How I Use Anki to Learn Vocabulary though Spaced Repitition

The biggest barrier by far between me and using Japanese effectively is lack of vocabulary. I'm very, very poor at memorizing specific things (as opposed to knowing that something exists and where to go to look up the details), and one of the keys to learning a foreign language, especially one as different from English as Japanese, is extensive memorization.

I decided recently to tackle this problem. To this end I've started using a flashcard program called Anki which uses spaced repetition. While there's a good bit of detail on the Anki site on how it works and how to use it, I found that certain important (to me, anyway) pieces of information were missing, and it took me quite a while to figure out both how Anki really works and how to customize it for my particular learning style.

There were two major issues I had with Anki: it's not configured by default for fairly intensive study (many sessions per day), and it didn't give me, a very poor memorizer, enough repetition of new words early on.

Anki seems mostly oriented around studying once a day, or at least studying any particular card no more than once a day once you've got it right once that day. I prefer to do a lot of short study sessions throughout the day, and have newish cards repeated in several sessions during the day even when I'm getting them correct. (I simply can't see a brand new word a few times and expect to remember it 24 hours later without some intervening repetition.)

I also found that with the default settings, I was running out of material to study after two or three sessions, frequently ending up at the "done for the day" screen, where my only option was to review early if I didn't want to learn some new cards. I've seem to be able to handle only 3-5 truly new items (as opposed to items new in Anki but that I've seen before elsewhere) per day before I get overloaded and can't remember any of the new material, so doing more new cards wasn't really an option for me.

The "only daily" issue was fixed fairly easily in by choosing Settings / Deck Properties... and clicking the "Advanced" tab. Unchecking "Per-day scheduling" made cards come due after the specified number of hours, rather than having them all come due at the beginning of the day even if they'd just been last reviewed a few hours earlier. I then set the initial button intervals down to hours instead of days. Button 2 I set to 0.12-0.16 days (3-4 hours) and button 3 to 0.33-0.5 days (8-12 hours); these mean that once I get a new card correct, I'll get another review (or perhaps several) the same day rather than having to wait until the next day. Button 4 I leave at 3-7 days, however; I use that for cards that are "new" in Anki but actually words I know quite well already.

These settings affect the initial interval, but the changes after that are based on fixed percentages of the old interval, and these can't be changed. The key here is to ignore the "good," "easy," etc. designations on the buttons and instead think of them as indications of how long you'd like to wait to see the card again. Generally, I consistently use button 2 (which gives a 20% increase) for my answer until I'm sure I want the card to go into the "review only every once in a while" category. Even there, if I feel the interval's getting a bit long, I hit 1 the next time the card comes up (even though I got it right) to reset the interval to the initial interval, whence I can extend it as quickly as necessary with the 2, 3 and 4 buttons. (If you do this, make sure that the "Button 1 multiplier" setting is set to 0% and the "Mature bonus" is set to 0 days, or this may not work.)

The next issue for me was how to get much, much more initial review on a new card until I'd really felt that I'd learned it. Far too frequently I was getting a card right, marking it so, but then discovered that a day or even a few hours later it had already slipped out of my mind.

For this I use the 1 button even after I've got the answer right. This keeps the card coming back every study session until I really feel I've gotten it burned into my memory. In other words, I consider the 1 button to mean "keep showing this to me frequently" rather than "I got it wrong." For this to work well, the "Leech threshold" in the deck properties needs to be changed to 99 (the maximum), and turning off "Suspend leeches" is probably a good idea as well. This I found to be no big loss; I can still easily suspend a card I feel is becoming a leech by just choosing "Suspend" from the menu when that card comes up.

The "Button 1 delay" in the deck properties also needs to be tweaked appropriately. This interacts with the session limit in the "Timeboxing" tab of the Study Options. I use three minute sessions and set the button 1 delay to five minutes; this ensures that I won't be shown the card again until a later session. It wouldn't be unreasonable to set this to an hour or more if you're doing short sessions more often, and don't want the card to come back every session.

So, with these settings, my general rule is to use the 1 button until I feel I've got the card known well enough that I feel I'll remember it for at least a day, the 2 button until I can answer the card pretty much instantly, and the default (space) button once I've reached that stage.

This means my reviews would be considered "inefficient" in Anki terms: I'm doing a lot more review on individual cards than I would be otherwise. This isn't really as big a deal as some would make it out to be; once I've got more or less instant recall on a card, a review only takes a couple of seconds if that. Thus, even if I'm doing a couple of hundred more reviews per day than I'd be doing otherwise, this adds only a few minutes a day to my study time. Trading a few minutes of unnecessary study for more quickly building very good recall seems well worthwhile to me.

New cards I tend to add quite slowly by default: 3-5 per day. The issue here is that I get overloaded quite quickly if there's a lot of truly new material. How much is really new can be hard to control, since my deck does include a lot of cards marked "new" that I already know (see below for more on this); I deal with this by finishing my reviews over the course of the day and then, at the "finished for now" screen, choosing "Learn More" and continuing with adding "new" cards until I've seen enough truly new ones that I'm satisfied.

