Illustrating degrees of freedom
in terms of sample size and dimensionality

Dr. Chong Ho (Alex) Yu (2009)

"Degree of freedom" (df) is an "intimate stranger" to statistics students. Every quantitative-based research paper requires reporting of degrees of freedom associated with the test results such as "F(df1, df2)," yet very few people understand why it is essential to do so. Although the concept "degree of freedom" is taught in introductory statistics classes, many students learn the literal definition of this term rather than its deeper meaning. Failure to understand "degrees of freedom" has two side effects. First, students and inexperienced researchers tend to mis-interpret a "perfect-fitted" model or an "over-fitted" model as a good model. Second, they have a false sense of security that df is adequate while n is large. This reflects the problem that most failed to comprehend that df is a function of both the number of observations and the number of variables in one's model. Frustration by this problem among statistical instructors is manifested by the fact that the issue "how df should be taught" has been recurring in several statistical-related discussion groups (e.g. edstat-l,, sci.stat.math).

Many elementary statistics textbooks introduce this concept in terms of the numbers that are "free to vary" (Howell, 1992; Jaccard & Becker, 1990). Some statistics textbooks just give the df of various distributions (e.g. Moore & McCabe, 1989; Agresti & Finlay, 1986). Johnson (1992) simply said that degree of freedom is the "index number" for identifying which distribution is used. Some definitions given by statistical instructors can be as obscured as "a mathematical property of a distribution related to the number of values in a sample that can be freely specified once you know something about the sample." (cited in Flatto, 1996) The preceding explanations cannot clearly show the purpose of df. Even advanced statistics textbooks do not discuss the degrees of freedom in detail (e.g. Hays, 1981; Maxwell and Delany, 1986; Winner, 1985). It is not uncommon that many advanced statistics students and experienced researchers have a vague idea of the degrees of freedom concept.

There are other approaches taken to present the concept of degree of freedom. Most of them are mathematical in essence (see Appendix A). While these mathematical explanations carry some merits, they may still be difficult to statistical students, especially in social sciences, who generally do not have a strong mathematical background. In the following section, it is recommended that df can be explained in terms of sample size and dimensionality. Both can represent the number of pieces of useful information.

Df in terms of sample size

Toothaker (1986) explained df as the number of independent components minus the number of parameters estimated. This approach is based upon the definition provided by Walker (1940): the number of observations minus the number of necessary relations, which is obtainable from these observations (df = n - r). Although Good (1973) criticized that Walker's approach is not obvious in the meaning of necessary relations, the number of necessary relationships is indeed intuitive when there are just a few variables. The definition of "necessary relationship" is beyond the scope of this article. To avoid confusion, in this article, it is simply defined as the relationship between a dependent variable (Y) and each independent variable (X) in the research.

Please keep in mind that this illustration is simplified for conceptual clarity. Although Walker regards the preceding equation as a universal rule, don't think that df = n - r can really be applied to all situations.

No degree of freedom and effective sample size

Figure 1 shows that there is one relationship under investigation (r = 1) when there are two variables. In the scatterplot where there is only one datum point. The analyst cannot do any estimation of the regression line because the line can go in any direction, as shown in Figure 1.In other words, there isn't any useful information.

Figure 1. No degree of freedom with one datum point.

When the degree of freedom is zero (df = n - r = 1 - 1 = 0), there is no way to affirm or reject the model! In this sense, the data have no "freedom" to vary and you don't have any "freedom" to conduct research with this data set. Put it bluntly, one subject is basically useless, and obviously, df defines the effective sample size (Eisenhauer, 2008).

Perfect fitting

In order to plot a regression line, you must have at least two data points as indicated in the following scattergram.

Figure 2. Perfect fit with two data points.

In this case, there is one degree of freedom for estimation (n - 1 = 1, where n = 2). When there are two data points only, one can always join them to be a straight regression line and get a perfect correlation (r = 1.00). Since the slope goes through all data points and there is no residual, it is considered a "perfect" fit. The word "perfect-fit" can be misleading. Naive students may regard this as a good sign. Indeed, the opposite is true. When you marry a perfect man/woman, it may be too good to be true! The so-called "perfect-fit" results from the lack of useful information. Since the data do not have much "freedom" to vary and no alternate models could be explored, the researcher has no "freedom" to further the study. Again, the effective sample size is defined by df = n -1.

This point is extremely important because very few researchers are aware that perfect fitting is a sign of serious problems. For instance, when Mendel conducted research on heredity, the conclusion was derived from almost "perfect" data. Later R. A. Fisher questioned that the data are too good to be true. After re-analyzing the data, Fisher found that the "perfectly-fitted" data are actually erroneous (Press & Tanur, 2001).


