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Fact Check: Do you need knowledge for GAMSAT Section III?

July 9, 2024

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The key question

The knowledge component of GAMSAT Section III, now known as ‘Reasoning in Biological and Physical Sciences’ has been hotly debated for years. Some people claim that no knowledge is needed at all, whilst others believe that revising all of first year university science content will give you a competitive advantage. The latter is often promoted by expensive test preparation companies selling huge bundles of scientific content. In this article, we get to the bottom of this once and for all and answer - how much knowledge is required for the GAMSAT?

What does ACER say?

Let’s start with the official test provider, ACER. The ACER GAMSAT Information Booklet 2024 states that:

“GAMSAT evaluates the nature and extent of abilities and skills gained through prior experience and learning, including the mastery and use of concepts in basic science as well as the acquisition of more general skills in problem solving, critical thinking and writing.”

“In addition to testing reasoning and problem solving within a scientific context, this section examines the recall and understanding of basic science concepts.”

“The level of subject knowledge required for the Reasoning in Biological and Physical Sciences section of the test generally corresponds to the first year of university studies in biology and chemistry, and A-level/Leaving Certificate/Year 12 in physics. The test however, focuses primarily on problem solving and on the use of the prerequisite knowledge.”

“However, it must be stressed that success in GAMSAT will be difficult without a good knowledge and ability in the biological and physical sciences.”

The key word here is concepts. Scientific understanding is built on key ideas which can be loosely organised by discipline (i.e. biology, physics and chemistry). In order to access these concepts, a certain amount of knowledge must be acquired. For example, to understand the concept of a capacitor in physics, you must first know what is meant by charge and voltage. 

What about the official practice tests?

Once registered with ACER you are able to purchase three practice tests, along with a practice booklet and a sample booklet. These materials have varying levels of assumed knowledge. 

To access the physics question you must know the buoyancy equation, how voltage relates to current and resistance, the inverse square law as well as have a firm grasp of logarithmic rearrangements. In addition, manipulation and use of the equations of motion is common and so a lack of experience here would cost the unprepared student valuable time. 

In chemistry, you need to have a good understanding of rate and equilibrium constants as well as the ability to visualise the products of organic reactions which is much easier with a knowledge of the common reaction patterns. There are also countless examples of questions where concepts such as hydrogen bonding, oxidation numbers, resonance and chirality, are explained in depth in the stimulus but reading and interpretation could be easily bypassed if you have a good grasp of these key concepts. 

Biology based questions use topic specific terminology without definitions. For example, questions focusing on cellular division expect an understanding and application of key terms such as diploid, haploid, allele, homo/heterozygous and the phases of mitosis and meiosis (I and II).

Why do some students believe there is no knowledge element?

Part of the reason that the knowledge element of GAMSAT is so contentious is that what is perceived as ‘knowledge’ is different depending on a student's background and personal strengths. According to the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary knowledge is ‘the information, understanding and skills that you gain through education or experience’. 

A person who has studied physics at degree level is not likely to report any physics knowledge component because the basic principles of concepts such as electricity or mechanics are so ingrained following years of application at a high level. Similarly, the key terms and concepts in biology would become part of a biology graduate's vocabulary following years of use. 

It is true that revising topic content alone is not a good strategy for success. Indeed, revising advanced topics in depth is likely to yield poor results. The GAMSAT questions can focus on an infinite number of topics in a variety of contexts and it is highly unlikely you will have revised the exact context you will be faced with on the day. For instance, while you may have a general understanding of body systems, it’s almost impossible to equip yourself fully with the knowledge of the fish circulatory system or amphibian respiratory mechanics. In other words, there is a point at which implementing traditional revision methods will yield diminishing returns. 

Acquiring knowledge alone will not be sufficient to score well in the GAMSAT. Rather, a fundamental understanding of key concepts and a working knowledge of key terminology is vital to provide the foundations on which you can build to quickly ascertain the correct answer and maximise your score.

The Medify method

Of course, being adept with scientific literacy is just one of the skills required to tackle the reasoning questions. 

At Medify, we have identified four key skills which are necessary for GAMSAT success. Our questions are carefully written to assess these skills in the same proportion as the exam to enable you to be as well prepared as possible for Test Day.

Scientific literacy

Many questions involve an understanding of scientific content. This could be included in the stimulus or question stem but the question is more easily answerable for those with a good foundation in their scientific understanding.

Success will be obtained through targeted revision of science taught up to A-Level in all science or first year degree in chemistry and biology.

Data manipulation

Interpretation of data and/or diagrams which highlight a trend is a very popular focus in the GAMSAT exam. You must use data from the stimulus or stem to prove/disprove a statement about relationships or to provide an answer relating to an identified trend. 

Success will be improved by practice extracting and interpreting information from graphs, diagrams and tables of varying formats.

Calculations

Some questions are centred around a formula which may be given, obtained from units, recalled or deduced from the text in the stimulus/question stem. You are required to use the formulas to either prove/disprove statements or to provide numerical answers.

Success can be improved by practice manipulating formula and fluency working with numbers in various forms.

Problem solving

In many questions, you are expected to quickly process and develop understanding of information beyond what is typically taught in A-level. It may be necessary to discover rules from the information provided and use these to arrive at an answer. Scientific literacy may help here but the question is more heavily weighted towards decision making in a scientific context.

Success can be improved with deductive reasoning methodologies and practice identifying and extracting relevant details from the stimulus and the question.

So… how much knowledge is required for GAMSAT?

The answer is:

  • You must know enough to be able to access the questions in a timely manner. 
  • You must be familiar with fundamental concepts and terminology so that you can recognise key words and relationships quickly.
  • BUT more knowledge is not always better - acquire a critical mass and then practise application of other skills such as data manipulation, calculation and problem solving.

Ultimately, you need to demonstrate skills that are essential for aspiring doctors, as they mirror the critical thinking, problem-solving, and application of scientific knowledge that are crucial in medical practice. The GAMSAT is designed to test these abilities to ensure that future doctors are not only knowledgeable but also adept at reasoning and decision-making in complex and varied contexts, reflecting the real-life challenges they will face in their medical careers.

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