How to Correctly Use Anki Flashcards (And Why Most People Get it Wrong)

If you’re a student, you know what flashcards are. Flashcards can be quite handy, but most students misuse them because flashcards are not as effective as people would have you believe.

Did you know that around 70% of students who achieve the highest grades use flashcards? Sounds great, right? Well, did you also know that around 60 to 70% of the students achieving the lowest grade also use flashcards? The truth is that if you’re not using them, you probably will lose out, but using them doesn’t gain you a significant competitive advantage for higher grade levels.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve got a lot of experience with flashcards. In fact, in my first three years of university, I probably accumulated 6000–7000 flashcards for my topics, and I used them a LOT. It was a nightmare—and I think those of you that use flashcards a lot can probably understand this.

At a certain point, you have so many flashcards that you end up on this endless flashcard grind.

Now, I didn’t have 6000 physical flashcards. I had them on my phone. The app I settled on was Anki, which is probably the most well-known flashcard app—and, for what it does, it’s excellent. It has a good spaced-repetition algorithm built into it. You can be sitting at your computer, reading some stuff and putting it into flashcards as you go, and you’re leveraging off the power of spaced repetition and active recall by using flashcards.

All of that is very good.

But the problem is how MUCH we use flashcards and WHAT we put on them.

Anki is a very comprehensive application but is still just a tool. Your ability to use the tool correctly is 10x more important than the tool itself.

While I was going through the research on this, and when I was teaching students about how to memorise more effectively, it became clear that relying on flashcards is a strategy that does not win. Even if you’re using digital flashcards and being quite selective, and even if you’re diligent with the spaced repetition (which, by the way, has its own host of issues), most people still use flashcards the wrong way.

How do students tend to use flashcards?

First, students tend to have flashcard overload. For an entire topic, you might have 50–100 flashcards that go over a lot of details.

The other way that students tend to use flashcards is that they rely on them for a large proportion of their learning.

A ‘large proportion’ is subjective, but the point is that if you were to take the flashcards away, you would lose so much of your learning that you would really struggle to get a high mark on your tests. That’s a reliance on flashcards.

Both of these things are very, very bad. Here’s why.

Problem #1: Creating More Future Work

Because if you rely on having a high volume of flashcards, due to the nature of flashcards (i.e. spaced repetition), this means that every flashcard you create is making more work for yourself in the future. This builds on top of it itself until all of your time is used up by just doing flashcards. And so you end up not doing some of them, which defeats the point because you’re not even doing the flashcards properly.

Essentially, due to the nature of flashcards being that they rely on spaced repetition, plus the fact that they’re so easy to make often means that we make a lot of them, but we don’t actually get the learning that we should because time is an issue. That’s the first major issue with flashcards.

Problem #2: Flashcard Dependence

Dependence means that if you’re not doing the flashcards, you’re not getting the learning, which is dangerous.

It also takes away from a different type of learning that would reduce the need for having flashcards in the first place: relational priority learning. The idea behind relational priority learning is that when you learn through relationships instead of isolated information, you can retain content much more easily. Therefore you actually don’t even need to do flashcards in the first place because you’re not going to forget it!

This is a concept that I think a lot of people are very unfamiliar with, but we’re consistently able to get our students to the point where they don’t really need many flashcards at all.

So what is the right way to use flashcards?

It’s only possible to use flashcards the right way when you remove your dependence on flashcards; I can’t just tell you to use fewer flashcards now because then you would have nothing to use instead and replace flashcards with.

So we need to replace our dependence on flashcards with our relational-priority learning, and we need to create a fundamentally relationship-driven learning system. Once we have that system set up, your level of retention will be extremely high, to begin with—then we no longer need to rely so heavily on superficial memorisation techniques like active recall and spaced repetition of isolated facts.

That’s a hallmark of any highly efficient learner (rather than someone who is just tweaking and optimising a fundamentally broken system).

Once we can do that, we will naturally find that we need a much smaller amount of flashcards. Then we can start transitioning away from depending on flashcards and use them only as a supplement for those particular details that we’re more likely to forget because they don’t fit into our relationships.

If we have relationship-focused learning, 80–90% of everything we learn will be very highly retained, and then we can use flashcards after that.

Now, I know a lot of people will say at this point, “But Justin, different people learn differently.”

Yes, that’s true—but your brain is not the special snowflake born as the 0.000001% of the population that is fundamentally different from every other human brain. We’re talking about fundamental ways that the human brain works, and relationship-focused and relational learning is universal for all different people.

There is NO ONE out there who needs to rely on repetition and active recall in order to learn. In the thousands of students I’ve worked with, I’ve never seen a single student who was actually using a correct technique and still found that they needed to rely on memorisation.

The idea that ‘different people learn differently’ is something that applies to VARIATIONS on the fundamentals when they’re done correctly—it doesn’t mean that you neglect the basic fundamentals.

That’s like someone that has only learned to walk on their knees saying, “Oh, I just walk differently, so I’m not going to try to walk on my feet.” You do you, but I’m pretty sure that if you start walking on your feet, you’re going to find a style of walking that’s probably better than walking on your knees.

Hopefully you want to learn how to ‘sprint’ when it comes to studying instead of crawling just because it’s comfortable and what you’re familiar with.

So in the thousands of students that I’ve worked with to help them get the top grades, it’s not possible to veer away from flashcards (physical or digital) without having a more efficient underlying system of learning that stops you from needing to memorise in the first place.

But once you’re able to unlock that, I promise that you will be able to move away from this flashcard dependency and start unlocking a type of learning that is much more effective.

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