Anki and the Magic of Spaced Repetition

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“Learning never exhausts the mind.” — Leonardo da Vinci

Anki is Japanese for ‘memorization’ as well as a multi-platform flashcard program designed around a spaced repetition algorithm.

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. Therefore, one only reviews what is necessary, saving time to make learning more efficient as well as increasing the retention of important material.

There are already several guides on the Internet that provide an overview of Anki. I’ll link to some in the final section.

The information I present below is what I have found to be the easiest, most concise way of understanding and using Anki to its fullest potential.

Familiarizing yourself with the program and perform some minor formatting should take about 30 minutes and does not have to be completed all at once.

Step I: download Anki for free.

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 an account.

You can also create a profile, which can be useful if you want to review material from different semesters or areas of focus. Otherwise, you can skip it.

Before starting 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. Name your deck as you see fit.

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 or press Command/Cntl + N to see the different Card Types.

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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 section of your card (called a ‘Cloze deletion’) in order to have that missing word or phrase serve as the ‘answer’ to the card.

See the below image for an example. The card reads, “The pineal gland secretes […]” After a series of neurons fire, I arrive at the answer (melatonin) and proceed to the next card.

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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.

To change the names of these card types, click “Manage” and then “Rename” on the appropriate card type.

See Shortcuts below for how to quickly swift between card types.

Screen Shot 2018-06-09 at 18.08.59.png

Through a bit of formatting, I can also create a Cloze card in which I am required to type out the answer.

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

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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), Creating Good Cards

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

A (Slight) Tangent

The creation of good cards is undoubtedly the single most important part to using Anki effectively. Without clear, concise cards, you’re better off wasting your time with 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 pressed for time, I’ve summarized what I think are 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 TCA cycle, for example– without giving thought to its underlying mechanisms or its relation to the larger picture.

You must first understand the broader role of TCA cycle in producing ATP from glucose before committing specific enzymes to memory.

Rule #4) Minimum Information Principle

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

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” — Leonardo da Vinci

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.

Moreover, simple items also make the scheduling of repetitions within Anki easier.

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.

In college, 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 for recovery 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 Good Cards

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

For Cloze cards, switch the card type to “2. Cloze” and then highlight the word or phrase to be deleted. Then, click the “[…]” button next to the paperclip on the toolbar or press Command/Cntl + Shift + C.

Refer to the images below:

Screen Shot 2018-06-09 at 18.18.03

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Note that I also bold vocabulary terms. This is a personal preference and serves to help those terms stand out from the card and hopefully trigger the memory.

Also note that Cards 5 and 6 in the above example can conceivably be combined into one card.

When entering 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.”

You can also delete separate words from a card as well if both cloze deletions have the same code, such as c1. For instance,

Screen Shot 2018-06-09 at 18.23.24.png

Note that a hint for each cloze deletion can be provided by including “::hint” after the deletion. In the above image, the card would display as “[structure] in the […] lobe is active during speech production.”

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 the card correctly at least twice.

A learned card then sits in the “reviewing” stage during which there will be progressively longer and longer intervals 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.

Upon answering a new card (the spacebar can be pressed in order to show the answer), buttons appear at the bottom of the screen for you to evaluate your performance.

* 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 unintentionally 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 for the Optimal Use of Anki

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

Shortcuts

  • “b” from the deck overview screen opens Browse
  • “a” from the deck overview screen opens Add (new cards)
    • command/ctrl + d to change the Deck
    • command/ctrl +  n to change the card Type
      • If you’ve also added “1,” “2,” etc. to the name of your card types, you can easily type # and then press enter to quickly switch
    • Command/ctrl + shift + c will add a Cloze deletion to the highlighted word/phrase (saves time from having to click on the button on the toolbar)
    • command/ctrl + enter to save/add the card

When reviewing a card,

keyboard

Add-Ons

  • Button Colours: 2494384865
  • Image Occlusion Enhance: 1111933094 (OPTIONAL)
  • More Overview Stats: 2116130837
  • More Overview Stats 2: 531984586
  • Frozen Fields: 516643804
  • Review Heatmaps: 1771074083

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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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.

Frozen Fields allows you to instantly copy the same content from card to card. Once a card is added, the fields that are “frozen” are copied over to the next card. This can be handy if you’re making cards with similar question stems or citing the same source.

Finally, Review Heatmaps display how frequently you review your Anki decks and the amount of cards reviewed, among a few other stats:

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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

One thought on “Anki and the Magic of Spaced Repetition

  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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