Anki – Your Best Friend

There are many study techniques which have proven to be effective in the scientific literature. 2 of the most important are active recall and spaced repetition. We’ve already spoken about active recall, so I’ll quickly go over spaced repetition and how you can simply incorporate them into your studying.

Spaced repetition is the practice of spacing your practice over increasing intervals of time. So for example you’d study for a class today, then in a couple of days, then in a week, then a couple of weeks, and so on. Each time you get more familiar with the material and can remember it for longer. You might assume that shortening this time and studying a topic more frequently is more beneficial, however, the most efficient way of studying is to leave a topic for enough time to where it feels slightly uncomfortable to recall the information. This goes back to the idea of discomfort being a good thing. The act of retrieving information when it doesn’t come easily lets your brain know that it’s important. You could do this manually with pen and paper, writing down when you review topics and when you will go over them again in the future, however, there’s an app (which is very popular with medical students) that has an algorithm to take care of figuring out when you need to study different concepts, called Anki.

Anki is a digital flashcard app. You write questions and answers that you can later review. You then let the algorithm know how well you knew the information so that it can decide how long until it’ll show you that same card again. It can get more complicated than that but that’s a general idea. Not only are you spacing out your practice but you’re also actively retrieving the information while going over the flashcards, all without having to plan or keep track of how long ago you learned something. You’ll also continually remember information from previous lessons, bypassing that phase where you study something just to later forget it and have to go over it again before the exam. With this system, you just do all of your flashcards every day, and over time the previous topics will have fewer flashcards to review, as the time interval will increase. Not only that but you’ll also be focusing on concepts which you struggle with. Many students fall into the trap of studying the concepts which they feel comfortable with, as it makes them feel like they’re being more productive. The opposite is actually the case, you want to be focusing on your weaker topics so that you can get higher marks overall on the exam. This is a great way to do that automatically.

The other advantage of Anki is that it can act as an online repository for your information. It can be your second brain. Everything that you once thought was important enough to remember stored in one location. Then whenever you need to review something you once knew you can just search for the flashcards you made at that time.

The way I use Anki has two parts. I either make my own cards or I use premade decks that I find online (such as Zanki or Anking). Both have their positives and negatives, so I use both when the situation calls for them. To make my own cards, I first watch a lecture and review the sbobina (transcription) to make sure I understand the information. There’s no point in making flashcards that you don’t understand. I then go through and start creating flashcards. If I still am not sure about a concept I will look it up online (YouTube videos help a lot) and add screenshots to the extra section, so that I have that context in the future. I make sure to only add high yield, important information that I won’t be able to recall simply by understanding the material. There are some things that don’t need to be memorized, as they’re integral to the course. I then review the cards that I made that day until they’re done. I make sure to finish all of the cards due that day so that I keep up with the Anki algorithm. Even missing a couple of days can lead to a pileup of cards that you no longer remember.

In terms of premade decks, the main one I use is Zanki, as I’m also studying for the USMLE. Premade decks are very useful and save a lot of time, but they’re less tailored to your style and needs. One way I go around this is by customizing the cards as I go. Just like in my own cards, If I find a great resource that explains something, I’ll add a screenshot to the relevant cards. One issue with premade decks is that sometimes there are cards which aren’t quite relevant to you, in this case, I suspend those unnecessary cards so that I don’t review them but they’re still there if I need them in the future. This way I’m left with something more similar to my own deck.

Anki takes a while to get used to, it has quite a steep learning curve in terms of the unforgiving UI, and the skill of creating high quality cards, however the earlier you start the sooner you’ll be able to effectively use this great tool. Now, Anki isn’t the only way to study, you could use pen and paper, Quizlet, and/or Notion, which I don’t use as much but might be a better fit for you. Find what works best for you and try to be consistent with it to get the best results.