Those who know me might accuse me of preaching the memorization tool Anki as the best thing that’s ever happened to studying, and they wouldn’t be that far off. Over the past year I’ve extensively integrated this software in my studies, with (to me personally) remarkable results in both productivity and academic grades. There are however, some pitfalls for the casual user to take heed of, and getting the full benefit of your time requires cultivating a proper mindset. As I mention Anki a great deal on this site, I decided on writing my own short guide on setting up and using Anki, as well as describe how I personally integrate it into my studies.

Anyone with an interest in studying Japanese will surely already have heard of Anki. It’s covered extensively on all the major learning resources online, and the canonical self learner’s beginner path seems to be Heisig’s Kanji method, Tae Kim’s online Grammar Guide and Core 2K/6K/10K2, all three heavily relying on Anki. Language acquisition certainly remains Anki’s most popular usage, but lately, the software’s become broad enough to find it’s way in various other branches (it’s become an integrated routine for medical students, for example, as well as math students thanks to LaTeX support). So far this sounds like I’m paid to advertise Anki. Except the software’s free and open source, and if you don’t like synchronizing your anki progress over Anki’s servers you could even set that up on your own as well3.

What is Anki? Why is Anki?! How is Anki?!?

To recap: Anki is an extremely customizable application designed for memorization, available for free on nearly all the major platforms4 as well as being accessable online. Being able to study on the road (I commute by train, taking me up to 3 hours total traveling time every day) and synchronizing your progress at home is a major boon on using your time practically.

There are plenty of studies on methods for efficient learning, and unsurprisingly, classic late-night cramming, and passive studying methods as extensive marking and rereading of texts don’t score very high. On the other hand, active recall testing (questioning yourself by actively trying to come up with the answer to a question) and spaced learning (spreading information absorption over long periods of time) are concidered key5. Anki is an application that achieves both through the means of timed flashcards. The concept is simple: the front of the card asks you a question and the backside displays the answer. After showing the answer, you decide whether you got it wrong or right, and to what degree. This determines when you’ll be confronted by this card again.

The Guide

Setting up!

Download & Install

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Download the application for whatever system you’d like it on Anki’s homepage and follow the installer’s steps. I highly recommend purchasing a lower-end smartphone if you’re still using a brick as cellphone. It’s somewhat of a steep investment, but worth it in the long run (not just for Anki but plenty of other learning tools such as dictionaries or OCR tools6). Anki’s layout, especially the desktop application, is pretty barebones but functional and self-explanatory enough to get used to in a couple of minutes.

Account & Syncing

To be able to syncronize your progress over different devices you’ll have to register an account at Anki’s web service (I definitely encourage doing this regardless: just imagine the horror if your device breaks down after 3 years of having intensively studied flashcards).

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In your desktop Anki, open SettingsPreferences from the menu, then select the Network tab and insert your user credidentials. From the Anki’s main menu, select the syncing icon to try it out.

Now do the same on your mobile device. On Ankidroid this is SettingsAnkiDroidAnkiWeb Account. Make sure the “Download Media” checkbox below “Synchronize” is marked !

Now try syncing from this device as well. If everything goes well, we’ll start with our first set.

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Creating your first set and cards!

It’s best to consider Anki’s main interface as a container for your decks (also called sets) of flashcards. There’s no content yet on a fresh install, aside from a filler deck called Default. Feel free to remove this (set-specific options are available through the icon on the right of each set). There’s a lot of premade content on the internet, but in order to get used to the interface and learn some of the base features, we’ll create a small set, set up a template for our notes, and create some cards - all by ourselves. Don’t worry if the terminology doesn’t make sense yet, we’ll cover that over this guide.

As an example we’ll create a deck containing some important dates, events and notables in Japanese history. Start by clicking the Create Deck button in the bottom bar, and name it Japanese History or something. We’ll create two more decks, 0 - Important dates and 1 - Meiji. Click and drag these right under the original Japanese History set to make subdecks out of them, as shown below. Anki orders sets alphabetically, so I often use numbers to realize my intended structure.

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Now click on “1 - Meiji” to enter that set. As there’s no content yet you’ll get an appropriate congratulatory message. Doesn’t matter, we’re on a different mission now, on a mission to create. Click on Add to start on your first card. This is how it will look like in the end.

