How do medical students, language learners, doctors and an Engineer (me) remember all of the information they study?
Just for a single topic, there are hundreds and hundreds of information we need to remember.
So, has superhuman memory become a requirement to become a better learner?
Nope. We do it by leveraging technology and research on learning.
Here’s what you can do after you do the same:
- Schedule reviews automatically even while you sleep
- Only study information you’re only about to forget—so you study only the ones that need attention
- Encode information into long term memory at your own will
- Remember anything you want without killing yourself
Anki sure is great and delivers on its promise, but there’s just one problem:
It’s hard to find a practical guide on the internet — especially for those who want to use Anki for learning rather than memorization alone!
(Btw, in case you’re not just using Anki for school, I have something for you later.)
In my case, I googled for hours, but ended up only seeing some overcomplicated “beginner” guides that left me confused more than ever. Even the Anki manual itself is overkill. Surely, you needn’t know all of them before you can use Anki effectively.
As the economist and psychologist Herbert Simon says,
….information consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.
Yes, the manual contains ALL of the information you need, but beginners don’t need more information. They only need to pay attention to few important things to start using the damn tool.
So let’s start cutting through your learning curve so you can start using Anki yourself to learn efficiently.
What is Anki?
Anki is an open-source flashcards app that uses spaced repetition algorithms and active recall to help you remember information fast and encode it to your long-term memory.
It makes everything easier with the help of visuals, audio, and other formatting *stuff* that wouldn’t otherwise be available through manual methods.
The main advantage is: It’s FASTER to create cards on Anki, meaning, you’re actually leveraging technology for better use of your time.
Does Anki really work?
Contrary to popular belief, just because Anki is a flashcard app doesn’t mean it’s only used for memorizing words or raw facts.
It’s a tool to establish multiple grounds for understanding future material.
In other words, it can be used as a learning tool; it helps you establish a base of information you can build future ideas upon.
Think about it: If you don’t even know Newton’s Laws of Motion, then the mechanism behind how wheels work becomes obscure.
On the contrary, if you are able not only to understand—but also to retrieve concepts like Newton’s Laws of Motion at the right time, then those concepts would only build upon what you previously learned.
And that only happens if you use Anki the right way— which means:
- You build upon what you’ve learned
- You create future-proof cards
- Your decks are conducive for learning
- Your cards are atomic
- You don’t use Anki for lists
- You understand before you memorize
- You review every day
- You create high-quality cards
(You’ll learn all of these soon, don’t worry.)
But critics of Anki don’t use it that way.
Instead, they use shared decks. And then they create a deck for each topic.
They use Anki only to collect items to memorize and fool themselves that they’ve learned it.
They do Anki reviews intermittently—as if forgetting can be “skipped” in the brain, too.
…and then they have the audacity to say “Anki doesn’t work”?!
“BLASPHEMY.” a random panda rebutted in anger.
(I don’t even know who this panda is—but he seemed kinda familiar. He started sipping some margaritas.)
“Tools,” the panda said, “are only as good as its user; if you can’t hammer a nail, it’s not the hammer’s fault, idiot!”
After that brief meeting, he put his margarita aside, picked up his sombrero, and went on to return to the popular book where he came from.
Anki critics may think that because this tool looks simple and unaesthetic (sorry, Damien) at the surface, it must be powerless.
But from simplicity comes its power—simple tools like Anki depend upon the user’s mastery of the principles.
Put another way, it’s effective only if you know how to make it effective.
Luckily, that gives us some major advantages, too:
- Ubiquitous learning. Anki is literally available in any platform—except wooden ones—so that means you have the autonomy to study wherever, whenever, and whatever you like.
- Individuality of cards. With Anki, you only study cards you’re about to forget. Of course, there’s no exact way to tell you’re “about to forget something”, but in practice, some cards would warrant your attention more than others. This individuality makes it efficient because you learn at the idea level instead of at the subject level. (That also creates the possibility of fresh insights.)
