Anki is one of those apps that has quite a steep learning curve, but once you’ve got it figured out, you wonder how you managed to memorise anything without it. Fortunately for you, I’ve dealt with the steep learning curve (with the help of a few good YouTube videos and two years of experience), so you can get stuck into it with as little friction as possible. This is a quick guide of how to get started with the basic features of Anki so you can use it this academic year.
Why Anki is Key
I raved about it in my anatomy series as well but let me summarise some of the reasons Anki has been so useful:
- It uses active recall – Being able to draw facts from memory is key to remembering them better in the future. Essentially, it’s fantastic for consolidating the long-term memory and is more useful than passive ways of learning like note taking and making mind-maps. This does, however, mean that it takes a lot of effort on your part to actively try and conjure up answers for every question, but it is so much more efficient in the long run.
- It uses spaced repetition – When you learn anything new it basically decays from your memory so it’s harder to remember. This is depicted by the forgetting curve, first hypothesised by Herman Ebbinghaus in 1885. When you interrupt the forgetting curve by actively recalling the information at periodic intervals after learning, you remember more of the information for longer periods of time. Anki does all the calculations for this (you can make edits to the algorithm too) so all you need to do is let Anki know how hard you found it to recall for every flashcard you do.
The way Anki uses spaced repetition is by offering you three or four different options once you’ve flipped a card: again, hard, good, or easy. When you mark something as ‘again’ or ‘hard’, the algorithm works to make you see it again quicker. When you mark it as ‘good’, it uses the specific ‘good’ interval that’s longer than the again/hard intervals. When you mark it as ‘easy’, it will show it to you in a longer time than it shows any of the other cards because you’ve told Anki you already know that well.
Before I delve deeper into how to really use Anki, I should point out that it should only really be used for memorising things you’ve already understood. I wouldn’t suggest you make flashcards about something you don’t yet understand because memorising without initial understanding is a recipe for disaster.
Principles to Remember While You Make New Flashcards
Ideally, they should be as succinct as possible. I know some people try to stick to word limits, but I think this can be a bit restrictive, and I just stick to having one concept or fact being memorised. I would say this can be flouted in those cases where you’re trying to remember a mnemonic which is obviously giving you a lot more information, but I would count a mnemonic as an individual concept so I’d keep it to one card.
When you make flashcards, try and make them with your future self in mind. Your future self is not going to know what ‘what is the anatomy of the lungs?’ is actually referring to so spare yourself the torture of trying to come up with a tentative answer and instead, make detailed cards where the questions are specific.
Earlier is better if you’re wondering when to start making them, but if you’ve started a new course for the first time, then hold off for a few months while you find your bearings. The reason is that when you’ve started something new, you might make an excess of flashcards on fundamental concepts that may just become ingrained into your mind already. Personally, I don’t mind the odd easy flashcard slipping through because it feels like an easy win while you’re reviewing, but it defeats the purpose of learning if you’re constantly making flashcards on things you already know.
Some of the Different Flashcard Types Available
These are your standard flashcards with a front and back. Some use cases for these would be having a word on one side with the definition on the other or having a question on one side with the answer on the other.
These are ‘fill-in-the-blank’ flashcards where you’re testing your knowledge of the blank that is supposed to be in the sentence. You can also put separate words so they disappear at the same time so, for example, it doesn’t give the answer away due to context of the sentence, and they would be revealed at the same time when you flip the card.
Cloze cards would probably be ideal to do from lecture slides if your exam questions are set by lecturers because you can copy and paste sentences straight from your notes into Anki, and use ctrl+shift+c to cloze them.
There’s also an ‘extra’ section that appears when you flip the card and this is where you can put contextual information relating to the fact of the card so you can be reminded of that.
One slight con of cloze cards is that you can start to memorise the placement and wording of cloze cards so you’re not actually recalling them from knowledge, but more from implicit/automatic memory.
These types of cards are very useful for picture-heavy content, especially anatomy, I’ve noticed in my experience. Although this is an add-on that you download from AnkiWeb, it’s such a classic and popular one that a lot of people use.
This add-on allows you to occlude parts of images which will then be tested. I use this for labelled diagrams, and often occlude the labels so I can test myself on them. There are two different options you get when you’re making multiple occlusions on the same image:
- Hide all, guess one – This will keep all the occlusions you’ve made on your image hidden so for example, you can’t figure a label out using context
- Hide one, guess one – This hides one label at a time on your image
I’ve found this add-on to be so intuitive and useful, especially when I was doing neuroanatomy and often occluded bony landmarks on different parts of the skull.
Principles to Remember When You Go Through Flashcards
The easy and hard options are easy to abuse while you’re reviewing; try not to abuse them. I try not to use easy at all because I’d rather see it more and quickly review it as ‘good’ as opposed to not see it for months on end. I’m more lenient on myself with the ‘hard’ option because if something isn’t sticking, I want to see it way more often.
Use the keyboard shortcuts to speed up your Anki experience. I know at my peak, I was getting 200/300 reviews a day, which is so tame compared to hardcore users who have been using it on a much more regular basis than I’ve ever done. Regardless, you can end up having a lot of reviewing to do, so you can try some of these keyboard shortcuts:
- Space bar (initially) – flip card
- 1 – again
- 2 – hard
- 3 – good
- 4 – easy
- Ctrl+enter – add new card
It’s also extremely important to edit your cards as you go along. This can look like adding more information in or clarifying things when they make more sense to you, or even adding images that can serve to help your memory.
But the most important thing you need to remember about Anki: go through your flashcards every single day. Spaced repetition is designed to work as long as you do it every day and you can almost guarantee that that information will be stored very securely in your long-term memory when you do it right. There’s no two ways about it, get those reviews done!
I am no expert in the nuanced terminology and ways in which the Anki algorithm works.
I am a simple girl; I see someone else’s recommended settings and I copy.
But that’s not to say you shouldn’t or can’t look into it! I recommend AnKing’s YouTube video on settings that covers everything well, but there are also a lot of other resources out there too. Reddit is a great place to start, as well as the actual Anki manual which has a chapter on deck options
I’ve attached the options that I’ve been using below, which I found on Reddit.
I highly recommend using Anki because I’ve noticed such a difference in my knowledge base from using it for anatomy for the past two years. I think anatomy was always my least stressful OSCE station to prepare because I would already be doing my Anki cards day in day out after having made them while learning the content (check out my post about this here). It’s truly life changing.
That’s it, that’s the basics of Anki! Right in time for the new academic year.
I hope you’ve been keeping well and staying safe as the world tries to get up on its feet again. Let me know if you’ve used Anki before and what you think about it, I’d love to hear all about your experiences.