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Before starting, it’s a good thing to note you’ll never actually create your own cards directly. Instead, what you’re actually making in this screen is a note, a kind of blueprint containing all information relevant to a certain subject. This is useful because you’ll often want different kinds of cards on the same subject. A note on a particular foreign word might contain the original, the translation, an audio file and an example sentence. If notes are blueprints for cards, note-types are blueprints for notes. Using this data, you could set up the note-type to generate three cards: one on visual recognition, one on oral recognition, and one on production, all three containing the example sentence along the answer. I made a brief, crude diagram trying to visualize the result of this tutorial. It’s not 100% correct but as I’m trying to keep it simple, it should be sufficient.

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A set or subset contains notes. As mentioned above, those notes have a note-type and include settings like the amount of fields it contains. In a note-type, you’ll also specify card-types. Card-types serve as blueprint for the actual cards you’ll study: it determines things like which fields are shown and the actual layout. Thus when you create a new note, it’ll generate cards based on the card-types contained in your note’s note-type. If this doesn’t make sense yet, don’t worry, you’ll get it doing this tutorial.

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Type:Basic means we’ll create, unsurprisingly, a note of the basic type. These notes have only two fields (a front and back), and only one generated card: one that shows you the front as query, and the back as response. We’ll create a new note-type in a second, but for our first note this is fine: a card on Ito Hirobumi, an important figure in the modernization of Japan during the 19th century, using below’s explanation. Inserting images is easily done by copy/paste. As example, copy Ito’s portrait on the right and paste it in your Create Note screen.

Who

Lower-rank Samurai in Choshu - politician - 4x PM - Resident-General of (protectorate) Korea - founding father of Modern Japan - assassinated by a Korean nationalist.

When

1841 - 1909

Where

Born in Choshu, studied in Universy College London (1863) together with Choshu Five. Spent 18 months in Europa studying different constitutions.

What

Originally a sonno joi movement member before foreign studies. On return, warned Japan against Shimonoseki passage war. Set up a cabinet and tax system, became prime minister and set up Meiji Constitution. Also important for the removal of several Unequal Treaties.

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It’s a good practice to properly tag your cards as well. You can add multiple tags, separating them with spaces. This allows for quick sorting in Anki’s card browser. You’ll end up with something like the screenshot to the right. Now finish up by clicking add. Congrats, keep this up and you’ll breeze through your exams!

Creating your own cards… Efficiently!

Our first ‘efficient’ card will be one on a tipping point in recent Japanese history: the Meiji Restoration in 1868. We’ll create a new note type that generates two cards, and finally, alter the basic template to allow furigana displayal on touch. This one’s meant to get a feeling on Anki’s diverse extension options. You’ll end up with these cards:

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First, switch sets to the ‘0 - Important dates‘ subset. If you’re still on the previous add-screen, switch sets by clicking on the corresponding set button near the top right.

There are various ways of creating a new note type. For now, just click on the basic type, then manage on your next dialogue screen, and add on the one thereafter. Select the first option, and name it something like DateEventDetail. Return and select this new type as your active note type.

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Next up, you’ll be editting this note’s fields. You’ll want a note that:

  1. contains the event’s specific date (1868),
  2. the event’s name (Meiji Restoration)
  3. a field for more detailed information.

Thus in the field screen, add a new field called Detail, and rename (don’t delete) the other two to Date and Event.

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Go ahead and add data in our fields. For the detail field, copy-paste below’s text. Copy-pasting doesn’t include below’s layout however, so you’ll have to do this manually using the toolbar demonstrated in below’s screenshot (or using classic shortcuts as ctrl-b used in other text-editors). When finished, don’t click on add just yet!

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Cause

Commodore Matthew C. Perry (Convention of Kanagawa) - unequal treaties (Harris Treaty) - sonno joi movement

Rise

Satsuma-Choshu Alliance - resignation of Tokugawa Yoshinobu (15th and last Tokugawa Shogun) - Boshin War

Key points

  1. Restoration of imperial rule: return of the Emperor’s practical abilities
  2. The end of Sakoku policy, as well as the Bushi dominated Bakufu, and 265 years of rule by Tokugawa Shogunate
  3. Five Charter Oath promulgated at Emperor Meiji’s enthronement.
  4. one reign, one era name” (一世一元(いっせいいちげん) ) system adopted: the start of eras named after their emperor.

