How to Make Better Anki Flashcards: Principles for High-Quality Questions

Hi, this is Lesson 3 of 4 in the Anki Fundamentals free course. I hope you like it! Let me know if you have any questions or feedback — I'd like to hear what you think! 🙂

Hi, Al here.

In this post, you’re going to learn the most important principles I learned from experience that will help you create high-quality, memorable flashcards you can use in the long-term.

As a bonus, you’ll also get a free pdf of card examples at the end of this article. (No signup required)

Quite frankly, most flashcard tips on Google just plain suck.

Many are just piecemeal “hacks” that don’t apply to other situations.

With the principles I’m going to show you, on the other hand, you will be able to apply them no matter what you’re learning.

Anyway, creating better flashcards doesn’t mean you’re going to use a ton of add-ons and card types or styles…

It means developing the SKILL of flashcard-making.

It’s as simple as it gets.

All that’s left is practice.

That should save you a lot of time, shouldn’t it?

And talking about “saving time” — let’s just address one thing first.

Does Making Anki Flashcards Really “Take Too Long”?

Many Anki newbies (and most people) often try to put image occlusion masks on their lecture slides to make things easier NOW, but fail future exams because they can’t comprehend the higher level concepts the exams require.

They approach their studying in what I call a Time Debt mindset — they try to “study faster”, even if it costs them a lot of time in the future.

Specifically, they “study more efficiently” but in the end, they create much bigger time wasters:

  1. Getting blanked out because your cards are too vague
  2. Having to re-learn a prerequisite material you’ve already studied before
  3. Re-taking a course because you failed to remember stuff when it matters most; and worst of all,
  4. Not graduating on time

Patrick McKenzie, a programmer who runs 4 software businesses, articulates it better:

Most people think, intuitively, time always rots. You get 24 hours today. Use them or lose them. The foundation of most time management advice is about squeezing more and more out of your allotted 24 hours, which has sharply diminishing returns.

In contrast, when you adopt a Time Asset mindset, you end up doing what needs to be done NOW — even if it initially takes more time — because that will save you a LOT more time in the future.

Thus, the more thought you initially spend into creating a flashcard, the longer it remains useful and the more rewards you’ll be able to reap from it. (Translation: You avoid wasting time in the long run)

As my favorite writer, James Clear, says:

Each Time Asset that you create is a system that goes to work for you day in and day out. […] If your schedule is filled with Time Debts, then it doesn’t matter how hard you work. Your choices will constantly put you in a productivity hole. However, if you strategically build Time Assets day after day, then you multiply your time exponentially.

So how do better flashcards help you save more time?

By eliminating the much bigger causes of waste:

  1. The time you’re stuck answering incredibly vague cards
  2. The time spent in having to re-learn a prerequisite material because you “life hack’ed” your way to memorizing lecture slides; or, probably the worst,
  3. The time spent re-taking a big exam just because you failed to remember important knowledge until the end

Think of flashcards like “seeds”!

They’re “idea seeds” that eventually grow and root themselves deep in your brain. They give high-quality “harvests” when you tend to them each day.

Problem is, bad seeds always turn into bad plants. Put plenty of them in your land and, without you noticing, more hard work will yield more of these bad harvests.

This is why investing time into creating atomic, future-proof flashcards created from holistic learning is so important. (More later)

Best of all, you’ll be able to use these for YEARS, too — because principles never change.

Fair warning, though…

Please please please don’t expect you’ll be able to internalize them after 3 minutes if you’re just going to skim these.

That’s because it will take you a lot of WORK to practice these principles yourself and get them right the first time.

3 Principles for Effective Anki Flashcards

Principle 1. Atomic

Atomic means (ideally) cueing one idea per card, usually done in two ways:

  1. Increased specificity. Breaking a complex idea down to multiple specific ones and creating cards for each. (easiest)
  2. Increased integration. Condensing multiple ideas into a single, higher-level idea. (hardest — needs synthesis and pattern recognition)

The primary purpose of this is to avoid what psychologists call cue overload.

When you use cues that have more than one associated memory, it tends to impede recall rather than help it1 — leading to longer answer times.

Side Note: This is also why I don’t recommend using Anki for lists greater than 4 items, unless:

  1. They’re highly related to each other; or
  2. Can be remembered with a single mnemonic __ Just use memory techniques rather than Cloze Overlapper. They’re way faster and more robust.

Anyway, as a side benefit, you can avoid being “boxed into topics”.

Michael Nielsen, which I quote a lot, says:

…one real benefit is that later I often find those atomic ideas can be put together in ways I didn’t initially anticipate. And that’s well worth the trouble.

Long story short, vague questions suck.

Go atomic.

Both of these tie in perfectly to the next point…

Principle 2. Holistic

Holistic means associating/integrating an idea into your existing knowledge first before putting it into Anki.

While “holistic” might sound like a contradiction to the first one, there is a profound distinction at work here:

Have holistic ideas, but atomic flashcards.

Why is this so powerful? Because:

  1. The more you use an old idea to understand new ones, the easier it gets to recall the old one.2
  2. The more associations an idea has, the better you’ll remember it. 3
  3. Simplifying multiple complex ideas into simpler structures allow for better encoding in memory.

