After a student takes their first ACT practice test, the most common question I hear is, “What was up with that Science section?” There’s not enough time to finish, the avalanche of data is overwhelming, the experiment descriptions are riddled with technical language, and you have to look really hard to see any actual science.
I usually start by letting the student in on a little secret: the ACT Science section is one of the easier parts of the test to improve your score as long as you realize that it is just a scavenger hunt. And what is the most important tool for any hunt? A map.
My dog loves to play fetch with a frisbee in my backyard. I’m not very skilled at throwing a frisbee – it will veer right just as often as it veers left, and it rarely ever goes straight. In my backyard there are many trees, a fenced-in garden, two large composters, and a swing set. Since my dog knows that my frisbee throws are unpredictable, he keeps his eyes on the flight of the frisbee every second of his fervent chase, not once diverting his gaze to the many obstacles in his way. And yet he never crashes into anything. He sidesteps them with expert agility every time and finds the most efficient path to the wobbly frisbee. He can do this, and at incredible speeds, because he already has a map in his head of the positions of every object in my backyard.
The best way to succeed at the ACT Science section is to utilize this same skill of mapping. First, orient yourself to the information that resides in the graphs and tables (and, for the single, conflicting-hypotheses passage, in the hypotheses). The best way to do this with data is to circle headings – column headings, axis labels, and keys – on every graph or table you see in a passage. It is not necessary to know the meanings of the words or abbreviations you circle, but make sure to say them in your head while circling. This will burn them into your short-term working memory and begin to organize them into a map of information in your brain. If multiple tables reference the same heading, connect them with lines, thus expanding your map into a web of related data. All of this should take only around half a minute since you are not spending any time reading the descriptions of the experiments that usually accompany Science passages.
Then, move to the questions. While reading each question, underline any figure, table or study that is named with your right hand (if you’re a righty) while simultaneously pointing to that figure, table or study with your left. These motions will take a mere second since your mental map will be triggered. Continue to mark up the tables and graphs as you go, circling table columns that are referenced, drawing lines from appropriate points on axes, or extending trend lines as needed.
Keep in mind that the questions in each passage go from easy to hard, so treat each question with the appropriate level of respect. Learn about the passage from the easy questions to assist you on the harder ones. If a question refers to something you didn’t see in the data, assess whether it is asking for outside science knowledge – there will usually be two of these per 40-question section. If not, you will need to go to the descriptions and skim for the important word. This may be necessary on about 5 or 6 questions out of the 33 that come from the data-based passages (all 7 of the questions in the conflicting-hypotheses passage will likely be answered from the reading).
Each passage should take between 4 and 6 minutes to complete. If you’re not finding an answer, especially if you’re on the hardest question of a passage, take an educated guess and move on to the next passage. Scavenger hunts don’t require that you find every object in order; they simply reward the people who have found the most objects in a set amount of time. That’s your job! Use your maps to find as many answers as you can, sprinkle in a little skim reading when necessary, some common sense, and a solid base of scientific understanding, and you’ll be running through the Science section with the agility and speed of a champion Border Collie.