Your memory sucks, but it’s nothing you can’t improve. Whether you’re trying to learn a language, geography or even basic programming skills, active recall learning lets you commit details to memory – and a free app called Anki can help.
What’s active recall learning? Essentially, it’s continually exposing yourself to a question, quickly followed by the answer, until you’ve committed the answer to memory by habit. This isn’t some new technology – humans have done this using flash cards since the 1800’s. The trick is to access how difficult answering was for you, and to repeat the cards that you have trouble with. If you’re honest with yourself, this will let you spend more time reviewing the harder questions.
Anki helps with this. With it, you can compile and cycle through your own flash cards (or download cards made by someone else!) As you use the software you rate how easy or hard every question is, which in turn teaches Anki how often you need to review these cards.
Way back in 2009 we showed you how Anki’s flash card system can teach you a new language, focusing on the desktop version of the software. A couple years later we showed you how an Android version of Anki can help you memorize anything.
In neither article did we show you how well the various versions of Anki work together, thanks to Anki Web – the web-hosted service that means you can review your flash cards anywhere. Let’s take a look.
A Brief Overview
We’ve reviewed this software before, but here’s a quick outline of how it works. You’ll see a question – in this example, a map with a particular country highlighted.
When you’re ready, hit the “Show Answer” button (keyboard shortcut: space bar). You’ll see the answer, along with a few options:
Depending on how hard the question was to answer for you, click “Again”, “Good” or “Easy”. If you click “Again,” you’ll be shown the same map soon. If you click “Good,” Anki won’t show you the same card until the next day. If you click “Easy”, Anki will wait even longer. You can use the numbers 1-3 as keyboard shortcuts, which lets you hop through cards quickly.
In my case I knew I was looking at England, so I clicked “Easy”. Because of this, I won’t see the same card again for four days. If I click “Easy” again next time, Anki will wait even longer. The idea is for me to keep reviewing the questions I struggle with, because they’re the ones I need to learn. The system uses my feedback to show me the cards I need to review more often than the ones I don’t.
Don’t worry about becoming overwhemled: Anki will never ask you to review more than 100 cards in a day, which is less overwhelming than it sounds.
This is just a quick overview. I’d check out Erez’s review of the Android version of Anki for more details of how the system works.
It’s Completely Cross Platform
Flash cards can’t help you learn on the bus if they’re stuck on your computer at home – good thing Anki offers versions of their software for all major platforms. Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, and Android are all offered, plus the new Web version that works everywhere.
Even better, your cards and your progress automatically sync every time you’re done studying.
This means you can start reviewing your flash cards on your laptop, during your morning coffee, then review a few more on your phone during your commute.
Other Places To Find Decks
Creating your own deck is the most flexible way to learn exactly what you want to, but another huge advantage of Anki is the sheer number of decks you can find out there to download. If you want to learn something, you might be able to find decks. Here are a few resources worth checking out.
Ankiweb’s shared decks is the first place to look. You’ll find a variety of language decks, along with resources for science, geography and even law.
Alex Vermeer, a part-time blogger who also works for the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, offers a few shared decks – including one designed to motivate you. He also offers a free manual that helps you learn how to get more out of the software.
There’s also this list of Anki Decks by LessWrong users, which covers a wide variety of topics. You’ll find something you want to learn over there.
Again, it’s also really easy to create your own deck, so give that a shot as well.
I’m a Canadian living in the USA, and as such never learned the state capitals – something a group of middle schoolers recently mercilessly mocked me for. Anki gave me a quick way to learn this, making it less likely for me to be embarrassed by pre-teens. Hopefully they think I’m cool now (they don’t).
But that’s hardly the only use-case for this. With Anki you can memorize anything, so let me know what you plan to learn. Even better: share the decks you create in the comments below.