- Efficient learning. Michael Nielsen found that in 20 years, he is 1714.29% (120 minutes/7 minutes * 100%) more efficient for each card when learning using spaced repetition compared to conventional flashcard learning.1 I found that this was even greater for me, and it will be true for you, too.
That said, you’ll realize all the benefits of Anki only if you follow the principles that underlie effective use. Those are:
- Creating decks conducive to understanding
- Creating atomic, future-proof cards based on what you’ve learned
- Reviewing with effective settings
…all of which you’ll learn soon.
The truth is, Anki works if you know how to make it work; I hope I got any disbelief out of the way by telling you this hard truth many users don’t accept. Like I said, I’ll only give you what matters. Nothing else.
Based on my experience, along with thousands of Language learners, Medical Students, and Doctors, Anki works great. (If you know how to use it correctly — which this guide is for)
Anki combines the Leitner system for initial learning, Active Recall and Spaced repetition for long-term memorization. So it’s actually proven to work.
By using Anki, I was able to cut my review time to a total of 2 hours per day.
To put it in perspective, I was reviewing for my Engineering Board Exams back then—which meant reviewing the entire Engineering Curriculum and learning 1 to 2 textbook chapters per day + answering a problem set a day. (I add up to 50 new cards per day on average, and that increased to 80 per day nearing the end; I ended up with 3000 cards in 3 months.)
This was possible because I knew how to use it well.
Now, it’s your turn to do the same.
How to Start Using Anki
To start using Anki, you would require a computer (or laptop) and/or smartphone.
It’s better if you have both, but specifically for this guide, a computer is required.
(Plus, it’s much, much faster to create flashcards using a computer.)
I prefer to use version 2.0 because more add-ons are readily available for this version compared to the 2.1 one. (I also haven’t felt the need to use it) You’ll still be fine whichever version you intend to use, just keep the add-on compatibility in mind if you want to use them (which, you’ll want to).
UPDATE (1/28/2020): Since Anki started phased out Anki 2.0, I now recommend downloading the latest version, which you can find at the same place.
For your smartphone, it’s available in Google Play Store, just search for “AnkiDroid” and look for this one:
iOS users are required to pay for the app. It’s where the app gets its funds, after all. Heck, even if it’s a paid app on Android, I’d still pay for it. It’s that amazing.
Creating and Organizing Decks
Once you’ve installed and opened Anki, you’ll see one specific deck named “Default”.
You can either choose to rename it or just create another deck of your own.
To create a new deck, just hit the “Create Deck” button on the bottom part of the Anki window. You’ll be asked for a Deck name; I like to use my subject’s name for this one.
My rule of thumb for creating decks: If things could show up in one exam in the future, they should be in a SINGLE deck only. (P.S. It’s my personal preference, not a rigid rule)
I like to minimize the number of decks as much as possible to prevent confusion.
By doing it this way, you would be learning the subject as a WHOLE unit (via Interleaving), rather than as fragmented topics.
In addition to creating decks, you can organize your decks into subdecks in two ways:
One, by using the format “MAINDECK::SUBDECK”. Example “Physics::Thermodynamics”.
And two, by dragging the deck over to the desired Master deck. Here’s an illustration.
I don’t use the “subdeck” method very often, unless my subdivision is a really broad subject.
Also, I really don’t recommend that you create a lot of subdecks—you’re better off using Tags instead while creating cards for “Custom Study” purposes (more on this later).
Creating and Organizing Cards
To create cards, just hit the “Add” on the top part of your window.
By clicking on it, you should be seeing the Add New window containing (1)Type, (2)Deck, (3)Front and Back fields, and (4)Tag field.
Now, I wouldn’t worry about the “Fields…” and “Cards…” buttons, as I have successfully used Anki effectively without even touching those things. (I think it’s about formatting)
I know that’s a stupid argument, and you should check them out if you want, but I’m just all for efficiency.
Basically, in the “Add New” window, the question goes in “Front” and the answer goes in “Back” field, just like how normal flashcards are created.
