The Correct Way To Use Anki Flashcards (And Why Most People Do It Wrong)

Almost every student has heard of flashcards. Flashcards can be quite handy, but they are not as effective as people would have you believe.

Is it true that around 70% of students who get the best grades use flashcards? Sounds great, doesn’t it? Did you know that 60 to 70% of students who get the lowest grades also do? It’s true that you’ll lose out if you don’t use them, but using them does not give you a significant competitive advantage at higher grades.

Honestly, I have a lot of experience with flashcards. I probably accumulated 6000–7000 flashcards for my topics in my first three years of university, and I used them a lot. Those of you who use flashcards a lot probably understand how frustrating this was.

You eventually end up on this endless flashcard grind when you have so many flashcards.

Anki, one of the most well-known flashcard apps, is great for what it does. I didn’t have 6000 physical flashcards. Instead, I had 6000 on my phone. The spaced repetition algorithm is excellent. You can sit at your computer, read some stuff and put it into flashcards as you go, and you’re leveraging the power of spaced repetition and active recall.

That’s all very good.

The problem is how much and what we use flashcards for.

Anki is a very comprehensive application, but it is still just a tool. You are 10x more important than the tool itself when you know how to use it.

While I was going through the research on this, and when I was teaching students how to memorise more effectively, it became apparent that using flashcards is a strategy that doesn’t work. The majority of people still use flashcards incorrectly, even if they use digital flashcards and are selective, and even if they practice spaced repetition diligently (which has its own set of problems).

Flashcards: How Do Students Use Them?

In the first place, students tend to have flashcard overload. For one topic, you might have 50–100 flashcards covering a lot of detail.

Students also tend to rely heavily on flashcards for a large part of their learning.

If you were to take away the flashcards, you would lose so much of your learning that you would have difficulty getting a high score on your tests. That’s a reliance on flashcards.

In my opinion, both of these things are very, very bad. Here’s why.

Creating more future work is problem #1

The nature of flashcards (spaced repetition) means that every flashcard you create makes you more work in the future if you rely on having a large volume of flashcards. In the end, you don’t do some of them, which defeats the purpose since you’re not doing them properly. This builds up on top of it until all of your time is consumed by flashcards.

Since flash cards rely on spaced repetition, and are so easy to make, we tend to make a lot of them, but we don’t actually get the learning that we ought to because of time constraints. Those are the first major problems with flashcards.

Flashcard dependency is the second problem

If you don’t do the flashcards, you won’t learn, and that’s dangerous.

It also takes away from a different type of learning that would reduce the need for flashcards in the first place: relational priority learning. Relational priority learning is based on the notion that you can retain more content when you learn from relationships rather than isolated information. You don’t even need flashcards because you won’t forget it anyway!

How Should Flashcards Be Used?

You can only use flashcards the right way when you remove your dependence on them; I can’t just tell you to use fewer flashcards now because then you would have nothing to replace them with.

So we need to replace our dependence on flashcards with relational-priority learning, and we need to build a system that is fundamentally relationship-driven. Having that system in place will make your retention extremely high in the first place—then we will no longer have to rely so heavily on superficial memory tricks like active recall and spaced repetition.

Rather than tweaking and optimizing a fundamentally broken system, that’s the hallmark of a highly efficient learner.

We will naturally find that we only need a much smaller number of flashcards once we can do that. Then we can start stepping away from flashcards and using them only as a supplement for those particular details we are more likely to forget because they don’t fit our relationships.

I know a lot of people will say, “But Justin, different people learn differently.”

However, your brain is not a unique snowflake born as the 0.000001% of the population that is fundamentally different from all other brains. The human brain works in fundamental ways, and relational and relationship-focused learning is universal across all cultures.

I have never seen a single student who used a correct technique and still relied on memorisation to learn. Out of the thousands of students I have worked with, not one of them relied on repetition or active recall to learn.

The idea that people learn differently applies to variations on the fundamentals when done correctly-it does not mean you neglect the basics.

That’s like someone who has only learned to walk on their knees saying, “Oh, I just walk differently, so I’m not going to try to walk on my feet.” You do you, but I’m pretty sure that if you start walking on your feet, you’ll probably find a style of walking that’s better than walking on your knees.

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Instead of crawling just because it’s comfortable and what you’re used to, strive to ‘sprint’ when it comes to studying.

Since I have worked with thousands of students to help them get the best grades, it is not possible to veer away from flashcards (physical or digital) without a more efficient underlying system of learning that prevents students from memorizing.

When you unlock that, you’ll be able to move away from flashcard dependency and start learning much more effectively.