How to Memorize Chemistry

Easy Ways to Remember Chemical Formulas, Elements and Structures

Three methods that work to memorize chemistry are memory palaces, mnemonics, and flash cards.
Three methods that work to memorize chemistry are memory palaces, mnemonics, and flash cards. DrAfter123 / Getty Images

When you learn chemistry, it's much more important to understand the concepts than to memorize structures, elements, and formulas. However, rote memorization has its place, particularly when you are learning functional groups (or other organic chemistry molecules) and when you're trying to keep names of reactions and structures straight in your head. Memorizing won't guarantee you a great grade on a test, but it's an important tool to use. There's more than one way to do it. Here are some of the best (and worst) ways to memorize chemistry.

Memorizing Chemistry Using Repetition

As you become more familiar with a word/structure/sequence, it will become easier to remember it. This is the memorization method most of us use. We copy notes, use flashcard to recall information in a new order, and draw out structures over and over again from memory. Does it work? Absolutely, but it's a time-consuming process. Also, it's not a practice most people enjoy. Since attitude affects memorization, the old tried-and-true method may not be your best bet.

So, the key to effective memorization—whether it's for chemistry or any other subject—is to not-hate the process and to make the memory mean something. The more personal the memory is to you, the more likely you are to remember it for a test and still recall it years down the road. This is where two more effective memorization methods come into play.

Memorizing Chemistry Using Mnemonic Devices

mnemonic device is just a fancy phrase meaning "memory device". The word comes from the ancient Greek work mnemonikos (meaning memory), which in turn comes from the name Mnemosyne, the Green goddess of memory. No, a mnemonic device not an appliance you tape to your forehead that transfers information into your brain. It's a strategy or method of remembering information that ties information to something meaningful. An example of a non-chemistry mnemonic you may know is using the knuckles of your hand to remember how many days there are in each calendar month. Another one is saying "Roy G Biv" to remember the sequence of colors in the visible spectrum, where the first letter of each "word" is the first letter of a color (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet).

Mnenomics are especially useful for memorizing lists. An easy method is to make a sentence or a song by taking the first letter of a word in a list to make a new work. For example, a mnemonic to memorize the first elements of the periodic table is "Hi, he lies because boys can not operate fireplaces." This translates into hydrogen, helium, lithium, beryllium, boron, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, fluorine. You could choose other words to stand for the letters. Another periodic table example is The Elements Song. Here, the words actually are the elements, but learning them to the tune helps make the process easier.

Using Memory Palaces To Memorize Chemistry

Memory palaces (also known as methods of loci) may be the best way to remember chemistry (or anything else). To use this method, you place unfamiliar concepts or objects into a familiar setting. In order to start building your chemistry memory palace, start by associating items you know you'll use over and over with a meaningful object. Which object you choose is up to you. What helps me remember might be completely different from what you might use. What should you remember? Elements, numbers, concepts for types of chemical bonds, states of matter... it is completely your choice.

So, let's say you want to remember the formula for water, H2O. Start by giving meaning to the atoms, hydrogen and oxygen. You might think of hydrogen as a blimp (used to be filled with hydrogen) and oxygen a young child holding his breath (thus depriving himself of oxygen). So, remembering water to me might be a mental image of a boy holding his breath while watching two dirigibles in the sky overhead. In my mind, there would be a blimp to either side of the boy (because the water molecule is bent). If you wanted to add more details about water, I could put a blue ball cap on the boy's head (water in large volumes is blue). New facts and details can be added as wish to learn them, so a single memory might hold a wealth of information.

Using a Memory Palace To Memorize Numbers

Memory palaces are incredibly useful for memorizing numbers. While there are several methods of establishing the palace, one of the best is to associate numbers with phonetic sounds and then make "words" out of a sequence of numbers. This is an easy way to remember long strings of number, not just simple ones. Here is a simple phonetic association, using consonants:

Number Sound Memory Tip
0 s, z, or soft c zero starts with z; your tongue is in the same position to say the letters
1 d,t, th one downstroke is made to form the letters; your tongue is in the same position to say the letters
2 n n has two downstrokes
3 m m has three downstrokes
4 r 4 and R are near mirror images; r is the last letter in the word 4
5 l L is the Roman number 50
6 j, sh, soft ch, dg, zh, soft g j has a shape similar to the curve of a 6
7 k, hard c, hard g, q, qu Capital K is made of two 7s back to back, on their sides
8 v, f I think of a V8 engine or the drink V-8.
9 b, p b looks like a rotated 9, p is a mirror of 9

:The vowels and the other consonants are free, so you can form words that make sense to you. While the table might seem daunting at first, once you try a few numbers, it begins to make sense. After you learn the sounds, you'll be able to remember numbers so well it will seem like a magic trick!

Let's try it with a chemistry number you should already know. If not, now is the perfect time to learn it. Avogadro's number is the number of particles in a mole of anything. It is 6.022 x 1023. Choose "show sand tsunami."

sh o w s a n d t s u n a m i
6 0 2 1 1 0 2 3

You might make an entirely different word using the letters. Let's practice in the reverse. If I give you the word "mother", what is the number? M is 3, o doesn't count, th is 1, e doesn't count, and r is 4. The number is 314, which is how we would remember the digits of pi (3.14, if we didn't know it).

You can combine images and words to remember pH values, constants, and equations. The act of making an association between the fact you are remembering and the memory helps to make it stick.The memories will stay with you, so using this method is better than copying notes over and over and over. Repetition does work for short-term cramming, but for lasting results make your memorization mean something to you.

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Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "How to Memorize Chemistry." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. (2023, April 5). How to Memorize Chemistry. Retrieved from Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "How to Memorize Chemistry." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).