Anki is a flashcard app that I’ve found startlingly effective for memorizing vast amounts of information
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.
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).
- Active recall: people remember information much better from being tested than from passive listening/reading.
- Spaced repetition: there’s a lot of evidence that spreading out learning over time is more effective for long-term retention.
- 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.
- Game-ification: 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.
- 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.
- Daily commitment: Anki’s schedule can be unforgiving of missed days. Carving out 1-2 hours a day to review cards may be challenging to keep up with.
- Non-overlap: shared decks don’t always overlap perfectly with class, and it takes effort to make cards for the non-overlapping areas.
- 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:
Cards (left = prompt, right = answer)
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.
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.