How to Use Anki: An Efficient Tutorial for Beginners

Hi, this is Lesson 1 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, welcome here. In this post, I will teach you how to start using Anki in the most efficient way possible based on my experience.

Whether you’re using Anki for medical school, MCAT, language learning, engineering (like I did) or for continuous learning (what I do now) — I think you’re gonna love this.

Specifically, we’re going to cover the most essential elements of Anki that you should put your attention on, so you can:

  • Immediately start using this awesome spaced repetition software
  • Avoid the same mistakes that I did; and
  • Have a roadmap that tells you what’s actually important when using Anki

If you don’t know already, here are a couple of things Anki allows you to do in a nutshell:

  • Schedule reviews automatically, so you don’t have to worry about which specific topic to study
  • Study 1714.29% more efficiently as compared to those using conventional flashcards
  • Only study information you’re about to forget, so you study only what needs studying
  • Encode information into long term memory at will, rather than by chance
  • Remember almost anything you want without having to re-read
  • Study anywhere! Studying felt less effortful than ever the moment I started using Anki before. What a blessing.

I remember back then when I googled for hours but only ended up with overcomplicated “beginner” guides that left me confused more than ever.

It was a total waste of time.

In case you’re thinking about it, even the Anki manual itself is overkill. Surely, you needn’t know ALL of them before you can start using Anki!

It’s an app documentation that covers the entire feature set of Anki — so it’s definitely NOT a quick-start guide.

The truth is, you just need to learn the few core info if you’re just looking to start.

You want a guide that’s Lean, rather than filled with information you can’t readily use. (Hmm, now I wonder where that guide is…)

As the economist and psychologist Herbert Simon says,

….information consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.

Meaning, more information does NOT always mean it’s good for you.

Yes, the manual contains ALL the information you need, but the truth is, you don’t need more information — you just need a couple of the right things to start using the damn tool.

That being said, I made this FREE course comprehensive, yet concise so that it doesn’t just help you start using Anki right away, but will also make you a better Anki user more quickly.

Now, before we get started, I wanna know more about you.

Personally, I use Anki for continuous learning as well to get ahead of my classes in Grad School, but how about you?

Alright, done already? Cool.

Here’s what you’re gonna learn in this post:

Anki from Reddit
The very first version of this article was read by thousands of people from Reddit — awesome guys out there.

What is Anki?

Wait, don’t skip this — it’s pretty important.

As you may already know, Anki is an open-source flashcard app that uses spaced repetition algorithms and active recall to help you remember information fast and encode it to your long-term memory.

If you think a good long-term memory is only for smart people, you’d be wrong.

Even if you’re not born smart, Anki will help you remember information not only in the short term, but also in the long term.

First, it makes memory encoding easier with the help of visuals, audio, and other formatting stuff that would otherwise be impractical to implement using conventional flashcards.

Second, it allows you to intentionally commit items into your long-term memory.

Yes — INTENTIONALLY.

You see, the most common way we’ve adopted studying is through cramming. But that’s not the way to go.

When you’re cramming, you feel like you’re retaining more, but that’s only an illusion of cognitive ease.

When you use Anki for spaced repetition, though, you make time your best friend rather than your enemy. That’s because the longer you use Anki, the better your learning is gonna be.

Sounds good so far? Good.

Let’s move on.

Does Anki really work for learning?

Contrary to popular belief, just because Anki is a flashcard app doesn’t mean it’s only used for memorizing words or raw facts.

It’s also a tool for LEARNING — which means it helps you establish a library of “hooks” for understanding material you’re going to learn.

After all, without retention of concepts, it’s hard to understand everything that comes next!

But that only happens when you use Anki the right way.

That means:

  • Creating decks the right way
  • Creating questions the right way — where most beginners mess up, as you’ll discover really soon
  • Studying flashcards the right way

(We’ll talk more on these in the next lessons!)

But critics of Anki don’t use it that way.

Instead, they use shared decks. And then they create a deck for each topic.

Note: I’m well aware that you can use shared decks effectively for standardized exams, but I really don’t recommend it — UNLESS you’re in Medical School. I know of people who’ve created and used high-quality shared decks with great success, and you can find them here.

Critics use Anki only to collect items to memorize and fool themselves that they’ve learned it.

They also do Anki reviews intermittently—as if forgetting can be “skipped.”

