Anki, My New Love

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Until now, I was never one to use flashcards. I could not see their value, and I was too lazy to actually write things down on a paper flashcard (and my handwriting is horrible).

I recently discovered a program called Anki. On the surface, it is just a flash card program, but underneath, it can be as simple or as complex as you desire. The first couple of days that I used Anki, I was still in this mindset that flashcards are not for me, and they hold no value with how I am used to learning. I learned I was very wrong!

What makes Anki so great (in addition to being free for every platform except Apple iOS), is the way it works. Active recall and spaced repetitions are what make it such a powerful program. As mentioned in the link, active recall is the process of answering an asked question, as opposed to just passively studying (such as reading or watching training videos). Spaced repetition is the action of spreading out the review of material in gradually longer increments, with the idea being that you’ll remember things for a longer period of time by doing this.

Anki is based an another program called SuperMemo. I had first heard of SuperMemo a few years ago after reading this blog post by Petr Lapukhov (who is one of many people that I consider a Rock Star in the world of computer networking). A lot of research went into the development of SuperMemo (and consequently, Anki), and Anki attempts to solve some of the perceived shortcomings of SuperMemo.

After using it for nearly two weeks, I am already experiencing the benefit of learning using this method. I am retaining details from the flashcards I created that I know I would have forgotten (because I’ve learned and forgotten these things in the past, probably more than once!).

The flashcards are arranged into decks, and decks can contain other decks. The cards themselves can contain pretty much any content you can think of, including audio and video. Cards can also contain tags, which I’ve found to be extremely useful.

For example, even though I am studying the overall topic of “CCIE Routing & Switching”, I have multiple sub-decks, with each deck representing a source of information (such as a particular book, or a particular video series). Yet I can relate the different decks together with the use of tags. For example, I could study on the EIGRP tag across all the sub-decks.

One of the most useful things I have learned about creating flashcards is to not put too much on a single card. I found it better to break things up as much as possible. This helps with faster recall, and since you’re not actually using paper, it doesn’t matter how many cards you create.

For the first couple of days, I had a few cards that contained too much information, and I kept getting the answers wrong. After I broke each complicated card into multiple simpler cards, I was able to retain the information better with each successive pass.

What lead me to create more complicated cards at first was knowing that, for example, if I’m studying for the CCIE, it’s an advanced test with expert-level questions. I thought I would be doing a disservice to myself by making the flashcards too easy. Luckily, I quickly realized that this is the wrong approach. The reason for using the flashcards is to retain little pieces of information, whose aggregate can then be applied to something more complex.

When making easier cards, I try to contain only a single piece of information in the answer whenever possible. When it’s not possible, I try to formulate the question so that it indicates the number of components in the answer. I also modified the default flashcard format to display the associated tags I have given the flashcard, which can act as a hint if the question seems too ambiguous.

The style of flashcard will depend on what you’re trying to learn. For example, if you’re learning a foreign language, you may place the foreign word on the front, and the native word on the back (or vice versa). For me, I found taking simple facts and re-phrasing them as simple questions to be the most effective. I find the question “What IP protocol does EIGRP use?” more engaging than simply “EIGRP IP Protocol” or something similar. IP Protocol 88 is the answer, by the way.

At first, I was worried about the questions being too easy. This is a simple question, and duh, the answer is obvious! But, the answer is always obvious as you are writing the question. A few days or a week later, the answer may not be so obvious. This was what I discovered after using the program for about two weeks. I remember writing the question, and I remember the answer being something very easy…but I couldn’t remember what the answer was.

Enter spaced repetitions.

After you have created the flashcards, reviewing is just like a real flashcard; you look at the front, and recall what is on the back. What makes Anki work so well is that upon revealing the back of the card, you have to decide how difficult or easy recalling the answer was. This is where you need to be truly honest with yourself to get the most out of the software.

Depending on what you click (Again, Hard, Good, Easy), the card will be shown to you again at the appropriate time in the future. For example, if the answer came to you instantly, you would click Easy. If the answer comes to you instantly again when you see the card the next time, clicking Easy again will increase the time Anki waits before showing you the card again. The Again, Hard, Good, Easy values are not static, and depend on multiple factors that change with each repetition of the flashcard.

Getting into the routine of reviewing the flashcards once every day is important to retaining the knowledge. By default, Anki will introduce 20 new flashcards to you every day per deck. This value (like just about everything else in Anki) can be adjusted. The cards can be sequential (default) or randomized (which is what I set it to). If you make your flashcards simple enough, 20 may be a very good value for you. If you have a deck of 200 cards, it will take 10 days for all of the cards to be revealed to you.

However, in addition to the 20 new cards, each day will contain previous cards depending on how you rated them. If you rated a card as “Hard” yesterday, you’ll probably see it repeated today. This is what I have found to be so useful over the past two weeks.

I may have marked several cards as “Again”, which will show you the card again during the day’s study session. After a couple days of marking a card as “Again”, I might have marked the same card as “Hard”, and after a few more repetitions, the card becomes “Good”, and hopefully eventually “Easy”. I haven’t been using the program long enough yet for some of my cards to make that complete progression, but I can see it getting there, which is exciting! Yet another great thing about Anki is that it keeps statistics with regards to your learning, and you can view your progress on nice pretty graphs.

Because cards that are marked “Easy” get displayed less, you waste less time studying those cards because you’ve retained that information, so you can study other cards that are more important. Before using Anki, that was a very bad habit I found myself falling into frequently: studying things I already knew, because it’s easier.

Anki supports sharing the flashcard decks you create. This may be useful if you want to import somebody else’s work, but personally, I found much more value in creating my own flashcards with my own questions and answers because it forces me to examine the individual piece of information and then figure out how to formulate it into an answerable question (which is not always as easy as you might think it is).

When you’re studying for something complicated, such as a certification, it may contain many details that are important to know, but difficult to retain because you don’t frequently need that information. Going back to the EIGRP example, you need to know what the default K-values are for some Cisco certification exams, but in a production network, it is rare to actually need to know that exact detail, and it is even more rare for those values get changed. However, through the power of spaced repetitions, it is a piece of information that you can hold on to.

And who knows? Outside of a certification exam, maybe one day you’ll run into a situation where that particular bit of information really is helpful, and that is when knowledge and experience will combine to give you the solution you need.

On a personal note, it may sound silly considering I am 36 years old as I write this, but during this past year I really feel like I am finally learning how to learn. I feel like I am discovering things that I should have been taught in high school or college. I would certainly have had an easier time with the more difficult subjects if I knew then what I know now.