How to Memorize the Periodic Table

Rendered and partially blurred periodic table of the elements
Periodic Table of Elements.

JacobH/Getty Images 

Whether it's because of an assignment or simply because you want to know it, you may be faced with memorizing the entire periodic table of elements. Yes, there are a lot of elements, but you can do it! Here are tips that may help you memorize the table.

Get the Current Table

Periodic table with color coding
Periodic Table of the Elements.

2012rc/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0

The first step is getting a periodic table to study. The table is updated occasionally, and the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry has the most current tables. You can refer to online interactive, clickable tables or find free printable tables, including blank ones, which are useful for practicing. Yes, you could just memorize the order of the elements, but if you learn the table by actually writing it out, you'll gain an appreciation for the trends in element properties, which is really what the periodic table is all about.

Memorization Strategies

Once you have the table, you need to learn it. How you memorize the table depends on what works best for you and your learning style, but here are some recommendations that may help:

  • Break down the table into sections. You could memorize element groups (different color groups), go one row at a time, or memorize in sets of 20 elements. It may be helpful to view an ordered list of the elements. Rather than attempting to memorize all of the elements at once, learn one group at a time, master that group, and then learn the next group until you know the whole table.
  • Spread out the memorization process. You'll remember the table much better if you spread out the memorization process over multiple sessions instead of cramming the entire table at once. Cramming might serve for short-term memorization, like for a test the very next day, but you won't remember anything a few days later. To truly commit the periodic table to memory, you need to access the part of your brain responsible for long-term memory. This involves repeated practice and exposure. So learn a section of the table, go off and do something else, write out what you learned in that first section, and try to learn a new section. Walk away, come back, and review old material, add a new group, walk away, etc.
  • Learn the elements in a song. You can learn a song someone else created or make up your own. There is a popular one called We Just Crammed the Table, which is set to a Billy Joel tune. This works well if you learn better by hearing information rather than seeing it on paper.
  • Make nonsense words made from element symbols. This is another great way to learn the order of the elements if you do well hearing instead of (or in addition to) seeing. For the first 36 elements, for example, you might use the chain of words HHeLiBeB (hihelibeb), CNOFNe (cannofunny), NaMgAlSi, PSClAr etc. Make up your own pronunciations and practice filling in a blank table with the symbols.
  • Use color to learn element groups. If you need to learn the element groups in addition to element symbols and names, practice writing the elements using different colored pencils or markers for each element group.
  • Use a mnemonic device to help remember the order of the elements. Make a phrase you can remember using the first letters or symbols of the elements. For example, for the first nine elements, you might use Happy Hector Likes Beer But Could Not Obtain Food.
  1. H - hydrogen
  2. He - helium
  3. Li - lithium
  4. Be - beryllium
  5. B - boron
  6. C - carbon
  7. N - nitrogen
  8. O - oxygen
  9. F - fluorine

You'll want to break up the table into groups of around 10 elements at a time to learn the whole table this way. Rather than use mnemonics for the whole table, you could make up a phrase for sections that are giving you trouble.

Practice Makes Perfect

Print multiple copies of the blank periodic table to practice filling in the symbols or names of the elements. It's easiest to learn the element symbols that go with the names, write in the symbols, and then add the names.

Start small, with one or two rows or columns at a time. Whenever you get a chance, write out what you know, and then add to it. If you get bored learning the elements sequentially, you can skip around the table, but it's harder to remember that information weeks or years down the road. If you memorize the table, it's worth committing to your long term memory, so learn it over time (days or weeks) and practice writing it out.