If you’ve worked with flashcards before, you may have come across a nifty exam study technique without even knowing it. Now, you may not recognize this method by name, but the Leitner system remains a popular spaced repetition exercise for recalling vocabulary and facts.
Whether you consider yourself a master of remembrance or struggle to retain information once you’ve read it, it’s always worth looking out for techniques that will help those facts sink in.
After all, it’s always worth trying something once, right?
So, if you’re dealing with deadlines, an upcoming exam, or you simply don’t know where to start with that hefty pile of language vocab or maths formulae, take a step back.
I’ve got you covered.
This handy article will delve into everything you need to know about the Leitner system, including what it is, why it’s useful, and whether you should incorporate it into your next study session.
If it clicks with you and gives you an extra boost towards exam success – fantastic!
If not, there are plenty of other study motivation and retention strategies that you can use to squeeze those facts into your brain (and I’ve got loads of guides to help you: from interleaving to chunking!).
What is the Leitner system?
You may be thinking “well, that sounds fascinating – but what exactly is the Leitner system?”.
If so, that’s completely understandable. I mean, the name doesn’t give you much of a hint, does it?
First introduced by German science journalist Sebastian Leitner in 1972, this technique involves reviewing set groups of flashcards at regularly spaced intervals to retain information and memorise facts. It makes the most of spaced learning techniques to overcome Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve.
Unlike traditional flashcard methods (which involve you sifting through stacks of cards whenever you fancy – a perfectly valid study technique by the way!), the Leitner system forces your brain to retrieve flashcard information at different intervals based on your past successes.
How? By popping your flashcards into separate boxes based on how well you’re recalling what’s on them.
Okay, so how do I set this up and use it?
Before I get ahead of myself, let me quickly outline how you should set this study method up and use it in 5 simple steps.
To begin with, you’ll need to grab three-five boxes of any size. Then, you’ll want to place all of your flashcards into box number one.
Hint: you probably don’t want to be mixing up history dates and figures with language vocab, that would be pretty jarring and inefficient learning! So add some dividers to your boxes for each subject, or (if you’ve got space), make a set of boxes per subject you want to review.
Divide your boxes into handy subsections for review on different timelines. Here’s a great example to get you started (but you can – and should! – customise the intervals once you’ve got the hang of the Leitner system!):
- Box 1 – review daily
- Box 2 – review every other day, say: Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays
- Box 3 – review once per week, perhaps Saturdays
- Box 4 – review every other week
- Box 5 – review once a month and before your exam
These timelines aren’t set in stone, so you can easily switch the intervals up to every three days, every five days, and so on. The key is finding the spacing period that works best for you, your topic, and your ability to recall information over time.
Start practicing your flashcards! Take note of whether you answer correctly or incorrectly.
Every time you get a question right, place the flashcard in the next box. Correct answers qualify your cards for review in increasingly spaced intervals, so over time they’ll gradually travel down the line and (hopefully!) end up in box 4 or 5!
If you’re on a day when you’ve got to tackle more than one box (Monday, for example!), I suggest starting with the higher box (so you don’t have a pile of correctly answered and upgraded flashcards to answer twice in one session)! Plus this will help you get the ball rolling with knowledge you’re secure in!
However, if you get a question wrong then that flashcard needs to return to the previous box (an interval you know you can answer correctly at). If you’re continually getting something wrong, it stays put in box 1.
The original Leitner system had incorrectly answered cards returning all the way back to box 1, but personally I think that’s overkill (especially for a box 4-5 card) and will fill up box 1 with information you know, giving you less time to focus on the flashcards you’re still learning! And that’s just not helpful.
In the end, you need to choose a method that works for you and prioritises the flashcards you struggle with: so move that flashcard one box back, or perhaps two boxes back if you need to rebuild your confidence.
So what’s the magic of the Leitner system?
By continually reviewing information that just won’t stick, you can focus less on stuff you already know and instead allocate more time to the cards that are causing you the most trouble. Plus this focus will help you to build up confidence on the tricky topics!
After using the Leitner system for two weeks or so, you should have an interesting mix of cards across all of your boxes and a better understanding of how well you recall in the different intervals.
This is when the magic of this study technique will start to happen.
Because once you know what your personal hurdles are, you can create a weekly, bi-weekly, or month-by-month schedule that will set you up for exam success. As I’ve mentioned, it’s important to figure out the recall intervals that work for YOU!
