Over the last few years, Anki has become a staple for us when learning with flashcards. Usually, we annotate our readings in Polar, then auto-convert those annotations into flashcards.
The biggest reason I love using Anki is that it simplifies learning by reminding me when to repeat flashcards.
Polar supports both textbooks and webpages, which made it a key part of our workflow for both schoolwork and personal learning.
Below, we are summarizing our key learnings for Anki. For most part, these tips also work for other spaced repetition platforms, like Quizlet or Supermemo.
A tool is only as useful as we make it for us, so make sure you understand how spaced reptition works.
The key is to why repeated review is crucial. That will avoid reverting back to the standard approach - wait until a week before the exam and freak out.
Creating flashcards takes time which it shouldn’t have to. That’s why we use Polar to speed things up. Polar allows you to auto-convert annotations into flashcards. They can easily be synced with Anki for studying
In addition, Polar supports incremental reading and reading progress tracking. That’s crucial to manage multiple readings and continue where you left off.
You should also understand why active recall is so important. Active recall is a principle of efficient learning. It claims the need to actively stimulate memory during the learning process. It contrasts with passive review, in which the learning material is processed passively (e.g. by reading, watching, etc.). For example, reading a text about George Washington, with no further action, is a passive review. Answering the question “Who was the first US President?”, is active recall. Essentially you want everything to be a question and you want to have to think of the answer. It’s this thinking process which allows your brain to map weights to specific neurons and actually retain information. Don’t give leading questions or hints to the answer. If you don’t know the questions that’s fine. Just mark that on the card so it’s brought up again.
You couldn’t sit down at the end of the month and brush your teeth for 2-3 hours to make up for not brushing would you? The same is true for using spaced repetition - it should be a daily process of 15 - 60 min. Do it while you’re commuting. Or bored. Or even worse - waiting in line at the DMV.
You should try to target 85-90% difficulty for your cards. If you go into Anki stats you can see the difficulty level for your recent usage. Too easy and you’re probably reviewing too often (and wasting time). Too hard and you’re not learning anything because you don’t have the understanding. So, you want it to be difficult but not too difficult. Unfortunately Anki doesn’t tune itself so you have to tune Anki directly. You can adjust this in the per-deck settings by changing the ease factors.
Don’t give up on cards after you’ve finished a class or other milestone. The cool thing about spaced repetition is that you can remember the material forever. If you paid money to learn Calculus you might as well keep it. Once you’ve learned it using spaced repetition is mostly about maintenance. Since you know the material the scheduling will get farther and farther in the future and there won’t be such a massive burden.
You should prefer to use question and answer cards. These are in the form of Q: What is the capital of California? A: Sacramento This would be as opposed to cloze deletion cards like: [Sacramento] is the capital of California. In the above the ‘Sacramento’ string is hidden. Cloze deletion cards might seem easy but they often give away context clues which weakens the entire point of spaced repetition.
There’s one main exception for cloze deletion cards - languages (especially in med school) Cloze can be good to help with grammar and sentence structure. They should NOT replace Q/A cards though. For a given word you should have the definition and the forward and reverse translation.
Another powerful use case of flashcards is image occlusion, especially in med school. Image occlusion allows you practice identifying parts of an image by hiding its description. After all, it would be quite useful to actually be able to identify the spleen during surgery instead of just knowing facts about it.
If you’re struggling to remember cards because it seems like random facts, add more cards around the topic.
For example, if you want to know who was the first vice president of the US ( John Adams), add a card about who was the second president (surprise surprise - John Adams again). Now it’s much easier to get a better understanding of Adam’s career, not just the random fact that he was the first Vice President.
If you were driving to work and you saw a naked man riding a horse on the side of the road would you need to remember it? Would you have to write it down? No. It would burn in your mind. You’d remember this image for a decade. Do this for your Anki cards you’re trying to remember. Below is an example of a ‘fun’ mnemonic device. I’m sure you have all seen more absurd and ridiculous ones, which we’ll abstain from showing here for now…
Don’t create nonsense cards. Ask yourself if the card will actually help you. Remember that spaced repetition is an efficient scheduler so going from 5k to 10k cards isn’t 2x more work. It is initially but quickly your spacings increase and you’re going to just be reviewing a few cards per day again. However, by only keeping important cards in there this helps you avoid card burnout. Reason #1 why people stop using spaced repetition is that the ‘why’ is not there. The why is because they’re valuable!
Do not include entire speeches to remember. Instead. Instead, use overlapping sentences. For example, if you want to remember the following: Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. Break it out into three cards: Q: Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. A: Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. – Q: Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. A: We are met on a great battle-field of that war. – Q: We are met on a great battle-field of that war. A: We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. This will help you connect the parts without having to choke on a massive card with the entire speech.
Create an ‘extra’ field with your cards so that you can add notes and pictures so that when you fail to remember you can get back to the original context. We’ll often put the book information. The actual text of where I saw the card, etc. In fact, one of the Polar features we’re working on is to add this directly so when you create a flashcard in Polar it automatically generates a card with the context.
Attach ‘extra’ stories to the material but or use imagery to remember the material. We’ve found that etymology works VERY well for learning languages. For example. The German word for sea is Meer which is related to the English word marine and mare (Spanish / Italian for sea). See, now you’re already speaking three languages ;)
This is one of our favorite hacks. Most people have trouble matching faces and names. I used to have an excel file with names and any additional information where I met them. Actually adding the picture makes it 10x more powerful
Make sure you’re using Anki and not AnkiApp
You can read about our research into it here. Anki is the popular open-source platform used by many. AnkiApp is a Chinese rip-off riding the wave of Anki’s popularity
These are our Anki tips from years of using it hands-on. Use the above tips to keep moving forward with spaced repetition. Use a tool like Polar to easily create flashcards and sync them to Anki. Spaced repetition is tremendously powerful. However, it won’t replace the work of actually understanding the material. This is still your job. Finally, make sure you’re also using the right Anki plugins and that you’re using it to full effect. You can read more about the most popular Anki add-ons here.