How to Study with Flashcards


There is a right way to do something and a wrong way.

The wrong way to study flashcards you probably already know—pick up flashcards, read front and back a couple times, and put flashcards down; eat a popsicle, watch re-runs of Jersey Shore; sleep, wake up, and look at pile of flashcards; glance at three or four cards, pretend you remember them, and then put them back down; knock your desk while installing an electronic alarm system in your drawers so your little brother won’t steal your cookies, which you shouldn’t have there in the first place, according to your mom; the flashcards fall behind the desk where you can’t see them; since you didn’t really study, you forget they exist, and you move on with your Life.

Today we learn the right way to study flashcards, which is based on a method called the Leitner System. The system was developed by German scientist Sebastian Leitner as a simple, time-efficient way to use flashcards. His system is demonstrated in the GIF image below. You can see that cards are moving from one box to the next as they are learned.


The Leitner System for studying flashcards. My system is very similar with a slight twist. By Zirguezi (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons


The system that I advocate is similar. The only difference is that I separate practice and assessment. The Leitner system is based on the idea that each time you pick up the flashcards, you are assessing your knowledge. I think it is important to separate assessment from practice since the purpose of each is a little different.

The beauty of this system is that you will work with a word at least four times and that you will have gaps of time between seeing the word, which is known to increase retention of information.



I. Three Phases of Study

  1. Practice and Learning: Just as it sounds—learn and practice with new flashcards.
  2. Assessment: Test your knowledge of the new cards.
  3. Re-assessment: After a space of a week or two, re-test for to see how well you retain the knowledge.

II. Organization

You will need to organize your cards with binder clips or some boxes. As you learn cards, you will move them from one box to the next. If you forget a word, move the card back to the beginning.

  1. Unknown
  2. Learned
  3. Know
  4. Definitely Know

You will also have a set of cards that you will carry around with you. These are cards that you are in the process of Learning.

Use boxes to help organize your cards.


III. How To

Phase One

Start with a stack of 10-20 cards for the day from your stack of Unknown cards. In the beginning, you might want to start slow and begin with 10 a day, but as you progress and improve, you can add more and more cards to the Learning pile. This is the beginning of your Practicing and Learning phase. Study these words throughout the day–while waiting for the bus, when nature calls, or instead of watching re-runs of Jersey Shore. Make a point of reviewing each of these cards during the day.

Don’t worry about testing yourself. Instead, read the word, read the back of the card, and ruminate on the information. Even if you think you know the word, still read the back of the card and all the information there. Then move to the next word.

Phase Two

The next day, preferably at the beginning of the day, begin your first Assessment phase. Test yourself with the flashcards from yesterday. At this point, you want to aim for accuracy and speed. Try to move through the cards as quickly as possible, stating as much information as you can. This is great time to ask your friend or Mom to test you on these words.

During the Assessment, you will be putting words in two piles. The words that you know go in the Learned pile. The words you don’t know remain in your Learning pile that you carry around during the day.

Grab some cards from your Unknown pile so that you always have 10-20 cards in your Learning pile.

Spend the day Practicing and Learning these words. And the next day, do another round of Assessment. Words that you remember, place in the pile of words Learned. Words you don’t know stay in your Learning pile. Follow this system for an entire week.


Phase Three

At the end of the week, conduct your first Re-assessment. Grab the pile of cards in your Learned pile. Go through all the words in the pile testing yourself. Words that you remember advance to the Known pile. Words you didn’t remember should move back to the Learning pile.

So now you should have cards in your Know pile and Learning pile with no cards in your Learned pile. If there were a lot of words you didn’t know, and your Learning pile gets too big, move the cards to the Unknown pile.

At the end of the second week, start with the words in the Known pile. Any words you remember completely move onto to the ‘sacred and joyous’ Definitely Know pile. Words that you forgot return to the Unknown pile.

Then move to the pile of words in the Learned pile. I think you probably know what will happen here—words you know advance to the next pile and the words you forget move back to the beginning.

Every couple of weeks, grab some words from the Definitely Know pile to make sure you actually ‘definitely’ know them. If not, move the card back to the beginning.

Continue ad infinitum until test day.


A note on Software vs. Paper-based options

There is a lot of software out there for flashcards. Some of them even use this technique for learning cards. Smart phones and tablets are becoming ubiquitous making it easier to grab software with preloaded words. This technology allows you to ‘save’ time and get straight to studying.

But, I would encourage you to make your own flashcards (No, I am not a Luddite. I love technology and its benefits). But in this case, you really should spend the time looking up the definitions and writing down the information on a card.

The act of sitting, looking up a word, and then copying down the information to a card will help you learn the word. Also, writing your own card means you have complete control of what you put there. I recommend putting the following information on your flashcard (you can find all this information in one place at

  1. Definitions, especially some of the lesson common definitions.
  2. Part of Speech
  3. Variations
  4. Example Sentence
  5. Synonyms and Antonyms
  6. Any picture or drawing that would help you to remember the word’s meaning.


46 thoughts on “How to Study with Flashcards

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