Tips for Answering Questions about Visual Materials on the GED Science Test

By Murray Shukyn, Dale E. Shuttleworth, Achim K. Krull

Visual materials are pictures that contain information you may need to answer the corresponding questions on the GED Science test. They can be in the form of tables, graphs, diagrams, or maps. Understanding information in visual materials takes more practice than textual passages because you likely aren’t as familiar with getting information from pictures as you are with getting info from text.

Any visual object is like a short paragraph. It has a topic and makes comments or states facts about that topic. When you come across a question based on a visual material, the first thing to do is to figure out the content of the material. Usually, visual objects have titles that help you understand their meanings.

After you figure out the main idea behind the visual object, ask yourself what information you’re being given; rereading the question can be helpful. After you know these two pieces of information, you’re well on your way to answering the question.

Tables

A table is a graphical way of organizing information. This type of visual material allows for easy comparison between two or more sets of data. Some tables use symbols to represent information; others use words.

Most tables have titles that tell you what they’re about. Always read the titles first so you know right away what information the tables include. If a table gives you an explanation (or key) of the symbols, read the explanation carefully, too; doing so helps you understand how to read the table.

Graphs

A graph is a picture that shows how different sets of numbers are related. On the Science test, you can find the following three main types of graphs:

  • Bar or column graphs: Bars (horizontal) or columns (vertical) present and often compare information.

  • Line graphs: On line graphs, one or more lines connect points drawn on a grid to show the relationships between data, including changes in data over time.

  • Pie graphs (also called pie charts or circle graphs): Arcs of circles (pieces of a pie) show how data relates to a whole.

All three types of graphs usually share the following common characteristics:

  • Title: The title tells you what the graph is about, so always read the title before reviewing the graph.

  • Horizontal axis and vertical axis: Bar, column, and line graphs have a horizontal axis and a vertical axis. (Pie graphs don’t.) Each axis is a vertical or horizontal reference line that’s labeled to give you additional information.

  • Label: The label on the axis of a graph usually contains units, such as feet or dollars. Read all axis labels carefully; they can either help you with the answer or lead you astray (depending on whether you read them correctly).

  • Legend: Graphs usually have a legend, or printed material that tells you what each section of the graph is about. They may also contain labels on the individual parts of the graph and explanatory notes about the data used to create the graph, so read carefully.

Graphs and tables are both often called charts. To help you prepare for problems with graphs, make sure you look at and problem solve plenty of graphs before the test. Remember that many graphs show relationships. If the numbers represented on the horizontal axis are in millions of dollars and you think they’re in dollars, your interpretation of the graph will be more than a little incorrect.

Diagrams

A diagram is a drawing that helps you understand how something works.

Diagrams on the Science test often have the following two components:

  • Title: Tells you what the diagram is trying to show you

  • Labels: Indicate the names of the parts of the diagram

When you come to a question based on a diagram, read the title of the diagram first to get an idea of what the diagram is about. Then carefully read all the labels to find out the main components of the diagram. These two pieces of information can help you understand the diagram well enough to answer questions about it.

Maps

A map is a drawing of some section — large or small — of the earth or another planet, depending on how much space exploration has been done. Because the entire world is too large to show you on one piece of paper, a section of it is drawn to scale and presented to you on the test.

Most maps give you the following information:

  • Title: Tells you what area of the world the map focuses on and what it shows

  • Legend: Gives you general information about the colors, symbols, compass directions, or other graphics used on the map

  • Labels: Indicate what the various points on the map represent

  • Scale: Tells you what the distance on the map represents in real life (For example, a map with a scale of 1 inch = 100 miles shows a distance of 500 miles on the real earth as a distance of 5 inches on the map.)

Although maps are seldom used in science passages, they are used occasionally, so you want to at least be familiar with them. The best way to get familiar with maps is to spend some time looking at road maps and world atlases, which you can find in your local library or bookstore.

The exact meaning of any visual materials may not be obvious or may even be misleading if not examined carefully. You must understand what the legends, scale, labels, and color coding are telling you. Numbers on a table also may be misleading or even meaningless unless you read the legend and labels carefully.

Colors on a map aren’t just for decoration; each color has a meaning. Each piece of a visual represents meaning from which you can put together the information you need to determine the correct answers.