In 1799, on a (probably) swelteringly hot summer’s day in Egypt, a French soldier was on his way to park a pint against a nearby date palm when he tripped and fell mustache-first over a large black slab of stone. Cursing and brushing desert sand out of his facial hair, he turned to accost the offending stone with his Frenchiest insults when he realized that it was scored with writing. Ancient writing.

If you know your history, you’ll recognize this (dramatized) story: the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. And if you don’t know your history: the Rosetta Stone provided a key to decoding Egyptian hieroglyphics, which then unlocked the secrets of this ancient civilization for all of modern humanity. Yeah… kind of a big deal.

Question is: what the heck does this have to do with the periodic table?

Simple: the periodic table is the Rosetta Stone of chemistry.*

Its simply laid-out cells help us understand the differences—and similarities—between all of Earth’s natural and man-made elements, as well as the way they behave in various contexts, whether it’s the air we breathe or the violently exothermic reaction you accidentally set off in the chemistry lab.

It allows us to picture the elements’ relative atomic structures, mass, electronegativity, ionization energy, and atomic radius, making it a crucial reference tool for chemistry. And because chemistry is a central science for biology, geology, physics, astronomy, medicine, and more, it’s also a crucial reference tool for most scientific disciplines!

As such, one of the questions most commonly asked by chemistry students—besides “What’s that smell?”—is “Should I memorize the periodic table?” That’s why you’re here! So let’s strap on our safety goggles and answer it!

In this article, we’ll explore:

  • The short answer (in case you have a lecture to get to);
  • The two camps of thought on whether you should memorizing the periodic table for college (or your AP exams);
  • If you do decide to memorize it, the most efficient way humanly possible to do it (assuming you don’t have an eidetic memory); and
  • The best tools for memorizing large numbers of facts: Brainscape’s Periodic Table flashcards and this gorgeous, high-resolution Periodic Table JPG, which you can download for free!

Let’s leap right in!

* Unlike the Rosetta Stone, the periodic table is a “living” reference tool that’s still being updated and amended as new discoveries are made, especially in the final row of elements, which have largely unknown properties.

Should you memorize the periodic table? The short answer…

Memorize the periodic table

The short answer is “no”. Whether you’re in high school, studying for your AP exams, or in college, you do not need to memorize the periodic table in its entirety.

One of the reasons it was innovated in the first place was as a reference tool so that chemists and other science specialists didn’t have to waste time on (and risk the mistakes of) remembering the atomic numbers, masses, and other particulars of the 118 elements it contains.

BUT… before you skip off into the sunset with a lot less stress on your shoulders, there are a few crucial things you DO need to learn because if you don’t know how to read a periodic table, it can go from useful to useless.

This means that you should know:

  • What each chemical symbol stands for (e.g. H = hydrogen, Au = gold, Sn = tin, etc.)
  • What the numbers within every cell represent (e.g. the atomic number is written at the top of the cell. If there are two numbers at the top of the cell, the other number, which often contains two or more decimal points, is the atomic mass)
  • What those numbers mean (e.g. the difference between atomic number and atomic mass).
  • The trends of the periodic table: how the periodic table is arranged and how the elements’ properties vary from left to right and up to down.
  • How the elements are grouped (noble gasses, alkali metals, transition metals, etc.)
  • What those groupings tell you about the characteristics and behaviors of those elements.

In other words, you should understand how the periodic table is arranged and be able to interpret it. But you don’t need to commit to memory the precise order of ALL the elements*, their atomic numbers, atomic masses, and so on. That’s why the periodic table is there and it’s why a copy of it is handed out at most, if not all, chemistry exams. (Read: How to study for the AP Chemistry exam)

And if you’re looking for a high resolution periodic table to download, save to your desktop or print out and stick on the wall above your study desk, here’s one for free!

So, that’s the simple answer but, of course, humans are rarely content with simple answers….

* Although many schools and colleges will expect you to at least have a general idea of the first 20 or so elements.

Should you memorize the periodic table? The two camps of thought

Funny chemistry cat

As I’ve explained above, you don’t have to memorize the periodic table. But should you?

Therein lies the debate!

On the one hand, pick your battles! Science is hard enough and requires sufficient work and memorization without the added task of memorizing the periodic table. I remember being a science student and I barely had time to pick my own nose, never mind committing 118 elements and their accompanying bouquet of values to memory. (i.e. As long as you understand how the periodic table is arranged and how to read it, you will be fine.)

On the other hand, having all of that crucial information permanently banked in my memory would have served me enormously, sharpening my analytical skills and making me a chemistry lab ninja (not to mention impressing the heck out of my professors).