…and then they have the audacity to say “Anki doesn’t work”?!

That’s like saying it’s the scientific calculator’s fault to give the wrong answers when in fact you don’t know how to use it!

Anki critics may think that just because this tool looks simple and unaesthetic (sorry, Damien) at the surface, it must be powerless.

But from simplicity comes its power—that’s because the power of simple tools like Anki depend on the user’s mastery of the principles.

I want you to read that again and internalize it:

The power of tools rely on the users’ mastery of the working principles.

Put another way, Anki is only effective if you know how to make it effective. It’s just a cognitive tool — it can’t really think for you, you know.

But the moment you learn how to use Anki correctly, you, too, can enjoy these benefits:

  • Ubiquitous learning. Anki is literally available in any platform, so that means you have the freedom to study wherever, whenever, and whatever you like.
  • Individuality of cards. Like I said, with Anki, you only study cards you’re about to forget. Of course, like you’ll learn in Lesson 4, there’s no exact way to tell you’re “about to forget something”, but in practice, some cards would warrant your attention more than others. This individuality makes it efficient because you learn at the idea level instead of at the subject level. (This also creates the possibility of fresh insights.)
  • Efficient learning. Michael Nielsen predicted that in 20 years, he is 1714.29% (120 minutes/7 minutes * 100%) more efficient for each card when learning using spaced repetition compared to conventional flashcard learning.1 I found that this was even greater for me — and it will be true for you, too, after you read this post.

Let’s now move on to the nitty-gritty.

How to Start Using Anki

To start using Anki, you need a computer (or laptop) and/or smartphone — preferably, both.

(Plus, it’s much, much faster to create flashcards using a computer.)

Downloading Anki

To download Anki on your computer, head over to AnkiWeb and download Anki.

How to download Anki

I prefer to use version 2.0 because more add-ons are readily available for this version compared to the 2.1 one. (I also haven’t felt the need to use it)

You’ll still be fine whichever version you intend to use, just keep the add-on compatibility in mind if you want to use them (which, you’ll want to).

UPDATE (1/28/2020): Since Anki started phased out Anki 2.0, I now recommend downloading the latest version, which you can find at the same place.

Then, for your smartphone, if you’re on Android, it’s available in Google Play Store, just search for “AnkiDroid” and look for this one:

Ankidroid is not Ankiapp

iOS users are required to pay for the app because that’s where the app gets its funds, after all. Heck, even if it’s a paid app on Android, I’d still pay for it. It’s that amazing.

Creating and Organizing Decks

Once you’ve installed and opened Anki, you’ll see one specific deck named “Default”.

You can either choose to rename it or just create another deck of your own.

To create a new deck, just hit the “Create Deck” button on the bottom part of the Anki window. You’ll be asked for a Deck name; I like to use my subject’s name for this one.

Now here’s where it gets interesting.

If you’re a lifelong learner like me, you ideally want to create a single deck only. That’s because you’ll find that a lot of concepts, even in seemingly unrelated fields, tend to be loosely related.

On the other hand, if you’re a college student, then your guideline should be: “If what I’m learning can show up in a single exam in the future (Read: Cumulative exams) then they should be in a single deck only.”

Think ahead!

That’s because by doing it this way, you would be learning the concepts as a WHOLE unit (via Interleaving), rather than as ideas ‘filed’ in a single topic — unable to transfer itself freely.

Here’s what I mean.

Back when I was reviewing for my Engineering Board Exams here in the Philippines, I put together all of the things I learned on Communications Engineering under “EST” — the exam name.

I literally studied like 4 textbooks on that subject and filtered out unimportant stuff to get ahead more quickly.

Here’s what the deck looked like.

IIRC, I got 86 on that specific exam — and get this — with confidence. When I counted my unsure answers, they were 16 items. Turns out I got 2 of those correct.

Do you see how Anki works now?

When you use Anki the right way, your exams transform into black-and-white results; it’s either you truly know it, or you don’t — no “mental block” type of crap again.

To be fair, I just had 2-3 months left to learn EST as I deleted all of my decks to get the cards right. (Sad life. That’s what I’m talking about when I said “easy to mess up”.)

Anyway, I’ll elaborate more on this in the next lesson, but this should do for now.

In addition to creating decks, you can organize your decks into subdecks in two ways:

One, by using the format “MAINDECK::SUBDECK”. Example “Physics::Thermodynamics”.

