Using the Leitner System to improve your study

Jesse Whelan
May 8 · 4 min read

Let’s face it, no one wants to spend more time studying than they need to. Read on to learn how you can use the Leitner System to memorise things quickly.

Flashcards

A flashcard or flash card is a card (physical or electronic) used to aid memorisation. One side of the card has a question and the other side features the answer. For example Q: What is Pythagoras’s Theorem?
A: On a right angled triangle the length of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides, a²+b² = c²

When making flashcards use the following tips

  • Keep each card as simple as possible → 1 card for each piece of information
  • Use images where appropriate
  • Try cloze deletion / Mad libs style cards, leaving gaps → e.g. ___ is the capital of Australia
  • Test yourself both ways → e.g. when learning new words in french go from English → Spanish, as well as Spanish → English
Example flashcard — front in bold, back in grey

For more tips check out these other articles,
1. https://www.supermemo.com/en/articles/20rules
2. https://blog.fluent-forever.com/create-better-flashcards/

Spaced Repetition

We all know that doing small bits over time is much better than cramming. Spaced repetition tries to solve the problem of forgetting. That’s because research shows that the best time to relearn something is just before you are about to forget it (see Robert Bjork). We wrote about spaced repetition during a recent article about Sandbox Learning’s secret sauce.

Every time you practice a new fact or a skill you will be exercising that particular mental ‘muscle’. As it gets stronger you’ll be able to remember it for longer, and so you’ll be able to wait a bit longer before you forget. The image below demonstrates this.

Each time you practice your forgetting curve gets shallower — credit: Piotr Wozniak

Unfortunately you don’t just have 1 forgetting curve where you forget everything at the same rate. This is intuitive. There are many things that we remember strongly (e.g. your parent’s mobile numbers) and others that you often forget (like the name of someone you briefly met at an event).

In reality you have millions of individual forgetting curves for every little piece of knowledge or skill that you come across. To properly apply spaced repetition you need to be tracking where you are in each of those curves so that you remember when no to revise it again.

That can be a logistical nightmare. The Leitner System aims to address that in a low tech way.

The Leitner System

The Leitner system was created by German science journalist Sebastian Leitner. It uses a number of boxes to track when you need to study each flashcard.

The Leitner System: Credit Zirguezi

The system operates on 3 rules:

  1. Every card starts out in Box 1.
  2. If you get a card right, move it to the next Box
  3. If you get the card wrong, move it down a box — in the original version you move it all the way back to Box 1.
The more extreme version: By Zirguezi
  • Box 1 — Every day
  • Box 2 — Every 2 days
  • Box 3 — Every 4 days
  • Box 4 — Every 9 days
  • Box 5 — Every 14 days

How to get started

So how do you get started?

  1. Buy your supplies: flash or palm cards, boxes, and a calendar
  2. Create your cards
    Remember to keep the ideas on the cards as simple as possible.
  3. Set up your calendar to make tracking easy
  4. Revise and repeat

I hope you found this article helpful. If this is the case please give us a clap — it helps spread our message.

Looking for more tips to make learning more effective? Check out the 4 mindsets for learning or tips to boost learning.

Jesse Whelan

Written by

EdTech entrepreneur, passionate about improving education impact through tech and research-driving practice. Former consultant and engineer. Harvard MBA.

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