Welcome to the GAMSAT blog article series – ‘How to prepare for GAMSAT’ by Dr Mat Hinksman, Associate Director of Education and Senior Lecturer at METC Institute.
This 3-part article series explains how the ACER GAMSAT exam is different to a university exam, how to best approach GAMSAT study preparation with applied practice for a deeper level of understanding of concepts horizontally within a discipline, how it’s necessary to integrate vertically interdisciplinary concepts for problem-solving in Section III science exercises, and how it's essential to develop your reasoning intuition for answering questions.
The methods and approaches outlined in the article series are aimed to guide students towards the ideal preparation for developing applied theoretical intuition and a successful GAMSAT outcome.
Dr Mat Hinksman Foreword:
This is high-yield advice for anyone planning to sit GAMSAT in the coming months or years. I have drafted this to put into written form a discussion I invariably have with each student I interact with via my role at the METC Institute.
Often prospective students will send an enquiry asking for more information regarding GAMSAT preparation courses however on meeting to discuss the student’s needs, we spend the majority of our time discussing how to approach GAMSAT. In these cases, discussion about courses is a secondary consideration and rightly so. The ideal approach to the exam should be the primary concern of the student and tutor, and any ‘course’ should naturally follow this approach.
Some students I speak with have never sat the exam and for these students there is great value in discussing with them their approach from the initial stages of their preparation. Other students have sat the examination once or multiple times, and many have also completed preparation courses (in some cases a number of them). In this latter group, students often experience stagnation in their scores and frustration at the lack of progress as a result of completing courses of study (more on this later).
Given emphasising the ideal approach is infinitely valuable for the students who study with us, I thought it useful to share this via this medium in order to reach and assist a larger number of candidates (regardless of their intention of studying a METC Institute course, or any preparation course for that matter). The discussion is lengthy; however it is hoped this figurative stitch-in-time will save you energy and make your preparation proficient.
Dr Mat Hinksman
Associate Director of Education
How to study and learn
If GAMSAT is distinct from the assessments seen at university, naturally the next question is something like how to prepare for GAMSAT. More fundamentally, we should ask ourselves how is it that we learn anything. We start by understanding some basic facts about the world or the nature of things within the scope of our studies.
Depending on the field of study, these facts may come to us via day-to-day life or informal study, or they may come to us via a formal course of study. Either way, we are provided with facts and hopefully given some insight into how these facts were established.
We can illustrate this using an example of how a biomedical student may typically approach their studies. They may commence study of biology and begin studying the cell. They study the subcellular structures such as the organelles, and the plasma membrane. When they are done, they move onto another area of study such as the study of genetics where they learn about DNA, mRNA and the production of proteins.
When they are done, they move onto another topic until they complete the syllabus working hard to memorise the concepts. At the end of the semester, they sit their exams, and get a passing grade of 75%. Job done. Cognitively, they have established an isolated pocket of their mind where exists (sequestered given its fragility) their university biology syllabus – it is disconnected from other areas of their mind (i.e. their general understanding of the world) and serves more or less as a filing cabinet where facts are stored.
What is more, the facts that are stored have no real association with each other – they are simply islands of scientific facts the student can recall when so prompted. It looks something like this:
Figure 1: The mind of the average student who has passed 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 loosely recall some concepts from their high-school physics seen left of image).
This is the common means of approaching a subject of study and is usually sufficient in getting a university degree and maybe rightly so – why work harder than needed? Some students however are not interested in memorising facts for an exam – perhaps they are more passionate about their study, or are simply plagued with an obsessive need to understand everything. Their cognitive filing cabinet is subsequently more encompassing and better integrated:
Figure 2: The mind of the A-level first year biology student. They have successfully discerned the concepts within the discipline while understanding the relationships between concepts - we can say they have horizontally integrated.
We call the ability to integrate within a discipline horizontal integration. To horizontally integrate means students understand their discipline deeply. 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 subcellular structures, and DNA including the reciprocal interrelations such as the production of hormones by one cell which act on the plasma membrane of another leading to an intracellular signal via G-protein cascade which results in changes in genetic transcription and subsequent translation.
The average student may be aware of these structures and mechanisms, however, is not immediately aware of the implications of the presence of these factors or changes to them. This means the average student has to spend time and energy making connections between understood concepts that haven’t previously been appropriately integrated. In essence, the average student’s incapacity for horizontal integration means they are either unable to answer difficult questions (especially those that necessitate application of concepts in new contexts) or will need significant time to consult the filing cabinet of facts in order to arrange said facts and solve a problem.
