How Flashcards Succeed: Solutions on Using Anki for Serious Study

An epic list of Anki solutions for the problems that plague the serious flashcard user. (Or, the long-awaited followup to How Flashcards Fail: Confessions of a Tired Memory Guy.)

Awhile back, I wrote an epic post called How Flashcards Fail: Confessions of a Tired Memory Guy. I had to get pretty frustrated and discouraged to write that post, and when I did, I went all in. I dove deep into all the ways that Anki can backfire when you're using it for thousands of flashcards.

Then something awesome happened.

People commented. With solutions.

Seriously, I got some of the most amazing comments on this post I've ever seen. Many of them deserved to be articles in their own right.

So I've taken my favorite suggestions from these comments, and organized them here for your reading pleasure. I've only taken selections, and I've added paragraph breaks here and there, but otherwise, I've let these awesome people speak for themselves.

I haven't tried all of these myself yet, but I didn't want you to have to wait. Take a look, and I'd love if you left a comment to share what you think.

In this Epic Solution List, You'll Find...

Tweakng Anki

Limit new cards

Bill, I too had problems with clustering, until I found the cure. The trick is to limit the number of new cards that you are seeing to a fairly low number each day. eg. 20. This allows you to build up a back log of new cards and not have to worry about "lumps" nearly as much.

– Anonymous

A "Load Balancer" Plugin for Anki!

In case someone else finds this post, here a few tips, because all the points discussed in the post are real. There is no point in pretending these issues don't exist, but there are also ways around them.

First, there is a "load balancer" plugin for Anki. This will take care of the peak days with many reviews and spread the reviews out a little bit. Yes, these demoralizing mammoth days are really a thing if the past once you've used this for a while. Unfortunately it doesn't take care of existing peaks, but you could simply "skip" a day by choosing "hard" on all the reviews for a day (without looking at them). It may feel like cheating, but there is more gained than dropping out of Anki.

– Claire Kellogg

Note: Claire didn't leave a link, but she probably meant this load balancer addon. I haven't tried it yet, but this would be a huge help to reduce those huge reviews. Anyone else tried this?

Dealing with Leeches (cards you keep getting wrong)

Put the answer on the question side

Hi. As a heavy Anki user (almost 300,000 reviews so far), I've faced the same problems as you. When we face a difficult card and try to remember the answer, we begin to travel along the well-established neural pathways that lead us to the wrong answer or to nowhere, and this attempt to remember strengthen those incorrect paths, creating a vicious circle of error.

Here's what I do with leeches now: I put a mnemonic on the question side. If even that doesn't work, I put the answer on the question side.

At that point I'm obviously not testing myself, but I realized that testing myself isn't the goal. Every time I see that now-easy card, I'm reviewing it anyway. It will probably end up forming a memory. If it's truly useful, I'll see it in the real world and will later associate it with that encounter.

– AnotherAnkiAddict

Take as long as you need

I guess I'm a little bit too late for the party but another tip, aside from the obvious one of rewriting the card, would be to remove the time limit and take as much time as necessary to answer correctly. It's better to take longer and answer it right than to answer it wrong and get the wrong circuitry reinforced inside your brain.

And also, practice only with full concentration. If you're the kind of person who answers flashcards while walking or waiting for the bus, then at least skip this kind of card when you find yourself on such environments.

– Ruan

Rework the card

The point of the cards, as you said in the article, is to get them right. So, I figure, why not do whatever I can to help myself get them right?

This is a drastically different approach to study from when I was a teenager in high school and expected myself to be able to be able to produce extraordinary answers based on minimalist questions. Anki and other SRS software is quite flexible about editing cards later and about how much info can be displayed on a card.

If I find a card difficult, I can add gobs of more content to the question side and usually I'll find that it has become much easier. If a card takes too long to answer, I'll rework it to call for a shorter, more instantaneous response.

In addition to the extra hints, I think the time spent reworking the card helps retain it: If we spend fifteen minutes with a dictionary or looking up usage examples online, consider what we find, and select some of that information to place on out reworked cards, we're resorting those missing components–active, critical thinking and networking–to our flashcard study experience.

– AJ

Set leeches aside to fix later

In regards to difficult cards and leaches, I create a separate deck called "FIX THESE". So whenever I am reviewing and do not want to disrupt my flow I simply move obstinate cards into this deck and deal with them later. It can be done pretty quickly on anki droid as well.

Rewording or reorganizing the card differently is usually enough to prevent future leaching.

