Introduction to the Leitner System
If you’ve landed on this page, chances are that you’re studying for something, are looking for ways to revise better, or have heard of this technique and are interested to learn more. Fortunately, we’re going to address all of these things in this article so that by the end of it, you’ll learn how to use the Leitner system for studying, how it works, why it works, as well as how you can leverage it to your advantage the next time you need to study for something. Let’s get started!
The Leitner System and Flashcards
The Leitner system is named after a German science journalist by the name of Sebastien Leitner. Born in Salzberg, Germany, in 1919, he lived until 1989. His career as a journalist first saw him cover legal and sociology topics. He then ventured into medical and psychology topics. He wrote a book called “How to Learn to Learn”, which was first published in 1972.
The book became a best-seller, as it was essentially a practical manual and taught people the psychology of learning. More specifically, it focused on how to speed up learning using flashcards and spaced repetition.
Understanding Flashcards and Spaced Repetition
Chances are, you’ve seen flashcards before, and perhaps even used them. For the uninitiated, flashcards are also known as index cards. They are a tool used for revision purposes. They’re a piece of card or paper that are small enough to hold in your hand – about the size of a card from a deck of cards or a small postcard. The card can be plain white, but you can also use colored paper or card to categorize certain information – more on that later.
On one side of the card there is going to be a prompt. This is either a question or vocabulary that you need to memorize. On the reverse side of the card will be the answer to the question or the definition of the vocabulary. This is a great method for memorizing vocabulary, definitions of important concepts, formulas, dates, and events too. Here are some examples.
Our first example shows a flashcard asking for a definition. The question simply asks for the chemical equation of carbon dioxide, while the reverse provides the answer.
Here’s another example:
In this example, we’re using the flashcard to memorize important concepts. The question is simple, what were the five main triggers of World War I. The reverse is equally simple, containing a list of five factors. Don’t make the mistake of jamming your flashcard reverse full of text. You want to keep things in neat, bite-sized nuggets, which is where our next example comes in.
You’ve learned that there were five triggers of WWI, but what about their definition? This is the third type of flashcard.
Here, the front prompts the user to explain vocabulary. On the reverse is a concise definition. Where you find that your explanations are too long, try to find ways to condense them. This might require you to spend some time getting to know the concept so that you fully understand it. A top tip to master this and to simplify something is to read our article on the Feynman Technique.
So now we’ve got the actual flashcards covered, we move on to using flashcards. The typical way to use flashcards is to read the prompts, learn the responses, and repeat, repeat, repeat.
This isn’t always the most efficient way to learn for two reasons, firstly, you’ll be spending (wasting) a lot of time repeating information that you already know, and secondly, they can fall into the realm of rote memorization. This may not be a bad thing, depending on what you’re learning, but it comes with its own pitfalls, which are explained in the linked article.
Spaced Repetition Explained
And now, we have reached the part about spaced repetition. If flashcards are a tool, then spaced repetition is the learning technique that makes the tool effective.
The way we remember things comes down to memorization and the ability to recall the required information. Spaced repetition, also known as spaced rehearsal, expanding rehearsal, or graduated intervals, is more effective than rote memorization because rote memorization is good for the short term, but the information is likely to be quickly forgotten without practice. Spaced repetition, on the other hand, allows information to be deeply remembered so that recall lasts a lot longer and likely becomes permanent.
Here’s how it works: Newly introduced or difficult flashcards are shown more frequently than cards where the information is well understood and easy to recall. The more readily you can recall the information, the less often it is required to prompt the recall. So seeing that flashcard happens less and less often, and the interval between seeing that flashcard becomes larger and larger.
And now that you have a solid understanding of flashcards and spaced repetition as a learning technique let’s get into how to organize spaced repetition using the Leitner System.
The Leitner System Explained
The Leitner system can be defined very briefly as a means to organize spaced repetition so that you’re focussing your time where it matters most – on material you are the least familiar with.
What do you need for the Leitner system?
Paper or card to make your flashcards
Pens or markets to provide information
Three boxes or envelopes to store your flashcards. Container 1 is marked “Every day”, container 2 is marked “Tuesday and Thursday”, and container 3 is marked “Friday”.
