I’m an Anki nut. In some sense, I owe three of my languages to Anki. One of my favorite things about Anki is its flexibility; you can make flashcards in any way you choose.
Once you’ve created and memorized a lot of flashcards (I recently passed 20,000 flashcards…geesh), you’ll start to notice that not all cards are created equal. Some flashcards are easy to remember, they teach you precisely what you want to learn, and they generally make you smile when you see them. Others make you want to throw your smartphone out the window. Good flashcards can make the difference between sticking with a language until fluency or giving up after a few months, so I’m making this guide to help others learn from some of my terrible, terrible flashcard-related mistakes.
Principle 1: Use Pictures
There’s a neat principle that came out of cognitive psychology in the 60s and 70s called the “Pictorial Superiority Effect.” The basic idea is that we remember pictures ridiculously well, and we pretty much suck at remembering words. Unfortunately for us, languages are full of words, not pictures, so at least on the surface, we’re screwed.
But there’s a trick.
If you compare your ability to recall a random picture like this and a word like “Apple,” you’re going to have a much easier time remembering the picture. But what about a picture with a word?
Studies show that pictures with words are even more memorable than pictures alone. Why? You wrestle with the meaning of that word in conjunction with the picture. Why is APPLE there? What does that sculpture have to do with apples? In the process of wresting with the combined meaning of a word and a picture, you store both of them deeply in your memory.
So add pictures. All the time (at least on one side of each flashcard). You’ll remember a bit better if those pictures have something to do with what you’re learning, but that shouldn’t be hard, given the 45 billion images currently hanging out on Google Images.
I never used to do this (in my personal French deck, for instance, most of my grammar cards are just fill in the blank exercises without pictures), but I started adding pictures to my grammar exercises in Russian, and it made a huge difference. Now I don’t make any cards without pictures.
Principle 2: More is Better
Some words are hard to remember, and some languages are full of hard to remember words. For the first couple of months, Russian kicked my butt. I dutifully made my cards, added pictures, and studied daily, and yet couldn’t seem to remember anything for longer than two weeks. Sometimes you need more stimulation than a single flashcard to remember information that’s particularly far removed from your every-day experiences. For me, Russian words were simply too weird to remember easily, with their strange sounds and odd-looking letters. Fortunately, you can make multiple, different flashcards for a single word. When I tried this in Russian, I stopped forgetting.
The more cards you make for a single topic, the easier and better you’ll memorize it. At least for words, there are two main flavors of flashcards worth using: cards that test comprehension (what’s a chien?) and cards that test production (what’s a furry animal with a waggy tail that chases cats?)
The former put the word alone on the front side of the card:
Your job is to think about what the word means. These cards do an awesome job of building associations into a new word – pictures, sounds, bits of grammar, etc. That way, the next time you encounter that word in a new context while reading or listening, those associations will come right back. In general, these cards have a single word or two on their front sides without any added context. On the back, they’ll have pictures, example sentences, and any other goodies you decide to put on them.
If you move the word to the back side of the card (and the picture or context to the front), you’re training a different ability:
These cards require you to recall a word (“chien”), its grammatical features (un – masculine), its spelling and its pronunciation. They work as reinforcement for passive cards and make the words easier to recall when you want to use them in speaking or writing.
I’ve tried to use exclusively production cards, thinking that I would save myself time, but it didn’t work; I couldn’t remember “chien” if I didn’t see the exact same dog picture, which didn’t happen very often in real life. Now, I do both types of cards whenever I can, and I only skip the productive cards if I’m sureI never want to say a word (but will probably read it). When in doubt, just make both. Anki makes it easy to do this without adding any extra time, and it will make your overall review process much easier. I keep grammatical and pronunciation information on the back-side of both cards, because if I can’t pronounce the word or use it in a sentence properly, then it’s basically useless for speaking or writing. I want to reinforce a word’s sound and usage whenever I can.
Principle 3: Keep it Simple
When you see words grouped together on vocabulary lists, you may be tempted to keep them in their original groups. Why spend time making seven cards for the weekdays when you could make one or two? In my first French deck, I grouped together the days of the week, the months of the year, various types of fruit, and anything else I could jam into a single flashcard. This was unfortunate. Until I split them up, I wasn’t able to remember any of these words.
Cards like these are problematic because your ability to recall each of the answers is different. If you start off knowing “Monday” very well, “Tuesday” decently and “Wednesday” poorly, then you’ll be repeating all three every time you have a problem with any of them. It’s too much, both from a time standpoint (why waste time repeating “Monday” when you know it well already?) and from a learning standpoint (you’re repeating the card too often to push any words into long-term memory). Separate cards like this into their smallest constituent parts, each with a single answer:
Whenever possible, your goal is to test one conceptper card, because it will save you time in the long run. A simple card is easy to remember and helps produce a quick response; you either know it or you don’t, and if you don’t, then you’ll repeat it until you do. Net time wasted on “Monday”: seconds. Net time spent memorizing “Wednesday” very well: seconds. Sweet.