The ultimate goal is to encounter difficult (or new!) pieces of information frequently without completely dismissing easier cards.
How it works – the scientific rationale
That all sounds great, doesn’t it?
But how does this enduring study technique actually work in practice? Realistically, the information doesn’t simply seep in, does it?
Well, there’s a reason this method is popular among students and there’s plenty of interesting psychology behind it. Ah, I do love regaling readers with a bit of cognitive psychology knowledge and learning science!
The reason that this method works so well can be attributed to two factors: spaced repetition and active recall.
Passive vs active learning: the lowdown
You might not be familiar with these terms, but you probably have tried out lots of passive learning techniques whilst revising in the past. We all have!
For example: although reading the same words on a page, again and again, may allow things to sink in eventually, it’s considered a relatively passive method of memorization.
As a result, information rarely makes it into your long-term memory.
You know that feeling when you’re reading the same page in a book over and over again and you’ve gathered absolutely zilch?
Yep – that’s passiveness setting in, and you simply won’t be learning because your brain isn’t actively engaged with what you’re doing!
So what might you have tried out that is an active leaning technique? Well, flashcards!
Seriously, you can’t exactly pick up your cards and test your knowledge without being somewhat active about it! Reviewing your flashcards and testing yourself at intervals is naturally active – hence the name active recall.
And the Leitner system is an even more advanced extension of this active learning. It’s a great pairing of active recall retrieval practice with a structured spaced repetition system. Deliberately setting the intervals (rather than testing when you fancy) is a big step towards more effective studying.
Over time, pairing active recall with spaced repetition (as the Leitner System encourages) will have you forgetting information more slowly. This results in far more correct retrievals (otherwise known as right answers!).
If you’d like to delve slightly deeper into the concept of spaced repetition and why it always comes out on top, my article on the famous Ebbinghaus forgetting curve is chock full of useful psychology!
So why is the Leitner system useful?
Hopefully you’re already getting the hang of why I love this memorization technique.
So let’s review some of the top benefits of using the Leitner system in your revision and exam prep:
1. It’s systematic and forces you to face difficult elements first
One of the best parts of the Leitner system is that it offers a systematic approach to memorization.
Although flashcards are almost always a useful tool, they can become easily jumbled and confusing. Plus, you often find yourself reviewing information that you could recount standing on your head. Recalling secure information like this is not particularly useful when you know there’s a sneaky fact in there that you’ve been avoiding!
The beauty of the Leitner system is that it forces you to tackle difficult topics until you’re confident with them. In my opinion, this can be an enormous help for those who don’t like to face the music (or you know, the facts and figures!).
The systematic approach isn’t just useful from a recall perspective either. It’s also extremely satisfying for students to watch cards as they move from box to box. And who doesn’t love a tangible sense of progress!
Revision doesn’t always feel productive or accomplished. So knowing that you’re actively retaining information, by seeing progress as your cards move towards box 5, can give you a real boost! Especially when you’re having to act as both the tester and testee.
Talk about motivation!
2. It’s efficient and structured: a time-management win!
There’s nothing worse than staring at your flashcards and having no idea where to start. I’ve been there!
Now, many people can indeed retain snippets of information from sessions of unstructured study.
However, keeping your revision time planned and all methods clear should give you a major determination bolster and prevent you from feeling overwhelmed.
And working with the structured timeline of the Leitner system offers just that!
What’s more, using this method sets clear limits on what you need to accomplish. There’s always an end in sight!
If you generally find it difficult to approach your revision and would rather put it off, knowing that today you only have to work through your daily, weekly, or fortnightly box can take a significant amount of pressure off.
Plus, working with the Leitner system will prevent you from rolling your eyes when you come across the samefact that you correctly answered ten minutes ago and shuffled back into the set.
By using a more structured and efficient approach, you’ll soon be taking on each box with a spring in your step!
3. It increases your rate of learning and engagement
As with any spaced repetition exercise, you’ll be reinforcing neural connections each time you pick up your Leitner boxes. Win!
As you’re able to invest less total memorization time in a single session and instead repeatedly study items over time, the Leitner system is considered way more productive than panicked cramming.
And as your flashcards travel between boxes at their own speeds, you can sit down happily each study session knowing that every day you’ll be tackling a unique set of facts, figures and vocab!