In addition, when there are too many variables in a regression model i.e. the number of parameters to be estimated is larger than the number of observations, this model is said to lacking degrees of freedom and thus is over-fit. To simplify the illustration, a scenario with three observations and two variables are presented.

Figure 3. Over-fit with three data points.

Conceptually speaking, there should be four or more variables, and three or fewer observations to make a model over-fitting. Nevertheless, when only three subjects are used to estimate the strength of association between two variables, the situation is bad enough. Since there are just a few observations, the residuals are small and it gives an illustration that the model and the data fit each other very well. When the sample size is larger and data points scatter around the plot, the residuals are higher, of course. In this case, the model tends to be have a lesser degree of fit. Nevertheless, a less fitted model resulted from more degrees of freedom carry more merits.

Useful information

Finally, you should see that the degree of freedom is the number of pieces of useful information.

Sample size
Degree(s) of freedom
Amount of information



no information



not enough information



    still not enough information


To further explain why lacking useful information is detrimental to research, the program ties degrees of freedom to falsifiability. In the case of "perfect-fitting," the model is "always right." In "over-fitting," the model tends to be "almost right." Both models have a low degree of falsifiability. The concept "falsifiability" was introduced by Karl Popper (1959), a prominent philosopher of science. According to Popper, the validity of knowledge is tied to the probability of falsification. Scientific propositions can be falsified empirically. On the other hand, unscientific claims are always "right" and cannot be falsified at all. We cannot conclusively affirm a hypothesis, but we can conclusively negate it. The more specific a theory is, the higher possibility that the statement can be negated. For Popper, a scientific method is "proposing bold hypotheses, and exposing them to the severest criticism, in order to detect where we have erred." (1974, p.68) If the theory can stand "the trial of fire," then we can confirm its validity. When there is no or low degree of freedom, the data could be fit with any theory and thus the theory is said to be unfalsifiable.

df in terms of dimensions and parameters

Now degrees of freedom are illustrated in terms of dimensionality and parameters. According to I. J. Good, degrees of freedom can be expressed as
D(K) - D(H),


D(K) = the dimensionality of a broader hypothesis,
such as a full model in regression

D(H) = the dimensionality of the null hypothesis,
such as a restricted or null model

In the following, vectors (variables) in hyperspace are used for illustration (Saville & Wood, 1991; Wickens, 1995). It is important to point out that the illustration is only a metaphor to make comprehension easier. Vectors do not behave literally as shown.

Figure 4. Vectors in hyperspace.

For the time being, let's ignore the intercept. What is(are) the degree(s) of freedom when there is one variable (vector) in a regression model? First, we need to find out the number of parameter(s) in a one-predictor model. Since only one predictor is present, there is only one beta weight to be estimated. The answer is straight-forward. There is one parameter to be estimated.

How about a null model? In a null model, the number of parameters is set to zero. The expected Y score is equal to the mean of Y and there is no beta weight to be estimated.

Based upon df = D(K) - D(H), when there is only one predictor, the degree of freedom is just one (1 - 0 = 1). It means that there is only one piece of useful information for estimation. In this case, the model is not well-supported.

As you notice, a 2-predictor model (df = 2 - 0 = 2) is better-supported than the 1-predictor model (df = 1 - 0 = 1). When the number of orthogonal vectors increases, we have more peices of independent information to predict Y and the model tends to be more stable.

In short, the degree of freedom can be defined in the context of dimensionality, which conveys the amount of useful information. However, increasing the number of variables is not always desirable.

The section regarding df as n - r mentions the problem of "overfitting," in which there are too few observations for too many variables. When you add more variables into the model, the R2 (variance explained) will definitely increase. However, adding more variables into a model without enough observations to support the model is another way to create the problems of "overfitting." Simply, the more variables you have, the more observations you need.

However, it is important to note that some regression methods, such as ridge regression, linear smoothers and smoothing splines, are not based on least-squares, and thus df defined in terms of dimensionality is not applicable to these modeling.

Putting both together

The above illustrations (Part I and Part II) compartmentalize df in terms of sample size and df in terms of dimensionality (variables). Observations (n) and parameters (k), in the context of df, must be taken into consideration together.

For instance, in regression, the working definition of degrees of freedom involves the information of both observations and dimensionality: df = n - k - 1 whereas n = sample size and k = the number of variables. Take the 3-observation and 2-variable case as an example. In this case, df = 3 - 2- 1 = 0!

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Agresti, A., & Finlay, B. (1986). Statistical methods for the social sciences. San Francisco, CA: Dellen.

Cramer, H. (1946). Mathematical methods of statistics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Eisenhauer, J. G. (2008). Degrees of Freedom. Teaching Statistics, 30(3), 7578.

Flatto, J. (1996, May 3). Degrees of freedom question. Computer Software System-SPSS Newsgroup (comp.soft-sys.spss).