Once you’ve entered your desired Question and Answer pair, you can click on “Add” or just use the shortcut: Ctrl + Enter to make the card.
Note: Make sure to DOUBLE CHECK the “Deck” field before adding the card to prevent future headaches.
By the way, the card you’ve just seen is one of the “Basic” Card Types.
There are plenty more card types to choose from, which varies in purpose but are rather restrictive in nature.
For example, the “Basic” card type allows you to perform the traditional flashcard studying.
The Cloze deletion, on the other hand, is a “fill-in-the-blank” type of card.
Out of the many card types, I have found that the “Cloze” card type was the most flexible one—also the easiest to create.
Anyway, let’s move on to organizing your cards.
Here I like to use Tags.
Why tags? Because it simplifies everything. You need not worry about creating subdecks for each subject (however, if that’s what you want, it’s fine) because you can use “Custom Study” later on (more on this later)
You can add Tags to your cards in two ways: In Card Creation, or in Card Browser.
Personally, I’d prefer to add tags during Card Creation. It’s much faster and more proactive.
To add Tags, you just enter the name of your desired Tag on the “Tags” field of the Add New window.
Here’s something to remember: Replace SPACES with UNDERSCORES.
If you missed that and accidentally entered two words separated by spaces, you’ll be creating TWO tags for your cards, not one.
Now, creating that card, you should notice that the Tag name you entered in the Tags field did not go away.
This means you can create and create several cards without having to worry about putting Tags in every single time—that’s pretty handy.
The second method is the Card Browser. You open it up by clicking on “Browse” on the Home Screen or pressing “B” in the same place.
Then, just find your cards by clicking on a deck where you put your new cards in (1), then select your cards on the right-hand side (2), and press Ctrl + Shift + A.
I don’t prefer this method because it’s rather easy to mess this up. Imagine accidentally adding tags to other cards when you already have a large collection of cards — just thinking about organizing it is already a disaster.
Let’s move on to the more practical guide—How I make Anki Cards.
Here’s How I Make Anki Flashcards
When I started using Anki, I believed it was too complex for me to understand and thus, maximize.
However, I realized when I learned the Pareto Principle, that using Anki is not an exception.
There are only a vital few features you should know when using Anki. (That’s basically what I’m putting in this post)
When creating your cards, follow a Question and Answer format that includes:
- A well-formulated question
- A short, specific answer
- Screenshot of source/Mnemonic/What it reminds you of
- Tags (optional)
For this tutorial, I’ll be using a random book from the medical field (a field I don’t know anything about) just to demonstrate this process from a beginner standpoint.
So, when I see something on my book like this:
This card is the one I make. I included the Question, Answer, Screenshot, and Tag.
Notice that I italicized and bolded the word “previously” to show emphasis. It’s a way to make a cue for an answer stronger, in my opinion.
Now, I highlight the answer along with the screenshot and then press Ctrl + Shift + C. That’s the shortcut for a Cloze deletion.
Shortcut for Cloze Deletion: Ctrl + Shift + C
Let’s look at the card previews.
By the way, I have to tell you that for subjects that require concepts, I break them down into more questions that test my understanding.
From the same passage in the book:
My questions go like this:
“What does specific immunity use act against agents? (2x)”
Answer: Antibodies and Activated Lymphocytes.
“To what type of agent does specific immunity react?”
Answer: Previously Encountered Agents.
Basically, for conceptual information, you have to encourage your understanding of the material.
Facts are good to include as cards, but ultimately, our questions should ALSO simulate situations that use the concept itself so we don’t miss out on actually applying what we have learned.
Rules to Follow when Creating New Cards
Only put things that you understand
It’s easy to get confident that you can remember anything using Anki, but that doesn’t matter if you do not understand the material you’re putting in.
What’s the worst that could happen? You know how to answer the card but cannot apply the information anywhere else.
Follow the minimum information principle
Rule of thumb here: Short question, short answer.
Don’t try to put in paragraphs in a card.
