Anki and the Magic of Spaced Repetition

Usually, a magician never reveals his secrets, but I’m in a good mood today, so I don’t mind giving away the secret to my scholastic success.

One word: Anki. Japanese for ‘memorization’. It’s a multi-platform flashcard program based on the principle of spaced repetition. Instead of reviewing flashcards the conventional way by reviewing an entire deck continuously, Anki only presents cards that are on the verge of being forgotten. (The program uses a special algorithm.) Therefore, one only reviews what is necessary, saving time and increasing retention of important material.

There are already several guides on the Internet that give an overview of Anki. I’ll link to some in the final section. The information I present below is what I deem to be the easiest, most concise way of understanding and using Anki to its full potential.

Familiarizing yourself with Anki and doing some formatting should’t take more than 30 minutes. This one-time investment of your time will pay serious dividends in your future.

Download link: http://ankisrs.net/

Contents:

Part 1) Getting Started & Formatting

Upon opening Anki for the first time, you should create a profile at Ankiweb to ensure your decks are saved and can be used on other platforms (iPhone, Android, etc.). In the top right corner of the window there is a sync button with two arrows forming a circle. Once you select it, another screen will prompt you to create account.

You can also create a profile, which can be useful if you want to focus on your coursework from fall term and another from spring term. Otherwise, you can skip it.

Before beginning to create cards, we’ll first have to do some formatting to ensure that once you begin to enter information, the process is as seamless as possible.

Click the “Create Deck” button on the bottom of the screen to start. Next, click “Add” at the top of the screen to add cards to the deck. Next to “Type,” you will see a white box that reads “Basic”. Click that box and then click “Manage.”

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The main two types of cards you’ll likely be using are ‘Basic’ and ‘Cloze’. Whereas Basic cards are self-explanatory (they simply have FRONT and BACK fields, like a physical flashcard), Cloze cards include a special feature that allows you to delete a word in a sentence (called a ‘Cloze deletion’) and have that missing word or phrase serve as the ‘answer’ to the flashcard.

See the below image for an example. The card reads, “When the atria contract, the ventricles […]” Based on the type of Cloze card I created, I will either type the answer, “relax”, or recite it in my head, and then move on.

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I have renamed each of these card types to “1. Basic” and “2. Cloze” so that when I am creating cards and want to quickly switch card types, I can simply type ‘1’ or ‘2’ and then press enter to change the type.

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Note that the cards you create won’t inherently allow you to type in the answer. You must create a new card type to enable this feature. This is especially useful when learning hard-to-spell vocabulary words in foreign language.

The next few paragraphs involve a little bit of coding, but it’s nothing overly complicated :)

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Navigate back to the “Manage” screen and click “Add.” From here, select “Clone: 1. Basic” and press OK.

I suggest naming this new card type, “Basic (Type Answer)” but it’s up to your discretion.

Now return to the Add Card screen with Basic (Type Answer) selected as the card type. Select “Cards…” which allows you to change the formatting of the card type.

On the “Front Template”, insert the following below {{Front}},

{{type:Back}}

Also refer to the image below:

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I also recommend creating a ‘Type Answer’ card for Cloze, following the same procedure of first cloning ‘2. Cloze’ and then changing the formatting as such,

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Part 1 ½) Formatting for Language Learning

NOTE: if not applicable to you, skip to Part 2)

I touch more on important add-ons to Anki that enhance learning in Part 2, but one that I want to mention right now is Awesome TTS. (TTS = Text-to-speech)

To install, navigate to “Tools” on the top toolbar, hover over “Add-ons” and select “Browse & Install…”

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From here, insert its numerical code. Note that you’ll have to restart Anki for any add-ons to take effect.

Awesome TTS is used mainly for learning languages and helps users with difficult pronunciations. For instance, let’s say I’m making a Spanish flashcard for “Connection/la conexión” but I have no idea how to pronounce the word in Spanish.

Using the same process as outlined in Part 1), I’ll create another flashcard type, entitled “Basic (TTS),” and within the “Cards…” screen I’ll add an option for TTS by clicking the “Add TTS” button at the button. Thus, whenever I review the card, I will hear the correct pronunciation of the word, searing it into my memory.

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As an aside, listening to the word while you’re learning it not only ensures that you pronounce it correctly, but also increases the likelihood you’ll recognize it in conversation.