And two, by dragging the deck over to the desired Master deck. Here’s an illustration.

Don’t get me wrong, though — I don’t use the “subdeck” method very often, unless my subdivision is a really broad subject.

Also, I don’t recommend you create a lot of subdecks—you’re better off using Tags instead for “Custom Study” purposes (more on this later).

Creating and Organizing Cards

To create cards, just hit the “Add” on the top part of your window.

By clicking on it, you should be seeing the Add New window containing (1) Type, (2) Deck, (3) Front and Back fields, and (4) Tag field.

Now, I wouldn’t worry about the “Fields…” and “Cards…” buttons just yet. To tell you the truth, I don’t think you even need them. I have successfully used Anki effectively without even touching those things.

In the “Add New” window, the question goes in “Front” and the answer goes in “Back” field, just like your good ol’ paper flashcards.

Once you’ve entered your desired Question and Answer pair, you can click on “Add” or just use the shortcut: Ctrl + Enter to make the card.

Note: Make sure to DOUBLE CHECK the “Deck” field before adding the card to prevent future headaches.

By the way, the card you’ve just seen is one of the “Basic” Card Types.

Tthe “Basic” card type allows you to perform the traditional flashcard studying.

The Cloze deletion, on the other hand, is a “fill-in-the-blank” type of card.

Out of the many card types, I have found that the “Cloze” card type was the most flexible one—also the easiest to create. (But that was back when I used Anki 2.0.)

Either works fine, tho. Anyway, let’s move on to organizing your cards.

Like I said, I like to use Tags instead of subdecks.

Why tags? Because it simplifies everything. You need not worry about creating subdecks for each subject because you can use “Custom Study” more selectively later on.

You can add Tags to your cards in two ways: During Card Creation, or using the Card Browser.

I recommend adding Tags during Card Creation — it’s much faster and more proactive.

To add Tags, you just enter the name of your desired Tag on the “Tags” field of the Add New window.

Here’s something to remember: Replace spaces with underscores.

Note: If you missed that and accidentally entered two words separated by spaces, you’ll be creating TWO tags for your cards, not one.

Now, creating that card, you should notice that the Tag name you entered in the Tags field did not go away.

This means you can create and create several cards without having to worry about putting Tags in every single time—that’s pretty handy.

The second method is via the Card Browser. You open it up by clicking on “Browse” on the Home Screen or pressing “B” in the same place.

Then, just find your cards by clicking on a deck where you put your new cards in (1), then select your cards on the right-hand side (2), and press Ctrl + Shift + A.

I don’t prefer this method because it’s rather easy to mess this up. Imagine accidentally adding tags to other cards when you already have a large collection of cards — just thinking about organizing it is already a disaster.

Let’s move on to the more practical guide—How I make Anki Cards.

Here’s How I Make Anki Flashcards

When you’re creating your cards, the most convenient way to create high-quality cards is to include:

  • A well-formulated question
  • A short, specific answer
  • Screenshot of source
  • Tags (optional)

You should be good as long as you remember those.

To demonstrate, I’ll be using a random book from the medical field (a field I don’t know anything about) just to demonstrate this process from a beginner standpoint.

So, when I see something on my book like this:

This card below is the one I make. I included the Question, Answer, Screenshot, and Tag.

Notice that I italicized and bolded the word “previously” to show emphasis. It’s a way to make a cue for an answer more salient and easier to process.

Now, I highlight the answer along with the screenshot and then press Ctrl + Shift + C. That’s the shortcut for a Cloze deletion.

Note that you can totally use a basic card for this. I just used Cloze because:

  1. Basic card type is pretty straightforward and doesn’t need explaining
  2. Creating a Cloze card is somehow mystified for beginners

Again, just press CTRL + SHIFT + C upon highlighting what you need to Cloze.

Shortcut for Cloze Deletion: Ctrl + Shift + C

Let’s look at the card previews.

By the way, I want to tell you that for conceptual subjects, I break each concept down into more questions that test my understanding.

From the same passage in the book:

My questions go like this:

“What does specific immunity use act against agents? (2x)”

Answer: Antibodies and Activated Lymphocytes.

“To what type of agent does specific immunity react?”

Answer: Previously Encountered Agents.

Basically, for conceptual information, you have to encourage your understanding of the material.

