Your Guide To Using Tables and Figures in Your Assignments

By Ellie Walburg on March 7, 2018

Have you ever began reading or skimming a textbook, journal article, report or other resource that was just all text? Just word after word with no relief of a paragraph break. You turn the page, thinking there has to be some picture, some break, some relief for your tired eyes soon. And all you find are more words.

Whether writing a research paper for a class or a report for your job, incorporating elements other than words in your piece helps your reader, in more ways than one.

For example, which page would you rather read?

Page full of text with no paragraph breaksPage of text with a chart

Chances are, you'd probably choose the one that you can actually look at without getting an overwhelming headache.

In this quick guide, we'll give you some reasons why using tables and figures can be so valuable in your research paper and report. And, you'll learn the proper way to incorporate them into your work according to APA formatting.

Why Use Tables and Figures?

Effective Communication

Before you start thinking that incorporating tables and figures into your research paper is just another step toward earning your grade, realize that there's much more to it. Your goal in your paper, or at least one of your goals, should be to effectively communicate your argument, thesis, findings or whatever you're presenting. Tables, graphs, pictures and other figures help to carry that message from your brain and research as the writer to the person reading your words.

Using tables and figures can be very beneficial when trying to communicate a lot of detailed information in a short space. A chart or graph makes it easy to display that data and allow the reader to make inferences from the data along with you.

Appealing Presentation

In addition to making it easier to communicate information, the reader is also more often drawn to figures rather than large blocks of text. Rather than potentially skimming important information, the reader is better able to actually gather that data they need to understand what you're talking about.

A good rule of thumb is that if you can't explain the data or findings in two sentences or fewer, you should use a table or figure. But be sure that the tables and figures you include aren't just copies of a text description you also write. You don't need both.

Using tables and figures makes it easier for you to communicate your points and easier for your reader to actually read the content you've created.

It's important to note that tables and figures also have different formatting guidelines when used in a research paper that follows APA Style. Here's what you should know to bring your paper to the next level with tables and figures.

Aerial view of adult looking at a printed chart at a table

Using Tables

Tables are best used for presenting numbers or text in an easy-to-read format. It uses columns and rows to explain information and data clearly. While you are able to draw inferences from tables, they do not directly highlight a particular relationship between variables.

When you begin creating a table or figure, Excel or other spreadsheet software will greatly come in handy. As you throw together your important data, be sure you incorporate these elements into your table:

Label

Labeling your table should always begin with the word, "Table" followed by the number of the table, sequentially. Align both the label and the title to the left.

Title

Your title should be clear and descriptive of the information you present. Put this title in italics.

Column Titles

Use short, clear column titles to guide the reader along the table. Include units if needed.

Table Body

Your data is located in the table body in an organized and logical way. It should be constructed so that your reader reads down the table, not across.

Footnotes

If your table requires additional information or clarifications, mark them in a section underneath the table body with the label, "Note" in italics, followed by the footnote in regular text.

Some Table Details to Keep in Mind

  • Include lines separating the various sections of the table—title, column headers, data, footnotes.
  • Center the table on the page.
  • Set the table apart from the rest of the text—it needs some space.
  • Keep consistency in all single-spaced or all double-spaced.
  • If you use abbreviations, explain yourself.
  • If you pulled the table from another source, make sure you cite it appropriately according to APA Style.

Aerial view of a person reviewing page of graphs and chart

Using Figures

When you do want to show a particular trend you've discovered, figures come in handy. Whether it's a graph, chart, drawing, map or photo, the visual appeal of a figure draws the reader in and is helpful in highlighting patterns.

When you decide on using a figure rather than a table, you're offered a lot more options in formatting and construction. Before you settle on a pie chart, bar graph, histogram or other diagram, make sure the method the information is presented is how you want to communicate it. Your figure should highlight a relationship between variables or some other inference. Make sure your choice follows that. You may even need to do some trial and error to find which method best communicates.

Despite the diversity in types of figures, there are some features that most have in common.

Captions

Label your figure with the word, "Figure" followed by the number, sequentially as you move through the paper. Also, include a title or caption that is brief but clear in its description. Include the caption just underneath the figure and aligned to the left.

Image

When creating or choosing the figure, be sure the message or information is clearly and quickly communicated. You don't want your reader staring at it for several minutes, trying to figure out what you're trying to communicate. Keep it simple and help a reader out. And, unless you're sharing this on the web or printing in color, don't bother with color coding or other special effects.

Notes

If you need to include additional information to explain or clarify something in your figure, make sure you present it clearly and concisely. These extra additions may include labels, legends, scales or tick marks.

Some Figure Details to Keep in Mind

  • Center your figure on the page.
  • Set the figure apart from the text—they need their space, too.

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APA Formatting Requirements

According to Purdue Owl APA Formatting, tables and figures have specific layout requirements.

  • One-column figures should be between 2" and 3.25" wide.
  • Two-column should be between 4.25" and 6.875" wide.
  • Tables should be at least two columns and two rows.
  • Height of figures shouldn't be beyond the top and bottom margins.
  • Text used in the figure should be sans serif.
  • Font size should be between 8-14 pt.

Don't Forget About the Text

As you become a master at incorporating and labeling tables and figures, don't forget about your main method of communication—words. Don't leave your tables and figures hanging out there all lonely. Whether the they smoothly break up text or are placed on separate pages, be sure to reference the tables and figures in the text to help guide readers. Preface or explain what the reader will find and how it relates to the rest of the paper or report.

Help your reader follow your thought process and research even better by incorporating valuable tables and figures into your paper or report.

Resources to Help You Succeed

Understanding and utilizing computer programs like Excel isn't always easy. Thankfully, as a student at PGS, you have access to a team of student support and additional resources available whenever and wherever you are. Check out our Academic Support page to discover just some of the many ways you can access help.

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Category: Academic Resources