Glenn D. Israel2
Perhaps the most frequently asked question concerning sampling is, "What size sample do I need?" The answer to this question is influenced by a number of factors, including the purpose of the study, population size, the risk of selecting a "bad" sample, and the allowable sampling error. Interested readers may obtain a more detailed discussion of the purpose of the study and population size in Sampling The Evidence Of Extension Program Impact, PEOD-5 (Israel, 1992). This paper reviews criteria for specifying a sample size and presents several strategies for determining the sample size. SAMPLE SIZE CRITERIA
In addition to the purpose of the study and population size, three criteria usually will need to be specified to determine the appropriate sample size: the level of precision, the level of confidence or risk, and the degree of variability in the attributes being measured (Miaoulis and Michener, 1976). Each of these is reviewed below. The Level Of Precision
The level of precision, sometimes called sampling error, is the range in which the true value of the population is estimated to be. This range is often expressed in percentage points, (e.g., ±5 percent), in the same way that results for political campaign polls are reported by the media. Thus, if a researcher finds that 60% of farmers in the sample have adopted a recommended practice with a precision rate of ±5%, then he or she can conclude that between 55% and 65% of farmers in the population have adopted the practice. The Confidence Level
The confidence or risk level is based on ideas encompassed under the Central Limit Theorem. The key idea encompassed in the Central Limit Theorem is that when a population is repeatedly sampled, the average value of the attribute obtained by those samples is equal to the true population value. Furthermore, the values obtained by these samples are distributed normally about the true value, with some samples having a higher value and some obtaining a lower score than the true population value. In a normal distribution, approximately 95% of the sample values are within two standard deviations of the true population value (e.g., mean). In other words, this means that, if a 95% confidence level is selected, 95 out of 100 samples will have the true population value within the range of precision specified earlier (Figure 1). There is always a chance that the sample you obtain does not represent the true population value. Such samples with extreme values are represented by the shaded areas in Figure 1. This risk is reduced for 99% confidence levels and increased for 90% (or lower) confidence levels. Figure 1.
Degree Of Variability
The third criterion, the degree of variability in the attributes being measured refers to the distribution of attributes in the population. The more heterogeneous a population, the larger the sample size required to obtain a given level of precision. The less variable (more homogeneous) a population, the smaller the sample size. Note that a proportion of 50% indicates a greater level of variability than either 20% or 80%. This is because 20% and 80% indicate that a large majority do not or do, respectively, have the attribute of interest. Because a proportion of .5 indicates the maximum variability in a population, it is often used in determining a more conservative sample size, that is, the sample size may be larger than if the true variability of the population attribute were used. STRATEGIES FOR DETERMINING SAMPLE SIZE
There are several approaches to determining the sample size. These include using a census for small populations, imitating a sample size of similar studies, using published tables, and applying formulas to calculate a sample size. Each strategy is discussed below. Using A Census For Small Populations
One approach is to use the...