The Best Way to Make Anki Cards for Processes (w/ Examples)


Hi, it’s me, Al.

In this post, you’re going to learn the simplest, best way I know of to learn long processes as an Anki learner.

First off, you’ve probably been told to “make short flashcards” but don’t know how exactly “short flashcards” can be made from long processes.

  • Make one large card that has the overall content full of cloze deletions?
  • LPCG add-on? Cloze overlapper?
  • Image occlusion of a diagram detailing the steps?
  • Make flashcards for one step, asking for the next one, and then suspending cards when you learn the first step correctly?
  • Do you create separate cards for the definitions of the steps?
  • Do you include definitions in with the diagram/list card?
  • Do you have to use tags for the process and then break it up into many cards?

But I can tell you for a fact that if you tried any of the time-wasting options above, you end up in at least one of three scenarios:

  1. You end up with a whole paragraph of clozes
  2. You’re blocking out too much or too little because you don’t know what to include and what to exclude
  3. You’re worried of leaving too much context and wouldn’t remember it outside of Anki

…all of which just take away from the reason you’re using Anki in the first place! You’re using Anki as a tool to complement your study process, not to spend all of your time endlessly tweaking the thing.

So I’m going to share with you simple, repeatable steps + a card template to make cards for long processes that have the right amount of context and feel “just right” to review.

If you do it correctly, you’ll be able to retain the big picture AND the details, and come up with a sure answer even when the questions are presented differently.

But first, we gotta get the thinking right.

First Things First — You gotta think the right way about learning processes.

I want to make sure you’re thinking about learning processes the right way:

You don’t need to make flashcards that tests you of the steps sequentially.

You LEARN them sequentially — that is obvious — but it’s fine to TEST it either in a linear or nonlinear way as long as you truly learned them before practicing them.

In the first place, making cards for each step and making sure that they show up in the right order is confusing, and putting everything into one cloze card is overwhelming…and ALSO confusing.

You don’t have to limit yourself to being a cloze-answering robot, either, because it’s a damn good recipe for losing the big picture.

So you can forget about how you can use image occlusion/cloze overlapper/LPCG/custom card types/suspending cards, or installing a gazillion add-ons just to learn a single process. Let’s keep things simple!

Look, I’m sure we all agree that Anki is a tool for remembering what you learn.

But if you did NOT LEARN anything in the first place, then there’s NOTHING to “remember”, don’t you think?

Learning comes FIRST!

Heck, literally the FIRST rule in Dr. Wozniak’s “20 rules of formulating knowledge” — a classic read for SRS learners — is “learn first before you memorize.”

Don’t even try to make flashcards without learning the processes first outside of Anki, because you’ll just end up going back to re-learn it. I mean, don’t you think that defeats your original goal of using Anki in the first place?

So let’s do things right the first time around. It doesn’t need to be perfect, but you gotta make sure you’re following the right study process rather than being functionally fixed in “thinking inside Anki”.

THAT is the only true way to use Anki efficiently.

The 3 Core Steps to Learn Processes Efficiently as an Anki Learner

I like to keep things as simple as possible. When I was learning processes in Electronics Engineering (semiconductors, avalanche effect, electronic communications, wave propagation, etc.) I always did 3 “core” steps:

  1. Form the encoded version of the core idea for each step
  2. Make questions that test you of what you understood
  3. Use my “8-second flashcard” template to form the flashcard

These are “core” steps because you can add memory techniques, use any tool of your choice, etc. on top of it. But if you strip down these steps even more, your learning goes into oblivion.

And it’s important to strip these down into essentials because I don’t like overcomplicating the process by using tons of add-ons, “suspending/unsuspending cards,” using scripts, creating new card types, or working around Glutanimate’s paywalls by installing Anki 2.0 and then reviewing in Anki 2.1…all of which I believe distract you from actually learning. . (Oddly specific? It’s what I see other people doing…)

Theese methods make you feel productive because you make flashcards faster or do things faster. You’re constantly in motion. But we’re not trying to make flashcards faster; we’re trying to learn efficiently. Those are two totally different things.

I’d rather spend a few more minutes doing things right the first time (or decent) so that I can enjoy my exam week, relax, and get enough sleep — instead of going back to what I’ve already learned or failing a course and repeating it the next term just because I tried to memorize words that don’t mean anything to me.

Wouldn’t you want the same?

And to do things right, know that each step builds upon the last. Make sure you don’t skip steps and think to yourself, “this doesn’t apply to me” because hey, if you’re here, I guarantee you this applies to you.

I’ll show it through an example from A-level biology: co-transport in the ileum.

