One of my posts which has had a quiet but consistent flow of traffice is “Ankifying a Greek Grammar.” The continual trickle of visits to it suggests an interest in resources for Anki and Ancient/NT Greek. I want to share here a collection of some key tips I have from using Anki for several years, starting as a casual user making lots of mistakes, and becoming a more intentional user with a vision and purpose.

Check out this page for the center point of my (slowly) growing collection of Anki resources

These tips aim to guide using Anki well, which is not intuitive. Using Anki at all is better than not; but it is better to avoid many common Anki pitfalls inherited from the way we use traditional flashcards poorly. First, a couple key orientation principles to using Anki, then a few choice tips.

Why bother with these? Well, most of us have spent a great deal of time learning, or striving to learn, in our lives, but have spent very little effort learning how to learn effectively. My dad always harped on “learning how to learn,” and like many parental pieces of wisdom, I have increasingly appreciated this over the years. It is worth knowing something about how learning and memory works if it helps us better carry out the enterprise which is core to all learning: remembering things. As one person memorably put it,

Everything in life is memory, save for the thin edge of the present.

Michael Gazzaniga

Remembering more, better, and with less wasted effort is what Anki is all about. On to the good stuff, some key orienting principles for how to think about Anki as a tool.

Orienting Principles

Understanding precedes remembering!

Anki is focused on remembering what you have already learned!!! It is a memory tool, not so much a learning tool. Spend the time to understand what you want to remember beforehand.

Anki cards are not “question and answer” cards, they are “front and back” cards.

The distinction is subtle, but revolutionary. The “Front” is the part of the card that you put a cue on to trigger recalling the information on the “Back.” Often a question will go on the Front, but it does not have to. It can just be a vocab word, a picture to cue a word you want to remember, a sentence you want to complete, a sentence with a highlighted word to parse, etc.

Focus on what you are learning, not all the things you have (tried) to learn in the past

Once you start to see the benefits of using Anki, you may want to go back and catch up on all the things you tried to learn earlier. I sure did. I advise against this. Focus your Anki efforts on remembering what you are learning, now. When it is relevant to go back and pick up things you “learned” in the past, by all means do so.

Pro-Tip: In practice, this means if you have to spend some time in a grammar or article while doing exegesis or reading /translating a passage, make Anki cards that reinforce what you have learned (otherwise, you will probably forget it). If I am going to take the time to read a grammar or journal article, I aim to make at least 2-5 Anki cards to reinforce what I am learning. Why else spend the time reading and learning it in the first place, if I don't plan to remember it? Needed to learn something recently about how relative pronouns function in Greek? Make some Anki cards so that you will remember what you have learned.

Take the time to make good cards the first time!

Nothing has proven more obnoxious to me over the years, and a larger contributor to Anki-fatigue (see below), then having to deal with pileups of cards I imported or made years ago that are poorly made cards. It may seem like making good cards takes time—and it does take more time than making bad cards—but having to review the same poorly made card over and over again takes time that hinders your learning. At least spending a little bit more time on the front end sets you up for better learning.

Basic principles for using Anki

A lot could be said here. I have distilled my suggestions down to key points that I keep coming back to again and again as I make cards.

Make Goldilocks cards: not too many, not too few.

Making 20 cards to reinforce a point will certainly help you learn it but will also result in 1) getting bogged down in a huge deck, 2) getting bored endlessly answering things you already know, and 3) either giving up or developing a pronounced masochistic character trait.

On the other hand, if you get in the habit of “one and done” cards, a year from now you will find you have lots of cards about things you no longer know. Cards belong to a self-reinforcing stream of knowledge. A vocab item will probably only need one card; a point of syntax will probably take two (an example and a question about the rule in general is a good place to start), learning morphology will take a lot.

Don’t make cards on what you already know!

Self-explanatory. This is a waste of time and effort (assuming you have properly identified what you already know).

So if you have a new Greek sentence to make cards from, don’t bother making new cards for the forms of article agreement you already know; just make a new card for the new point in the sentence and move happily on your way.

Test one thing per card.

A card should ideally have one answer that is simple and clear. If the card has three answers and you get one wrong, did you get the card right or wrong?

In practical terms, this means that different senses of Greek words belong on different cards with different example sentences. Memorizing the word ἔχω as meaning “I have, and sometimes ~ to be” is out of bounds. When you come across an example sentence with ἔχω meaning “to be” make it into a card testing that sense of the word.

Make simple cards

It should be immediately clear, upon looking at the card, what you are trying to recall. Spending time trying to figure that out is wasting time. If you have certain types of cards you make often, consider a unique cue on the card to key in on what you want to recall.