Effect

Meiji constititution (Ito Hirobumi, 1890) - abolition of the han system (廃藩置県(はいはんちけん)) - abolition of the four class system (士農工商(しのうこうしょう)) - land and tax reforms - nationwide subscription - satsuma rebellion - Rapid industrialization - 富国強兵(ふこくきょうへい) and militarization

Finally, we’ll change the cards generated out of this note. Click on the Cards button and take a good look around. Terms in double brackets (eg. {{Event}}) are variables and represent either your note’s fields or its front/backside (eg. {{FrontSide}}). Through tags as <br> and <hr>, you might notice cards use HTML (the markup language used in webdevelopment), while the style-screen in the middle defines your card’s style using CSS (the same standard used for layouting in webdesign): stuff like colors, font-types, etc. Note that, while it could help, you really don’t need any experience in these to make nice cards.

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Start by editting your current card. Name it date by clicking morerename.

Next you’ll want to add the contents of your detail field to your backside’s template. <br><br> creates two line breaks in HTML, adding sufficient room between the content of the two fields.

    {{FrontSide}}

    <hr id=answer>

    {{Event}}
    <br><br>
    {{Detail}}

Now click on the + button in the upper-right corner to add a new card. Name it Event. This time you’ll edit the templates of the front and back to question you on the event’s date along the details by switching the {{Event}} and {{Date}} variables around (there’s a button for that, but try it manually to get a feel on variables / templates). Give if a shot.

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When finished, you should now have something similar to the screenshot on the left. If you’re still with me, I’d like to introduce you one last useful feature (for now). This one might be less relevant for those not studying Japanese, but honestly, it’s a neat one to keep in mind when designing your cards (I occasionally use it outside language-learning as well). Remember those kanji up there? They had furigana7 on top. We’d probably want this in our cards as well. Luck goes it setting this up is extremely simple and support comes out-of-the-box: just add furigana: (all lower-caps) in front of your field variables in the card-note template screen you’re in, eg. {{Detail}} becomes {{furigana:Detail}} (you won’t see any visible changes yet as we haven’t added the actual furigana in our text itself yet).

Actually, to accomodate Japanese learners, we’ll take away the crutches of kana reading aids and let it display only on touch. Add the CSS below to the bottom of your note’s style (the one in the middle). This hides all furigana (or rather, ruby annotations) by default and displays them upon touch or hover.

ruby rt { visibility: hidden; }
ruby:hover rt { visibility: visible; }

Now, add the actual furigana, contained in square brackets, next to their respective words: eg. 一世一元[いっせいいちげん], 廃藩置県[はいはんちけん], 士農工商[しのうこうしょう], and 富国強兵[ふこくきょうへい]. When done, let’s wrap things up by clicking add.


Now that you’ve created your first set(s) and a couple of cards, I highly recommend changing the studying settings tied to your sets as well. Out of the box, Anki will add 20 new cards and allow only 100 repetitions a day. This is highly inefficient. We’ll want to remove the top barrier and be in control of the amount of new cards we study.

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Open your main deck’s settings by clicking the icon to the right and selecting settings. Don’t worry, these settings pertain all sets fixed to this “option group”, so you won’t have to do this manually for all your new sets. Edit these three elements:

  • New Cards: new cards/day -> 0
  • Repetitions: maximum reps/day -> 9999
  • Mistakes: action on difficult cards -> tag only

Instead of an arbitrary number of new cards every single day, you’ll be in control yourself by clicking “customized study” from the set’s menu, and choosing the amount of new cards you’d like to study.

I’ve exported my own copy of this example and uploaded if you want to compare or save yourself the work doing it manually:

Your first set… Efficiently!

If you’re starting on a new language, you’ll probably want to start by learning basic vocabulary common in every language (eg. words such as “person”, “name”, etc). If that’s the case, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel: look for premade decks and eventually adjust the card lay-out to your own liking. Anki’s own shared deck repository is a good place to start.

If there’s no premade decks to your liking, but you have access to large data files such as large word lists, another solution would be to import CSV8 files or other forms of text seperated by tabs or semicolons and mapping the contents to your note’s fields. An added benefit of this approach is it’s suitability for group (or class) work, by setting up a googledoc sheet, and through a joint-effort creating a large spreadsheet everyone could export as CSV. If there’s demand, I could hack up a small (we’ll see) guide on setting this up.

Personally, I’ve set up my environment to import any new Japanese word I encounter online and would like to study straight into anki with audio and dictionary definitions. As this goes beyond the scope of this article, I’ve written another tutorial on that, and definitely recommend that approach for Japanese learners.

Structuring Data

  • But Stevie”, I hear you ask, “how do I study less structured information with Anki?