  • sodium ions are actively transported out of the epithelial cells into the blood by the sodium-potassium pump
    • creates a concentration gradient as their is a higher concentration of sodium ions in the lumen of the ileum than inside the epithelial cells
  • sodium ions diffuse from the lumen into the epithelial cell, down the concentration gradient, via the sodium glucose co-transporter proteins
  • the co-transporter carries glucose into the cell with the sodium and the concentration of glucose inside the cell increases
  • the glucose diffuses out of the cell into the blood, down its concentration gradient through a protein channel by facilitated diffusion

I actually got this example from Reddit from someone who was asking for help with the same issue.

For context, I’m an Engineer, and I’m still pursuing Engineering in grad school. So if I can show you this process — a process that’s only learned in the medical field — then anyone can do it.

Step 1. Form the encoded version of the core idea for each step

By “encoded” I mean it in the context of the 3 stages of memory formation:

  1. Encoding. The “initial learning” of information
  2. Storage. How you maintain information over time — which is strengthened by better processing
  3. Retrieval. Happens whenever you access information from memory. The great thing about retrieval is that the process itself makes ideas a bit stronger and easier to access. (seem familiar?)

Clearly, Anki is for retrieval. Retrieval improves storage — which theories explain as “fighting memory decay” or “increasing storage & retrieval strength” or “elaborative encoding,” whatever. And since your learning speed is directly determine by what you already know, then better storage leads to better, faster encoding — which is mostly obvious when learning related domains.

But the opposite is true. If you suck at encoding, storage sucks, and retrieval sucks, too.

That’s why if you go straight ahead to making flashcards, you’re basically digging your memories their own grave. (Okay, maybe an oversimplication…)

It’s not magic, it’s cause-and-effect.

So, let’s do encoding.

We simply take the core ideas and representing them in the most efficient way possible based on our understanding and the patterns we notice.

You can use core keywords if you like, but I prefer making my own drawings. (as you’ll see later)

And because I’m an Engineer who doesn’t know crap about cells (and knows about cell sites instead) I had to look up the things below while I was learning about this:

  1. What “actively transported means” — turns out it’s a way for substances to move, but uses ATP. Makes sense, it’s ‘active.’
  2. What in the world is an ileum, sounds like a slimy thing — well, it is. It’s the small intestine.
  3. What’s a concentration gradient? It’s basically a difference of substance concentration between two close containers.
  4. Why the heck substances move from one direction to another? Oh, turns out it’s called “diffusion” and there are different ways this could happen. But substances tend to move from a higher to lower concentration gradient until it balances out.

Long story short, I lacked prior knowledge to understand the process. This is something you need to keep in mind — you can’t “hack” the lack of prior knowledge. But you also can’t stop at memorizing definitions, either — you have to apply that knowledge in its context to make it stick without needing a flashcard.

After learning the entire process and the necessary definitions, I noticed that I can represent that entire process in 3 core ideas:

  1. Creation of Na gradient
  2. Na Diffusion + Co transport + creation of glucose conc. gradient
  3. Facilitated diffusion

This is how you do chunking at the idea level, by the way. You compress a ton of ideas into a single, overarching representation.

And of course, let’s not forget that this process ain’t for nothing; it has a purpose. The end result is to get those sugars from small intestine to the bloodstream.

I ended up with this diagram:

Now, by encoding the core ideas, you get three benefits:

  • You make sure that you’re making quick to answer flashcards while covering a relatively large idea (because you’re using just a few words)
  • You can place the big picture in the flashcard without turning it into an overwhelming, Godzilla flashcard monster that feels disgusting to read
  • You can “double-encode” the encoded versions to form mnemonics for your memory techniques, like the method of loci/memory palace technique or simply acronyms

IMPORTANT: You may think this is just about “extracting keywords” but that’s wrong. This is about the process of representing the core idea using what you already know, and therefore could change from person to person depending on how knowledgeable you are about prerequisite/closely related topics.

Step 2. Make questions that test you of what you understood

If you’ve read my other article on creating effective flashcards, then you know that effective flashcards are encoded, and they are atomic.

The good news is that breaking down each step in a process means that you are already trying to make 1 flashcards for 1 idea at a time — all you have to do is turn your encoded notes into questions.

And here’s the thing: You don’t have to create a flashcard for every detail, because if you’ve correctly understood it, then retrieving even a small process will help you remember the elements and other nuances through the explanatory link.

From my diagram, I’ve created the following questions:

If I knew the answers to these questions, then by default I would know how to re-assemble them again as a whole, coherent process.

