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ACT Science Section (Part Two)

Part one of this lesson offered an overview of the ACT Science Exam format and the science-related skills the test attempts to assess. This part will cover how the passages themselves are structured and the types of questions you’ll be asked on each.

The ACT Science section asks you to answer 40 questions spread across seven passages in the span of 35 minutes. The passages and corresponding questions are drawn at random from three specific formats: data representation, research summaries, and conflicting viewpoints. The passage types vary in structure and the questions in scope. We’ll start with data representation passages, which mostly involve information sorting. We’ll then look at research summaries and conflicting viewpoints, which deal with questions of scientific methodology.

Data Representation

You’ll need to understand and interpret information presented in and across charts, graphs, tables, etc. to answer the questions presented in a data representation passage. These types of passages are only interested in the relationship between and among specific points of data. Even the more difficult questions are relatively narrow in scope.

Each passage begins with a short abstract explaining what the data in the passage represents. Make sure you read this paragraph. It summarizes, in plain English, what exactly you’ll be looking at. Once you’re sure you understand the abstract, glance over the data itself and dive into the questions.

Approach a data representation question by first identifying what specific variables the question is asking you to consider. Find only that information; the rest is irrelevant to the question at hand. Next, look at what the question is asking you to show with this information. This could be the change in a single variable between data points or an overall trend in the data. Don’t waste time calculating an exact answer. The possible answers are always presented in relative, approximate, or visual terms.

Research Summaries

You’ll need to evaluate the design, execution, and results of one or more experiments to answer the questions attached to a research summaries passage. This includes being able to compare and contrast conclusions between and among experiments.

These passages begin with an introduction setting up general parameters, methodology, and materials used for all experiments. You’ll then be presented with short explanations of exactly what steps were taken in each experiment and the data gathered (tables, graphs, etc.) from the experiment(s). Read the introduction and the experiment summaries first. Take a glance at the results of the experiments, but don’t examine them in depth until you know what the questions will be asking you to do with them.

The questions themselves have a slightly broader focus than those of data representation passages. They are, as a whole, more interested in the methodology used in the experiments. For example, you may be asked to explain why a researcher took a given action during a particular experiment. The research summaries passages also like to throw out “suppose” questions. When you see this word, know that the question is asking you to predict how the result of an experiment would change if the one of the steps in the experiment was altered. Lastly, the passages will occasionally ask you for the “main purpose” of an experiment. These are purely questions of methodology, so don’t bother looking at the data the experiment generated. You only need to determine what the researchers were trying to achieve by the steps they took in conducting the experiment.

Conflicting Viewpoints

You must evaluate several conflicting theories, hypothesis, or viewpoints on a specific observable phenomenon to solve the types of questions contained within conflicting viewpoints passages. Of the three types of passages found on ACT Science Exam, these are the broadest in scope. They’ll require you to put on your critical thinking cap and exercise many of the same skills you would need to answer the questions found in the ACT and SAT reading comprehension sections.

A typical passage of this type would present a classroom exercise and the conclusions different groups of students drew from the exercise. The passage would begin with a short summary of a particular scientific process. Next, the passage would tell you what the student groups were asked to determine about this process and the points that they all agreed on. The passage would conclude by listing the ways the various groups disagreed with one another.

Unlike the other two passage types, it’s important to read a conflicting viewpoints passage in its entirety before you begin answering the questions. You don’t need to scrutinize every single point, but you do need to try to get a general sense of what the various parties agree on and where their consensus breaks down.

Conflicting viewpoints questions can cover a lot of different ground. A “based on the information presented” question wants you to draw a conclusion from the general points that everyone involved agrees on. A question like “based on the model presented” is asking you what the correct answer would be if you were to assume that a given point of view is correct. You’ll encounter “suppose” questions in these passages as well. To answer these, you’ll need to synthesize a particular viewpoint or viewpoints with any additional information contained in the question. Finally, be aware that some conflicting viewpoints questions will try to blur the line between agreement and disagreement. A passage could assign each viewpoint a particular number, only for a question to turn around and ask which of those numbers fall into a given range.