How to Learn Complex Information with Anki Without Making a Mountain of Flashcards (+ card examples)

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Hi, this is Lesson 10 of 7 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! 🙂

Have you ever wondered just how the heck do you make good Anki flashcards for complex information — things other than “fact – definition”?

If I had to guess, you’re probably thinking that this will take you a LOT of time.

After all, in order to remember every important fact for a complex passage — according to the typical tool-first thinker — you have to:

  • “Break each piece of information into a separate _flashcard_”
  • “Look into the card types
  • “use cloze cards for important terms”
  • “Use Obsidian to turn your notes into flashcards because it has plugins which can sync notes and Anki cards and can cOnNecT inForMaTiOn”

And with all those new cards?

You can just imagine how much time it takes you not only to read a chapter, make flashcards, review new cards…

…but also to repeat the same thing for ALL your subjects.

Which is ironic because you started to use Anki to study efficiently — to get ahead of class without all the stress and frustration.

But instead here you are spending more time being overwhelmed with mountains of due cards, and even more behind in class.

That’s why in this article, I’m going to show you the exact process I use to learn complex information efficiently and remember all the important facts in the long-termwithout making colossal amount of flashcards.

Specifically:

  • The right way to think about Anki when using it to learn more complex stuff
  • Why you should avoid categorizing “memorization type subjects” if you want to remember a lot of facts
  • Why and how to learn “relationally” (and Elon Musk’s advice)
  • The “redundancy effect” that helps you remember details without even making a flashcard for it (w/c/ reduces your study time)
  • A simple constraint to create what I call Permanence Questions — questions that force you to use higher cognitive processes
  • The biggest mistake you can make when using Anki for complex information (or learning, in general)
  • Card Examples and critiques from my students in Simple Study System — see how you can turn 5 flashcards into 1 to reduce your review time
  • And a question at the end 🙂

I’ll tell you right off the bat that you don’t need to do all those band-aid tactics that make you study even longer than before.

Mainly because they’re not addressing the root cause.

The root problem: Thinking the wrong way about Anki

Let me elaborate.

Tool-first thinker advice (what I mentioned above) seem to think that Anki is some kind of magic technology that will make you remember everything effortlessly “because it has sPaCed rEpEtiTiOn” when in reality, Anki is just an automation tool.

They get this “functional fixedness” and think that the only solution lies in Anki or “the specific feature I’m using” or “the app I’m integrating it with”…

…when it really lies in their study process — BEFORE they even use the damn application.

Think about it this way:

Anki is simply your retrieval scheduler, nothing more.

If you feed it information that doesn’t mean anything to you, then all you get is scheduling meaningless info in a space-y way.

It’s not sorcery — it’s just automation.

So no amount of card type, template, color-coding, Obsidian syncing, or “breaking down into smaller pieces” will make you learn complex information efficiently if the REAL constraint in the OVERALL study process is someplace else. (ex: the materials you use, how you’ve been viewing knowledge, etc. which we’ll cover later)

That is to say that the first step is to stop thinking about “features”; instead, you want to think in terms of “process constraints.”

Because when you get that right, you can CUT your study time by at least 30%.

Now let’s get to the practical part.

4 Steps to Learn Complex Information Efficiently with Anki and Retain it in the long-term

In order to be efficient and not produce garbage flashcards, we have to remove these wastes in our study system:

  1. Going back to what you’ve already learned
  2. Having flashcards that you can’t even answer
  3. Overproducing flashcards that could be compressed into one (without sacrificing speed)
  4. Getting overwhelmed with reviews and waiting for motivation to arrive

These are the four steps that will help you get there. (Note: the steps are not 1:1 with the wastes)

Step 1. Get better material

This is non-negotiable. Ineffective students think that just because there are plenty of facts in their lecture slides mean that this is a “memorization type subject.”

But the truth is that it’s literally impossible to memorize 100% of a subject — EVEN ANATOMY AND PHARMACOLOGY — purely through rote memorization.

Retention thrives on associations and elaborations!

To put it simply, it’s the reason why places and scenes are literally the easiest things to remember; they’re not just individual things in isolation, but rather a set of objects with a plethora of spatial & visual context.

And speaking of context, it starts from the material you’re using.

If you want to truly learn complex information, you want to get material that is coherent and provides this context you’re looking for.

Prefer textbooks over summarized material.

Lecture slides, summary notes, and lectures are NOT supposed to be PRIMARY materials for learning a complex topic.

They’re just high-level overviews to help you understand the topic easier, i.e. by giving you an idea of what’s important and a “map” of the whole thing.

Textbooks, on the other hand, tend to be more “boring” and more complex, but they are more coherent by design and gives you the FULL context.

Summaries are great guides and recaps, but textbooks are the best sources.

Once you have your textbook ready, the next step is to learn information in a way that works with your textbook.

Step 2. Learn “relationally” rather than “factually”

Like I said in the intro, a big mistake is to go straight to breaking down your flashcards as soon as you see complex information.

It’s literally the fastest way to end up with a bunch of meaningless cards to review.

And if you feed garbage — meaningless info — into Anki, your results will be garbage, too. Here’s Andy Matuschak in his essay, How to Write Good Prompts: (emphasis mine)

If you write a long question with unusual words or cues, you might eventually memorize the shape of that question and learn its corresponding answer—not because you’re really thinking about the knowledge involved, but through a mechanical pattern association. Cloze deletions seem particularly susceptible to this problem, especially when created by copying and editing passages from texts. This is best avoided by keeping questions short and simple.

So understanding HAS to come first.