Don’t even try to put “Explain” type of questions. Break them down as much as possible.
Which brings me to my next point.
The number of cards doesn’t matter
When adding cards, it doesn’t matter if you have plenty of cards just by studying a chapter as long as you follow the two rules above.
Break a concept as much as possible. By doing this, you’ll be able to recall each card in less than a second.
It’s much, much faster compared to creating a few but long, complicated cards.
For example, instead of “What are Newton’s Three Laws of Motion? State each.”, you write questions like “What is Newton’s First Law of Motion?”, “What is Newton’s Third Law of Motion?” and then go the other direction: “Which law states F=ma?”
This reduces resistance. Each card doesn’t take very long to answer in your head, so you can answer really fast. Compare that to doing a mini-brain dump for each card–it gets pretty tiring easily.
Sync – the best feature ever
Before I begin, head over to Anki Sign Up and register for an account. It’s totally free.
Then, after creating a free account, head over to Anki settings by clicking on Tools>Preferences or by pressing Ctrl + P on your computer.
Go to the “Network Tab” and check the first two boxes.
This will allow automatic syncing of your deck to the AnkiWeb servers—which allows you to sync your cards to ALL devices.
It’s pretty neat, especially if you’re going outside with your smartphone.
When you’re waiting in line, or just doing nothing at all, instead of scrolling through Facebook, you can answer maybe 10 to 20 cards in a minute.
That actually means you’re converting idle time into STUDYING.
If that isn’t called studying smart, I don’t know what is.
You can turn it off and manually sync your cards by pressing Y on the home screen, but it’s always a good idea to sync your cards automatically upon open/exit just to avoid forgetting.
Studying using Anki
Studying using Anki is pretty straightforward.
You just open the app, click a deck with due cards, and you’re set.
When a card shows up, you just press on the spacebar to show the answer.
When the answer shows up, you are given choices below to choose from: Again, Good, Easy.
Using Anki default settings, Anki will show the card again after a certain amount depending on how difficult it was for you to recall the card.
- Again – Less than a minute, the card will show up again
- Good – The card will show up in less than 10 minutes
- Easy – The card will show up after 4 days
You press Again when you failed to recall the answer, Good when you successfully recall the answer, and Easy when you recall the answer in an instant. You can use shortcuts as shown below:
As a side note, pressing “Again” on a mature card for a total of 8 times makes your card “disappear” and not show up for review.
This is called a “Leech card”, and is usually classified as a poorly created card that causes interference to other cards. I’ll also cover this topic in the next post.
Now, I would like to give you some tips that would help you study smarter using Anki.
Study. Every. Single. Day
“Use it or Lose it.”
Memory works every single day. Since Anki works to combat the decay of information in your brain, it makes sense to use Anki to review every day.
It’s just a few hundred cards a day.
If you skip a day of studying, you’ll end up stacked with more cards the next day; your overdue cards PLUS your due cards—and that’s a hell of a review session to go through (trust me, I’ve been through 1500 cards in a day and it was TERRIBLE).
So, try do study every single day without fail.
In contrast, there might be some days that you have a lot fewer cards than you used to.
It’s probably because most of your cards are mature enough and/or you really have few cards in your deck.
Remember the “Tag” system that I mentioned earlier? This is where it comes in.
When you do a custom study session, you can select cards from specific Tags in a certain Deck.
It’s smart to use it right before an exam, just to take advantage of that “fresh” state of recall.
Now that you know how to use Anki, here’s my last advice for you:
Just start! I purposely made this guide condensed only with the essentials so you can immediately start. By implementing what you learned now, you’ll figure more things out along the way.
P.S. A message to lifelong learners
In any case, I’ve created this guide mostly for students who want to start using Anki.
However, if you’re like me and you also use Anki as a tool for continuously expanding your knowledge, (not just for school or memorization!) then I’m going to share with you four underlying principles that will serve as your compass.
And there’s also that ONE thing that if violated, would break everything else.