So not only does spaced repetition stop you from getting incredibly bored while revising, but it should increase your rate of learning as you’ll remain more engaged throughout the process.
What about the disadvantages of using the Leitner system?
I wouldn’t be doing you justice if I didn’t balance out that nice list of pros with some realistic cons. And, like any study method, there are some downsides to using the Leitner system!
So let’s review them:
1. It’s pretty difficult to manage at scale
Flashcards are a great way of testing yourself for information and vocab-heavy topics BUT if you’ve got more than one subject to study, you’ll be looking at a LOT of cards. It’s easy to get overwhelmed.
The problem here is twofold. Firstly, it may take you quite a bit of time to pop the facts onto the cards when you’re first starting (I recommend brevity: learn more about setting up flashcards effectively in this handy article: tip #19!). Secondly, you may also feel daunted by the sheer volume of information that you’re having to sift through in each box.
And that scale can multiply with several subjects and lots of Leitner system boxes. Sure, you may be able to tackle a hundred cards at a time, but when you’re dealing with several hundred, you may start to feel bogged down and discouraged. You might even begin to put off their revision altogether (which we certainly want to avoid!).
So to counter this try these strategies:
- Try to limit your flashcards to only the essentials – the most important facts, figures, formulae and vocab. And keep the information on them minimal to maximise your recall!
- Less flashcards = less overwhelming. Try starting the Leitner system with just one subject and build up to more.
- And if you’re using the Leitner system for multiple subjects, you need to keep those flashcards separate, with box dividers or even separate boxes (so you don’t jar yourself out of Spanish vocab with a stray maths equation)!
2. It’s easy for knowledge to get jumbled up
Another issue with the Leitner system method is that facts can get unregulated quickly as they move between boxes at different rates.
Even within one subject (such as History), the variety of topics can be wide. This isn’t a huge problem if your topics are closely related, but picking up a series of cards on women’s rights and then a single fact on the Tsars of Russia can be enough to boggle anyone’s mind.
This kind of information typically sinks in better when reviewed chronologically or in a sequential manner, which the Leitner method simply doesn’t allow you to do.
Plus, getting jarred out of the zone doesn’t make for effective learning …
So if that’s the case for you, try this strategy:
- Take the next step in flashcard and Leitner box organization! Create (DIY) dividers to separate out topics within your boxes. Sure, it takes a few more minutes at the end to sort your pile of correctly answered flashcards into the correct category for next time. But at least you’ll have all your women’s rights cards together and can tackle one topic at a time.
When to use the Leitner system
There’s always a place for active learning in anyone’s study skill arsenal, but the Leitner method won’t always be the most appropriate method to go with.
If you’re an older student who needs to actively memorise specific information over a long period (think law and medicine degrees or similar!), this method can be extremely useful as it forces you to review and engage at regular intervals with no major time pressure.
On the other hand, if you’re a GCSE or A-Level student who’s dealing with loadsof information for different topics, it may not be as suitable.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use it for certain subjects like languages or science (it’s truly incredible when paired with vocabulary, for example!), but it may not be the right pick for extremely content-heavy subjects that will have your boxes full to bursting.
At the end of the day, you just won’t know it until you’ve tried it.
So go on, give it a go!
Is the Leitner system going to work for me?
This may sound like a bit of a cop-out, but that depends on you!
I know, I know.
As with any study method, you’ll probably need to go through a period of trial and error before deciding on whether a technique is right for you.
To give this method a fair trial, stick with it for a month or so. If you decide that the spaced repetition method is working for you, that’s great! However, it’s important to remember that you shouldn’t stick with things for the sake of it.
If nothing else that’s a good case for starting on your revision early – you won’t make the most of the Leitner system if you leave it all to the last minute!
And consider what you’re using it for. As I mentioned above, the Leitner system is far more effective for some types of learning than others. Latin vocab? Sure! Essay writing skills? Probably not the right fit, and you’d be better served with past papers or individual problem questions.
If you’ve read through this article and feel that your issue isn’t with recall but is down to a lack of general productivity and time management, then we’ve got some great articles to help you out. Taking a look at the pomodoro method may be a much better place to start!
Being consistent and mastering good study habits will always set you up for success, but it’s also good to know when it’s time to switch things up and try something new.
And for something more …
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Oh, and one last thing. Have fun with your Leitner system boxes, and good luck!