Don’t just blindly create Anki cards. You should be using proven strategies to craft cards for higher retention. If you are new to Anki, or just want to sharpen your skills, this article has what you need to level up your Anki game.
I have condensed the best ways to improve your cards into just 7 simple strategies. These tips get progressively relatively more advanced as we go down the list but anybody should be able to implement these.
Let’s get into the tips.
Keep Your Cards Simple
First, It’s far too easy for students new to Anki to make entire paragraphs or long complex lists of multiple things to remember. This is not a good way to approach making your Anki cards. If your cards contain too much information there are parts that will not get the necessary attention.
Each Anki card should be about a discrete idea. By making your cards in this way you will ensure that the benefits of Anki (spaced repetition and active recall) are spread over each and every part of the material you are using it for.
As a general rule if the answer to your card is more than one thing, then you should be splitting the card into multiple cards so there is just one answer for each.
Make Your Own Cards
This one might seem kind of obvious. But yes one of the ways to make perfect Anki cards is to actually make them. This is because there are issues with using premade Anki decks.
Premade decks lack personalization. They will contain lots of material that you probably don’t need to study if you are using other methods apart from solely relying on Anki (which you should be doing). This also means they will have too much content and you will likely have to edit the deck down to what you need, which can be time-consuming.
It’s just better to make your own decks that uniquely target gaps in your knowledge and use Anki as a supplementary memorization aid. If you make your cards like this it won’t take much time (because you won’t need to make that many) and they will be highly targeted to help with your knowledge weaknesses. This means that your cards are essentially unique to you and wouldn’t be as helpful for another person if you shared them.
Lastly, if you make your own cards, they will all be cards that you understand.
Only Make Cards on What You Understand
Making cards on what you understand and nothing else is very important when it comes to Anki. How is memorizing a fact helpful if you don’t even know what it is, why it’s important, or how it’s used? Imagine learning a word in another language and not learning what it means. How would you use it, right?
If you don’t know what something is, and you memorize it, the chance of being able to actually apply it meaningfully to an exam is not great. If you find yourself doing this you need to go back and actually learn the material with more depth. This is because Anki is for memorization. Just remembering an answer to a question does not mean that you have actually learned it.
Use Images and Diagrams
Using images and diagrams is helpful for quickly creating simple cards that rely on fewer words to convey the same meaning. You can use Image occlusion cards for this purpose.
Or even better, you can actually digitally draw your own images and then occlude those. There is a large body of research showing that drawing is very good for memorization.1 So given this, you will probably have to review your own hand-drawn image occluded cards far fewer times than regular occluded cards that you found images for.
Use Mnemonic Techniques
If your Anki answer has a few items that just have to be together then using a mnemonic technique is a great way to memorize the material. These can be integrated right into Anki using cloze cards.
Here is an example of a mnemonic to memorize the 12 cranial nerves integrated into Anki using a cloze card.
You might notice that I used hints to create this cloze card. Hints in Anki are a great way to use mnemonics in your cloze cards.
If you want to see how to make cloze cards using hints and other technqiues check out my article on how to create cloze cards in Anki
Create as Few Cards as Possible
This tip is related to how you are actually using Anki as a tool. Anki should not be used as your primary way to revise the material. This is because Anki is fairly limited as a large-scale learning tool.
If we look at Bloom’s Taxonomy we can see this. Bloom’s Taxonomy is simply a theoretical framework of knowledge mastery. It outlines how well you know a piece of knowledge.2 As you can see Anki falls at the lowest level on this scale of knowledge mastery. This is because Anki is mainly about the memorization of individual facts which is a lower level of learning compared to higher-level strategies like mind mapping or the Feynman technique.
This doesn’t mean that Anki isn’t useful or that Anki is a bad tool.
This just highlights how you should be using Anki. That is, it shouldn’t be your primary revision technique.
I wrote an entire article on Anki’s limitations if you want a more detailed and research-based explanation of this.
Instead, Anki is best used as a supplementary tool to fill in those knowledge gaps before a test. One studying technique cannot cover everything by itself and this is why we use many of them. It just so happens that Anki is best suited as a secondary technique.
You should be creating as few cards as possible simply because Anki shines the most as a secondary learning tool.
But you can also get around this limitation of Anki (to a certain extent) by creating relational flash cards.
Create Relational Cards
We can actually level up the effectiveness of Anki by creating flashcards that test ourselves at a higher level. By doing this, we can move Anki out of this lower level of Bloom’s taxonomy by using different styles of questions.
A standard vs relational Anki card
A basic Anki card is just asking you to recall a basic piece of information. This is on the lowest level if you look at the image of Bloom’s Taxonomy above (recall facts and basic concepts).
A relational Anki card is asking us to explain how two things interact. This should fall around level 4 on Bloom’s Taxonomy (draw connections among ideas). This is one of the ways we can level up Anki’s effectiveness (there are many ways you can phrase relational flashcards, this is just one example).
Importantly, the answer side of a relational card would likely be quite long compared to the simple card if you actually wrote out an entire answer, don’t do this. It’s best to just keep the back as simple as possible and only include the basic points with these.
Instead, you should explain the answer out loud to yourself with more depth than what is on the back of the card. Better yet, pair this with the Feynman Technique by teaching the answer to the question!
Creating Anki cards like this is a sure way to improve your learning over basic cards. However, if you are looking to introduce higher-level learning techniques into your arsenal you should not rely solely on relational flashcards (even if they are better than basic ones).
If you want to step up your retention with Anki you should be implementing these strategies as best as you can. The last two items on this list are a little more advanced. If you are brand new to Anki start by following the first five and add the last two later.
- Fernandes, M. A., Wammes, J. D., & Meade, M. E. (2018). The Surprisingly Powerful Influence of Drawing on Memory. Current Directions in Psychological Science : a Journal of the American Psychological Society, 27(5), 302–308. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721418755385
- Anderson, L. W., & Krathwohl, D. R. (Eds.). (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives (Complete ed). Longman.
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