Good question. This involves some thinking on your part: what is it that you’d like to reproduce? What information would you like to memorize? Think creatively on your course and in what different ways you could structure it in bite-sized pieces to feed your ankiset9. Courses are designed with a certain logic in mind, after all. You could start off by making subsets on each of the big chapters of your textbook, or create the answer to potential questions first, mark the important data next, and ankify10 this. This processing is an important step in grasping the big picture and part of the actual studying. This is the exact reason why I’m reluctant to share some of my own sets that don’t involve the need for just rote memorization.

Over the past two years at university I’ve devised and adjusted my own method to structuring and creating ankisets. Feel free to try it yourself (your mileage might vary). It goes somewhat as follows:

  1. Structure: create a structure based on the course’s one (this could be as simple as copying the Table of Contents) or on repeating elements (certain theories, models, periods in time, artists, their works, etc). If the content of a single class is relatively self-containing, this is even easier. Use this as template for your set.
  2. Analyse: analyse all your available sources: your textbook, own notes, powerpoint presentations, etc. Find repeating elements, highlighted or marked parts, and everything that strikes as important. There’s a reason for this and these should be given priority on memorization.
  3. Devide: try to devide and rephrase these into flashcard suitable questions. Use the Five Ws11 as guideline if stuck (What, Who, When, Where, Why). Try to remain brief in the backside of the flashcard: I often break this rule myself, but, if you have to scroll down, it’s usually too long.
  4. Style: Different information requires different styling. Alter your templates and note types to reflect these by using graphical elements, cloze-encounter, audio, different directions, etc. A simple example: to memorize important dates, I use a card with three fields (Year, Event, Information) and generate two notes on these: one displaying the year in front, one displaying the event. Both show further details on the back.
  5. Study: You’ve analyzed the contents. Congratulations. Get started on these new cards.

If I studied something marketing-oriented I’d probably call this the SADSS-model and write an e-book called “5 Steps To Master All Knowledge (and make you a succesful and better person along the road)”, free of charge if you subscribe to my non-existent newsletters. If I were a social media marketeer I’d add “Number 5 will shock you!” as subtitle. (Don’t worry. I won’t do either.)

Spaced Learning

  • Stevie! If I’m a college student studying one, or several, language(s) alongside other theoretical classes (and I most likely am since I’m reading this blog), won’t this mean I get to repeat hundreds to thousands of cards every single day?!

Yes. Yes it does mean that.

Think of it this way. You’ll have to study either way. Language acquisition comes with it’s sacrifices: you can’t just stop studying for a few weeks and expect to come out unharmed. Building up an internal dictionary containing tens of thousands of words you recognize on sight or produce actively, utilizing grammatical structures on the spot (often under severe pressure), or comprehending speech at real-time; all of these require an effort not just to memorize but to maintain as well. Same goes for any other class, you can’t cram your way through university. What this method offers is a way of structuring your data and studying efficiently: paradoxically by studying more you’ll actually save time, as there’s no need to repeat what you already know. If you’re utilizing Spaced Repetition12, the data you need to know will be served (roughly) the moment you’re about to forget it.

  • Even if I’m on a holiday? This makes me very sad! :( I’ll just pretend this method of studying is not suitable for me and dismiss anki forever!

Sadly, this does mean maintaining your cards even when you’d prefer spending your day in a different way. There’s no pause button to put your cards on hold, so if you fail to go through them several days in row, you’ll have piled up all those lost days and take forever to get through them again.

Of course, once the set has finished it’s purpose (usually preparing for an exam), you could just as well delete it. It does feel as a waste (after all, what’s the point of studying in the first place?), but sadly it’s just unsustainable to maintain everything, all of this deep knowledge, till the end of times. Another approach here would be to suspend the more trivial cards and just stick on the broad outlines. The choice lies in your own hands!™ I spent about a month on a road trip in the USA this summer; unforgettable memories aside I did maintain my Ankisets the whole time. But as I removed all of my non-Japanese sets and maintained the bare necessities of vocab and kanji, this meant only about half an hour of studying each day. That’s not too bad, huh?

Anyway. As I’ve said earlier, you’ll have to study either way. It is entirely possible that the way Anki and it’s spaced repetition work don’t work for you, but don’t lie to yourself either.13 Find another way that does work for you. There are plenty of studying methods that could be suitable, including some interesting new ones14 gaining popularity, but more likely as not, reading and marking your textbook a few times and cramming a summary the night before an exam is not one of them.

  • But wait Stevie hold up, if I get this right, I’ll be forced to use Anki, like, forever? Won’t I ever be able to just quit and bask in my new-found fluency?

