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Cardboxing 101

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So what is this “cardbox” thing, why should you care enough to give your time to cardbox study, and why do serious word players obsess about a seven-letter word that isn’t in any approved lexicon? Take a few minutes to learn about cardboxes, word-study habits, and why you too should tend a cardbox as if it were your prize garden.

Sebastian Leitner: „So lernt man lernen“

About 50 years ago, an Austrian-German author made a big splash with his book of scientific theory of “how to learn to learn”. In it, he described what has become known as the Leitner Cardbox System for acquiring and perfecting memory through spaced repetition using flashcards. In the 1970s, it was fairly common in certain places to see people with plastic boxes full of flashcards with numbered dividers, reading and reshuffling the cards as if sorting recipes.

The big idea in Leitner’s system is that some facts are easy to learn but hard to remember while others are the opposite, and that adaptive repetition reinforces long-term memory. Further, he realized that concentrating one’s study only on the things that are hard to recall is discouraging, for lack of positive reinforcement, and so it helps to mix things up. Can’t remember this fact? — bring it back tomorrow for another try. Got this one cold? — great, but you probably won’t need to repeat it for a while.

Herr Leitner’s system came a bit early for the personal-computer age, but computers have certainly widened its appeal, and there are now many generalized cardbox-study tools to choose from. One thing that fits exceptionally well on a flashcard is a word-anagramming question like AEINRST, with the answers on the back, and the impact of this study method has transformed how word games are played.

Cardboxing in Zyzzyva

Michael Thelen’s Zyzzyva application came along in the mid-2000s at a time of increased public interest in the game of Scrabble spurred by the publication of a number of books and DVDs and some unprecedented exposure on cable television. He constructed it in a way that suited both casual and intense users, making it an almost universal presence at clubs and tournaments. His legacy continues today in the form of NASPA Zyzzyva and NASPA Zyzzyva Mobile.

One feature of Zyzzyva that favored the dedicated game player was its implementation of the Leitner Cardbox System, by which the user could build up a hoard of anagram questions for long-term study by doing anagram or pattern searches and then committing them to the cardbox. Users’ pain tolerance varied, but it became common for Zyzzyva users to amass a cardbox stuffed with many thousands of virtual flashcards, usually the ones deemed most probable to appear in gameplay, and particularly the ones of seven or eight letters that could earn the prized 50-point “bingo” bonus that often decides a game.

One of the genius things about cardboxing in Zyzzyva is that you get to decide what’s a “passing grade” for remembering the answers to an anagram question. If you’re happy enough that you remembered eight of the nine answers to AEINRST, mark it correct and move on. If you’re a bit obsessive and can’t live with not remembering ANESTRI (again?!), mark it incorrect and know that you’ll get it when it comes back tomorrow.

In Zyzzyva, the word “cardbox” has two meanings: Your virtual cardbox contains 16 compartments, numbered 0 to 15. Words you add to the (aggregate) cardbox normally start out in (individual) Cardbox 0 and step up from there as you answer them correctly; an incorrect answer demotes a question back to Cardbox 0. Of course, you can pluck questions out and move them around as necessary.

Each question in the system has both a compartment (how “deep” in the cardbox it’s gone since you last failed to answer it correctly) and a next-review date that’s assigned when it arrives at that location. The deeper it goes, the farther out the date is set. What’s “due” on a given day, therefore, is not just the questions you recently missed, but rather a mixture of those with some less vexing ones that have come up for review after a longer wait.

Scheduling and Sizing

One error some users make is to put too many words in the system. Zyzzyva’s scheduling settings are easily adjusted, but, by default, the questions you can answer with your eyes closed (residents of Cardbox 10 and up) are still going to reappear every 480 days or so, and it’d be tempting Fate to put them off much longer than that. This means that a perfectly familiar set of 48000 questions is still going to hit you with a daily average of 100 questions due.

There are a few ways to deal with this problem:

  • Keep the count down. Don’t put too many words in the cardbox to begin with, especially ones you’re unlikely ever to see. Once you figure out how to do it, you can do a search for improbable or fully mastered words and remove them from the cardbox to make room for more worthy ones.
  • Subdivide the cardbox. NASPA Zyzzyva supports only one cardbox database per lexicon, but you can run quizzes that impose a search condition on the questions that are currently due for review. Try isolating the ones that have specific characteristics from the ones that don’t, and concentrate on one manageable subgroup for a while.
  • Up the quiz speed. Use a tool like NASPA Zyzzyva Mobile that is optimized for quick cardbox quizzing. Synchronize your cardbox between multiple devices so that your progress is shared between them; 50 with coffee in the morning and 50 in the bus on the way home isn’t a lot when you have a well optimized study tool.
  • Surrender. Life is not always a box of cards. Sometimes you won’t be able to keep up the usual pace, and it can be discouraging to see that your inattention has left you a thousand questions to answer to reach the goal of zero due. Use the available menu commands to shift the whole cardbox back, either by a number of days or so that a specific number of questions remain due.

Your Deepest Cardbox Questions, Answered

Cardboxing isn’t everyone’s pleasure, so it doesn’t make sense to lard the NASPA Zyzzyva FAQ with too much detail about it. Please read our next article, Cardboxing 201, for answers to your deepest questions about cardboxing in NASPA Zyzzyva and NASPA Zyzzyva Mobile.