13. 5. 2019

Leitner Box: How May Beer And Cookies Help You Remember Things

From notebooks to AI there are many ways how we can subsidy or extend our memory capabilities. Therefore, we may seem to need our memory just to know where to find the right information. However, there is a reason why a Greek Aeschylus called the memory a “mother of all wisdom”. And this reason stays true today the same as in Aeschylus’s time.

It is ridiculous to imagine Michelangelo making a statue of David according to some Youtube video tutorial or Einstein solving the problems with Newton’s physics browsing internet forums. However, it is ridiculous little less, when we realize how often we do this ourselves. It may be an excellent starting point, but it is highly insufficient to stop there. If we want to make a special thing, whether those are pieces of code, essays, or great food we need special knowledge, not knowledge we can access through first Google hit. How can we gain this knowledge?

Unfortunately, just experiencing things isn’t enough. In one experiment, the participants were asked to identify which of the 15 drawings of the cent is correct. Less than half picked the right image, even though every one of them had seen the cent millions of times (Nickerson & Adams, 1979). To gain knowledge you need to put in some effort and be active. Imagine you want to learn basketball. You don’t expect to get any better by just observing the game, you expect to get better by active applying of your knowledge – by training. The difference is that in basketball is everyone aware of the importance of practice – not so in case of gaining knowledge. As almost nobody else doing so, you can seem to have nearly superpowers. But where to start?

The general systematic process of gaining knowledge consists of two main parts. First, you need to acquire and store the to-be-learnt information effectively and then you need to learn it. I will focus on the second part here. How can we learn what we want?

In the case of abstract information, I believe a smart way of memorizing is the right way. For learning to be as effective as possible, it should consist of active recalling, testing, and interleave practice (Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel, 2014). How can we make use of this in practice? Using flashcards seems to be the ultimate answer.

What is flashcard? Flashcard is a card which has and qustion on its one side and the answer for that question on its other side.

Using flashcards is like having a sweet, little, friendly puppy –, it is lovely. But if you want to make the most out of your learning time, you should go one step further. Let me introduce you to a Leitner Box.

Leitner Box

Have you ever wondered how fast we forget?

If yes, chances that you are familiar to the above curve. This curve is based on endless self-examination of a German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, and it’s the curve of our forgetting. Whether you describe it as decreasing or non-linear, it is evident that we forget f*ckin fast, especially in the outset period. The curve also shows why is the “cramming” a terrible technique, because no matter how much you learn, if not repeated, you will forget most of it in a relatively short period. Anyway, how can we use this curve into our benefit?

As we quickly forget, we need to repeat things. The shape of the curve then may help us determine the best intervals of doing so. You can see a visualization of this below.

Notice: The more you forget the “, the harder the repeating will be”. Nevertheless, the main point is that no matter how much you forget the intervals between the single sessions prolong.

What is the main point of Leitner Box? It helps you organize learning your flashcards based on the shape of the forgetting curve.

Leitner Box is literally a box which has 7 levels. Every flashcard starts at level 1.

Once you answer it correctly, it goes to level 2. Once you answer it correctly on level 2, it goes to level 3, etc. When you answer it incorrectly at any level, it goes right back to level 1. The trick then is, that the higher the level, the less often you repeat it. 

If unsure, you can always use this beautiful below.

If your eyes aren’t what they used to be:

How to Craft Your Own Version?

Now, you know all the basics. The only thing which remains is a real-life realization. You have two options: Online or Offline way. I will briefly introduce both.


The most convenient option is to use some already made programme. Anki is a desktop app which uses a slightly more complicated algorithm of repetition than we use with physical Leitner Box 1 . It is free and open-sourced. The design is not charming but its hyper-efficiency and fact its free should balance it.  You can find it here:  2 .


We spend most our days in front of the screens; thus it may be compelling to do something in an offline world as well. Making physical cards is more arduous, but it is satisfying as you can immediately see the results of your work. It’s also much easier to add visual aids on them, and when you buy them pre-prepared you can easily carry with you the plain ones all the time. There are many guides on making Leitner Box: e.g. HERE. But as I find little annoying to spend more than 5 minutes on tasks like this, I have made my own guid-ish video which you can see below 3 .

As we are supposed to recall the level 1 cards on a daily base, we should make a habit out of it. I would recommend you using time cue which appears daily 4 . Also keep on mind that it doesn’t matter when you omit time to time, what’s matter is what you do the very next day. 

I won’t lie; same as any mental activity, the Leitner Box is demanding, and sometimes it is not easy to make yourself do it. Nevertheless, it doesn’t take long, and the results/progress (especially in the physical version) are visible immediately. To sum up, to overcome some mental difficulty is, in my opinion, a fair prize for remembering things better than ever.

There are no limits for what you can use the Leitner Box. Use it for learning new vocabularies, remembering random pieces from books/videos/podcasts, jokes, or coding. It’s up to you.

How would your life be different if you haven’t forgotten all the information you were sure you mustn’t forget but forgot anyway? Let me know in the comments!

Almost all ilustrations in this article are from the SITE of generous Nicky Case.


Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick : the science of successful learning.

Nickerson, R. S., & Adams, M. J. (1979). Long-term memory for a common object. Cognitive Psychology, 11(3), 287–307.

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