Practical example. If your primary use of a single Greek word or phrase on a card is to cue an English translation, then put a context setting introductory phrase/question on cards where you aim to use that word in a sentence, or are cuing yourself to parse/decline it. Something brilliant like: “Parse {word to be parsed}”. This lets your future-self know what sort of recall the card is meant to cue. Remember, when you first learn it you will see the card often, but eventually it will be months and even years between seeing the card. Give yourself the info you need to make sense of a card you haven’t seen for 3 years!

Pro Tip: I make use of a variety of introductory cue words/symbols to give the card necessary context to get the right recall: lx = linguistics, gk = Greek (for those Greek cards I don’t put into my separate Greek-language only deck), Python = Python computer language (as opposed to other ones), $ = economics, and so forth. This, accompanied with use of different decks for different languages, makes it clear what arena of knowledge the correct answer belongs to.

The magic of Anki is in the doing, not the cool add-ons!

The core benefit of Anki is present right out of the box. Just use it. Are there lots of cool add-ons? Yes. Might some of them help you? Probably. Just remember, you will benefit most by reviewing your cards rather than chasing down interesting add-ons that promise something new.

Pro-Tip: On a practical note, add-ons often are not updated as frequently as the program, leading to compatibility issues. If you want to keep your copy of Anki up to date rather than running older versions (which is recommended practice), choose your add-ons wisely. There are some core ones I find useful, but most of them are probably cooler than they are helpful. I wouldn't know for sure. I have been too busy reviewing my Anki cards.

Make your own deck, don’t borrow shared decks

Borrowing a shared deck is the ultimate time-saving promise. Why make cards, when you can just use those that someone else has already made? And, like just about every other time-saving promise, it well lives up to the old adage:

Short cuts make long delays.

I have tried borrowing various decks in the past, invariably ending up deleting them or having to spend time fixing lots of cards in them because they were 1) not simple, 2) not clear, 3) I already knew them, or 4) they were lacking information important to me. When you borrow a deck you have to spend time learning what each card is aiming to get you to recall, which often is not at all clear. The one deck I borrowed that I have consistently used and not modified at all is a deck listing various Greek roots. Not a sexy deck, but very useful and a lot of work someone else did which has actually saved me work. Most decks will not save you time and work. Make your own instead!

Pro-Tip: Borrowing a deck to get Greek words to make your own deck with is an option if you don’t own software that allows you to generate your own vocabulary lists and/or you stubbornly refuse to learn how to type in polytonic Greek. You can borrow one of these decks and then simply copy and paste desired words as needed. Probably more trouble than it is worth, in most cases.

On Anki-fatigue and pacing yourself

More tips could be and have been given elsewhere. I want to end this post with a note on “Anki-fatigue.” Anki is based on algorithms developed to describe the general pace at which new information slips out of our brains. It brings up cards for review when its algorithm says you need a reminder on that card to further entrench in into your long-term memory before it slips blissfully out to the pasture of forgotten things.

While our brains don’t take breaks from forgetting—sad but true—our willpower often needs a break. Some people can review hundreds of Anki cards everyday for years on end. If you are one of those people, God bless you and carry on. I am not one of those people, and I suspect most other users of Anki are in my boat. Not only does that exceed my practical willpower over the course of the year, I also find it burdening to be endlessly looking to generate 10-20 Anki cards a day to keep a new stream of cards present (not adding new cards to a deck tends to result in boring practice).

Anki-fatigue is when you get fed up with Anki such that you stop doing it. I have found two practical solutions to Anki-fatigue:

  1. Focus your Anki card-making on what you are currently learning. This means the types of cards you make differs throughout the days, weeks, and years. Endlessly adding NT hapex legomena cards is not fun for most human beings. Sometimes all the cards I am adding are about Greek; sometimes they are about learning coding in Python, or cognitive linguistics, or what have you. This helps keep my relationship with Anki fresh. It also results in an ever-widening knowledge base on a variety of topics that interest me.
  2. Plan to take some preemptive retreats from Anki. Some people will tell you to never miss a day of reviewing. If you can handle that, go for it. If you find yourself feeling an undertone of mourning and dread when preparing to review, I suggest planning to take a break. I periodically take a week off from Anki. Does this mean you return to a mountain of cards to review? Yes. Does this mean that you missed the optimum review point for a bunch of cards? Yes. Does this mean that you return to Anki with a sense of purpose rather than dread? For me, also yes. There are intelligent ways to deal with a back-log of cards to review. Missing a couple of days or a week twice a year is not that big of a deal. Missing several months of review because your Anki-fatigue becomes a more serious Anki-malaise is a big deal (let me tell you from experience, it sucks trying to catch up after several months out of the trenches).

Parting well-wishes

There you have it. These are some of my core pieces of Anki wisdom won from years upon years of making and reviewing Anki cards. Acquiring skill in anything is an evolving process. It is worth it to acquire skill in learning. Anki is a great tool to help along that journey.

Happy Anki-ing!