Galfo, A. J. (1985). Teaching degrees of freedom as a concept in inferential statistics: An elementary approach. School Science and Mathematics. 85(3), 240-247.

Good, I. J. (1973). What are degrees of freedom? American Statisticians, 27, 227-228.

Hays, W. L. (1981), Statistics. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Howell, D. C. (1992). Statistical methods for psychology. (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Duxberry.

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Johnson, R. A. & Wichern, D. W. (1998). Applied multivariate statistical analysis. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Maxwell, S., & Delany, H. (1990). Designing experiments and analyzing data. Belmont, CA: Wadworth.

Moore, D. S. & McCabe, G. P. (1989). Introduction to the practice of statistics. New York: W. H. Freeman and Company.

Popper, K. R. (1959). Logic of scientific discovery. London : Hutchinson.

Popper, K. R. (1974). Replies to my critics. In P. A. Schilpp (Eds.), The philosophy of Karl Popper (pp.963-1197). La Salle: Open Court.

Press, S. J., & Tanur, J. M. (2001). The subjectivity of scientists and the Bayesian approach. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Rawlings, J.O., (1988). Applied regression analysis: A research tool. Pacific Grove, CA: Wadsworth and Brooks/Cole.

Saville, D. & Wood, G. R. (1991). Statistical methods: The geometric approach. New York: Springer-Verlag.

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Walker, H. W. (1940). Degrees of Freedom. Journal of Educational Psychology, 31, 253-269.

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Different approaches of illustrating degrees of freedom

1. Cramer (1946) defined degrees of freedom as the rank of a quadratic form. Muirhead (1994) also adopted a geometrical approach to explain this concept. Degrees of freedom typically refer to Chi-square distributions (and to F distributions, but they're just ratios of chi-squares). Chi-square distributed random variables are sums of squares (or quadratic forms), and can be represented as the squared lengths of vectors. The dimension of the subspace in which the vector is free to roam is exactly the degrees of freedom.

All commonly occurring situations involving Chi-square distributions are similar. The most common of these are in analysis of variance (or regression) settings. F-ratios here are ratios of independent Chi-square random variables, and inherit their degrees of freedom from the subspaces in which the corresponding vectors must lie.

2. Galfo (1985) viewed degrees of freedom as the representation of the quality in the given statistic, which is computed using the sample X values. Since in the computation of m, the X values can take on any of the values present in the population, the number of X values, n, selected for the given sample is the df for m. The n for the computation of m also expresses the "rung of the ladder" of quality of the m computed; i.e. if n = 1, the df, or restriction, placed on the computation is at the lowest quality level.

3. Rawlings (1988) associated degrees of freedom with each sum of squares (in multiple regression) as the number of dimensions in which that vector is "free to move." Y is free to fall anywhere in n-dimensional space and, hence, has n degrees of freedom. Y-hat, on the other hand, must fall in the X-space, and hence, has degrees of freedom equal to the dimension of the X-space -- [p', or the number of independent variable's in the model]. The residual vector e can fall anywhere in the subspace of the n-dimensional space that is orthogonal to the X-space. This subspace has dimensionality (n-p') and hence, e has (n-p') degrees of freedom.

4. Chen Xi (Personal communication) asserted that the best way to describe the concept of the degree of freedom is in control theory: the degree of freedom is a number indicating constraints. With the same number of the more constraints, the whole system is determined. For example, a particle moving in a three-dimensional space has 9 degrees of freedom: 3 for positions, 3 for velocities, and 3 for accelerations. If it is a free falling and 4 degrees of the freedom is removed, there are 2 velocities and 2 accelerations in x-y plane. There are infinite ways to add constraints, but each of the constraints will limit the moving in a certain way. The order of the state equation for a controllable and observable system is in fact the degree of the freedom.

5. Selig (personal communication) stated that degrees of freedom are lost for each parameter in a model that is estimated in the process of estimating another parameter. For example, one degree of freedom is lost when we estimate the population mean using the sample mean; two degrees of freedom are lost when we estimate the standard error of estimate (in regression) using Y-hat (one degree of freedom for the Y-intercept and one degree of freedom for the slope of the regression line).

6. Lambert (personal communication) regarded degrees of freedom as the number of measurements exceeding the amount absolutely necessary to measure the "object" in question. For example, to measure the diameter of a steel rod would require a minimum of one measurement. If ten measurements are taken instead, the set of ten measurements has nine degrees of freedom. In Lambert's view, once the concept is explained in this way, it is not difficult to extend it to explain applications to statistical estimators. i.e. if n measurements are made on m unknown quantities then the degrees of freedom are n-m.

Married Man: There is only one subject and my degree of freedom
is zero. So I shall increase my "sample size."




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