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Improve Science Performance (ACT)


Science Standardized Test Prep MS/HS/College Strategy

Improve Science Performance (ACT)

All students who are taking the ACT

Prioritize The Order Of The Passages

  1. Optimize your score by prioritizing which order you will read the passages based on how many passages you think you can finish accurately, your interest in the passage content in and the complexity of the graphs and charts in the passage.
  2. Set a realistic goal for the number of passages you think you can complete to the best of your ability.
  3. Create a likely order or plan in which you will complete the passages. Some students prefer to start with their area of highest interest or comfort level. Others prefer to start with the passage that they think will be more challenging so they can get it over with. Consider if you are the type of person who needs time to ramp up or if you can work at a consistent pace throughout.
  4. Given your target number of passages, calculate the average time to spend per passage, allowing for a few minutes at the end to randomly guess on any remaining questions.
  5. Based on your time allocation above, calculate an average time for reading the passage and an average time per question. Sticking to a schedule and not spending too much time reading or trying to understand a graph is critical to success on the Science section. It is important that you build awareness of when to allow yourself to guess and move on.
  6. If you will not be tackling the passages in the order provided, have a strategy for marking your answer sheet to ensure you are filling in the answers correctly for the problems you are answering. You might clearly cross off the questions you finished in the test booklet. You might circle the question numbers to leave blank on the answer sheet.

Types Of Passages

  1. Understanding the differences among the types of passages will help you work most efficiently.
  2. Data Representation includes 12-16 questions across three or four passages. There will be a paragraph or two of text, followed by a graph or table you will need to reference.
  3. Many students choose to jump directly to the graph or chart to answer the questions without reading the introductory paragraph. This can be an efficient use of time. However, if you can't find a term or data point that you need, definitely go back and re-read the introductory paragraph. In some cases the "missing piece" could also be in the chart legend, labels or captions.
  4. Unlike on the English and Reading, you might not really not need to know unfamiliar vocabulary. They throw it in to confuse you. Often they provide the definition OR you do not need to know the word to interpret the data.
  5. Re-write the Data if it Helps. If you prefer working with numbers, consider writing the numbers from the graph in table format. Conversely, if the test provides a table, draw a quick graph if it is easier for you to understand.

Research Summaries

  1. Research Summaries includes 18-22 questions across three or four passages. There will be a few paragraphs of text, usually followed by a graph or table. Unlike Data Representation, you cannot skim the text.
  2. Outline. Some students do best by making annotating or making a chart that identifies the key elements in the experiment: hypothesis, independent variable, dependent variable, control and result. This can be an efficient use of time since it will help answer most of the questions for the passage.
  3. Know Good Experimental Design. You are likely to be asked questions about how to improve the design. Key features of a good design are: multiple trials to improve accuracy, changing only one independent variable at a time, having one or more controls, and identifying how non-ideal conditions could affect results. While this is not easily memorizable, the more practice you have with passages, the more will you recognize the potential pitfalls in design.
  4. Unexpected Results. The results in the summary or conclusion might contradict what you believe to be true or in the original hypothesis. Don't rely on what you think to be true. Rely on what is in the passage. You could be mistaken. Perhaps there was an error in the experiment (see below). What is most important is that you use the passage and data in front of you to justify your answer. So NEVER skip the results because you think they are obvious.
  5. Criticize. The test makers want you to read with a critical eye. Sometimes Unexpected Results are because of an error in technique or experimental design. This could include "missing data" so the answer "cannot be determined". Critiquing can be a challenge for students, but practicing these passages will help.
  6. While you might not need to understand technical jargon (see above), you might need to "group it". For example, the passage might discuss the differences between TK6+ and TK6- cells. While you don't need to know what these cells are, you might be asked to understand the differences based on data in the passage. Call them A and B if it makes it less confusing. Or underline everywhere you see TK6+ and circle everywhere you see TK6-.

Conflicting Viewpoints

  1. Conflicting Viewpoints is always 7 questions based on two or three short passages.
  2. As with Research Summaries, it might be best to make a chart, especially if there are three passages. For each passage, identify the main idea (usually in the initial sentence). Next list the viewpoints. Identify them as similar, conflicting or different by passage. It is possible that the viewpoints might not be actually conflicting, but simply describing different ideas. Having a chart will keep you from getting confused.
  3. As with Research Summaries, the most important information is in in the text, not the graph. Assume the data is there as validation for a point of view -- don't spend time trying to analyze it in detail.
  4. Consider using the annotating strategies suggested for Reading to help you key in on the most important details.

