Diversifying your studying techniques is a great way to keep yourself more engaged as you learn new information—so try the Leitner system next time you tackle a new subject. This memory-enhancing method is best for when you have a substantial amount of time to learn your material, so don’t use it for cramming, but do start it right away at the beginning of a semester or chapter. Here’s what to do.
What is the Leitner system?
This system was devised by science writer Sebastian Leitner in 1972, which is why he gets the honour of having it named for him. (It’s from his book How to Learn to Learn, but it’s only available in German, so just trust us on this one.) The method relies on physical tools: flashcards and boxes. (You’ll also need a pen or pencil to make the flashcards.) At its core, this is a version of spaced repetition, an evidence-based technique that helps learners absorb numerous pieces of information and store them in their memory. The system is best used when you have ample time but have to learn a lot of concepts, phrases, or ideas—so use it for an entire course or a really hefty chapter instead of a section or topic that only includes a few new things to learn.
How to use the Leitner system
The first thing you’re going to do is make your flashcards. Don’t worry about the other steps involving the boxes just yet. Make the flashcards like you normally would, by including vocabulary words, new concepts, phrases, important dates, and anything else you need to know. It helps to first use a reading comprehension technique to go through the chapter or subject at hand, so try the SQ3R method, which has you identify questions you have about the material before you start reading, and then has you write down the answers to those questions as you find them, plus anything else you learn. You base those questions on subheadings, graphs, tables, summaries, and other key parts of the chapter, but you can later base your flashcards on those same pieces of information, plus the answers you find. Be thorough and include concepts and words you already know, even if that seems silly. It’s all part of the Leitner method and will come in handy.
Once you have a comprehensive flashcard deck, it’s time to use the method. You’ll need five boxes (or envelopes or even labelled binder clips, as long as it’s something that can hold big stacks of cards). You should label them on a timeline, ideally by how long you have to grasp the information. If you have a big midterm in two months, for instance, label Box 1 “daily,” Box 2 “every other day,” Box 3 “weekly,” Box 4 “biweekly,” and Box 5 “monthly.”
Now, do a round of flashcards. For every card you get right, move to Box 2. Every card you get wrong, keep in Box 1. You see where this is going, but we’ll spell it out: Box 1 is a daily review, so you do those flashcards every day, but if you start this activity on a Monday and your Box 2 is designated for every other day study, you won’t return to that one until Wednesday. If you answer cards from Box 2 correctly, they’ll go to Box 3, your “weekly” box. If you answer any cards in Box 2 incorrectly, you move those back to Box 1, where you’ll study them every day until you get them right.
In short, when you answer a card right, it moves forward into a box that will have you reviewing it less frequently. When you answer a card wrong, it moves backward into a box that will have you reviewing it more frequently. Eventually, you’ll have cards all the way down in Box 5. Those will be the cards containing information you have effectively stored in your memory and really grasp, so you don’t need to go over them as often. Cards in the lower-numbered boxes contain information you’re not retaining as well and should go over more.
Modifications and things to keep in mind about the Leitner system
How you use the system will depend on how much time you have to study, as well as how much you have to learn. For instance, if you have just a few concepts you want to drill or you have only two weeks until a big test, you might just use three boxes to designate daily, every-other-day, and weekly study. You also have some wiggle room when it comes to incorrect answers. The most faithful adherence to the method would have you moving any incorrect cards all the way back to Box 1 no matter how far along it was, for instance, but you can make a judgement call on whether getting it wrong one time means you need to study it every day or whether you think it should only be demoted one box.
According to Exam Study Expert, you also need to be strategic when you’re studying on a day that involves multiple boxes. If you start on a Monday and use a daily, every-other-day, and weekly setup for your first three boxes, for instance, Friday is going to be pretty big for you. Start with whatever the highest box of the day is, then move backward. By doing this, you’ll get to study any you got wrong and moved backward twice, but won’t have to study any you got right and moved forward twice. Plus, it’ll be a little confidence boost to start on the harder ones and get some right, moving them to a box you won’t have to look at for a while.
The goal here is to really hammer the cards that contain information that isn’t sticking for you without bogging yourself down studying things you already know. As more cards move into the higher-numbered boxes, add information from new chapters so your deck is a comprehensive overview of everything you’ll need to know for a cumulative test or, ideally, long-term in the real-world application of the information.