Facts are good to include as cards, but ultimately, our questions should ALSO simulate situations that use the concept itself so we don’t miss out on actually applying what we have learned.

For example, this card:

See how that works?

Alright, let’s move on to what you need to remember when creating new cards.

Rules to Follow when Creating New Cards

Only put things that you understand

It’s easy to get confident that you can remember anything using Anki, but that doesn’t matter if you do not understand the material you’re putting in.

What’s the worst thing that has ever happened to me when I didn’t follow this rule?

I knew how to answer the card but I cannot apply the “knowledge” anywhere else.

In other words, I just became good at answering that card itself.

I didn’t really “remember” anything from prior knowledge, so to speak.

Follow the minimum information principle

Short question, short answer.

Don’t try to put in paragraphs in a card.

Don’t even try to put “Explain” type of questions. Break them down as much as possible.

This brings me to my next point.

The number of cards doesn’t matter

When adding cards, it doesn’t matter if you have plenty of cards just by studying a chapter as long as you follow the two rules above.

What matters is you actually learn the concepts thoroughly.

So, again, break a concept as much as possible. By doing this, you’ll be able to recall each card in less than a second. (Well, not less than a second, but that’s how it’ll feel like 😉)

It’s much, much faster compared to creating a few but long, complicated cards.

For example, instead of:

“What are Newton’s Three Laws of Motion?”

You write questions like:

  • “What is Newton’s First Law of Motion?”
  • “What is Newton’s Third Law of Motion?”
  • “Which law states F=ma?” (obviously, this question covers one law in another angle — also called redundancy)

This reduces ambiguity — making your cards faster to answer. Compare that to doing a mini-brain dump for each card and you’ll realize it gets tiresome pretty quickly.

Sync – The Best Thing I Love About Anki

Head over to Anki Sign Up and register for an account. It’s totally free. That’s why Damien Elmes is a hero.

Then, after creating a free account, head over to Anki settings by clicking on Tools>Preferences or by pressing Ctrl + P on your Anki window.

Go to the “Network Tab” and check the first two boxes.

This will allow automatic syncing of your deck to the AnkiWeb servers—which allows you to sync your cards to ALL devices.

It’s pretty neat, especially if you’re going outside with your smartphone. (or when you’re sitting on the toilet — not exactly neat, tho)

When you’re waiting in line, or just doing nothing at all, instead of scrolling through Facebook, you can answer 5 to 20 cards in a minute, depending on how good you create cards.

That means you’re converting idle time into STUDYING.

If that isn’t called studying smart, I don’t know what is.

You can turn it off and manually sync your cards by pressing Y on the home screen, but it’s always a good idea to sync your cards automatically upon open/exit just to avoid forgetting.

Studying using Anki

Studying using Anki is pretty straightforward.

You just open the app, click a deck with due cards, and you’re set.

When a card shows up, you just press on the spacebar to show the answer.

When the answer shows up, you are given choices below to choose from: Again, Good, Easy. (This is for new cards only — we’ll get more into this in Lesson 4)

Using Anki default settings, Anki will show the card again after a certain amount depending on how difficult it was for you to recall the card.

  • Again – Less than a minute, the card will show up again
  • Good – The card will show up in less than 10 minutes
  • Easy – The card will show up after 4 days

You press Again when you failed to recall the answer, Good when you successfully recall the answer, and Easy when you recall the answer in an instant. You can use shortcuts as shown below:

As a side note for default settings, pressing “Again” on a mature card for a total of 8 times makes your card “disappear” and not show up for review.

This is called a “Leech card”, and is usually classified as a poorly created card. (Which means you’d have to reformulate it again.)

Alright, now before I end this, I would like to give you some tips that would help you study smarter using Anki.

Never miss a day — you’ll always regret it

Once you start using Anki, promise me that you’re not going to let a single day pass by without you reviewing your cards.

Seriously. That’s because…

Memory works every single day, which means seldom used information are pretty much DELETED every single day, too.

Anki works to combat this effect, and that’s pretty much all the reason why.

It’s just a few hundred cards a day if you’re a college student, you know. Much less if you’re a casual learner.

Another reason not to skip is ending up stacked with even more cards the next day. Yup, now you’ll have to review your overdue cards PLUS your due cards — that’s a hell of a review session to go through (trust me, I’ve been through 1500 cards in a day and it was pretty TERRIBLE).

