The Art of Remembering: Anki – A Useful Student Tool

2012-02-06. Published in Language & Culture
by Nils Pasi

'I taught that I was thought to spell that write!'

The teacher, mr Sideburns, felt it best to inhale deeply before looking up at the beaming face of young Jenkins, whose homework he was currently in the process of correcting. The young boy was not a bad student, he decided, but something had to be done about his unfortunate tendency to confuse words. It wasn't as much the spelling that concerned mr Sideburns, as it was the pronunciation. Many of his pupils found it difficult to differentiate between 'right' and 'write' in writing, because in speech there was no difference. Young Jenkins, however, would actually say 'I taught that I was thought' if asked to read his assignment out laud.

– Maybe, the teacher said very slowly, as if choosing his words carefully, maybe I should introduce you to Anki.


Well, I certainly shall introduce you to Anki. A fellow GISA Student Buddy introduced me to this wonderful, free!, program last year, and since then I have used it more or less daily. It is simply unbeatable when it comes to quickly expanding ones vocabulary, including Swedish. Although I have not tried it, Anki should prove equally suitable for memorizing other facts like, perhaps, mathematic formulae or historically important dates and events.

Anki is a so called 'spaced repetition' flashcard software. The idea behind flashcards is simple. You have a card on which a question is written on one side, and the answer on the other. To practice, you go through the deck of cards, trying to remember the answer to each question and confirming that you remembered correctly by turning the card over. Anki offers a way to do this digitally, but takes it one step further as well by adding spaced repetition.

Spaced repetition is quite simply a way to ensure that what you learn gets stored in your long term memory. How many times have I not spent days before an exam memorizing all those important facts most likely to be included in the exam? Well, the problem is that, while I may have passed the exam with flying colours, a day or two later my memory will start to fade, and suddenly I will no longer be able to recall all those facts I spent hours, perhaps days even, memorizing. This is because the information was stored temporarily in my short term memory and never entered my long term memory.

But the long term memory, that is where Anki and the wonders of spaced repetition come in. Quite simply, spaced repetition ensures that you review that which you are trying to learn whenever you are likely to be on the verge of forgetting it. There is a theory behind this. When I was still a teacher trainee, I remember being taught that in order for something to be stored in one's long term memory, one needed to learn it once, then review it after 3 days, then again after 1 week, then after 3 weeks, then a month, three months and after that maybe again in a year's time. The intervals that I have specified here are not exact, as I have lost my notes from that lecture. But the point is that it is necessary to rehearse, or review, a fact at growing intervals in order for what you are trying learn to get stored in your long term memory.

A Typical Session with Anki...

A typical study session with Anki lasts for ten minutes, and consists of reviewing cards you have previously learnt, as well as being presented with new cards. By default, Anki will present 20 new cards per session, but you can change that, and the maximum time per session, in the settings prior to each study session. Anki will also keep detailed statistics for you. For those advanced users out there, Anki does handle both images and sound. I downloaded a deck of cards from the Internet that included both pictures and spoken japanese, so sometimes I would be asked to listen to a phrase and remember the translation.

Let us break down a typical study session with Anki into steps.

  • Preparatory step:

    • Option one – Download a deck of cards from the Internet.

    • Option two – Create your own deck of cards.

  • A typical study session with Anki:

    • 1. Choose the deck of cards you wish to practice.

    • 2. A question will appear. Try to remember the answer.

    • 3. The answer is shown to you. Check that you remembered it correctly.

    • 4. Rate how well you remembered the answer. You have four options:

      • Again (Soon) – means that you did not remember the answer. The question will be asked again during the same study session.

      • Good, Easy, and Very Easy all means that you remembered the answer correctly, but with varying difficulty.

    • 5. After a set number of new cards have appeared (by default the program presents 20 new questions/cards per session) or after a set time (be default 10 minutes) the study session will finnish.

    • 6. Close the program :)

Finally, I will say that Anki is an intuitive and very easy to use program that runs on most systems, including both Macs and PCs, as well as computers running Linux. An iPhone version is available, but not for free. The author has put together several video tutorials on YouTube to help get you started.

I hope you will find Anki as useful as I have!

You can find Anki at the official website.

/Nils, team 2010-2011