Page 1 - Scientific Inquiry and Reasoning (question type) Study Guide for the MCAT

General Information

Scientific Inquiry and Reasoning is not an MCAT test section, but a type of question that will occur in three sections of the test: the Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems, Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems, and Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior sections. (For the purpose of this guide, we will refer to these as “the three science areas”.)

This type of question requires more thought and reasoning on your part, using scientific references. Here are some of the things you need to know and be able to do in order to be successful on these questions. We have provided an outline and some basic information, but additional resources and practice will be needed to complete your review.

Possess Science Knowledge

It will be necessary to have complete knowledge and a thorough understanding of these Foundational Concepts as defined by the creators of the MCAT and quoted here. You can do this by using our study guides for the three science sections previously mentioned and by thoroughly reviewing related content.

Foundational Concept 1—Biomolecules have unique properties that determine how they contribute to the structure and function of cells, and how they participate in the processes necessary to maintain life.

Important biomolecules include nucleic acids, carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids. These 4 major classes of molecules are built, interact, and are degraded to perform all the processes needed to maintain life. The components of these molecules give them their unique properties, which contribute to their function. For example, the phosphate backbone of DNA gives this nucleic acid its negative charge.

Foundational Concept 2—Highly-organized assemblies of molecules, cells, and organs interact to carry out the functions of living organisms.

Cells are the basic units of life. Important processes include cellular division and cellular organization. Cells organize molecules into compartments to perform certain functions (e.g., the nucleus houses the genetic blueprint of life, DNA). In multicellular organisms, cells are differentiated and perform specialized functions. Differentiated cells are organized into tissues, which comprise organs.

Foundational Concept 3—Complex systems of tissues and organs sense the internal and external environments of multicellular organisms, and through integrated functioning, maintain a stable internal environment within an ever-changing external environment.

Sensing and responding to the environment is essential for organisms to maintain homeostasis. Multicellular organisms have to integrate signals from various organs and tissues to survive. A great example of this is the “flight or fight” response, where a threat is recognized and then the appropriate physical response is made.

Foundational Concept 4—Complex living organisms transport materials, sense their environment, process signals, and respond to changes using processes that can be understood in terms of physical principles.

The laws of physics are important for understanding various biological processes. On the atomic scale, physics is applied to understand how atoms in biological molecules act and contribute to their unique properties. On a larger scale, physics is important for understanding how light is received and converted into chemical signals, which allows for vision.

Foundational Concept 5—The principles that govern chemical interactions and reactions form the basis for a broader understanding of the molecular dynamics of living systems.

Chemical interactions and reactions are involved in every biological process. It is important to understand the composition (molecular structure) and properties (molecular reactivity) of biological molecules. Because most biological reactions occur in solution, an understanding of kinetics and thermodynamics is crucial.

Foundational Concept 6—Biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors influence the ways that individuals perceive, think about, and react to the world.

This concept focuses on how the world is experienced or perceived. This covers the initial sensing of the environment, processing of the stimulus, cognition, and response to the stimulus.

Foundational Concept 7—Biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors influence behavior and behavior change.

This section focuses on individual and social contributions to behavior as well as how these contributions alter behavior. Psychology, sociology, public health, neuroscience, and behavioral sciences are fields that study these interactions.

Foundational Concept 8—Psychological, sociocultural, and biological factors influence the way we think about ourselves and others, as well as how we interact with others.

This section focuses on the complex processes that result in identity (physical, social, and cognitive contributions). This section also encompasses how our identity influences our interactions with others (interpersonal relationships).

Foundational Concept 9—Cultural and social differences influence well-being.

Culture and society contribute to an individual’s health. You should understand how culture, demographics, social theories, and social institutions play a role in health.

Foundational Concept 10—Social stratification and access to resources influence well-being.

All societies have some level of stratification, which results in diverse access to resources. Healthcare is a limited resource that is not equally accessible to all members of society; thus an individual’s social status can influence his or her health.

Use Science Knowledge to Solve Problems

It’s not enough to “know your stuff” for this test. You must also be able to use that knowledge to reason and solve problems. The concepts you know will help you make decisions about the information in questions and find a suitable answer. Here are some of the types of things for which you will need to use that knowledge:

For this test, you should understand the major scientific principles and theories because you will be asked to recall and apply them. For example, in biology, the heart pumps blood throughout the body using arteries and veins. Physics has used pumps and tubes to study how liquids flow through tubes. These physical principles can be applied to understand the biology of the heart (pump), blood (liquid), and arteries (tubes).

Analysis and Evaluation of Given Explanations and Predictions

It is important to evaluate the explanations and conclusions pertaining to the presented experimental data. Do the explanations showcase all of the observations, or are there unexplained data? Can the explanations be used to predict the outcome of other experiments?

Analysis of Arguments about Connected Events

The bulk of scientific research is focused on explaining how events are connected. Experiments are designed to assess if and how events are connected. It is important to critically evaluate experiments to ensure that the conclusions about whether or not events are connected are valid. Was the population tested large enough, were the proper controls included, and are there confounding variables?

Proposition of Conclusions

Proposition is the act of presenting something for consideration. In science, experiments are performed and conclusions, or opinions, are formed based on the results and observations. Conclusions are shared with and proposed to others for evaluation.

Repudiation of Conclusions and Theories

Theories and conclusions are developed to explain experimental observations. New hypotheses are generated and tested based on current theories and conclusions. Importantly, hypotheses and theories are never proven; they can only be disproven.

Solving Problems with Formulas

Formulas are a concise way to describe mathematical and scientific relationships. Mathematical formulas are useful to determine quantities (e.g., how fast is an object moving). Chemical formulas are useful to describe which types of atoms are in a compound and how these atoms are arranged.


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