How to revise biology: remembering abbreviations

With exams on the horizon, you might be starting to panic about that huge list of biological terms that you need to remember. Worst of the lot, the dreaded abbreviations. There are numerous abbreviations in biology; protein names, reagents, chemical compounds and yep, this can turn revision into a logistical nightmare. But it doesn’t have to be that way!! So, whether you are revising for GSCEs, A levels or university exams, here are my five top tips I use to help me remember those pesky abbreviations.

(1)  Learn what the abbreviation means

Now, I know at first this may seem like a terrible idea – learning what the abbreviation stands for just increases the amount you need to remember…! However, in many cases knowing what an abbreviation stands for will not only help you remember it, but will also you remember which biological pathway, activity, or location that its associated with. This is especially the case with protein names – sometimes they are literally describing what the protein is doing.

 

Case in point; HATs and HDACs; one removes acetyl groups whilst the other adds, but which does what. Well, turns out HATs stands for histone acetyl transferases (so adds acetyl groups) and HDAC stands for histone deacetylase (so removes acetyl groups). Now for those of you familiar with your HATs and HDACs then this may seem obvious, but this is just to prove a point. Any time you’re struggling to remember an abbreviation, find out what is stands for first – it could save you a lot of time.

 

(2)  Come up with a mnemonic

The first mnemonic I ever learned was to help me learn the spelling of because (big elephants can always understand small elephants)… and guess what I still remember it! Okay, remembering how to spell ‘because’ may not be that hard, but the point remains; a great acronym sticks!

 

EXAMPLE: A very important protein heptameric repeat sequence; YSPTSPS.

Eugh, how can you remember that. Well here’s mine;

You say people trust some people say

If you have trouble coming up with mnemonics, no problem, there are of sites out there that can generate random ones for you; e.g https://spacefem.com/mnemonics/ , but of course, making your own is best.

Here’s spacefem’s version;

Yummy
Sad
Plans
Take
Squishy
Perky
Shirts

… think I might stick to mine.

However, in my opinion, the best mnemonic will be somewhat related to the abbreviation.

 

(3)  Say them in strange ways

Now you might be thinking, what am I on about, but this is actually one of my favourite and more fun ways of remembering biological terms.

 

EXAMPLE 1: The bacterial Shine-Dalgarno sequence, AGGAGGU

Why not split it up to say it; AGG-AGG-U or AGGA-G-GU

 

EXAMPLE 2: How can you remember the order of metabolites in the TCA(Krebs) cycle…

citrate

isocitrate

α-ketoglutarate

succinyl-CoA

succinate

fumarate

malate

oxaloacetate

CIASSFMO (a funky new word that’s fun to say)

 

And this is just one of my crazy examples; I’m sure you can come up with better.

 

This tip can be extended beyond mnemonics – it helped me remember that pancreatic alpha cells secrete glucagon, whilst beta cells secrete insulin. All I had to remember was binsulin (i.e beta cell & insulin combined) and hey presto, no stressing about which cells secrete what no more.

 

(4)  Make a story

Basically, put your abbreviations in a story – give them a personality, a job, maybe they work in the nucleus…

 

Now this technique works best if the abbreviation already is a real noun or if you have a set of abbreviations you need to remember that are related. For example, there are proteins called ‘pig’ – why not start with that or even just draw a large pig on your revision page.

 

Honestly, the crazier the better (maybe just don’t tell anyone!).

 

(5)  Mix it up

Hopefully some of these tips will work for you, but the most important thing to do is to mix it up. Mnemonics are great but remember >5… hmmm, may be a bit challenging.

 

Remember, the stranger, the better. At the end of the day, only you know how you revise best, so find out what works for you!

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