22 July 2015: Yale-NUS students analyse real-world issues through Channel NewsAsia’s ‘It Figures’ documentary

Written by Clare Isabel Ee | Images as credited

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Image by Samuel He for Yale-NUS College 

“Numbers are thrown up all the time. Are they proof of some truth, or just fluff that bluffs us?” says the host at the start of every episode of It Figures, a Channel NewsAsia (CNA) documentary series.

“These statistics need some serious looking into,” he adds.

Each episode of It Figures delves into the numbers behind issues that affect Singapore and the world, such as air pollution, ageing and crime, analyses and explains them for the layman.

At Yale-NUS, students are taught this skill in a course called Quantitative Reasoning (QR), which aims to analyse numerical data and use the information to demonstrate the truth or plausibility of a proposition.

In the Quantitative Reasoning (QR) course, which all students experience as part of the Yale-NUS Common Curriculum, the focus is on assertion of the truth.

How does one convince other people that an assertion is true? Theoretically, there is factual evidence. But in a real-world situation, the numbers alone are not enough.

In QR, students learn how to wield numerical evidence, to marshall quantitative evidence to demonstrate the truth or plausibility of a proposition.

Last year, students were tasked by Assistant Professor of Psychology Jean Liu to use certain episodes of It Figures in their final assignment.

“The assignment required students to integrate content throughout the semester and apply it to a real-life situation,” explained Professor Liu. “We wanted to ensure that students could display knowledge of what they have learnt, but also understand the significance and context of the course thus far.”

Students were to work in teams ‘hired’ by CNA to evaluate the success of It Figures in its mission of statistical analysis and explanation for a layperson.

What made the assignment doubly interesting for students and professors alike was the choice of a television programme for a case study.

Professor Liu and Dr Timothy Wertz, a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow of Science (Mathematics) at Yale-NUS, spent time vetting clips from all three seasons of It Figures, and shortlisted six episodes for students to analyse. These were chosen based on the opportunity for critical analysis and the ease in which QR knowledge could be applied.

“The student groups rose to the challenge and produced high-quality work,” said Professor Liu. “Most importantly, they had the opportunity to use what they had learnt from QR in an everyday setting, challenging their understanding of how to convince others or themselves about an assertion, the overarching theme of the course.”

The assignment culminated in a day of presentations by the various groups, and a bonus lunchtime discussion with the It Figures production team and CNA Vice President of Corporate Services, Ms Han Chuan Quee, who was intrigued by the assignment.

At the end of the semester, Yale-NUS student, Harini V (Class of 2018), signed up for an internship with the programme that lasted a little over a month.

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Student Harini V (Class of 2018) on the last day of her internship at Channel NewsAsia. Image provided by Harini

Harini, who interned at Singapore Press Holdings’ Tamil Murasu newspaper before starting College in 2014, found the internship experience to be very interesting and enlightening.

“For our QR project, we had to analyse the data that the show presented, and many of us criticised the statistics. However, when I had to be in the position collating data myself, I realised the limitations researchers might face,” she shared.

She added: “Doing an internship with CNA showed me a broader problem of why statistics are often misrepresented even in the more reliable sources; the difficultly in bridging the gap between the experts and organisations, and common people.”

With the success of using It Figures in QR, Yale-NUS College hopes to continue utilising current media productions in its curriculum.

Click here to find out more about our Yale-NUS Common Curriculum.