Advanced Questions

  1. Consider familiarizing yourself with these techniques if you are aiming for a top score and you have time for extra practice.
  2. Recognize the implied constant. While some problems will explicitly state "..with X held constant", in other cases you must interpret the constant. For example, a container with a lid will be a fixed volume. Keep a running list of implied constants as you do practice problems so you are more aware if they pop up on the exam.
  3. Leave extra time if there are two figures. Assume you will need to understand each figure separately before you consolidate them. Start by understanding each one on its own. If possible, overlay one on the other, e.g. plot one graph on the other rather than needing to go back and forth between two figures. Remember, you can have two different y axes.
  4. When comparing two data sets, try to find the pattern--similarities and differences. Are both increasing? Is one increasing and the other decreasing? One increasing more rapidly than the other (i.e. steeper slope)? Is one linear growth while the other is exponential? The similarities or differences in the pattern of the data will enable you to eliminate answers even before you use any numbers.

Graph & Chart Questions

  1. Read the question before analyzing the graph. There is often extra information on these visuals that you will not need to understand or consider. Remember, your only purpose is to answer the question, so interpret with a focus on what you need to know.
  2. Read the chart title and headings/variables so you are sure you know what data are being presented. Circle any labels in case you might need to make a conversion.
  3. Pause to be sure you fully understand what the graph is presenting. This can be tricky and you might need to interpolate from the data.
  4. Don't assume the scale/axes labels. Always check the names and scale on the X and Y axes. This is particularly true on problems where you are asked to compare graphs. The might look the same, but they might be using different increments or slightly different names of data sets.
  5. Circle the point in the graph or data in the chart that you will use before checking the answers so you do not lose your place. If you have trouble finding it, take a breath. Remind yourself that you will find the answer in the graph/chart. To help with visual interpretation, use your finger as a straight edge to draw straight lines between data points if you need.
  6. Quickly eliminate incorrect answers. If you would need to do math or interpolate, consider if it will be faster to plug in the remaining answers rather than solving. If you are having trouble finding the answer, check your labels to see if you need to do a conversion.

Have Familiarity With Key Scientific Terms

  1. While you do not need to know much subject-specific terminology on the ACT Science section, you need to recognize and apply basic terminology related to the scientific method to be successful.If you are still learning these terms, make flashcards. Put the term on one side and the definition on the other. Include an example or picture that will help you remember. Study your flashcards daily until you are completely comfortable with these terms.
  2. Hypothesis. This is the scientist's educated guess about what the results of the experiment will be. Every experiment should start with a hypothesis to test. Keep in mind that the hypothesis might be very different from the actual results.
  3. Theory. This is a scientific fact, which you should assume to be undeniably true. This is in contrast to a hypothesis which is a good guess. The hypothesis could be right. The theory is right.
  4. Independent Variable. This is the condition that the scientist deliberately changes throughout the experiment. In graphs, it is usually plotted on the X-axis. In tables, it is usually the first column. It is the variable that changes in the predictable increments that the scientist chooses.
  5. Dependent Variable. This is the outcome of the experiment. It is what the scientist measures each time she or he changes the independent variable. In graphs it is usually plotted on the Y-axis. In tables, it is usually the second column. Unlike the independent variable, in most cases it does not change in an entirely predictable fashion.
  6. Control. Good experiments have a control group so you can compare the control group to the test group that was given the experimental condition. It allows you to determine how big an impact the experiment made. For example, if you were testing the effect of fertilizer on plant growth, the test group (sometimes referred to as the positive control) would be given the fertilizer. The control group (sometimes referred to as the negative control) would not receive any fertilizer.
  7. Constants. Variables in the experiment that are held the same throughout in both the control and the test group. In the example above, the amount of water and sunlight would be constants for the test group and the control group. This way you are sure you would be only measuring the impact of the fertilizer.
  8. Outlier. A data point that is inconsistent with other data points collected. Good scientists try to understand why the outlier happened. Did they make a mistake during the experiment? Did something unusual happen during the particular trial? Or is the outlier suggesting that there is something interesting going on that needs to be better understood?
  9. Accuracy. Accuracy describes how close the scientist's answer came to the theoretical correct value or expected answer. Accuracy is measured by Percent Error which is the percent difference of the average of the experimental values from the theoretical correct value.

Skim Questions First

  1. Skimming the questions before reading the passage can provide good cues into where you should put your focus. However, this strategy does not work for everyone. Try it with different types of practice passages to decide if this works for you, and if so, on which types of passages.
  2. Start with a quick preview of the questions. Having an idea of what you will answer will help you focus while reading.
  3. Remind yourself that all of the answers MUST HAVE evidence in the passage. You are not expected to have prior knowledge.
  4. If questions refer to a particular phrase, mark that in the text.
  5. Read the passage at a relatively fast pace. Over time you should have a plan for maximum reading time per passage. Based on the questions, underline the important lines and make notes on the side that connect to questions.
  6. If you reach a part of the passage you do not understand, do not get stuck. Keep reading and only go back if the questions relates to this part.
  7. Some students who read very slowly choose not to read the full passage and just read the lines necessary to answer the questions. If you take this approach, be sure to carefully read the sentence before and after the sentence with the answer so you are not fooled by a trick question. This approach can work but it will take a lot of practice.