A note: There are shades of grey when it comes to the one-concept idea. “You’re welcome” is a single concept, but you certainly could make two cards out of it if you wanted to: (“Thank you!” “___ welcome!”) (“Thank you!” “You’re ___!”). Over time, you’ll get a sense for how much information you can store at once, but to begin, I’d suggest that you aim for more, simpler cards rather than fewer, more complex ones. Nearly every time I’ve had problems remembering a given word or grammar point, it’s because I’ve made my cards too complex. For languages like Chinese, you may need 3-4 cards to remind you of the spelling, the pronunciation, and the meaning separately. This saves you time in the long run, because remembering many easy cards is much easier than remembering fewer difficult ones.
Principle 4: When you’re right, you’re right
I just told you never to demand multiple answers, but what happens when you try to learn a synonym?
Both plate and dish are perfectly fine descriptions of this picture. Do you have to remember both of them?
Well, no. As long as one of those words comes to mind, you’re doing just fine. You’ll learn each word separately through your comprehension cards anyways, so if someone holds a gun to your head and demands synonyms, you’ll be ready for him (or her):
This approach also works for words with multiple definitions. A bar is usually for drinks, but bars of gold and chocolate bars certainly exist. Cards like these aren’t a problem:
But the other direction is trickier. What goes on the back side of this card?
You have two options. You can either put the main definition on the back side, or you can put multiple definitions on the back side (and if you remember any definition, then mark it as correct):
Neither approach is better than the other, and I tend to use them interchangeably. In both cases, you’ll tend to remember one definition best, which then becomes the anchor point for new definitions. With that anchor in place, it’s very easy to connect a new concept to the first one (“Chocolate bars use the same word as normal bars!”), and a single additional card (like card with the single picture of a chocolate bar, above) will be enough to create that connection, making you an expert in all things bar-related.
Principle 5: Opposites Attract. Don’t let them.
Once upon a time, I found a list of antonyms in French and decided to learn them like this:
This was, arguably, one of the worst ideas ever. Weeks later, when I tried to remember any of these words, I would remember both instead:
What’s the weather like today? It’s very hot … or cold … today.
What did you think about the movie? Why, it was excellent/terrible. It was definitely one of the worst/best movies I’ve ever seen. The lead actress was so beautiful/ugly, and she played her part really well/badly.
It took me months to fix the damage to my poor French, and I don’t know if my French ever forgave me. Pay close attention when making cards for closely related ideas, and make them as independent as possible. Your language will thank you. This applies to thematically related words like stoplight, crosswalk, street and sidewalk and antonyms like cold/hot:
Principle 6: Keep it Short
Your brain is quite good at being lazy (and efficient). Over the course of practicing a card, you will memorize the words closest to the missing word, and you’ll tend to ignore the rest of the card. In this case, you will commit to memory the following: “in some month of some year, the spork is the.” Unfortunately, this is totally useless. Keep your questions as simple and direct as possible, and you will be rewarded with robust, useful memories:
Principle 7: Learn, then memorize
Understand what you’re teaching yourself before you memorize it. While there is a place for uncertainty in foreign language study, memorizing mostly incomprehensible language isn’t the most effective use of your time. Use examples you can understand, and you’ll learn more from them:
Principle 8: Be careful with corrections
This card is concise, clear and comprehensible. Here’s the problem: When you read an incorrect sentence, you’re more likely to believe that it’s correct in the future, even if you know it’s incorrect originally. I just made you more likely to say “you eats hamburgers” in the future. Now I’ve done it twice. Sorry. Known as the “Truth Effect,” it makes familiar things more credible than less familiar things, no matter how untrustworthy the source. Every time you read a mistake like this, you’re more likely to do the mistake in the future, so if you wish to put corrections into your flashcards, do it like this:
If you rearrange mistakes into fill-in-the-blank tests, you eliminate the Truth Effect, and get an effective, concise flashcard in the process. You can use this type of card to teach yourself grammar.
What about when you make a mistake by accident? You’ll be making thousands of cards, which nearly guarantees that you’ll screw up somewhere:
Do whatever you can to avoid this, but if it happens, you’ll find that these cards will cause trouble all the time. You’ll have serious trouble remembering erroneous cards for more than two weeks. This is a good thing. Your brain is very good at picking out inconsistencies. If you feed it flashcards with conflicting information, it will sound an alarm by preventing you from remembering those flashcards.
If you notice that you’re having major difficulties memorizing what appear to be easy cards, double check to make sure that you don’t have an unintentional error lurking somewhere. Either you will find an error, or your cards are too hard. Thank your brain, fix your cards, and move on with your day.
That’s it! If you have questions and additional suggestions, leave them in the comments!