Part 2) Creating Good Cards

The creation of good cards is undoubtedly the single most important part to using Anki effectively. Without clear, concise cards, you’re better off using physical flashcards.

Dr. Piotr Wozniak, who created the algorithm that Anki uses, published a comprehensive overview of how best to construct electronic flashcards, entitled 20 Rules of Formulating Knowledge. (Dr. Wozniak is a peculiar fellow— read this Wired article to learn more.)

I highly suggest you read Wozniak’s 20 rules. It’ll take about 20-30 minutes to complete.

However, if you’re more pressed for time, I’ve summarized the most important rules– #1, 4, and 5. I also give examples of how to apply these rules below.

Rule #1) Understand First. Then Learn

Simply put, comprehension of information must precede any attempt at learning. If you are a non-Francophone, cramming a chapter of a history textbook in French is utterly futile. Surely it would be possible to memorize a few sentences, but you would know nothing of French history.

Students will commonly commit certain processes to memory–the ATP cycle, for example– without giving thought to its underlying mechanisms or its relation to the larger picture.

Rule #4) Minimum Information Principle

Make material you want to learn as simple as possible. Simpler models are easier to create, learn, and memorize.

First, simple is easier to remember. Remembering an idea is like running through a labyrinth—it’s easier when your brain knows exactly which way to go. The labyrinth in your mind is easier to navigate when the idea is simpler. Second, it is easier to schedule repetitions of simple items within Anki.

In general, the longer it takes to remember an idea, the simpler it needs to be. Answers, especially, should be as short as possible.

Rule #5) Cloze Deletion (denoted as […])

Cloze deletions are a quick and effective method of converting textbook knowledge into knowledge that can be learned via spaced repetition. As explained in Part 1), they are simply words deleted from a sentence.

Last year, I introduced a friend who was studying cognitive psychology to Anki.

This was one of her physical flashcards on Brain Plasticity:

Front: Brain Plasticity

Back:

  • Organizational flexibility- allows us to recover from injuries and other deficits
  • Children born with brain lesions, other regions will take over the functions that would have been performed in that damaged area
  • Occipital lobe is active when visually impaired people read braille
  • Neurogenesis- brain cells grow new connections allowing for plasticity in nervous system

As I hope you’ll note, this card is in direction violation of Rule #4, the Minimum Information Principle. This single card can be, and should be, broken up into at least six other cards:

Card 1)

Q: What allows us to recover from injuries and other deficits that affect the brain?

A: Organizational flexibility

Card 2)

Q: What is the adaptive significance of organizational flexibility?

A: Helps us recover from injuries and other deficits that affect the brain.

Card 3)

Q: The […] lobe is active when visually impaired people read braille

A: Occipital

Card 4)

Q: What is the core principle of brain plasticity?

A: Other regions take over functions that would’ve been performed by lesioned area

Card 5)

Q: […] is the process in which brain cells grow new connections

A: Neurogenesis

Card 6)

Q: Neurogenesis is the process in which […] grow new connections

A: Brain cells

As Dr. Wozniak put it best,

“We want a minimum amount of information to be retrieved from memory in a single repetition! We want answer to be as short as imaginably possible!

Creating Basic cards is pretty straightforward—simply type into the Front and Back fields and press “Add.”

For Cloze cards, you will want to highlight the word you want to be deleted and then click on the […] button next to the paperclip on the toolbar (see quick shortcuts in Part 4). Refer to the images below:

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Note that I also bolded vocabulary terms. For me, this helps them stand out from the card and trigger the memory.

Also note that Cards 5 and 6 can be combined into one card. When entering in each of these Cloze deletions, you would select ‘Neurogenesis’ and ‘brain cells’ and ensure they are given different C# numbers. Such as, C1 and C2.

Finally, upon creating decks, you have the option to create ‘stacked’ decks when the subject matter can be separated into different topics or chapter. I did this sophomore year with my Spanish course.

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Note that with a large amount of stacked decks, Anki will begin to run more slowly. A workaround to stacked decks are tags. For instance, I would tag all of the vocab words from Chapter 8, “Capítulo 8” instead of creating its own specific deck.

As you’ll learn in Part 3), you can also study specific tags within a deck if they’re more pertinent at a certain time.

Part 3) Studying

Clicking on one of the decks will bring up an overview of its contents.

