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Make Learning a Game - A Beginner's Guide to Anki

11 min read

Research proves that standard studying practices like lectures, re-reading, highlighting are ineffective. They're boring and frustrates students daily.

So what does work?

What if there's a memory card game that allows you to remember anything?

I've been playing it for three years since I entered medical school. By playing this game, I can learn more in less time!

It's a flashcard app called Anki.

What is Anki?

Anki is a flashcard app utilising spaced repetition and active recall to help you learn. It's an efficient way of studying and can help you decrease the time spent studying or increase your learning.

When you see a flashcard on Anki, you answer the question on the flashcard, look at the answer and rate your answer as ‘Easy’, ‘Good’, ‘Hard’ or ‘Again’.

Anki's algorithm makes you see the harder cards more often and the easier cards less, allowing you to focus more on your weaker topics.

What is 'spaced repetition'?

When you learn something new, you'll tend to forget it unless you repeat this information. The Forgetting Curve explains this phenomenon.

By repeating the information over a spaced period, you will be able to keep the information longer.

Anki schedules these repetitions for you, so you can input a bunch of facts you want to remember. It'll manage the intervals based on how well you can recall the information.

Getting Started with Anki

1. Download Anki

First, download Anki on your computer. Head over to AnkiWeb and download the latest version of Anki.

You can also download the mobile app on the App Store (AnkiMobile) and Google Play Store (AnkiDroid)

For the tutorial, I'll be explaining how to use Anki with the desktop app.  You need to use the mobile app as a companion to the desktop app; it's not a full replacement. More on this later.

2. Navigate through Anki

Once you've installed Anki, you'll see the default screen. You'll see a deck named ‘Default’. You can rename it or create another deck.

To create a new deck, click the "Create Deck" button. Input your deck name. Let's set up the deck name as a subject I'm studying.

If you're studying for an exam, you should keep all the cards relevant to it in a single deck. This way, you’ll be reviewing different topics at once, a technique called interleaving. Interleaving is a useful study technique and allows you to create connections and associations faster. In exams, the arrangements of questions are random and mixed. Practising interleaving will help you to answer exam questions better.

You can create subdecks by typing the name as ParentDeck::ChildDeck, or you can also drag the deck under the parent deck.

3. Adding Cards

To add a flashcard, click the Add button at the top part of your window. You can use the keyboard shortcut A to add a flashcard.

You should see the Add window, and there are a few fields for you to input information (Type, Deck, Front and Back, and Tags).

First, select your deck. Type your questions in the ‘Front’ field and type out the answers in the ‘Back’ field.

To make a flashcard, click on ‘Add’ or use the shortcut Ctrl+Enter.

This card is a ‘Basic’ card type, and it's a classic flashcard.

We'll go through the other types of cards you can make later.

You can use tags to make it easier to organise and search your cards. Tags also allow you to do a ‘Custom Study’, where you can learn cards with certain tags only. I like to tag my cards with the topics I'm learning to pull out these cards at ease.

To add tags, fill in the Tags field. You can jump to this field with the shortcut Ctrl + Shift + T. You can create hierarchy in your tags by using ‘::’, though you need to install an addon first. When tagging, don’t space your tags as it considers them as two tags. Heart_Failure creates one tag, while Heart Failure creates two tags.

You can also tag your cards by using the Browser. Find the cards, fill in the tags field, click on the card, and use Ctrl + Shift + A.

Back to the default screen, you'll notice the two numbers next to your decks, called ‘Due’ and ‘New’. ‘Due’ cards are cards you've studied before and are due today, and ‘New’ cards are cards you've yet to learn.

4. Browse

To browse the cards in your collection, click "Browse" or use the keyboard shortcut "B". Here, you can find your cards by searching or by decks and tags.

5. Stats

You can look at your statistics by clicking "Stats" or using the keyboard shortcut "T". It shows how many cards you've studied and other statistics.

6. Sync

You can synchronise your cards across your devices by clicking 'Sync' or using the keyboard shortcut Y.

You'll need an AnkiWeb account to sync. Head over to Anki and register for an account. It's free.

After creating an account, go to your preferences. Click on Tools > Preferences or use the shortcut Ctrl + P. Fill in your AnkiWeb details. Do the same for your mobile apps, and your collections across your devices are in sync.

Sync conflicts might occur now and then. If you see one, you want to click on 'Upload to AnkiWeb' to upload your collection to the cloud. Click on 'Download to AnkiWeb' to download it to your device. I'll upload when I'm on my laptop because I usually make new cards on my laptop. I'll download it when I'm on my phone because I want to review my content on my phone.

The laptop app syncs when you close it, but you'll have to do this on your own on the mobile app.

7. Get Shared And Import Files

Clicking 'Get Shared' opens up Anki's Community Decks. You can download any of these decks and import them into your collection using 'Import File.'

Different Card Types of Anki

1. Basic Flashcard

The basic flashcard is like an average paper flashcard.

Select this flashcard by clicking Type or use the shortcut Ctrl + N. Click on Basic. Add in your questions in the Front and ‘Back‘fields.

2. Reverse flashcard

To use the reverse flashcard, select Reverse from the note type dropdown menu. A Reverse flashcard is like a basic flashcard, but it asks questions in both ways.

When you create a card, it will make two cards. Reverse flashcards are an excellent way to test two-way associations.

3. Cloze deletions

A cloze card is a fill-in-the-blank type of flashcard.

