A better way to use flash cards - the Leitner system

Flashcards are a tried and true method of study and better yet, promote active study. While the design of a good flashcard has been covered in a previous article, this article’s focus is on the efficient use of flashcards through the Leitner system – saving you time so you can get back to binging your current show of choice.

Recalling information is a trifactor

Repetition is the key to mastery and memory is no different. How well you can recall information is influenced by three factors:

1. The number of times the information has been reviewed

Repeating information lets your brain know it’s something that needs to be held more closely. Try this.

Read the following numbers aloud, just once.

8, 17, 32, 5.

Now read out the following numbers to yourself 10 times.

4, 56, 72, 9.

Now set a timer for 5 minutes. When the alarm goes off, try and recall both sequences of numbers. I bet you will do better on the second sequence. Read on, while you wait.

2. Time between reviews

This one is not as obvious as the first factor. There is a benefit to leaving time between one review and the next. The brain has a short term memory and a long term memory. By leaving time between reviewing information will prompt the brain to think “woah, this information again? I better move this stuff to into long term memory if I need to keep using this”. Leaving gaps between reviews is known as the spacing effect which leads to better recall.

3. Time since the last review

A lot of students are amazing at maximising this factor. The more recently the information has been viewed, the more accurately it can be recalled. Cramming leans into this point heavily but since cramming completely ignores the first two factors, it certainly isn’t an effective method of study.

The spacing effect

Hermann Ebbinghaus, a psychologist who pioneered studies into human memory in the late 1800s found, “Humans more easily remember or learn items when they are studied a few times over a long period, rather than studied repeatedly in a short time.” The practical application of this finding is that it is better to review content for an hour across 3 days than for 3 hours straight on one day.

Spaced reviews result in better recall

The Leitner system leverages the spacing effect

The Leitner system is a method of using flashcards that encourages the spacing effect. It works like this:

  • Flashcards will be in one of several levels (e.g. 1, 2, 3).
  • Lower level flashcards are reviewed more frequently while higher level cards are reviewed less frequently.
  • Getting a flashcard correct moves it up a level. Getting it wrong moves it back to level 1.
  • Put all flashcards in level 1 to start with.

So on the first review, say on a Monday, test yourself on all the flashcards and move correctly answered cards up to level 2. On Tuesday test yourself on level 1 cards (level 2 cards get a break). Again, move correctly answered cards up to level 2.

On Wednesday you will test yourself on both level 1 and level 2. If answered correctly, level 1 cards go up to level 2 and level 2 cards go up to level 3. Any incorrect cards are back to level 1. You may choose to do level 3 cards every Saturday (along with level 1 cards).


Review Frequency




3 times a week





The idea is that not only are you spacing out your review sessions, but you are also being efficient with your time. You review the more challenging flashcards more often while the easier flashcards end up being looked at only weekly/fortnightly. You can add more levels (like monthly) which will also help keep you fresh for final year exam preparation.

Tips for maximising the effectiveness of the Leitner system

1.      No cheating- test yourself on each card once per session.

Studying is a practice session for the real thing (the test). Getting the flashcard correct after a second attempt during the same session will be due to the recency of the information. Cheating during practice just makes you look foolish come test time.  

2.      Spend a moment looking at incorrect cards.

You got it wrong. Ok. Why? Spend a moment to realise the mistake and take time to think about it. The alternative is to get it wrong again next time.

3.      Don’t skip days. “Catching up” is not spaced repetition.

I can say it, but it’s you that must be motivated to do it. Don’t cram!

4.      Shuffle the cards in each level before testing

Your brain remembers patterns and can be stimulated by them. Ever find yourself singing the next song of a playlist before it’s even started? You don’t want to be in a position where you can only remember a definition if you have seen the definition that came before it.


Has that 5-minute timer gone off? How well did you recall the two number sequences?

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