Anki: Advice, Tips and Resources for Spaced Repetition

I’ve been using Anki for language studying (especially for Japanese) daily for 2 years.

I’ve had mixed results using custom decks for concepts I learned in university, where I found anki really helped me memorize things but I generally didn’t have a lot I needed memorizing in the first place (I wonder which subjects present a memory bottleneck instead of a, for instance, understanding bottleneck).

Where Anki has really shone for me is vocabulary acquisition in Japanese. I studied Japanese using the DJT method, where I first memorized a big deck of vocabulary cards (mostly N3 words, for those who care), and then started reading a Light Novel daily (in my case, Kumo Desuga Nanika) and “mining” for new words: every time I found a word I didn’t know, I would add a card to my vocab deck with the sentence where I first found it (sometimes edited for brevity, leaving out superfluous words). I do daily reading sessions of one hour, and daily anki reviews, and after one year of this I can safely say I went from lower-N3 (JLPT3) level to a place where I can confortably read a light novel or watch anime without subs (my current average is two unknown words every 3 light novel pages read). I am currently at ~2k mined words, and my reviews take about 15 minutes/day (though I also do writing exercises in between, because I like calligraphy).

What follow are quotes and opinions on using Spaced Repetition for studying, collected from diverse sources: Michael Nielsen’s essay, Gwern’s amazing essay, and a few others. Feel free to contact me if you think of a different resource, quote or tip that could fit here! I will probably keep updating this post if I come up with anything worthwhile.

Helping Develop Virtuoso Skills with Personal Memory Systems, Michael Nielsen

“As we’ll see, Anki can be used to remember almost anything. That is, Anki makes memory a choice, rather than a haphazard event, to be left to chance. I’ll discuss how to use Anki to understand research papers, books, and much else. And I’ll describe numerous patterns and anti-patterns for Anki use. While Anki is an extremely simple program, it’s possible to develop virtuoso skill using Anki, a skill aimed at understanding complex material in depth, not just memorizing simple facts.

I therefore have two rules of thumb. First, if memorizing a fact seems worth 10 minutes of my time in the future, then I do it. Second, and superseding the first, if a fact seems striking then into Anki it goes, regardless of whether it seems worth 10 minutes of my future time or not. The reason for the exception is that many of the most important things we know are things we’re not sure are going to be important, but which our intuitions tell us matter. This doesn’t mean we should memorize everything. But it’s worth cultivating taste in what to memorize.

What can Anki be used for? I use Anki in all parts of my life. Professionally, I use it to learn from papers and books; to learn from talks and conferences; to help recall interesting things learned in conversation; and to remember key observations made while doing my everyday work. Personally, I use it to remember all kinds of facts relevant to my family and social life; about my city and travel; and about my hobbies. Later in the essay I describe some useful patterns of Anki use, and anti-patterns to avoid.”

Michael A. Nielsen, Augmenting Cognition

His steps for making Anki cards on a paper (I guess they apply to book chapters too):

Note: for a single paper, Nielsen makes tens, sometimes “several hundred” cards.

Tips for Card Making

Make most Anki questions and answers as atomic as possible One benefit of using Anki in this way is that you begin to habitually break things down into atomic questions. This sharply crystallizes the distinct things you’ve learned. In general, I find that you often get substantial benefit from breaking Anki questions down to be more atomic. It’s a powerful pattern for question refactoring.

Note that this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t also retain some version of the original question.

Anki use is best thought of as a virtuoso skill, to be developed

Anki isn’t just a tool for memorizing simple facts. It’s a tool for understanding almost anything.

Avoid orphan questions. Avoid the yes/no pattern

Cultivate strategies for elaborative encoding / forming rich associations. This is really a meta-strategy, i.e., a strategy for forming strategies. One simple example strategy is to use multiple variants of the “same” question.

Procedural versus declarative memory: There’s a big difference between remembering a fact and mastering a process.

“By analogy with code smells, we can speak of “question smells”, as suggesting a possible need for refactoring. A yes/no construction is an example of a question smell.”

Ebbinghaus found that the probability of correctly recalling an item declined (roughly) exponentially with time. Today, this is called the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve.

Spaced Repetition, Gwern

The research favors questions which force the user to use their memory as much as possible; in descending order of preference:

the research literature is comprehensive and most questions have been answered - somewhere.

the most common mistakes with spaced repetition are

“OK, but what does one do with it? … Now that I have all this power – a mechanical golem that will never forget and never let me forget whatever I chose to – what do I choose to remember?”

“Multiple choice tests can accidentally lead to ‘negative suggestion effects’ where having previously seen a falsehood as an item on the test makes one more likely to believe it.

This is mitigated or eliminated when there’s quick feedback about the right answer. Solution: don’t use multiple choice; inferior in testing ability to free recall or short answers, anyway.”

What To Add

“I find one of the best uses for Mnemosyne is, besides the classic use of memorizing academic material such as geography or the periodic table or foreign vocabulary or Bible/Koran verses or the avalanche of medical school facts, to add in words from A Word A Day and Wiktionary, memorable quotes I see, personal information such as birthdays (or license plates, a problem for me before), and so on. Quotidian uses, but all valuable to me. With a diversity of flashcards, I find my daily review interesting. I get all sorts of questions - now I’m trying to see whether a Haskell fragment is syntactically correct, now I’m pronouncing Korean hangul and listening to the answer, now I’m trying to find the Ukraine on a map, now I’m enjoying some A.E. Housman poetry, followed by a few quotes from LessWrong quote threads, and so on. Other people use it for many other things; one application that impresses me for its simple utility is memorizing names & faces of students although learning musical notes is also not bad.

It’s interesting to compare SRS decks to the feat of memorizing Paradise Lost or to the Muslim title of ‘hafiz’, one who has memorized the ~80,000 words of the Koran, or the stricter ‘hafid’, one who had memorized the Koran and 100,000 hadiths as well.”

Gwern, Spaced Repetition


Tips for Cardmaking and Anki Use

(this ties nicely to what Nielsen says too. Add a question and its reverse, add different wh questions, split a concept into atomic bits.)

(I like this idea: add cards about each concept, but also about relationships between them. This way you can kill more birds with a single stone.)

Anki Tips,

“Has your computer ever spat out an error message and, although you remember seeing it before, you don’t remember how to fix it? Before I started Janki Method this would happen to me a lot.

The first time I saw the issue I would spend half a day solving the problem. Six months later the problem would happen again, perhaps in a slightly different form. Even though I was vaguely aware of having seen it before, I’d forgotten how to fix it.

After solving a bug you should always add some cards to your deck containing the knowledge needed to prevent that bug from occurring again. Better yet, abstract one level and add cards containing the knowledge needed to prevent that class of bugs. Now, whenever you are faced with a bug the second time, all you need to do is search your archives.” – Jack Kinsella

“If I look something up in StackOverflow, I’ll add it to Anki. Wikipedia? Another Anki card.”

“If you have time, think about where you learned the card”

Syntax for cloze deletion is \{\{c1::Your String\}\}

Tips and Tricks for Spaced Repetition,

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04 Oct 2020 - importance: 8