Clicking “Study Now” will begin your study session. (Note: this session will only include the cards that Anki determines necessary to study. In the photo, I will be reviewing 52 cards- 20 new cards and 32 cards I have already learned and am now reviewing.)

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In the learning stage, new cards are presented several times until Anki believes you have learned it—by default this is when you answer it correctly at least twice.

A learned card will sit in the reviewing stage in which Anki begins leaving longer and longer gaps of time between reviews. If at any point you get the wrong answer (called a ‘lapse’), a card then reverts to “learning” stage again. While this may feel discouraging, don’t kid yourself; if you don’t know an answer, you’re better off reviewing the card from the start than pretending you knew the answer all along.

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Upon answering a new card (the spacebar can be pressed in order to show the answer), ‘ease’ buttons will present themselves at the bottom of the screen.

* Again – Click this if you got it wrong (or press 1)

Good – Click this if you got it right, but it took some effort (or press 2)

Easy – Click this if you got it right and it was easy (or press 3)

Next to creating effective cards, selecting the right level of difficulty is the second-most crucial part in using Anki. The ease you select will determine the interval in which the card is next shown to you. (These intervals can be seen right above the buttons, with ‘m’ referring to minutes, ‘d’ referring to days, and later, ‘mo’ referring to months.)

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I highly recommend NOT studying cards on the same day you create them. Because you just reviewed the material, you will be far more inclined to hit ‘easy’ when reviewing, which may decrease your long-term retention of that material.

Beyond the default study session, there is also a Custom Study feature, which can be found at the bottom of the Deck screen.

The most useful feature I’ve found is the ‘cram mode’, which is located under ‘Study by card state or tag’. As the image below shows, the cram mode will show all cards in the deck in random order. I find this especially helpful right before exams.

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Part 4) Tips & Tricks- the Optimal Use of Anki

As I alluded to above, there are a plethora of add-ons that greatly enhance the experience of Anki.

I recommend several add-ons that enhance the experience of Anki

  • Button Colours: 2494384865
  • Image Occlusion 2: 282798835 (OPTIONAL)
  • More Overview Stats: 2116130837
  • More Overview Stats 2: 531984586

To install, navigate to “Tools” on the top toolbar, hover over “Add-ons” and select “Browse & Install…”

From here, insert the numerical codes one by one. Note that Anki must be restarted for add-ons to take effect.

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Button Colours adds fun colors to the ‘ease’ buttons (explained in Part 3), as seen at the bottom of this photo,

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Image Occlusion is useful when memorizing diagrams, such as the one below, which points out the difference between anterior and posterior.

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Finally, Overview Stats provides you with more information about a deck before you begin studying it.

The screen shows how many new cards will be included in your study session and how many cards will be reviewed (they have already been seen by you).

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‘Mature’ cards refer to cards that haven’t been seen in the past 21 days while ‘Young’ cards refer to cards that have been seen more recently.

‘Suspended’ cards refer to cards that have similar content to what was just reviewed. This feature makes each study session less redundant.

For instance, if I make flashcards for Connection/la conexión and la conexión/connection, a study session will only show the former and reserve the latter for another session.

Now, I want to touch on what will make Anki the fastest to use.

Shortcuts:

When entering cards, there are several shortcuts that can used to ensure you’re not wasting precious time clicking here and there.

Command + n = change card type (if you changed the names of the card types to include numbers, you can click ‘1’ or ‘2’, then ‘enter’ and the card type is changed within two seconds)

Command + shift + c = Cloze deletion (the word/phrase must be highlighted; saves time from having to click on the button on the toolbar)

Command + enter = add card

Part 5) Closing

Anki and the principle of spaced repetition will only work if you commit to studying every single day. If you take off a few days, a mistake I have made in the past, you will end up having to sift through hundreds of cards in one sitting. Not fun.

Studying every day, meanwhile, will ensure you only deal with a manageable amount of cards. During my first ten weeks with Anki, I spent an average of 20 minutes a day studying. That’s all it has taken for Anki to be effective. 20 minutes a day. Provided that your cards are ‘simple’ enough, it should take you about 15 minutes to study 100 cards.

Rest assured that taking off a single day won’t significantly increase your workload, though the next day you review, there will certainly be more cards to study.

 

Other Guides:

Happy Learning!

Fred

1 Comment

  1. I’m trying to figure out how I missed this truly very informative blog. Came following link from recent ‘Building a …’ blog. So much to learn, so much to know. Thank you.

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