In order to do that — NO, it’s NOT with the fEyNmAn tEcHnIqUe — you need to learn not just the individual facts, but ALSO their relationships with other facts. (Ex: Relationship of homeostasis concept to Physiology)

Elon Musk once said:

…it is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree – make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.

The psychologist William James calls this way of learning, Judicial Learning.

Judicious methods of remembering things are nothing but logical ways of conceiving them and working them into rational systems, classifying them, analyzing them into parts, etc., etc. All the sciences are such methods.

And the reason is simple: It’s because “complex information” is a coherent set of interconnected facts. A system of facts, if you will.

And if you don’t have the connections, you don’t get the whole. It’s like buying car parts without assembling them.

So there’s only one thing you need to do here:

Find out how the information you’re learning relate to one another/to relevant prior knowledge.

Some ideas for that:

  • How they are interconnected as a system
  • For jargon, learn about their etymology, like pseudo- or myo- and you can infer their meaning right away
  • Not always logical, but useful: Use the concept to explain something relevant to YOU

By the time you finish these, you’ll have a coherent view of the relationships at least between the bigger and smaller ideas — how they relate to each other logically.

In other words, you’ll have a set of insights that should form the BULK of your notes. If you’ve ever wondered what to put into your notes, THIS is your answer.

So what now?

Well, time to make questions from that material.

Step 3. Make questions from your insights

Let me make one thing clear…

You do NOT need to make one flashcard for every single fact.

THIS GOES ESPECIALLY FOR DEFINITIONS.

If you’ve done Step 2 properly, then it means you’ve already elaboratively encoded the information you’re learning.

And because of that, you just “activated” some redundancy effects in your memory — where you can infer details just by knowing a single core idea.

Put simply, you won’t miss important details if you have learned the core idea they are attached to.

Of course, adjust the level of detail when you need to, but you don’t have to create flashcards for EVERY single fact.

It’s like “not needing a 4K monitor” to have a rather clear picture of an entire screen, if that helps you understand it.

Now, we can further improve that process by laser-targeting your flashcard creation.

You CAN use your notes to create flashcards — but you have to formulate them in a way that tests your understanding.

A good constraint here is to limit yourself to questions that make you explain a relationship.

This constraint FORCES you to create what I call “Permanence Questions” — questions that use higher cognitive processes. (i.e. as in Bloom’s Taxonomy)

Here are some examples:

  • How can you tell whether [condition] has been met?
    • How can you tell whether a system had reached equilibrium?
  • Why is [x] important for [X – bigger picture]/for Y?
    • Why is pork broth extracted for 12 hours in making Ramen?
  • What’s the difference between [a] and [b] + when it comes to [characteristics]?
    • What’s the main difference of eukaryotes and prokaryotes when it comes to their nuclei?

So instead of “breaking it down into flashcards” — you instead want to “test your understanding from different angles”. The former is merely lexical and latter is semantic.

The cool benefit here is that you can also include your notes (or other distinctive info) at the “back” side of your flashcards.

In my experience, doing this helped me avoid confusing similar concepts AND to increase levels of processing.

Once you’re finished with creating flashcards for complex information, you NEED to be able to use it in a different context — mainly, for increasing the depth of your knowledge.

This isn’t necessarily a “step” but more like an integration into your “learning lifestyle.”

Step 4. Increase levels of processing over time

A huge mistake is to just end at making flashcards and think that retention is the only goal just because you need to remember stuff for the NEXT exam.

WRONG.

In the long-term, retention has a much larger role. Specifically:

  1. To be able to comprehend higher-level concepts at a deeper level
  2. To apply what you know to solve problems

And you tell me…

If you did the two above, do you think you’ll be needing as much “spaced repetitions” as before?

Your answer would probably be “no,” and I agree.

This is the step most people forget when they learn — ESPECIALLY the vast majority of tool-first thinkers who use Anki.

They hyperfocus on card styles, settings, html, add-ons…but there’s literally NO mention of APPLYING KNOWLEDGE.

And to me, that’s a shame because it’s literally the end goal we all should aim for — to be able to use our knowledge for better thinking, deciding, and acting.

Because when you do so, not only do you become tremendously more effective than these study influencers…

…but you also retain knowledge MUCH stronger than five bouts of spaced repetitions, ten billion percent guaranteed.

So keep this in mind!

Now let’s get to the card critiques.

“Complex Card” Critiques from SSS Students

One Simple Study System student, Sagar, asked me to critique his questions that he came up with using the process we used above, so I can show you a few card examples here.

As you read, try to notice how he was making questions from his insights. It requires a bit of thinking, but it’s real simple.

Here’s more, from another SSS student Leora:

What I love about making flashcards for complex info is that the more you learn through relationships (rather than individual facts), the fewer cards you need to make.

In Leora’s case, for example, most tool-first thinkers would just “cloze every important term” and would end up having at least 5 cards.

  • “Atom”
  • “sharing electrons”
  • “Intermolecular bonding”
  • “Liquid or solid”
  • “Ionic or covalent bonding”
  • “Intermolecular bonds”

WHICH IS JUST FREAKING RIDICULOUS.

And as you can see, simply by viewing knowledge as an interconnected set of elements, you now just have to create a single card for all of them.

Practically, though, it’s not always going to be a single card for 5 facts — because it will always depend on how well you’re encoding information and how much prior knowledge you have.

It’s synthesis, folks. It’s not a mechanical process that’s “one-size-fits-all.”

A question for you…

It should be CLEAR at this point how “memorizing important terms” or “breaking down into many flashcards” can quickly become bad advice without encoding.

So I’m curious how exactly this has changed that for you, in case you ever thought the same way.

Have you been “just memorizing” everything that seems important? How did this affect your studying?