Study Central: Memorization Hacks


Melissa Schmitz, Asst. Opinion Editor

I have a friend who is certifiably a genius. He aced both semesters of organic chemistry with an average over 100. This past weekend he told me his secret to how he memorizes reactions… in two minutes or less each.

Yes, I imagine this sounds crazy to anyone who is or has studied organic chemistry. Or perhaps he sounds like a scam artist. And rightly so, because he has an amazing, seemingly-impossible skill that I imagine is very difficult to develop, but would be infinitesimally useful, not just for the sake of memorizing a lot and quickly, but to enable faster and more complete learning.

But he was completely serious.

What sorcery is this, then? Well, according to him, he visualizes reactions in his head. He watches the electrons being pushed, leaving groups popping off, bonds forming, etc. This is relatively easy to do for very short mechanisms, but it takes a lot of working memory to use this method for longer reactions. I’m not sure this method will be useful for humanities majors, but for you science majors out there, give this a shot. It may not be as impossible as you think (just hard).

If you would like to improve your working memory so as to increase your success rate with this method, he recommends playing a game called Dual n-back from the website That particular game has a literature backing, so beware of “brain games” that do not have clear evidence behind them. (And no, popularity or commercials don’t count as evidence.)

Another memory trick you can try is called chunking. You may already use this technique without realizing, so I’m pointing it out to you if you choose to purposefully use this. Chunking is what it sounds like, you’re organizing information into easier to remember chunks. The most common use of this is in creating acronyms. You likely encountered P.E.M.D.A.S. in elementary school to remember the order of operations. Anyone who has or is taking organic chemistry has encountered the alliterative phrase, “planar, polar, pi-bonded, prone to attack,” or, “pi to the plus”. If you’re doing taxonomy in general biology, consider making phrases out of the groups. Rhyming, such as, “partial plus ride the meta bus,” is also great.

Something else you might want to try for more elaborate things requiring memorization is to create a silly story that has a visual. There is no right or wrong way to do this. You could try making objects, organisms, electrons, etc. anthropomorphic. Depending on the context you could make it a love story or a sad story. Perhaps imagine a person taking a walk and seeing objects on the side of the street, as decals, etc. Here’s an example of a story to remember Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.

“Proton was going about his day until, suddenly, he notices that electron is gone! He’s almost positive of this. So he decides to call electron on the phone. When he asks electron where he is, he hesitates. Proton tells electron to stop messing around. Electron responds by saying, ‘I can tell you where I probably am,’ which just further annoyed proton.”

Visualization seems to be the key to a lot of memory tricks, even for numbers. But how? First you will need to assign a shape to each number. For example, if the number 4298 you might make 4 a sailboat, 2 a swan, 9 a tennis racket, and 8 a snowman (of course). Then you construct a story. Imagine you’re on a sailboat (4) and, all of the sudden, a swan (2) appears trying to attack you! You hit it with a tennis racket (9) and it turns into a snowman (8). Silly, but it works.

Try these out and hopefully it will help you on your upcoming exams!