (accuracy), but the repeatability of the same reading illustrates precision, meaning you can learn that, say, 25 degrees celsius on your thermostat is usually the temperature you like the most.
13. Musical Performance
When professional musicians play an intricate piece of music consistently without missing a note, they are demonstrating precision. Even if the overall execution of the song might not align with the original melody perfectly (a measure of accuracy), the ability to consistently hit the same notes in rhythmic unity represents precision in their performance.
14. Archery Practice
Consider an archer who, during practice, consistently hits the same spot on the target, even if it’s not the bullseye. The archer may be off-target (thus not accurate), but the regularity of landing arrows in the same area is a demonstration of precision. Precision in this case is about the ability to replicate the same outcome repeatedly.
15. Cardiovascular Exercise
During cardiovascular exercise, maintaining a set heart rate over time is an example of precision. If an individual can maintain their heart rate within a small range during a 30-minute run, they are showing precision. Although the precise heart rate might not be the ‘ideal’ for their age or fitness level (i.e., might not be accurate), the way they can steadily hold that rate demonstrates precision.
16. Voltmeters in Electrical Engineering
In electrical engineering, a voltmeter displays precision when it consistently provides the same voltage reading for the same power source. The voltmeter might not truly represent the actual voltage (accuracy), yet the consistency in its measurements illustrates precision. This means, despite inaccuracies, precise voltmeters can still provide useful, repeatable data.
17. Manufacturing Process
Precision in a manufacturing process means the ability of the machinery to produce items that are nearly identical across successive runs. For example, a high-precision assembly line can be programmed to repeatedly create cellphone components with little to no variation in size, fit and function. The produced units might not exactly meet the intended design (i.e., may be inaccurate), but the consistency in the output exemplifies precision.
Precision refers to the ability to yield consistent results across continuous trials. It is a crucial tool for various fields, from sports to manufacturing, measuring devices to scientific procedures. This consistency, which illustrates precision, does not always mean the results are accurate, that is, aligning exactly with the desired outcome or target. It’s important to note that precision refers merely to the consistency of results or outputs, not necessarily to their accurate representation of the true or ideal value.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]