And that’s powerful.

Just to be clear, I recommend 1 flashcard per idea/chunk, not per fact. If this were done with 1 fact at a time, I’d be making an overwhelming amount of flashcards and instantly lose the big picture for the details. (that will probably be useless outside of anki anyway)

Step 3. Use my “8-second flashcard” template to form the flashcard

Finally, this is where we bring everything full circle. At this point, you’ve encoded the idea, and you’ve made atomic questions.

Congratulations, but we’re not done yet.

If you’re using a flashcard for the long-term, then you need to make sure you’re designing it for that purpose. It needs more context and specificity.

So you need to put added context in my flashcards so that when you miss a certain detail, I can immediately re-learn and re-assemble your understanding of an idea without losing the big picture where it belongs to.

The “8-second flashcard” template goes like this:

  • [question]
  • [answer]
  • [context]

The first two are obvious. The “context” could be added explanations/elaborations or the actual snippet of the process you’re using. Basically, they’re there to elaborate, or show the big picture. I recommend adding both elaborations and the material/note snippet if you have more time upfront.

For the best efficiency, draw the process yourself — from scratch — so you get that “big picture recall”, then take a picture of that, send it to your PC, and use that as extra context for the flashcard.

(BTW, the “8-second flashcard” idea comes from my article on creating better flashcards.)

Continuing from our example:

And here’s a demo of that “sticky” feature:

“Should you make a flashcard the asks the entire process? Or is breaking them down enough?”

It’s optional, but can be helpful in two cases:

  1. If you want to be confident in your knowledge of the big picture
  2. If you want to be able to explain it with perfect detail to someone else

In my experience, though, if you have indeed learned the big picture and followed all the steps above AND you’re going to be tested not through an essay but through individual questions, then you could skip on making a flashcard that asks for the entire process.

But if you REALLY want to make sure for whatever reason, you could create a separate deck for longer-to-answer flashcards, such as these processes AND your memory palaces if you’re already making them.

If you do, make sure you use longer intervals for settings. You already have accumulated good storage strength for these ideas, and that allows you to have longer intervals.

Don’t listen to overzealous tool-first thinkers telling you that there’s an optimal SRS algorithm for everyone. For practical reasons, it’s so much better to learn how to process information at a deeper level instead of such minutiae.

Note that you can also use the memory palace technique to remember your processes — which is now easier because you can now make mental images from the encoded versions you have ALREADY done before you made flashcards.

You don’t need to, but I want to make sure you know this option. It will come in handy when you’re short on time.

“What if I lose the big picture?”

If you learned the processes using the core steps I showed you above, then you don’t need to worry about that. Even randomly thinking about the process outside of Anki will already “re-assemble” the big picture in your memory if you have learned it coherently like we did in step 1.

The reason people lose the big picture when using Anki is because they don’t learn things first and instead they go straight to making flashcards. They go straight to “permanence” when all they have encoded and stored in their memory are disconnected facts. Well, it’s obvious that after neglecting a large part of your study process that you won’t get the results you want.

Anki won’t do the learning for you because all it does is schedule your questions.

And it’s the reason why I wanted you to think right about this before the steps, because if you keep on getting stuck on “flashcards” or “add-ons” it will be hard for you to get out of the cycle of “having too many flashcards” but not really understanding/being able to apply the content outside of Anki.

Some other tips for learning processes

I’m not one to give “tips” but when I do, I like to keep it applicable to many situations:

  1. Always be identifying lead dominoes where the other details can be inferred, and represent them in as few words as possible (other option is to create a visual representation for a step)
  2. See past the jargon to learn the underlying idea — a good test is if you can use plain english verbs to describe what each element does in the process
  3. You don’t need complete sentences. Again, you simply need to represent your understanding in a way that you can understand. (Besides, nobody wants to read your notes.)

Learning processes with Anki exposes the holes in your study system

Do you see how when we addressed the other holes in our study process — namely, the encoding part — suddenly there’s no need to create tedious templates, create hundreds of cloze cards for a longass paragraph, do image occlusion, or suspend/unsuspend cards based on which step it is you’re learning?

Because it’s supposed to be this simple.

Don’t get lost in features!

The last thing you want is to ironically let miscellaneous Anki features consume your life in your quest to become more efficient at studying.

Instead, think about the WHOLE process of learning and don’t get stuck with the tool.

When you know the only few steps that lead you to retention — encoding, storage, retrieval — then you can double down on these processes and let Anki be a small, but helpful part of it.

That’s all for now! If you liked this content, please share it with a friend! 🙂