The Science Behind the ACT Science Test: Part 1

science flaskIf you’re like 90% of my students, then you find the ACT Science Test to be the either the first or second most difficult section on the ACT. Which makes total sense, given that you are dealing with questions such as this:

Scientist 2 says that a protein may be trapped in a moderately high-energy shape. Which of the following findings, if true, could be used to counter this argument?

  1. A) Once a protein has achieved its tertiary structure, all of the folding patterns at the local level are stable.
  2. B) Enough energy is available in the environment to overcome local energy barriers, driving the protein to its lowest energy shape.
  3. C) During protein synthesis, the secondary structure of a protein is determined before the tertiary structure is formed.
  4. D) Proteins that lose their tertiary or quaternary structure also tend to lose their biological functions.

And this:

Which of the following equations correctly calculates R (in nm) for Objective Lens 2, using light with a wavelength of 425nm?

  1. A) R = 425 / 2(.10)
  2. B) R = 425 / 2(.25)
  3. C) R = 10/ 2(425)
  4. D) R = 0.25 / 2(425)

Questions like these seem challenging for two related reasons. The first reason has to do with the technical jargon (i.e. all those headache-inducing terms like “moderately high-energy shape”, “wavelength of 425nm”  and  “tertiary structure”) that seems to complicate both of the above questions. In brief, as Daniel Kahneman describes in his magnum opus, Thinking, Fast and Slow, when a person encounters anything unfamiliar, including words she rarely comes across in everyday life, she is more likely to feel drained and/or frustrated. This is exactly what happens to many students when they read the above questions; almost right away, they feel stressed. And notably, their first reaction is to assume that because of all the big, ugly words, the question will be difficult to answer.

This brings us to the second reason as to why these questions are challenging. Because most students immediately assume that such questions will be difficult to answer, they don’t search for an easy way to solve them. For example, they waste time by reading the dense paragraphs that accompany the tables or by trying to understand the exact meanings of complicated words. In order to help my students get in the habit of finding more efficient and less-stressful approaches (which do exist!) to solving such problems, I teach them the following test strategy, which I call “change where you first look”.

The most important habit you need to learn to tackle the ACT section:

Let’s take a look at some real ACT Science questions chalk full of technical jargon.

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The biggest mistake a student answering these questions could make would be to read the accompanying paragraphs to try to understand what the heck “elaisome” is, or why “ant-planted’ plants survive longer. The reason you don’t need to waste time doing this? Whenever you see questions that say “according to the results of the studies”, nine times out of ten you only have to look at the provided tables, graphs, or charts, to find the all information you need to answer the questions. And on the ACT Science Test, tables are your best friend. I’ll show you what I mean; take a look at the following tables that will give us the answers to the above questions:

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The key to reading these tables is to look along their rows and columns to find the labels that match the terms (the technical jargon) in the questions. For example, notice that the answer choices in the first question match the row labels on Table 3 (seeds that germinated, plants alive after 1 year, plants alive after 2 years, seeds produced per plant after 2 years), and that the question (what can be said when comparing hand-planted and ant-planted seeds) corresponds to the column labels on Table 3. In other words, all you have to do to find the answer is find which answer choice correctly matches one of the rows. And that would be answer choice A; according to the table 39 ant-planted seeds germinated, whereas only hand-planted seeds germinated.

Now that you’ve seen the power of using tables, go ahead and see if you can answer the second question on your own! All the information you need to answer is on Table 1.

Explanation for second question: The correct answer is C. Both species have elaisome masses of 6.2, so their masses of such are the same.

Stay tuned to next week for a second step to this strategy! See you next Monday!

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By Rita Pearson