The capital of England is ...

Select the Note Type as Cloze. To blank out a term from our note, highlight and click on the cloze icon or use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl + Shift + C.

{{c1::}} means you're making one cloze card, {{c2:} means you're creating two cloze cards, and so on. You can set all the highlighted terms as c1 to answer all the blanks in 1 question or fix the highlights as c1, c2, c3, cN to answer 3+N different questions.

I like to add images and explanations in the Extra fields to help me remember the context of the card and understand the card better. For this reason, I prefer to use Cloze cards.

You can also add hints to your cards by typing ‘::’ after the question.

4. Image Occlusion

To make Image Occlusion cards, you need to install the addon first. Go to the addon page, copy the Addon code (1374772155) and add the Addon in your Anki by going to Tools > Addons > Get Addons.

Image occlusion means blanking certain parts of a photo and answering the blackout.

To make Image Occlusion cards, copy the image you want to make questions off. Click 'Add' and click on the Image Occlusion button or use Ctrl + Shift + O shortcut.

Draw a rectangle over the part of the image you want to recall.

Clicking 'Hide All and Guess One' or 'Hide One and Guess One' will add the flashcard to your collection. The difference between 'Hide All and Guess One' are as follows.

You want to use 'hide all and guess one" to make it trickier to answer the question. Seeing clues from other labels might give the answer away.

After answering the card, you can click on Toggle Masks to see the other answers.

Image Occlusion cards are best when you need to label an image, like in Anatomy.

Studying with Anki

Flashcards are for remembering what you've learned.

Before you create a flashcard, you need to learn and understand the topic. Only make flashcards after you've understood something.

Studying with Anki is simple: Open the app, click a deck with due cards and answer the questions. Press the spacebar to show the answer.

When the answer shows up, you can rate the card as Again, Good, or Easy.

Anki will show you the card again later, depending on how you rate the card. Based on the default settings, clicking:  

  • ‘Again’ will make the card show up in less than a minute.
  • ‘Good’ will make the card show up in less than 10 minutes.
  • ‘Easy’ will make the card show up after four days.

You can set up the settings to change this interval; I'll show you how later.

For the best results, you need to study all your due cards daily. If you skip days, you'll mess with the scheduling and have to re-learn what you have remembered. Anki's algorithm sets it, so the cards show up when you've almost forgotten how to answer it. You can remember almost everything you learn by doing your Anki reviews every day. Make doing your Anki reviews a habit.

If you'd like to test yourself on specific topics, you can use 'Custom Study'. Tag your cards based on your subjects, and pull out these tagged cards using 'Custom Study'. After studying, you can delete the Filtered Deck, and the cards will return to their original deck.

Studying with Anki is like going to the mental gym. An intense session where you quiz yourself will bring immediate and long-term results.

Add new cards whenever you've learnt something new, and you'll never forget anything important again.

You can remember facts forever in only 20 minutes a day. I make it into a morning routine. I wake up, make tea, do Anki.

It’s fun to add a little adrenaline when quizzing yourself. Make yourself go as fast as you can. Set a timer and see how many cards you can go through.

A tip for studying with Anki is to use the mobile app. Do your reviews on the go.

Make it a habit to answer flashcards when waiting in line instead of scrolling Instagram.

Commuting with nothing to do? Open Anki.

Are you waiting for your friends to show up? Open Anki.

Make reviewing your cards as easy as possible.

Anki Settings

As mentioned earlier, you can change Anki's intervals.

For best results, here are my recommended settings.

Click on the gear button next to a deck and select 'Options' to change the settings.

Under the Default Options, fill in the numbers based on my recommended settings below. You don't need to know what the numbers mean, but here's an explanation if you're curious.

Be sure to click 'Manage' and click 'Set for all subdecks' so the settings apply to the decks under your parent deck.

How to make flashcards from a lecture

  1. The first step to making flashcards out of a lecture is to understand the content of the class. Skim through the slides, visualise the big picture or main ideas, and find the details to memorise. After learning, go through the lecture slides to look for high-yield facts.
  2. I ask myself three questions when I'm making flashcards out of a lecture.
  • Is this an examinable fact? 
  • Is this something I need to memorise?
  • Is this something I can't memorise by understanding the concept?

The answer to these questions will vary according to what will come up in your exams. Be selective when creating flashcards.

If you're not selective with what you input, you'll be doing too many flashcards. More often than not, these extra flashcards eat your time.

I will usually have my lecture slides on one side of my screen and the Anki Add Window on the other side.

3. When making cards, it's also important to consider how the examiners will test you. Ask yourself: "How are they going to test me?"

For example, since I'm a clinical student, I'll need to know all the signs and symptoms of pneumonia in one go. Thus, I will make a flashcard on the whole list of signs and symptoms.

Back when I was in my pre-clinical, knowing discrete facts was enough. My flashcards test me on individual features.

You can add screenshots of your lecture slides into the Extra field. It gives me context about the flashcard and helps me link pieces of information together.

4. Keep the 80/20 rule in mind. Don't make cards for redundant facts. If it doesn’t come up in your exams, why put it in Anki?

5. Try to keep it to 1 fact per flashcard, though it depends on how you remember the information.

6. If there are pre-made cards for your subject, I recommend you start with pre-made cards. You’ll be familiar with what a useful flashcard looks like and be able to imitate the style, questioning and conciseness of a useful flashcard.

Effective LearningAnki


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