It’s kinda like memorizing your advanced multiplication tables (13 x and higher). You can easily use a calculator to “get the job done” but having them deeply internalized allows you to execute math so much more efficiently and decisively.

So then the question “should I memorize the periodic table?” boils down to purpose. Is chemistry something you’re just trying to get through for a year or two or maybe three? Or is it a discipline that underscores your entire career path and takes up a lot of your focus? Because if it’s the latter, it just may be worth the effort.

If chemistry is central to your interests, studies, and/or career, then you’re going to want to memorize the periodic table in the most efficient way humanly possible…

… with flashcards!

Specifically, smart, digital flashcards (because why carry around a pound of paper flashcards when you can whip out your phone and effortlessly flip through them?)

Even MORE specifically, with Brainscape’s Periodic Table flashcards.

Flashcards for the periodic table

(We also have this gorgeous, high resolution periodic table JPG, which you can download for free; you could even use it as a poster for your classroom.)

Because we have such an enormous base of science students using our app to learn their subjects more efficiently, we decided to curate a collection of flashcards that empowers you to memorize the periodic table and its trends as quickly and painlessly as humanly possible.

Within this collection, each element is captured as an individual flashcard, testing your ability to translate the chemical symbol into the element (Ti → Titanium) and the element into the chemical symbol (Titanium → Ti).

We also created decks of flashcards that test you on each element’s:

  • Atomic number
  • Atomic mass
  • State (gas, liquid, or solid) under standard conditions
  • Melting and boiling points
  • Groups and period, and
  • All of the above in single flashcards for each element.

What’s great about breaking it down this way is that you can curate your own education depending on WHAT you’d like to memorize. For instance, if you’d just like to know the periodic table better, you could limit your memorization to just the names of the elements, their symbols, trends, and perhaps groups and periods. Or, if you want to go further, you could memorize their atomic numbers, masses, melting and boiling points, and so on.

The flashcards also enrich learning through the footnotes, which provide additional context, history, and interesting facts to strengthen your mental connection to the material but also to make your learning experience that much more entertaining!

How much time you devote to memorizing the periodic table is entirely up to you. Whichever way you cut it though, Brainscape is the fastest way to do it!

Why? Because our app dispenses knowledge the way your brain is biologically engineered to receive and remember it! Through cognitive tactics like spaced repetition, active recall, and metacognition, every minute spent studying with Brainscape is worth 3 minutes of traditional studying, deeply ingraining the concepts in your brain, according to your precise strengths and weaknesses.

(You can read more about the science of Brainscape right here.)

So, add our Periodic Table flashcards to your dashboard, along with the rest of your science subjects, and make your learning journey in school or college SO much more efficient.

[Psssst. Organic chemistry giving you the heebie-jeebies? Check out our guide ‘Should pre-med students fear organic chemistry?’]

Beware the burnout: when memorizing the periodic table isn’t such a great idea

College student burnout

If you’re an overachiever, I get it. I used to waste so much time reading and making notes for every textbook chapter when we were only gonna get tested on, like, 20% of it. I thought I was giving myself an edge: showing real initiative. In fact, I was pushing myself to burnout. Attempting to memorize the periodic table when you don’t really have to could do the same for you.

The good news is that, with Brainscape, the method of memorization is actually fun and aligned with how the human brain WANTS to learn so it’s not going to feel particularly punishing. It’s also super efficient and something you can do for just 5 minutes a day and still accrue enormous benefits in a short amount of time.

But if you do find yourself chronically short on time at school or in college, I’d knock the task of memorizing the periodic table a few pegs down on the prioritization pole (provided you still know how it’s arranged and how to interpret it!). You’d benefit a whole lot more by spending that time getting the right amount of sleep or going for some exercise.

Final thoughts on memorizing the periodic table

Close-up shot of the periodic table

Chemistry has solved many of humankind’s most crucial problems, from disease and viral pandemics (*coughcovidcough*) to our needs for food, clean water, energy, and more. It kinda explains why our species has become so good at this “life on Earth” thing.

But, if not understood, chemistry can also leave you feeling dumber than a Neanderthal with a concussion. It’s a subject that builds on itself so if you miss one critical foundational concept, your understanding will soon collapse in on itself.

Memorizing the periodic table can go a long way to helping you become a chemistry ace but much more important than that would be understanding how the periodic table is arranged and what its various symbols, values, and trends tell you. If you still decide to memorize the periodic table, remember, the best tool for the job is Brainscape!