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The Leitner system is a learning technique proposed by Sebastian Leitner. It involves using flashcards to help students learn and memorize new and challenging information. Students have to use various study methods or try a few to see which ones work for them. 

This method is perfect for subjects that require the memorization of terms and their definitions. The Leitner system is an example of the implementation of spaced repetition using flashcards. 

Much research has been conducted to determine how spaced repetition improves the learning process of students. Many experts agree that using flashcards helps boost memory capacity and cognitive function as it requires learners to retrieve information from memory.

The usual flashcard system, which involves creating a stack of cards and just going through them every once in a while, is a valid study method in itself. However, doing this is not a guarantee that a student will memorize all of the terms. There are words that will be easier to remember compared to others.

Related reading: How to Use the Feynman Learning Technique to Study more Effectively

Preparation

Before getting into the system, students have to do a few steps to prepare. First, choose a topic or concept to study. Next, create a stack of flashcards. Write a concept or term on each one. Prepare 3 to 5 boxes with study periods (every day, every other day, once a week, etc.). You can use fewer boxes, but for the purposes of this article, we will use 5.

How it Works 

All flashcards start at Box 1. On the first day of study, go through each flashcard. Every time you get a flashcard right, move it to the next box, and if you get it wrong, move it to Box 1. If at any point during this study period, you feel the need to add a flashcard, create one, and put it in Box 1.

Box 1 – everyday

Box 2 – every other day

Box 3 – once week

Box 4 – once bi-weekly

Box 5 – review before the test

This means, every time you get one wrong, you will encounter it more frequently, and if you get a flashcard right, you will see it less often. This system is an application of spaced repetition and gives the student a chance to prioritize the card they got wrong. Based on the schedule above, students can create a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly schedule.

What makes the Leitner system unique is the schedule that determines how frequently the flashcards need to be reviewed. The idea is to practice by quizzing oneself over and over until the term or concept is memorized. Putting flashcards in specific boxes determines which words you should focus your attention on.  

More difficult flashcards and newly introduced ones need to be encountered frequently; less difficult flashcards should be shown once in a while. Overall, each flashcard should be encountered a couple of times before an exam.

The Leitner System, Spaced Repetition, Active Recall 

Reading the same set of words on a sheet of paper over and over a couple of hours a day is a passive approach to memorizing. Spaced repetition is an active approach and is the core principle of the Leitner system. Students go through each box over a given period of time in spaced intervals.

Essentially, when students utilize the Leitner system, they are doing spaced repetition and active recall. A double whammy of sorts in terms of maximizing a student’s learning opportunity.

 

Benefits

The Leitner system is just one of many study tools and techniques that is out there—each one having their own pros and cons. Here is a rundown of the benefits of the Leitner system, with a brief explanation of each:

    It is a systematic approach to using flashcards. Flashcards have always been an effective study tool, especially for memorization. In fact, it’s one of the reasons why preschool and early childhood teachers use it when teaching students basic things like the alphabet, numbers, and colors. However, one of its disadvantages is that it is time-consuming to make (you have to prepare flashcards one by one unless you’re using digital flashcards), and students are expected to go through each one at random.  

    Students will be forced to focus on the difficult items first, prioritizing which ones to devote additional study time to. A student has to keep encountering the same flashcard repeatedly until they get it right. This is where spaced repetition comes in. Because this system requires students to follow a schedule and engage certain words often, they are given ample time to forget before they’re tasked to recall again.

    Good for exam preparation. When students use flashcards, they are essentially quizzing themselves. This makes for good exam preparation.

    It allows students to become more efficient with their study time. One disadvantage of going through flashcards randomly (without a system) is that you may end up getting cards that you already know the answer to. The Leitner system filters out the flashcards based on the level of mastery.

    Increase the rate of learning. People learn through repetition—this is precisely what is happening with the Leitner system. By going through flashcards over and over and quizzing yourself, it keeps the brain very active.

    Covers all topics. Although the frequency of encountering flashcards varies, this system guarantees that each card is encountered at least a few times.

    Well-paced learning. Their mastery of it determines the pace with which a student encounters terms.

When to Use the Leitner System 

The Leitner System is best used when trying to memorize facts and learn new information. This is particularly useful for subjects that require students to remember. However, it’s also recommended for topics where students could use more help.

Start preparing the flashcards as early as possible in the semester. Prepare some flashcards every time you move to a new chapter. Teachers usually give students advance notice regarding exams (usually written in the syllabus). Use this to your advantage. Prepare your boxes and your deck of flashcards early.

Students need to practice the Leitner system over several weeks, so this is definitely not appropriate for cramming. However, if you have a lot to study for, it’s worth putting in the extra effort, especially for a subject that you find difficult. If it’s too much work, then use this method for specific subjects and topics only.

This system is perfect for memorizing, so it’s good to use it in conjunction with study methods that help build comprehension. The Leitner system is very promising. The beauty of this system is that it is very thorough. No flashcard will go uncovered.

Use Technology 

Making flashcards and finding physical boxes can be time-consuming and wasteful of resources. Some apps and websites create flashcards such as Anki, Tiny Cards, Flash Cards Deluxe, Memrise, and Mnemosyne Project. 

Common among these apps is their customizability. For example, you can make a set of flashcards, create your own designs, and create a schedule so that you can review them on specific days. In addition, some apps allow users to customize the time between flashcards, which adds another challenge to students. Anki, in particular, will enable users to rate the difficulty of a card, which will influence the frequency of encountering that card. 

On a practical note, using apps and websites is a paperless option. Some websites have apps and can be synced across devices. Students can review anywhere. It’s efficient, it saves on paper, and it’s space-saving. No need to lug around stacks of flashcards if you’re on the move!

A Case for Active Learning

When students use the Leitner system, they are effectively using a cocktail of the best active learning methods known today. Much has been said about finding the best notetaking methods and which techniques to utilize to read faster, but it takes particular strategies to ensure that learning takes place. It takes a lot more than pretty, pastel-colored notes to ensure that a student has learned the course content and is prepared for an exam. 

As tempting as it is to spend endless hours hunched over textbooks and notes, the best way to encourage learning and understanding is through active learning methods.

Perfect for Older Students

The Leitner system is ideal for students taking further studies—law, medicine, MBA, etc. These courses demand a lot of time for studying and memorization, and mastery of concepts. I have seen many students lose sleep because they read books and notes word-for-word, memorizing the jargon and other facts. 

At this level, students have to have a solid study routine that prepares them for actual practice so that they can quickly recall information. Having a set of flashcards and using the Leitner system will constantly test them. Even if they don’t have exams to prepare for, they will have the tools and strategies to keep information fresh in their brain. 

Final Thoughts 

Using the Leitner system helps students meet their learning goals by having a study routine and utilizing the appropriate techniques to master a topic. This method includes a lot of steps and can be quite tedious, but it is rewarding because if students commit to it, they can reap the many benefits of using the Leitner system.

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Patricia Alfonso

Patricia Alfonso is an educator and researcher who earned her master's degree in guidance and counseling from Ateneo de Manila. She specializes in developing school counseling programs for schools.

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