– Justin

And don't be afraid to delete the card

… take leeches seriously. At a minimum, you should reformulate the card. Often I delete the card. Yes, I wanted to remember this after learning what it is, but given the effort it takes, I often choose not to remember this. This is quite liberating. (And incidentally also what makes Anki different from school exams: I can choose what I want to remember, I can choose to delete an item.

– Claire Kellogg

Finding Context

Use a card to remind you to think

For decks with higher level concepts like Algorithms or Game theory every time I review a card I explain it and I let me my mind linger and come up with associations. It's rare the card where at least 1 or 2 associations new associations don't pop in my mind including questions. Besides that it's also usually the case that when I try to explain a concept I find little nuances or questions that I then research. And that builds new associations too.

This requires time, of course, that's why I find it important to prune knowledge aggressively. I am generally eager to add new knowledge and overestimate its value. Boredom is actually a godsend for me.

– Juan Alonso

Note: I love this idea, and I explore a similar approach in "Reviewing as Thinking".

Use Anki to Review a Larger Web of Knowledge

What i am trying recently, is to keep the information suited for pure memorization in ANKI as individual cards, but then to make longer notes into a powerpoint presentation document, and then link an ANKI card to that note.

So when it comes up, you use the link, review the whole card and emmerse yourself in that note, then exit and rate how well you recalled it. This way atomized information can be atomized. And deeper concepts can stay deeper and connected. And all are reviewed with spaced repetition.

– Neil

Note: I love this idea too, but I'd probably use mind maps. I've used a similar approach to schedule reviews of long chunks of text.

Use Anki to Practice

Atomizing Random Knowledge and Flash Cards Kill Clustering

I see this criticism of Anki a lot. I think the problem with it is that it sets up a false dichotomy. For example, people will talk about how their friend went to Mexico for a year and learned Spanish without ever using a flash card. Actually, the BEST way to learn Spanish is to study flash cards AND practice talking to native speakers, listening to Spanish podcasts, reading Spanish books–using Spanish. They are complementary systems. So don't only depend on Anki, and don't over do it.

As you have said, it is easy to get sucked into the game, and to start thinking of your Anki numbers as your knowledge level. That is because Anki is quantifiable, and having a conversation is not. So you need to schedule the other knowledge synthesizing methods, and make sure they happen. For example, I use Anki for practicing musical knowledge: chords, scales arpeggios. I schedule 15 minutes for Anki, and I schedule 15 minutes for drawing on that knowledge to create musically interesting ideas–jamming.

…Anki will never be perfect, but no study method is, and it was never meant to be a "complete" learning system.

– Jon

Use Separate Sub-Decks to Keep Cards in Context

… you don't need tags to review similar items, but separate sub-decks. If you create separate decks for categories of words, and put move (drag) them into one, Anki will do the reviews in order/by category. It took me a bit of experimenting which sub-decks are pertinent (it also depends on the number of cards you typically review). I certainly wouldn't want to mix my say Spanish and Chemistry reviews.

– Claire Kellogg

Choose What to Learn

Humans are terrible at predicting what knowledge they will need to know.

The truth is, even in technical professions– a doctor for example, probably should only remember about 1% of what they learned in medical school, 0% in college, and 0% of high school….

My current theory is to read widely - highlight 1% of that reading -- 1% of those highlights I put in a mindmap using then 1% of that material (maybe less) goes into Anki.


Note: I love how this method uses the 80/20 rule to winnow down your potential cards to the best stuff, before you put it into Anki and start reviewing.

The Right Mindset

Flash Cards as Video Games

I think I just have a different attitude about this. I am comforted by the fact that right or wrong don't matter. I appreciate Anki telling me that I no longer know something I thought I had learned. That is the whole point. I think that perhaps the reason that you feel you are "losing" the game is that you are "punished" with additional study time when you miss a lot of cards. Limiting new cards, time boxing, addressing leaches, and creating efficient cards to begin with will make it easier to appreciate failed cards.

– Jon

Note: I love this idea of actually being "comforted" to know what you don't know.

If you want more on changing our whole mindset of how we approach review, check out this third article for advanced Anki learners: "Reviewing as Thinking."

What about you?

But maybe you've already found the perfect solution for your Anki woes. Wasn't all that awesome? So much great advice here!

So what about you? Have you tried any of these tips yourself? Are you going to? Leave a comment and let us know what's working or not working for you. Share your Anki tip that wasn't on this list. I'd love to hear it!