How I Use Anki

My number one best tool for learning Spanish has been the spaced repetition flashcard app Anki. I’ve written about Anki as a key component of my general approach to learning Spanish, and have talked about how important memorizing massive amounts of vocabulary is to any endeavor, but today I’m going to write in a bit more detail about the tactics I’ve developed for efficient Anki usage.

Anki is a very powerful software program, but the learning curve is very steep, so I’m not at all surprised that more people haven’t been able to get into using it effectively. Hopefully some of these tips will help you get started and make your study sessions as productive as possible.

  • Study your flashcards every day — it’s critical that you not skip days or weeks or you’ll end up so far behind that it’ll feel impossible to catch back up
  • Target an amount of study time that you can do every day! Adjust your review schedule so that you’re consistently studying the same amount every day (I target between 20 and 30 minutes, but if you can only do 10 that’s fine — just make sure you aren’t falling behind on your review cards)
  • Use decks to group together similar cards — I keep my Spanish “dichos” (sayings) separate from my Spanish vocabulary, which is obviously separate from my deck of mathematics identities.
  • You can even nest decks — so I have one top-level deck for “vocabulary” and then sub-decks like “vocabulary from Pedro Páramo” and “vocabulary from Las Muertas” and “vocabulary from news articles”
  • Get to know the most important options for an Anki deck. I generally only change:
    • New cards per day — how many new cards are you shown each day?
    • Interval modifier — how much faster (or slower) should cards re-appear relative to the standard Anki algorithm? I put relatively lower numbers for more challenging decks and relatively higher numbers for easier decks
  • Use the “custom review” to get extra review time for cards that you’ve forgotten
    • Every three days, I do a “custom review” and review all the cards that I’ve forgotten in the last three days — this helps me get enough exposure to the cards that I’m struggling with to actually get them implanted in my memory
    • Anki really isn’t designed for learning something from scratch, but when it comes to learning vocabulary, I’m often seeing words for only the second or third time when they show up in my Anki review session (the first time when I read them originally, the second time when I looked them up to create the Anki card, and the third time in a review session), so this is a bit of a “hack” to help with learning in addition to just maintaining long-term memory
  • Once a month, review cards that have been suspended
    • Anki keeps track of how many times you fail a card that is in “review” mode — by default, once that counter hits 8, Anki will mark that card as a “leech” and suspend it (i.e., will stop showing the card)
    • In general, if a card is suspended or marked as a leech, it means you’re going to need to put in additional effort to get it to stick in your brain. Once a month I review all of the cards that have been suspended and dedicate myself to extra study for those cards (often creating a host of additional cards that include the word or phrase in order to give myself enough context to get it to stick in my brain)

Hopefully these tricks will help you get started with Anki — to be honest, at this point, it’s pretty difficult for me to imagine learning a language without Anki. It’s so crucial to the way that I study and the progress that I’ve made that I hate to imagine trying to learn a language without it.

If you have the patience to learn the tool, and the dedication to commit to studying every day, Anki is an incredibly powerful study aide. Let me know if you have other tips or suggestions for using Anki for studying!

About the author

By michael