So, try do study every single day without fail.

Custom Study

In contrast, there might be some days that you have a lot fewer cards than you used to.

It’s probably because most of your cards are mature enough and/or you really have few cards in your deck.

Remember the “Tag” system that I mentioned earlier? This is where it comes in.

When you do a custom study session, you can select cards from specific Tags in a certain Deck.

It’s smart to use it right before an exam if you’re a student, just to take advantage of that “fresh” state of recall.

Where to go from here

And you’re done! If you’ve taken action since the very beginning of this guide, then you already have what you need to start using Anki really well.

Otherwise, ere’s your assignment for today:

Just start!

I purposely made this guide condensed only with the essentials so you can immediately start.

By implementing what you learned now, you’ll figure more things out along the way.

If you feel like you’re not confident enough with what you’ve learned here and want a more comprehensive guide than this, I recommend checking out Alex Vermeer’s book, Anki Essentials. (Affiliate link)

Otherwise, if you liked my approach to Anki and would want to dig in a bit deeper on effective usage, then I’ll see you in the next lesson.

Footnotes

  1. Nielsen, M. (2018). Augmenting Long-term Memory. http://augmentingcognition.com/ltm.html

27 thoughts on “How to Use Anki: An Efficient Tutorial for Beginners”

    • Hey Vince, thanks for reading.

      Yes, I do. Actually, I was thinking about sharing them here publicly, but now I decided to not give them away because similar to notes, flashcards use my mental representations of facts and concepts.

      Also, there are some personal exceptions that I make for my cards that may make people more confused.

      I have a more advanced guide for Anki, though, feel free to check it out.

      Reply
  1. This is amazing! Straight and clear instructions!
    I’m confident enough to say that after 3 days of reading this, I’m able to make effective cards

    Reply
  2. Thank you so much! It’s a very complete and balanced introduction to Anki, I used it for a while and now needed a refresh, which is what I’ve found here.

    Reply
  3. Thanks for the article, it gives me a clear picture of how to start using Anki. But there is still one thing I would like to ask; if you are breaking up a big question into a few small questions (like what you did for Laws for motion), do you use tags to link them or just leave them as ‘separated’ questions?

    Reply
    • Hey, I appreciate the comment.

      I don’t actually link to them, but in my mind, I do know they’re connected. This allows you to treat multiple pieces of information as part of your whole knowledge base rather than a part of a category (e.g. “Laws of motion”).

      Although, it’s true that flashcard learning is a bit disconnected. I had a hard time back then explaining information in a logical manner, that’s why I solved this problem in my book anki 102 but basically, the key is to just test yourself in explaining them with the help of the typical “essay questions”, you get what I mean?

      Cheers,

      – Al

      Reply
  4. Hi there, I need to learn a language for school and so am trying anki. My question is which settings are best for me? In your book the time periods seem like quite a long time when i’m not at uni with thousands upon thousands of cards so which settings would you suggest>

    Reply
      • Absolutely. Add visuals as much as you can, but if that’s not possible, just add context instead.

        Re: settings, my recommended intervals are already low for me so if your concern is having too many cards, then you should aim for an even longer interval. But that’s just my speculation–I don’t have much experience learning a foreign language using Anki.

        Reply
  5. Thanks for the great article. It’s made me refocus on making my cards not as complex.

    Do you have any thoughts on best practice when creating cards from studying from an online course? A course that has content like videos with power point slides and narration? It feels like it might be different than reading a text book.

    Thanks.

    Reply
    • Hi Jez,

      That’s cool, then! I think it might be different, but I’d speculate it would be the same as creating flashcards from a lecture.

      Now, the issue in an online course is that not everything is a “hard fact” (e.g. Laws of Physics vs “What’s the best way to ___”), you’d have to add in more specificity. I don’t have a lot of experience in this regard yet, tho, so I might extract some info when I try it. It’s actually a similar “issue” to argumentative texts, where you’d want to remember the structure and the idea behind the arguments separately.

      Thanks,

      — Al

      Reply
  6. What’s a mature card? I can easily google it but since this is article 1 and you start with this on a beginner post, might help to know 😉

    Reply
    • Hi Sanjay,

      To be honest, I don’t really know if there’s a technical definition for a “mature card”, but in the use case I recommend, knowing the “learning” and “graduated” cards are more important.

      Reply

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.