How to Create an Anki Deck That Maximizes Learning

Hi, this is Lesson 2 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! 🙂

Hey there, Al here.

So, what do you think of my beginner tutorial?

Anyway…

In this post, you’re going to learn how to create an Anki deck that not only makes learning more effective, but also more creative.

Specifically, you’re going to learn how to create the optimal number of decks to maximize your learning. (Hint: It’s not exact science, just pure reasoning)

That’s because using Anki for learning doesn’t just mean memorizing what you’ve learned.

It also means being able to apply your knowledge in creative ways — whether that be using your ideas to birth new ideas, using them as hooks for new knowledge, or using them as is.

That only happens, though, when you create effective decks.

UPDATE: Actually, it turns out that one of my readers from the Philippines, Joseph, was able to review faster for his Board Exams because of creating effective decks, too:

It was just a hypothesis at first, but now I confirmed it’s true 🙂

Speaking of creative ways…what do you think is the most creative way to learn?

Is it when you’re learning one subject deeply and filtering every idea into the lens of that subject only?

Or is it when you’re learning widely and connecting ideas to form new insight?

Of course, your answer would be the latter (partly because I made it look like the answer 😂) — even I say that. But in reality, we were unconsciously programmed to prefer the first one!

That’s because it’s the exact way we’re taught to learn in school. Surprise, surprise! We call that type of learning “top-down learning.”

With top-down learning, you start with a predetermined category (determined by the school and its subjects, of course) and then believe that everything in that category should strictly be inside it.

Hence, “top-down”. There’s a predetermined hierarchy.

Surely, it’s an effective way for disseminating information, but just because we’re taught that way doesn’t mean we also have to think that way, too. Why? Because that’s not so creative, after all, isn’t it?

Yet, Anki newbies approach Anki learning the same way; they create too many decks — one deck for each topic, and then further dividing them into sub-topics. (Of course, these beginners I’m talking about does not include those who’ve read my Anki post 😉)

That’s suboptimal on multiple levels for creative learning.

Two reasons why it’s suboptimal:

  1. Not everything you’ll learn will be conveniently categorized into topics in the first place — especially in the real world
  2. Transfer of knowledge from one topic to another becomes essentially difficult

The reverse approach — bottom-up learning — is much better.

With the bottom-up approach, transfer of knowledge from one topic to another is more probable.

There’s no “strict” hierarchies, after all.

The “hierarchies” that were supposed to be predetermined now emerges from the cards.

Let me give an analogy:

If knowledge were a biological system, then each topic is an organ containing a portion of it.

The organ must have a system to begin with before it can function properly—otherwise, it’s just a useless combination of cells.

In a similar way, decks are the giant system that has a single function: to make the topics work together, build upon each other, and ultimately create “idea babies” and strong “idea families”.

This deepens your understanding, and thus strengthens your retention more than spaced repetition alone.

Now, I won’t tell you exactly how “idea babies” are made, but it’s safe to guess that your next question is:

How can I create decks that allow creative learning?

My rule is simply to use as few decks as possible. Ideally, a single deck for continuous learning. (Remember what I said in the first post?)

Michael Neilsen, one of the pioneers of quantum computing (!), apparently does the same thing:

The world isn’t divided up into neatly separated components, and I believe it’s good to collide very different types of questions. One moment Anki is asking me a question about the temperature chicken should be cooked to. The next: a question about the JavaScript API.

The big benefit, aside from creativity, is Interleaving.

According to this article [referring to students]:

…scores were 25 percent better for problems trained with interleaving; at one month later, the interleaving advantage grew to 76 percent.

Which basically means putting loosely related — and even unrelated — cards into a single deck improves your long-term retention in a snap.

If that isn’t the perfect advantage of having a single deck for learning faster, then I don’t know what is!

However, if you want more memorization efficiency than interdisciplinary learning, then you should create more decks. (I’d only recommend this if you’re someone who’d take an exam, though.)

Either way, be guided by this graph I made:

Anki deck tradeoff

But wait, is deck creation really a big deal?

If you want to use Anki for learning rather than memorization alone, it becomes a big deal.

You see, items in your memory should get built upon and associated to by new knowledge, rather than merely get stockpiled and disordered.

Having too many decks is the antithesis of this concept.

To give you a concrete example of what I mean by creative learning, here’s happened to me when I put all General Engineering subjects in a single deck:

First, I was able to learn new topics in subjects under “General Engineering” rapidly because concepts actually related to one another or at least resembled it. (The subjects are Strength of Materials, Mechanics, Physics, Engineering Economics, to name a few)

Then, I was able to make “idea babies” out of then.

One time, I was able to turn material strength analyses into an easy circuit analysis because the governing concept looked like Ohm’s Law.

If that looked like Ohm’s Law, then that means it can be analyzed using techniques formed from that principle. (i.e. “Voltage Divider” or “Current Divider”)

Other concepts had carryover in my life as well—especially Physics.

Frictional force on a flat ground increases with mass and roughness.

If applied to productivity, then massive tasks must be broken down; workflows must be smooth.

That way, you feel no friction.

In addition, the absence of friction means you can accelerate even when using little force; less energy required = efficiency.

To sum up, by having as few decks as possible, you’d be learning concepts as a whole unit rather than as fragmented topics.

Many experienced users will also attest that creating multiple decks are more for efficiency rather than insight.

It’s a trade-off you have to make, so I’ll leave that to you.

I’m teaching you PRINCIPLES (instead of tactics or “tips”) of effective Anki so you can think for yourself, after all.

Now then, if there’s a governing principle behind creating effective decks, you might think “is there one, too, when creating Anki flashcards?”

Well, you’d be right, but let’s talk about that in the next lesson.

After that lesson, you’ll be able to create cards that are not only effective for learning faster, but also cards that are quick to answer — so you don’t get buried in reviews.

A word of warning, though: Just because it’s an easy-peazy list doesn’t mean it should be consumed in an instant.

They are PRINCIPLES, not “hacks” — so they should be treated as if they’re runway lights that guide your safe landing on an airport.

You won’t really deviate from runway lights if you’re a pilot, don’t you?

If that’s clear, then let’s move on to the next lesson! I’ll see you there.

P.S. Have you noticed I said “long-term retention” is an advantage to learning? That’s actually what many “study hackers” don’t tell you.

At the end of this course, I’ll tell you the “secret” to learning faster. (But remember, there are no real ‘secrets’ to learning faster 😉)

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