Using Anki, the Memory Software on Steroids

You may have heard of Anki before, or maybe a software like Anki. Anki is called a spaced repetition memory platform. What that means is Anki uses proven data on how we remember to deliver training at the perfect times. Let me explain some more.

When you learn something, it is fresh in your mind, but as you don’t review it, it fades away. This picture shows the chance of recalling something you just learned over time:

As you can see, the memory fades at a pretty rapid rate. By the first day, the chance of you recalling what you just learned becomes 50%. After that the chance only goes down more. After the first month, the chance is 10%. As you can see, it is not ideal to just learn something once and not review it. You need to review within the first day if you want it to stick.

Now, if you wanted to, you could make flashcards and review the material, but that is hard and takes a lot of time. You have to write out each definition, and then you have to make piles for different levels of review (such as first review, second review, third, etc…). Eventually, you will start having too many cards to keep track of, and you won’t be able to bring the cards anywhere. So physical cards are obviously less than ideal.

This is where these spaced repetition memory platforms come in. You are able to quickly make the cards online, and you can add images and math equations easily. Additionally, the programs go ahead and figure out when you need to review the cards. So you don’t even have to keep track of when you need to review!

As you begin using these platforms, the software reviews a card when there is a 90% chance of forgetting what the card said. But don’t worry, you do not have to review every card every day. As you review a card more and more, the time between reviews gets longer.

So as you can see with each review, the forgetting time becomes flatter and flatter, so you can space out reviews more and more. All of this, Anki and other softwares figure out for you!

How Do I Use Anki?

Great question! I recommend Anki for definitions or anywhere you relate two things. For example, Anki would be great for memorizing what words mean, memorizing the birthdays of different people, or different math formulas. I do not recommend Anki for lists. If you are trying to remember a list, use the memory palace technique.

Now, there is some overlap between the memory palace technique and spaced repetition, which I do acknowledge. For example, you may want to memorize the capitals of each country, so obviously you are relating things here which would allow the use of Anki. But personally, I would use an extension of the memory palace technique called the peg system (which I will cover in a later post), so I could easily keep everything in one place. As a rule of thumb, when all the relations are very similar (like relating presidents to years born), it is best to use the memory palace technique.

Making Cards

Okay, so you know what to use Anki for. Now let’s cover how to make the best cards.

In Anki, your cards work just like normal flashcards. They have a front side and a backside. On the front you can input words, a picture, or an equation. And on the back you can do the same. Anki has a bunch of options for things like hints and other fields you can fill out, but I don’t use them. I’m an advocate of K.I.S.S. (Keep It Stupidly Simple). Yes, there is a lot of fancy things you can do with Anki, but I recommend that you just make simple flashcards.

The front is always a question about something, and the back is always the answer. For the front of my cards I always follow the exact same formats:

“In (Subject), what is the definition/meaning/significance of (term/picture/equation)?”

or “In (Subject), what is (term)?”

For example, on of my cards is: “In Economics, what is the definition of utility?”

Here’s an example of another card in my deck:

I always start with the subject, so I know which context to answer the question in. Sometimes, there may be multiple definition for one word in different subjects.

Anki Advice

When starting Anki there are a bunch of different features that you can use. For example, there is a question type called a cloze, and there are plenty of plugins you can download online. Remember what I said earlier: keep it stupidly simple. Do not even consider these things until your deck has passed at least 500 cards. If you do end up using these things too early, you will get really motivated to make a bunch of complicated cards and then stop wanting to use them.

When making Anki decks, you have the option of using more than one deck for your cards. I personally use one deck, and that is the general opinion by most Anki power-users. One deck is best because, if you are looking to know something forever, you are going to review everyday anyways. There’s no need to complicate things by making multiple decks that you need to go to so you can review.

Another useful tip I have picked up, is that you shouldn’t make cards too complicated. The more complicated a card is, the more likely you are to forget it. If you need to memorize a long definition, keep the card of the long definition in the deck, but also break up the card into smaller cards. Once you do this, you’ll review both the long definition, and the smaller components of a definition. This is also useful if you are consistently getting a definition wrong. If I am consistently getting a card wrong (even if it’s not long), I’ll break it down into simpler cards while still keeping the first card.

You always should create cards in groups of subjects too. This means that you should not create a sole biology card saying “in biology, what is the powerhouse of the cell?” Create cards to go along with that card. Add in “in biology, what is the function of the mitochondria?” and more. If you make a card alone, you are going to be much more likely to forget it. This is because, we remember things with associations the best, so if you have a bunch of cards in the same subject, then you are going to be more likely to remember it.

Additionally, try to relate information. For example, you could ask “who was Heraclitus?” and “who was Parmenides?” and that would work great. But, if you also throw in “what would have Heraclitus thought of Parmenides’s philosophy?” then you have made a relation which is going to make all the cards more memorable. This works especially well for complicated things. Don’t just ask what each component of the brain does. Also ask about how each component of the brain interacts with the other components (this also falls under the system for studying STEM that I will cover later).

Take it slow. I always try to keep my daily reviews under 100 cards, and I also try to space out cards by taking a break from adding new ones. Right now I am on a card-adding-break and I only had 11 cards today. It’s good to take these breaks just so you slow down and keep your cards manageable. There are plenty of horror stories of decks getting out of control (1000+ reviews a day). There is no limit to how big your deck can be, as long as you space out your cards.

Anki Musts

Firstly, you must review everyday. I am a bit hypocritical on this one, because some days I accidentally skip reviews, but Anki works much better when you review everyday. I always try to review in the morning. When I’m at the gym, I’ll do a couple cards in between sets, or when I am eating, I’ll crank out cards.

Next, you must read the whole question and definition when you are studying. This is key. It is really easy to glance at a definition and then immediately think of the answer, and then skip reading the answer because you’re “sure” you had it. I’m guilty of this as well. But I have noticed, Anki is the most powerful when you ensure you read everything. You cement the information much better, and you will notice that sometimes you would’ve skipped a card you did not know.

Anki Vs. Other Software

So, in this whole post, I have only talked about Anki and I alluded to other software in the beginning. I’m sure there are tons of spaced repetition softwares out there that would work great, but Anki stands out to me for several reasons.

  1. It’s free (except for mobile which is well worth the $25)
  2. It’s really easy to use
  3. It has a great community (There is an active r/Anki subreddit)
  4. It’s open source (it will always be free)

But, Anki may not be for everyone. The other option for spaced repetition software that a lot of people use is SuperMemo. Supermemo has a slightly different algorithm than Anki, but it has the same underlying principles. The biggest thing that stands out between SuperMemo and Anki is the premade sets. In Anki, there is a huge community for premade sets (and I would assume there are more premade sets for Anki), but supermemo has very professionally done premade sets.

I personally, don’t think you should use premade sets. I think they will hinder your learning. If you want to know something, but you don’t take the time to type it up, then you are off to a bad start. Additionally, I think there is a bit of a shiny-things dynamic with them. Everyone sees them and thinks “Oh boy! Look what I can learn!” and then they download five sets and burnout because they bit off more than they could chew.

Tying It All Together

Go out and try Anki! And then, don’t stop using it because if you really want to overclock your memory, you need to be using it (or some other spaced repetition software). Remember, Anki works best for definition and associations, and keep it stupidly simple!

Thanks for reading, and if you have any questions, just comment below!


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