Three ways to guarantee you’re creating holistic cards are:

  1. Learning justifications before you create flashcards. Learn the reasoning, or the evidence that justifies a fact being true! That’s a logical connection that produces robust encoding.
  2. Adding fabricated associations. These are “fake context” that help you remember an idea while not necessarily building higher-level ideas on top of it. It’s the weakest one, but it’s quite useful for combatting interference. For example, when you’re trying to remember “Sternocleidomastoid” and you remember “Son Goku” when you see it, then put that association when you’re testing your cards! It makes formulation a bit fun, actually.
  3. Adding visuals. Self-explanatory, but you can see more examples when you get to the “Anatomy of a Good Card” section down below.

Principle 3. Future-Proof

If you’re using Spaced Repetition—a long-term process—then it’s only logical that your cards must also be usable in the long-term.

Psychologists have found we have a tendency to believe that vividly knowing something now would automatically lead to remembering the same thing — with the same level of detail — in the future.

They call this the stability bias.

Just imagine the hundreds of times you’ve nodded your head in a well-explained lecture and then forgetting everything come exam day.

Or looking at your notes you took just last year just to figure out that you can’t understand any of it anymore.

You probably went from “Yeah, I’m gonna remember that…” to “Who wrote this damn thing?”

That’s stability bias in a nutshell.

Two ways to do make your cards a bit more future proof:

  1. Add more specifiers (e.g. adding the number of items to recall in the question)
  2. Create more context (e.g. descriptors)

Just take a look at this question:

“What does Kepler say”? Yes, it’s atomic and quite holistic, but do you think you’d still understand this question after, say, a month?

Compare this to the revised, future-proof question:

By stating the “ratio” and “Kepler’s Third Law,” [SPECIFIER + CONTEXT, respectively] I’ve immediately created the shortest path between the cue and the memory.

The Anatomy of a Good Anki Card

Having used a ton of flashcards as well as having re-created a couple of decks, I can say that there’s a repeatable structure for creating an extremely well-crafted card.

The Ultra-specific question & The Answer

Just to be clear, statements aren’t questions.

It’s literally a huge tendency for Anki beginners to copy their notes into Anki and then treat them like an identification-type exam.

They literally turn their notes into cards.

It might work, but upon closer examination, you’ll realize it doesn’t test understanding — but rather it merely tests your ability to complete the missing pieces.

Questions allow you to test your understanding of concepts — not to mention they’re more natural to deal with.

Answers are self-explanatory.

But again, make sure it’s not a list greater than 4 items. (The number was based on working memory slots, FYI.) If you’re going to do that, make sure you use either the Cloze Overlapper or Memory Techniques.

I prefer memory techniques because then I can create meta-mnemonic cards (a card that helps you remember your mnemonics) to remember them better.

The Excerpt

I got this one from Prerak Juthani back in 2019.

Essentially, you’d want to put a screenshot/excerpt of the material you got your card from.

That way, you won’t have to go back to the material itself to relearn the card in case of a total lapse — there’s the context embedded in an excerpt, after all.

(Obviously you won’t need these in Image Occlusion.)

You can say it’s also a future-proofing element.

The best part?

This allows you to totally ditch notebooks (eventually) and go straight to Anki to revise.

Prerak Juthani is living proof — he’s totally paperless when studying. However, if your use case is to develop ideas or enrich your knowledge, then ditching notes is quite debatable.

Just to be clear, I’m not telling you to ditch notebooks — it’s just one of the luxuries Anki can offer.

13 Card Examples to Get You Started!

At this point, you should already have a basic idea of how you should approach flashcard formulation. And, with the principles you’ve learned including the anatomy of a good Anki flashcard, you should be able to think of the “tactics” for yourself.

All that’s left now is to turn this knowledge into action.

Quite frankly, you will NOT get better just by knowing about these stuff.

You NEED to practice!

Michael Phelps didn’t watch swimmers or tried to “learn new swimming tricks” to become Michael Phelps.

He practiced the skill day in, day out!

Now if you want to see some examples, you can click here to a get free copy of the 13 Flashcard Do’s and Don’ts PDF.

There’s no signup required.

Inside, you’ll also get a couple of “pro tips” to apply when making your cards, such as:

  • When it’s NOT a good idea to “make more flashcards in less time” [Page 9]
  • 3 crucial conditions to meet if you want to use Anki for multiple choice tests [Page 10]
  • The best way to create flashcards from facts — don’t make [fact] – [definition]! [Page 18]
  • Creating cards for complex information [Page 20]
  • Making long processes more “card-friendly” [Page 23]
  • …and some more 🙂

Click here to download your copy.

Next step: Learn how to use Anki Efficiently

Read the free mini-course: Using Anki Efficiently: Root Cause Edition (Lesson 1) →


  1. Watkins, M. J. (1975). Inhibition in recall with extralist “cues”. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 14(3), 294–303.
  2. Craik, F. I. M., & Lockhart, R. S. (1972). Levels of processing: A framework for memory research. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 11(6), 671–684.
  3. Hunt, R. R., & McDaniel, M. A. (1993). The enigma of organization and distinctiveness. Journal of Memory and Language, 32(4), 421–445.