If the GAMSAT is distinct from the assessments seen at university, naturally we ask what our preparation for the exam should look like. We will begin by using an example of how a biomedical student may typically approach their studies (Figure 1). They may commence study in biology, reviewing the cell and the evolution of genetics. When they are done, they move onto another topic until they complete the syllabus, working hard to memorise the concepts. By the end of the semester, they sit their exams and attain a pass grade of 75% (awesome, job done!). However, cognitively they have only established an isolated pocket of their mind for their university biology syllabus to exist. This region is disconnected from other areas in the brain and only serves as a filing cabinet where facts are recalled when prompted.
Figure 1. The mind of the average student who has passes first year biology in a biomedical degree. The cognitive islands of facts that are neither integrated with each other, nor with any other knowledge. This student so happens to also recall some concepts loosely from their high-school physics (left of image).
This is the common means of approaching a subject of study and is usually sufficient in getting a university degree, so why work harder than needed? Some students, however, are not interested in memorising facts for an exam and are perhaps more passionate about their study. Their cognitive filing cabinet is subsequently more encompassing and better integrated (Figure 2).
Figure 2. “Horizontal Integration” of the A-level first year biology student. They have successfully discerned the concepts within the discipline while understanding the relationships between concepts.
We call the ability to integrate within a discipline horizontal integration. This student can define the cell and list the sub-cellular structures just like the average student but can then take the discussion in any direction. For instance, the A-level student will be able to talk about the relationship between sub-cellular structures and DNA including the reciprocal interrelations like hormone production and gene transcription. If you are a student who has sat GAMSAT and wondered why you cannot answer the questions in the given timeframe, it is probable that you have not effectively integrated concepts within the relevant disciplines.
Many students who have performed exceptionally in their undergraduate degree will charge into GAMSAT study utilising the same methods of study and work ethic. They will study existing university texts, online resources, and loads of formal GAMSAT preparation courses. As one can imagine, the student is cast away in a vast sea of information and their cognitive filing cabinet is now brimming with facts (Figure 3).
Figure 3. The “GAMSAT: Section III” cognitive filing cabinet of the average GAMSAT student. The student has identified and studied most of the relevant topics; however, is yet to establish proper integration between disciplines (vertical integration).
Students can study for months (even years) and sit the exam multiple times with minimal or no improvement. Most students in this situation will have spent too much time working with theory, and not enough time applying the theory. The student continues to revise theory passively, spending relatively little time critically considering the concepts or integrating them horizontally; they also lack integration across disciplines (vertical integration). Significantly, the student has not failed enough and has not exposed themselves to ample errors to rectify their unknowns.
Most students have no trouble in identifying the need to work through the scientific stimulus and take some notes as they go. However, it seems to go downhill from here for most students through three potential mistakes: an inability to identify the breadth of study, inefficient study, and focusing on theory over practice. Notes are meant to be a short-hand record of what it is you have studied and understood; notes are NOT a summary of what you read in a textbook/module of study. In other words, if you do not understand something, do not write it in your notes and move on. Seek to understand it, and then document your understanding. To move through the syllabus with some efficiency, students need to understand that success in GAMSAT means acquiring an insight into the fundamental scientific concepts and integrating these rather than memorising or creating lists to recall later. The better students spend the same amount of time on application of theory as they did on theory. It is only by practicing application of knowledge that students can identify their shortcomings. Their notes are updated to reflect what it is they now understand, and they move back into active study. The cycle repeats when the student is unable to answer a question or gets a question wrong.
The final point necessitates completion of GAMSAT-style questions, or simply exercises like those seen in textbooks. After effectively identifying the syllabus, taking high quality notes, committing to a rigorous regimen of practice exams, and studying unknowns with further study, the student develops both a horizontally and vertically integrated understanding of the fundamental scientific concepts (Figure 4). The filing cabinet is no longer a filing cabinet, but a detailed network of inter-related concepts.
Figure 4. The exceptional GAMSAT student has established a mental model. Here the concepts are well understood, but most importantly well integrated within disciplines (horizontally) and across disciplines (vertically).
For the science to become intuitive, it cannot be sequestered in a corner of the mind without connections to what it is the student already knows and understands. And without intuition, the student has little chance of answering GAMSAT-style questions in the requisite timeframe as these questions necessitate the application of knowledge in novel contexts. Without integrated knowledge networks, the student will inefficiently spend their exam time recalling and arranging concepts rather than applying concepts to solve problems.
Once sophisticated knowledge networks are established, the mechanics of answering a GAMSAT science question include:
- Automatic understanding of where in the knowledge network the question is pitched e.g., a question on a frog’s heart is likely to be in the region of cardiovascular physiology
- Understanding what of the local concepts are relevant and which are peripheral e.g., a question on cardiovascular physiology with potential peripheral relations to respiration, work, fluid dynamics, and homeostasis
- Understanding the steps involved in deriving the solution from the information given. The student needs to be able to perform an accounting of the information that is provided and what is missing that will allow derivation of the answer. This involves detailed critical thinking and can only be developed through experience