“Fortune favors the prepared mind,” as Louis Pasteur once said. So as school revs up this month, so do SAT prep classes. Students might be surprised, however, at the amount of time dedicated to visual literacy skills. The increased focus on graphics is designed to prepare an estimated 1.6 million college-bound pupils for the first redesign of the standardized college admissions test in more than a decade. Along with other updates, test takers of the March 2016 exam will encounter graphics not only in the math section as in past years but also in the reading and writing and language portions. Students will be asked to interpret information presented in tables, charts and graphs and to correct text so it accurately describes data found in accompanying figures.

Mounting evidence indicates that such literacy is a key skill for success in college, careers and daily life in general. In an increasingly data-rich world, graphics now pop up routinely in formats ranging from political campaign literature to household bills. “Being a literate consumer of that information is valuable regardless of your career,” says Jim Patterson, an executive director at the College Board, the nonprofit corporation that owns and publishes the SAT.

Education experts agree that students in many developed nations, including the U.S., lack experience with visual data. “Apart from basic x- and y- axis graphs, educators [around the world] don't sufficiently teach students how to represent information graphically,” says Emmanuel Manalo, a professor of education psychology at Kyoto University in Japan. The SAT's new focus most likely will nudge educators to shift their lesson plans accordingly. Students, in other words, won't be the only ones with bubble charts or scatter plots on the mind this fall—teachers will, too.

Big Data Demands

The intellectual work required to interpret a graph taxes our brain more than the effort involved in reading the same information presented as text, according to a new study by Manalo and two researchers at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. The team measured neurological activity in students and found that graphs elicited roughly 60 percent more electrical activity than text or equations and 40 to 50 percent more than pictures and tables. Manalo will next examine whether practice diminishes the amount of tapped brainpower.