Using the Leitner System
If you prefer to watch a demonstration on how to use the Leitner system, check out this video. Alternatively, keep reading:
Start with three boxes or envelopes. Container 1 is marked “Every day” and you will revise this material every day. Container 2 is marked “Tuesday and Thursday”. If you get a flashcard correct, you can move the card from “Every day” to “Tuesday and Thursday”. Every day, you will revise the “Everyday” container. When you reach Tuesday or Thursday, revise the Everyday container PLUS the “Tuesday and Thursday” container.
Anything you get wrong in the Everyday container will stay in that container. And anything you get wrong in the “Tuesday and Thursday” gets demoted to the “Everyday” container.
If you get “Tuesday and Thursday” flashcards correct, you can then move them to container 3, marked “Friday”. You will only need to revise these materials on Fridays. Remember, if you get it wrong, then it gets demoted to the previous container.
You can, of course, customize this spacing to your specific needs. For example, you may have five containers with daily revision, followed by alternate days, then every four days, nine days, and two weeks.
Leitner did, in fact, have his own schedule for optimal learning, but it’s not always realistic in today’s world. We’ll leave it below for curiosity’s sake, and feel free to use it for your long-term study goals.
Why does the Leitner System Work?
The Leitner system is so effective because it works and helps overcome a very important reality – Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve. It looks like this:
Essentially, the Ebbinghaus curve measures how quickly we forget something. And it’s a lot faster than you’d expect. Without regular repetition, information can be lost within six days. This is why cramming is a waste of time – you’ll pass your test next week, but you’ll have to learn it all again for the exam at the end of the semester.
The forgetting curve is not a bad thing in itself, it’s actually the brain’s very clever mechanism for only storing information that is relevant and regularly used. If we remembered everything we ever learned or read every single day, our brains would explode. Not quite, but you get the idea.
The Leitner system recognizes that without practice, information will get dumped. And this is where it takes advantage of aggressive revision and review. Your revision time and mental energy are targeted at information that has not been retained or is not well understood. So it’s a great tool for identifying areas of weakness and strength.
Part of effective revision is to have a good active recall. This is your brain reaching into the memory bank and quickly retrieving the information that’s needed. Without good active recall, you’re going to waste precious time and become more anxious and stressed trying to remember information.
With longer periods of intervals, information is also transferred to long-term memory instead of short-term memory. This means you won’t just do great in one test, you’ll have committed the information to long-term memory, which goes towards a greater understanding of future studies.
The main benefit of the Leitner system is that it takes a large volume of information that needs to be committed to memory and turns it into manageable pieces of information. This helps prevent becoming overwhelmed by a huge volume of information. It makes revision time more fun, effective, and a positive, rewarding experience that you’re likely to want to do more of.
Who Does the Leitner System Work For?
The answer is everyone. It works for young students learning vocabulary, extremely well for learning a second language, and it’s hugely beneficial for older students as more repetition is required in order to retain information. The Leitner system works for all subjects and concepts that require information recall. So you let us know where you think this system would not be applicable!
Leitner System Apps
And now the part our app-loving readers have been waiting for. While a lot can be said for the act of writing when committing information to long-term memory, sometimes you want things in a digital format.
For prepared flashcards, we enjoyed Cram.com. There are close to 200 million flashcards that you can search for by topic and level of difficulty. It also specifically uses the Leitner system, which is a bonus. We also loved Quizlet for the ability to create or use existing flashcards on a number of topics.
If you want to make your own flashcards, try Brainscape. It’s easy to use, and you can make cards exactly to your preference.
To wrap things up, the Leitner system is a study technique that has stood the test of time. It’s survived the rigors of scientific study and proven itself to be an effective method for improving recall. Ultimately, one of the main challenges with revision and long-term memory is recall. Without good recall, revision time is wasted. Furtherstill, ineffective revision is demotivating and creates stress and anxiety. WIth the Leitner technique, not only will revision become more targeted and focused, but you actively work to counteract the forgetting curve.
Sounds like a pretty great revision tool right?
Image sources: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ForgettingCurve.svg and https://robertmoszczynski.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/leitners-schedule.png and https://unsplash.com/photos/377gw1wN0Ic