If you want to quickly bulk up your current working set with things you already know from your deck that are still marked new, a handy way of doing this is to run through new cards this way, choosing 2, 3 or 4 for the ones you know, and use the Edit / Bury Fact option on the new cards you don't want to add. That option will temporarily suspend the card; quitting and restarting Anki will remove the suspension.

So this is how I use Anki. It may not be quite how it was designed to be used, and I've been told that I'm doing it "wrong" in terms of spaced repetition theory. But once I'd gotten this setup figured out, and started studying in 3-minute chunks every half hour to two hours throughout the day, my retention improved immensely.


  1. ANyewHypothesisJuly 09, 2011 7:41 AM

    I found this blog entry through a search. I too was not satisfied with the Anki default settings, especially how it would suspend "leech" cards so quickly.

    My method is similar to yours: I like to enter brand new cards in and review them until they start to really click. And I would like to come back later the same day to review them as well. I really like your suggestion of changing the time-frames. And you don't really lose out since as you mark cards as easier, they will eventually start taking days to show up.

    I'll be updating my Anki decks soon.

    BTW, I'm really happy with Anki as a learning tool. It's really helping me build up my vocabulary in an efficient and fairly painless way. I'm learning Russian.

  2. Here's my update a few days after trying things out with those settings....

    In the end, I don't think that's optimal for me. I ended up with just too many words that always wanted attention. There is something to be said for giving words "time to breathe". The default Anki settings are meant to let you learn words over time which may actually work better for getting them in to your long term memory; it is also much more time-efficient and less stressful.

    I have become much less conservative in marking cards how well I know them. Now, if I can recall a word, even if I feel it's still awfully loose in my brain, I will go ahead and send it to the next day or later. I no longer care to see it again in the next hour or so.

    This way, I am able to juggle many more cards at a time without feeling overwhelmed.

    But anyway, cool blog, and I'm glad I stopped by here.

  3. I guess part of it depends on how well you want to learn the cards; I aim for recall in less than a second, which means that having things re-appear frequently is no big deal at all. I can get through a couple of dozen cards per minute if I know most of them reasonably well.

    The other thing I learned, after not doing anki for a few days, is not to stress out at all about having a huge backlog. You just go through as you go through it, and if there are a hundred or two hundred cards waiting if you come back after an absence, just don't worry about it. You're seeing them often enough, usually, that the delays in seeing them again will be no big deal.

  4. Great post.
    I'll try this later...
    It seems like the solution I was looking for.

  5. hello,thanks for interesting writing. I set my anki up the way you describing here, but it feels little bit messy...first of all, all words giving different times to choose after i press 'show the answer' button, on some i have 3 hours above 'good' button' on some 'three' on some 'two'...and it is my very first day with anki,aren't they supposed to be the same?second,what if i want to review the cards which i've chosen to for a next session,without learning a new word,how can i achieve this?if i press 'review' early it showing me ALL the cards, even the onces which are scheduled for next day, if i put 0 in 'new cards' field and set times for reviews as every half an hour for example then i'm geting infinite number of new cards instead...is it possible somehow to go through new set of cards at first session and then to repeat them without learning new material?even if i will be having one new word(i'm learning new language) with review scheduled every couple of hours in few days i will have too much words to go through,and my five-seven minute long sessions will just not be big enough for this, as well as my attention skills...or am i getting something wrong and new cards will be introduced only next day even if per-day scheduling is disabled?what is 'next day' then? 24 hours? 24 hours after what?after first new card was introduced?i'm confused here
    i understand that most of these problems are due to the mis-use of the software, which is designed to be used once a day, but how do YOU use it in this case?

  6. Slightly different times for next revew of new cards is normal; I believe that Anki does this to help space things out and make sure that cards don't come out in the exact same order every time. It's harmless, because it doesn't really matter whether you set the next review to 315 or 330 minutes later (or 45 days or 47 days later), your brain isn't going to distinguish and have you remember it at 320 minutes but forget it at 325.

    The other issues are exactly the same even if you don't change the timings on anki. For example, there's no easy way to say, "I'd like to re-review stuff I reviewed recently;" when you next want to see a card is a decision you must make at the time you're reviewing it.

    My recommendation is that you crank up the review rate, as I did, any time you're totally positive you'll remember a card, pick a low value for the review period (or indicate you got it wrong to reset it to short review periods), and just live with getting more reviews of that card than you really need. That's really the whole point of my settings here.

    The other thing I've noticed as I use this is that, generally, it's no big deal to have a backlog of cards. If you can't remove your backlog one day or session, you'll catch up later if the amount of time you spend on average is enough to keep up. As well, the backlog is never really as big as it seems, because even if you missed four reviews of a card in it, you need review the card only once to clear it from the backlog.

    So don't worry too much if you're keeping even a continuous backlog of a few dozen cards, unless you're not being shown them often enough to remember them at the beginning. If that happens, the problem is not the backlog, the problem is that you simply have to study more often for Anki to work at all.

  7. I am using Windows. The default deck location is My Document. I would like to change it to J\Data\Anki. How do I do that?

    1. There's a README.txt in My Documents/Anki. It says see http://ankisrs.net/docs/dev/manual.html#startupopts