This one’s a bit difficult. I’ve heard of people using Anki for over 8 years, applying it solely as a language maintenance tool and only very occasionally adding new vocab cards when appropriate. This rings more true to me. Spaced learning means they’re only getting like 5 - 10 mins worth of repeating old cards by now anyway so why not? If there’s ever a time, however, when you’re comfortable enough to process media as-is, and you feel you’ve been a slave to software for far too long, don’t let me stop you uninstalling Anki and breaking out in some form of freedom dance. Just… don’t let all that progress go to waste! Maintain your language skills!

Wait! There is more!

The main goal of this post was to introduce Anki both in it’s core usage as well as the wide range of appliances in the field of both linguistic and academic studies. If you’ve any further questions, feel free to leave a comment below.

That being said, Anki is customizable to the point books have been written on it. Thus trying to contain everything in a single post (hence “A quick guide to Anki”) is a mission impossible. There are several other features I feel are useful (and underrepresented) enough in mainstream language blogs to warrant further writing though (namely Anki’s API, statistics, useful plug-ins, and integrating Rikaisama and J-pod101’s audio). Check these out in my next blogs:

Further reading

  • Anki Manual: the official Anki manual. If you’re into that kind of thing, theirs is excellent and very comprehensive. I recommend saving these for after you’ve gotten used to the software a bit.
  • Japaneselevelup.com: one of the most popular Japanese self-learner resources out there, themed after a roleplaying videogame (a bit gimmicky but there’s a large audience for that stuff). Probably mentions Anki more as I do (my god).
  • Twenty rules of formulating knowledge: an article on making quality flashcards by Dr Piotr Wozniak, the author of the very first SRS algorithm as used in Anki predecessor SuperMemo.
  • Anki Essentials: a 100+ page guide on using Anki. Told you there were books written on Anki. I’m not much of a fan on the downloadable self-help e-book hype but for what I’ve read, this one’s surprisingly good.

  1. Image taken from the 2012 Japanese animated film Wolf Children by Mamoru Hosoda, used under Fair Use doctrine. 

  2. Flashcard sets consisting of respectively 2000, 6000 or 1000 words with example sentences, all accompanied with high quality audio. They’re available both as Ankisets or on Anki alternative Memrise. As I’ve started learning Japanese through university I can’t attest for it’s helpfulness yet, but the addition of spoken sentences for context is a major advantage indeed. 

  3. This is for more technical users and there really is no reason not to use AnkiWeb’s servers, unless they’re permanently down for some reason. Read more on https://github.com/dsnopek/anki-sync-server

  4. Except if you’re on iPhone, but if you’re able to afford Apple products that shouldn’t be much of a problem. Aside from donations that’s the only income the developers get anyway, and it’s license is peanuts compared to buying any triple-A videogame on current-gen consoles. 

  5. Karpicke, Jeffrey D., en Henry L. Roediger. 2008. “The Critical Importance of Retrieval for Learning”. Science 319 (5865): 966–68. 

  6. OCR: Optical Character Recognition: basically recognizing text or characters through an image (like a scan or photograph taken with your cellphone). I recently found this free manga reader for Android with OCR and dictionary which looks pretty cool. Check it out at http://ocrmangareaderforandroid.sourceforge.net/ 

  7. A Japanese reading aid by printing the word’s pronunciation in syllabic characters above the original word. A more general term for this is ruby, and such annotations are commonly used to romanize other languages as well. Read more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruby_character 

  8. Comma-Seperated Value files: plain text containing data formatted as table by seperating them through commas. 

  9. The danger in this is learning information loose from it’s context. Be sure to structure your ankiset accordingly as well to remain aware of the big picture. 

  10. to ankify: “to process large sets of information into small, managable flashcards prepared for the memorization tool Anki”. At least, that’s how I’d expect to see this term if it were to actually exist. 

  11. A popular formula of questions, whose answers are considered as base intel, in any type of problem-solving, research or journalism. Read more at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Five_Ws 

  12. SRS or Spaced Repetition System is how the Anki/learning community commonly referred to spatial learning. 

  13. Actually there are several notables arguing against Spaced Repetition, but honestly, the real value in these articles lies in the counter-arguments provided in the comments. Example: https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog/2012/08/05/forgetting-is-good/ 

  14. Memory Palaces (also known as Method of Loci) are gaining some new popularity thanks to TV series Sherlock, and rely on spatial memory. Venn Diagrams and other kinds of graphical tools also target our visual memory, and are quite helpful, but these could surely be combined with SRS (in fact, I believe visual stimuli are fundamental to your sets anyway).