For the A-level student, their established integrated network of concepts means they are efficient and accurate. If you are a student who has sat GAMSAT questions and exclaimed to themselves, ‘I can answer the questions, I just can’t answer them in the timeframe provided’, it is probable that you haven’t effectively horizontally integrated concepts within the relevant discipline/s.
An inability to horizontally integrate within a discipline is a serious mitigating factor when it comes to GAMSAT section 3 performance, however there is another major issue (even for A-grade biology students). Many students who have performed brilliantly in their undergraduate degree will charge into GAMSAT study utilising the same methods of study and the same strong work ethic. And why not? This has worked perfectly well to date.
They study existing university texts +/- online resources such as Khan Academy or other resources +/- a GAMSAT-specific textbook +/- formal GAMSAT preparation courses +/- another formal GAMSAT preparation course (because the first one didn’t work). As one can imagine, the student is cast away on a vast sea of information and the cognitive filing cabinet is now brimming with facts – it looks something like this:
Figure 3: The 'GAMSAT: Section 3' cognitive filing cabinet of the average GAMSAT student. The student has identified and studied most of the relevant topics and understands somewhat the interrelationships however is yet to establish proper integration between disciplines (vertical integration). They have also yet to establish unknown-unknowns usually due to relatively little experience attempting to apply the facts which they have diligently acquired to date.
They have been studying for 6 months, 12 months, or 2 years, and they have sat the exam multiple times with minimal or no improvement in their Section 3 performance. The students have been over the syllabus a number of times yet cannot seem to improve their performance. Most students in this situation will have spent too much time working with theory, and not enough time applying the theory. This is a very general statement. What it means is as follows:
- The student continues to read over and revise theory passively – a task of minimal yield once the student has performed a first passing of the material and single revision of their notes (they are repeatedly considering their known-knowns)
- The student has spent relatively little time critically considering the concepts, how they integrate horizontally, and how key concepts integrate across disciplines (vertical integration)
- The student has not failed enough – they have not exposed themselves to enough errors such that their unknown-unknowns can become known-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 via a number of potential mistakes:
- Inability to identify the breadth of study: Syllabus is not identified in completion, or contains redundant or irrelevant information that results in reduced yield for time spent
- Inefficient study: Either due to one or both of the following
a. Inability to take notes: 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 etc. Notes should serve to remind you of what you have encountered and already understood and are therefore a representation of your knowledge to-date rather than a summary of everything you have ever read. Notes are NOT meant to teach you later. 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.
b. Preoccupation with memorisation: Often students are pre-occupied with memorising details (likely conditioned this way due to high-school/university assessment style) and cannot move on for fear of missing something important. In order 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 creating lists to recall later.
3. Focusing on theory over practice: Students who spend too much of their time passively revising theory will fail to perform in Section 3 of GASMAT due to an inability to apply concepts. Often students are comfortable revising, but uncomfortable completing exams as they feel they will perform poorly (which is to be expected in the beginning). Focusing on theory over application of theory leaves the student with a poor appreciation of their weaknesses (unknown-unknowns) and in a state of blissful ignorance.
The better students spend the same amount of time on application of theory as they did on theory. It is only via practicing application of knowledge that students are able to identify their shortcomings. Once identified, the unknown-unknowns become known-unknowns, and the student can revert to passive study of that specific known-unknown. There 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 (more unknown-unknowns becoming known-unknowns for the student to work on).
Please navigate below to Part 3 in the GAMSAT blog article series – ‘How to prepare for GAMSAT’ by Dr Mat Hinksman.
Article Part 1 ‘How to Prepare for GAMSAT: understanding what GAMSAT isn’t and is’ - explains what GAMSAT isn’t and is, and the competencies students need to acquire. In addition, it outlines the differences between GAMSAT assessment exams and university assessment exams, and how many students are inexperienced with the style of assessment used in GAMSAT.
Article Part 2 ‘How to Prepare for GAMSAT: horizontal integration - high achiever students and common mistakes’ - discusses how to study and learn, and how a biomedical student may typically approach their studies to establish an isolated understanding of their university biology syllabus – versus how an A-level student will integrate within a discipline horizontally from a deeper understanding and be able to apply integrated concepts within the discipline in new contexts.
Article Part 3 ‘How to Prepare for GAMSAT: vertical integration - completing exercises for interdisciplinary intuition’ –– outlines the vertical integration between the scientific disciplines and the importance of completing exercises and answering questions in order to develop interdisciplinary intuition and understanding of concepts. It explains how GAMSAT style questions necessitate the application of knowledge in novel contexts and the mechanics of answering a GAMSAT science question. It concludes with the ideal GAMSAT preparation breakdown, that will assist students to develop a pathway for the development of their problem-solving intuition.