Anki for Medical School

11 Feb 2019 » James Diao » Boston, MA

tl;dr

Anki is a flashcard app that I’ve found startlingly effective for memorizing vast amounts of information (and also faces!)

Overview

Just as a quick intro: Anki is a flashcard app, much like Quizlet. You learn by testing yourself on flashcards; you can either make them yourself or download shared decks from online. The core premise of Anki is the spaced repetition system, which schedules the next time you see a card based on how well you know the material. The interval increases every time you get it right (1 day, 3 days, 7 days, etc.) by about 2.5x, but the interval resets if you get it wrong. One of my posts simulates how much work this will require over time. Another provides a set of tools for playing around with Anki’s scheduling data.

Advantages

Almost everyone who’s talked with me in 2019 has heard me sing Anki’s praises. I was introduced to it second semester of my first year, and it has fundamentally transformed the way I learn for medical school. There are a couple big benefits of Anki over regular studying (several are discussed in Anki’s manual).

  1. Active recall: people remember information much better from being tested than from passive listening/reading.
  2. Spaced repetition: there’s a lot of evidence that spreading out learning over time is more effective for long-term retention.
  3. Ease of use: reviews can be done easily on a phone, making it possible to be productive during “dead time,” like sitting in traffic or when trying to fall asleep.
  4. Gameification: being able to track all your statistics (e.g., cards per day, hours per day, number of cards matured, etc.) gives a sense of progress that can make studying more fun.

Disadvantages

  1. Scope: Anki is only useful for a very small subset of learning tasks: memorizing details that are important to know quickly and without looking things up.
  2. Daily commitment: Anki’s schedule is fairly unforgiving of missed days. Carving out 1-2 hours a day to review cards can be challenging to keep up with.
  3. Non-overlap: shared decks don’t always overlap perfectly with class, and it takes effort to make cards for the non-overlapping areas.
  4. Ugly interface: app design is not very visually appealing (resembling pre-2000 Windows)

What does it look like?

I currently use Zanki: the most popular Step 1 deck for medical students. There’s a deck for each other major subjects (cardiology, endocrine, etc.), as shown below:

Main Screen

Anki Screen

Cards (left = prompt, right = answer)

Anki Card 1 Anki Card 2

Conclusion

Anki has made a big difference for my medical training. I’m more productive during the day, and most importantly, I retain more of what I’m learning. Just to show how much I’ve gotten into it: there was one week where I averaged almost 2.5 hours a day on Anki, significantly more than all of my other apps combined.

Anki Usage 2 Anki Usage 1

I’ve only been using Anki for about a month, so we’ll see whether I can keep it up. Still, I’m completely sold on the idea and I’m optimistic it will continue to work out.

  1. Shamim’s Guide to Medical School Using Anki
  2. /r/medicalschooanki FAQ
  3. SP’s Guide to MS2 and Step 1 for Zanki
  4. Zanki vs. Lightyear Review

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