We can thank Hermann Ebbinghaus. Born in Germany in 1850, he was the first to study quantitatively our capacity to memorize, and our proclivity to forget. He graphed how our recall of recently learned facts fades quickly at first, and then gradually. Pondering this graph, he wondered what would happen if we quickly reinforced what we are trying to learn, and then repeated the reinforcement at increasing spaced intervals thereafter. What would be the optimum number of repetitions and intervals in order to obtain the best memorization with the least study time?
Today Ebbinghaus´s pioneering work is put to use in what are called spaced repetition systems, which lots of app makers employ to help us learn. But the apps haven’t torpedoed the heritage technology of paper flash cards. To the contrary, it turns out that the physical act of writing by hand and handling a card helps reinforce our learning. These movements tap into our physical selves in a way that merely tapping keys cannot.
Any index cards can work, yet a standard index card box can’t do the job. Another smart German named Sebastian Leitner designed an elongated box with enough compartments to provide the physical locations necessary. Followers of Leitner made their own boxes, usually out of shoeboxes and tape, but our designers were confident they could make something both more functional and more beautiful.
Of course it would be made of wood, but what kind? The wood grain would need to be long, straight and stable in all temperatures. It would need 8 compartments, yet the dividers would need to be easily removable so that one compartment could double in size if need be.
Our Levenger Leitner Box is, therefore, beautifully crafted of bamboo (like the old slide rules, devices demanding even more precision).
An Exacting Path or a Wandering One
If you follow the included instructions as to which cards to review on which days, you’ll reap the rewards of the best memory return on your invested time. If you are preparing for a test on a fixed date, this is your path.
A second way to use your Leitner is more casual, which is what I do with my Spanish. I write down idioms and dichos that I encounter in my reading just as I find them, in long sentences or phrases. These cards (with English on the flip side) follow a progression, starting their careers in the first compartment and advancing one compartment back when I get it right. Even though I am more casual about the timing and sequence of repetition, I still gain much from the method.
Whatever you want to learn and commit to memory, I hope your own Levenger Leitner Box will become one of your beloved tools for decades to come.