How to Use Anki: Anki Tutorial for Beginners (Updated 2020)

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

Well, you don’t have to imagine it anymore. There’s Anki.

Anki’s great and delivers the promises I stated above, but there’s one problem:

I heavily struggled to find a practical guide on the internet.

I googled for hours, but ended up only seeing some overcomplicated “beginner” guides that left me confused more than ever—and even the Anki manual itself is overkill.

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 need only a few important things to start using Anki effectively right off the bat.

If you’re not a beginner, though, you can check out my more advanced guide to Anki.

Or you can choose to download my free Anki book for Beginners: Anki 101 anytime after you finish reading this.

So let’s start cutting through your learning curve so you can start using Anki yourself to learn faster and more efficiently.

UPDATE (1/28/2020): While the images shown in the post were from Anki 2.0, the concepts and procedures remain the same in the latest versions of Anki. In other words, as long as there’s Anki, this guide is evergreen.

UPDATE: Thank you, r/medicalschoolanki community for reading!

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?

Based on my experience, along with thousands of Language learners, Medical Students, and Doctors, Anki works amazingly great.

Anki combines the Leitner system for initial learning, Active Recall and Spaced repetition for long-term memorization.

By using Anki, I was able to cut my review time to 2 HOURS total per day.

And I was reviewing for my Engineering Board Exams back then—which meant reviewing ALL fundamental subjects in College, aka Learning 1 to 2 Chapters per day + Answering a Problem set a day.

All I did was to create effective cards and review every day.

It’s not going to be a lot per day, because not EVERY card will show every day. You only study what you’re about to forget. It’s spaced repetition, after all.

You only review those that need attention–now that’s efficient.

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.)

Downloading Anki

To download Anki on your computer, head over to AnkiWeb and download Anki.

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 phasing out Anki 2.0, I now recommend always 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.

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. Number 4 in the picture for your convenience.

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.

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 click on “Add Tags” button (3)

I don’t prefer this method because it’s rather easy to mess this up and add tags to other cards when you already have a large collection of cards.

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 and then press Ctrl + Shift + C. That’s the shortcut for a Cloze deletion.

Shortcut for Cloze Deletion: Ctrl + Shift + C

This should be the outcome:

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.

Bonus tip: Add specific hints that make the question EVEN MORE specific to the answer. Take a look at what I did to my previous example.

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.

Link here: https://ankiweb.net/account/register

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:

However, due to Anki’s default intervals and its algorithm, I recommend that you be more conservative when choosing the “Easy” option.

Especially once the card has graduated, pressing Easy will make the card show less often and pressing Hard will make it show more often.

This effect is caused by a card’s Ease Factor, a multiplier that’s attached to a graduated card which determines the next intervals depending on the answer buttons you choose.

I usually fix this by changing the Starting Ease(New Cards Tab) to 130% and the New Interval (Lapses Tab) to around 65%.

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.

BONUS TIP: Take advantage of downtime in your day and turn them into Anki review sessions. Reviewing 10-20 cards every now and then adds up to your total–leaving you with fewer cards to study during your allotted study time.

Custom Study

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.

(Optional) Get Your Free Book: Make Anki REALLY Easy and Effective

This is the only book that contains the TOP 20% of the information beginners should learn before they start using Anki.

You don’t need to use 450 add-ons at the same time.

There are only THREE add-ons you need. And only 1 is an absolute must.

You don’t have to worry about the field and note types.

Creating ‘High-Yield’ questions is what’s worth your time–not fancy formatting.

You don’t have to overthink the settings.

‘Done-for-you’ settings is where it’s at. As a bonus, you learn by example.

You don’t need to learn ALL 20 rules of formulating knowledge.

I summarized them into five.

And the best benefit is that you don’t need to study that gigantic block of text called the Anki manual.

So, if you’re ready to hack down your learning curve, and effortlessly use Anki, you can get my book, Anki 101: The Fundamentals by clicking here. It’s totally optional. And you can unsubscribe from my mailing list if you don’t want to receive updates. No hard feelings.

But I’ll argue that you’ll save months of frustration (like I went through, ugh) after reading this book.

Bottom Line

Now that you know how to use Anki, here’s my last advice for you:

Just start! Creating truly effective cards require skill. Skills can be developed through practice.

Learn along the way, and see the results for yourself. Otherwise, take your Anki game to the next level by reading my other post, or by checking out my book.


P.S. If you have any questions, feel free to check in the comments–I might have answered your question already. Otherwise, leave a comment, or just tell us what you think!

You can share this post, if you want:

Categories Anki

23 thoughts on “How to Use Anki: Anki Tutorial for Beginners (Updated 2020)”

    • Hey Vince, thanks for reading.

      Yes, I do. Actually, I was thinking about sharing them here publicly, but now I decided to not give them away because similar to notes, flashcards use my mental representations of facts and concepts.

      Also, there are some personal exceptions that I make for my cards that may make people more confused.

      I have a more advanced guide for Anki, though, feel free to check it out.

  1. This is amazing! Straight and clear instructions!
    I’m confident enough to say that after 3 days of reading this, I’m able to make effective cards

  2. Thank you so much! It’s a very complete and balanced introduction to Anki, I used it for a while and now needed a refresh, which is what I’ve found here.

  3. Thanks for the article, it gives me a clear picture of how to start using Anki. But there is still one thing I would like to ask; if you are breaking up a big question into a few small questions (like what you did for Laws for motion), do you use tags to link them or just leave them as ‘separated’ questions?

    • Hey, I appreciate the comment.

      I don’t actually link to them, but in my mind, I do know they’re connected. This allows you to treat multiple pieces of information as part of your whole knowledge base rather than a part of a category (e.g. “Laws of motion”).

      Although, it’s true that flashcard learning is a bit disconnected. I had a hard time back then explaining information in a logical manner, that’s why I solved this problem in my book anki 102 but basically, the key is to just test yourself in explaining them with the help of the typical “essay questions”, you get what I mean?

      Cheers,

      – Al

  4. Hi there, I need to learn a language for school and so am trying anki. My question is which settings are best for me? In your book the time periods seem like quite a long time when i’m not at uni with thousands upon thousands of cards so which settings would you suggest>

      • Absolutely. Add visuals as much as you can, but if that’s not possible, just add context instead.

        Re: settings, my recommended intervals are already low for me so if your concern is having too many cards, then you should aim for an even longer interval. But that’s just my speculation–I don’t have much experience learning a foreign language using Anki.

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