Spaced Repetition Using Anki

spaced repetitionRepetition and learning have gone hand in hand for centuries. In 1885, a German psychologist, and pioneer in the study of memory, Hermann Ebbinghaus, wrote about a phenomenon known as the “spacing effect.” The spacing effect theorizes that animals and humans remember information longer and can recall facts easier when that information is studied multiple times over a long period of time. This theory led to a new way of learning large amounts of information, known now as spaced repetition. In the 1960’s and 70’s, the majority of spaced repetition included flipping through thousands of flash cards to try to learn languages and other subjects where immense memorization is required. Fortunately for us, the process has been improved. Algorithms have been developed to increase the efficiency of spaced repetition, and thus memorizing large quantities of info is easier than ever. As mentioned, repetition is probably the most important tool for learning any new skill or mastering information. Athletes practice endlessly; repeating movements until they are embedded in muscle memory. Why should learning be any different? In my opinion, the brain may be the most important “muscle” we have. Unfortunately, most of us don’t prepare for exams like athletes do for games.  Take a look at some evidence for all of this, it is called the “Forgetting Curve.” You may have seen it in a psychology class.

Forgetting Curve

The graph shows what your brain does with new information. It is estimated that after a week, if you have not reviewed the information at all, you will probably forget at least 90% of what you originally learned! Sadly, the brain forgets things exponentially. That is terrible, especially for pre-meds getting ready for the MCAT or medical students preparing for Step 1. However notice what happens with just a few reviews! You retain more information, and eventually it becomes a part of your long-term memory, and will always be available for recall. Imagine if you reviewed important information constantly; how much could you store in your brain?

Enter Anki (which is actually the Japanese word for “memorizing”). Anki is a free online application that is downloaded and compatible with both Macs and PCs. Follow this link and go download It is an amazing spaced repetition flashcard program. Users can create their own note cards, or use decks of flashcards already created by others. Once you have a deck, you can then study the flashcards!



The above is what you see when using this program to study, it is a prime example of a Anki flashcard. Does anyone know the answer to this one? Either way, once you have thought about it, and attempted to come up with the correct response, you click the "Show Answer" button...




How many of you said "Conjugated Protein"? As you can see, the answer shows up underneath the prompt.  You then are faced with some options, did you get the answer wrong? Then you probably want to press "Again" so that the flashcard will be redelivered to you shortly. If you got it right, you can decide how difficult this card was for you. Based upon your answer and how long it took you to answer the question, Anki's algorithm will decide when to resend you the flashcard for optimal memorization and recall ability. You can modify this algorithm, however I have found that the default settings work great for me.

The key here is to take advantage of the science of spaced repetition. Anki works best when you review your flashcards every single day. Luckily, as the facts become part of your long-term memory, you will only have to review the flashcards every few months. It becomes a habit and really does not take up much time at all.

Next post, I am going to write about why I love Anki for medical school. I have used it since day 1. If you are interested in using spaced repetition and Anki to dominate the MCAT, take a look at the study deck I am offering.