The Leitner System Of Revision

It’s all about retrieval.

A wealth of previous research has shown that testing is beneficial for learning and memory.

Using flashcards is an easily implemented teaching strategy that can help students achieve deeper levels of  comprehension in a self-directed manner.

As Taylor (2017) says,

for effective revision which keeps knowledge at the forefront of students’ brains, it seems that the humble Flashcard is king.

But two critical factors that affect the efficacy of this self-testing strategy are the amount of practice and the timing of practice.

Concerning the amount of practice, increasing the number of times an item is correctly recalled during practice benefits later retention.

When it comes to the timing of practice, self-testing is most effective when using longer versus shorter lags between practice trials for a given item, both within and between sessions.

So how do students implement self-testing using flashcards?

One way to do it that few students have been shown is the Leitner System and this is a more efficient way of using flashcards to revise.

This is a simple method that uses the principle of spaced practice/repetition at increasing intervals.

It was created by science journalist Sebastian Leitner and uses a number of boxes to track when you need to study each flashcard.

You start by writing the flashcards – you write a question, word or definition on the front and the answer, translation or meaning on the back.

When you’ve written the flashcards, they’re sorted into three different boxes: 1, 2 and 3.

You start with Box 1.

  • All flashcards start in box 1 (first stack). You revise these every day.

Box 2

  • If you know a card from box 1, it moves to box 2. You revise these every three days.

Box 3

  • If you know a card from box 2, it moves to box 3 (third stack). You revise these every five days.

Basically each time a flashcard is answered correctly, it moves to the next box but each time it is answered incorrectly it moves back to the beginning (i.e. box 1).

This system allows students to regularly quiz themselves on information that they have not yet embedded into their long term memory.

Sometimes you will see this method where people use 5 or 7 boxes.

Image by Zirguezi

The key to the efficiency and effectiveness of this system is that the cards in the lower boxes are reviewed more frequently than the cards in the higher boxes.

What are the benefits?

  • Students can focus on revising the content that they find the most challenging more often
  • Students can feel a sense of achievement as they move cards through the system
  • Students can interleave revision by putting lots of cards for different topics/ subjects in the boxes; they are dividing up their revision by learning – not subject.
  • Students can increase the complexity of the system if they want to


Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning 

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