The Way You Read ACT Science Questions Is Confusing You – Here’s The Fix
A couple weeks ago I realized that I was reading ACT Science questions differently than most of my students.
My students tended to read the entire question at once…
They started to read at “Suppose…” and continued all the way to the end: “…following energies.”
The problem with this approach is that the question has so many unfamiliar “science-y” terms - Mineral 3, MnSiO3, Figures 1 and 2, X-ray spectroscopy, 3 maximum intensity peaks, keV - that when you read them all at once, each one confuses and intimidates you just a touch more than the last one did, and by the end of the question, you don’t really know what you’ve just read.
You’re confused and maybe a little deflated.
I read Science questions differently. I call it the "step by step" method: the instant I get to any mention of a Table or Figure, or of a science word I'm not totally familiar with, I stop reading the question. I go find that Table or science word in the Passage. I look over the Table; I read the sentences around it in the Passage. I spend 5-20 seconds researching to understand it at least the tiniest bit more before continuing to read the question.
“Mineral 3” actually doesn’t show up in the Passage, but “Mineral 1” and “Mineral 2” each have a graph about them, so I reason that my answer to the question will probably relate to Minerals 1 and 2.
I read around any mention of Minerals 1 and 2 in the Passage, and then go back to the question and re-read it, starting from the beginning:
The next “science-y” word I don’t know is MnSiO3. When I get to MnSiO3 in the question, I stop reading and go find MnSiO3 in the Passage. I don’t see MnSiO3 exactly, but I see Mn, Si, and O (albeit not O3) separately in Figures 1 and 2 – that’s the closest I can find to any mention of MnSiO3.
I spot Mn, Si, and O in Figures 1 and 2, realize where they are in the Figure, decide that there’s nothing more I can learn about them in the Passage, and go back to re-reading the question.
Next I get to “Based on Figures 1 and 2.” If I haven’t given these Figures a good look over yet, I do so now, then go back to re-reading the question:
The next “science-y” word that shows up is “X-ray spectroscopy.” I stop re-reading the question, go back to the Passage, and look up “X-ray spectroscopy.”
I notice “X-ray spectroscopy” shows up twice in the introduction. I read these sentences and the ones around them.
I go back to re-reading the question, arriving at “3 maximum intensity peaks” as the next “science-y” term I’m not totally familiar with.
I realize that the Figures have “peaks” in their graphs. That must be what the question is referring to.
Last, I notice that the answer choices are in units of keV:
I don’t actually know what keV are (suggesting how little science you actually have to know to reason your way to the answers in ACT Science questions), but I see that keV is the unit of measurement in the X-axis of Figures 1 and 2.
Alright! I think I understand this question now: it wants to know the keV values for the graphs’ peaks in Figures 1 and 2 for O, Si, and Mn.
In both Figures 1 anad 2, O, Si, and Mn have peaks at keV of about 0.5 for O, 1.9 for Si, and 5.9 for Mn, so my answer is (A): 0.5 keV, 1.9 keV, and 5.9 keV.
To be fair, scientifically, I don’t have any clue what I’ve just answered a question about!
Science is not my strong suit, but I've used the "step by step" method to get a perfect 36, 40/40 questions correct on ACT Science.
By following the question’s keywords, one by one, researching each one in the Passage before continuing to read the question, I build a sense that I know enough of what’s going on, step by step, as I make my way through the problem.
The alternate approach – the one my students go to instinctively before we train it out of them - is to read the question all at once, and that leaves them confused and deflated.
Several words into the question, they already don’t exactly follow what the question is asking before they read yet another science-y term they’re not sure about, and their confusion builds as they read the question from beginning to end.
Then they start to randomly search of some of the keywords they remember from the question, unwittingly forgetting to look up one or two back in the Passage. They get confused, are missing a key detail or two from the Passage, begin to lose faith, and decide to just guess one of the answers.
But won't this take more time?
As is so often true in standardized tests, the technique that works best and actually saves you time looks at first glance like it will take more time.
Reading the question in steps may look like it will take too long, but trust me – try it out, and you will arrive at answers surprisingly quickly, with full assurance that they are correct, and faster than you have ever answered them before.