In my opinion, memorization is the taboo word of our academic generation. I’m sure we have all heard the phrase countless times in many of our classes: “You shouldn’t memorize it; you should understand it.” This negative view of memorization has led many people to being very apprehensive of memorization.

For most people, memorization can be a daunting and tedious task requiring a large time commitment. However, I believe that fundamentally, memorization is simply the commitment of information or concepts to memory and that memorization and learning are essentially synonymous. In almost every field, and especially in science and medicine, knowing how to effectively memorize large amounts of information is an essential skill, whether we like it or not, and so I believe that it is in every student’s best interest to try to become better at memorization.

Throughout my undergraduate studies, I have tried countless different study techniques. I have concluded that spaced, test-enhanced learning is the most effective memorization technique. As science students, our conclusions should be based on evidence, and so what better way to corroborate our hypothesis than to investigate published research articles on the subject. Test-enhanced learning is not a new concept and there is a very large body of research supporting its efficacy. In terms of newer, more relevant research, for example, a 2015 study of medical students found that spaced, test-enhanced learning was associated with superior performance on medical licensing examinations.

Looking into a theory is excellent, but how can we apply this theory to create a practical memorization method that actually works? The answer to that question is Anki, which is a free, open-source flashcard program that uses spaced repetition. Nearly half of all US medical students use Anki as their primary learning source, and I have been using Anki for almost every single course I’ve taken over the past three years. The following sections of this article outline how to use Anki effectively in order to master the art of memorization.

Advantages of using Anki

  • Allows you to make computer-based flash cards of many types, including front/back, deletion cards (where it hides certain parts of a text), image occlusion cards (hides parts of an image), and many others
  • Available on Mac(free), PC (free), Android (free) and iPhone (paid) and synchronises across all platforms
  • Community-based add-ons allow for several features to be customized and added at will
  • The software handles the repetition and spaced elements for you, making it a standardized studying method

How to use Anki for your classes

Step 1: Take notes

In order to effectively use Anki, you must have notes ready to be inserted into the software. Do not simply copy-paste all the PowerPoint or PDF content into Anki: this will lead to overcrowded flashcards with diluted information. The optimal strategy is to continually condense your notes throughout the term. Practically speaking, this means combining course PPTs or PDFs and the personal notes you take in class, and condensing them down. Ideally, through this condensing process, you will remove all the excess or useless information and only keep the key information, essentially trimming the fat from your class notes and adding any other important information from your personal notes. At the end of this process, you should be left with notes that are point form and that actually make sense to you. It is important to realize that time spent in this process is not wasted; rather, it is the first step in memorizing the content, since organizing information is a type of active learning! This condensing process should be done the same day or same week of the class so that you gradually acquire a growing sum of condensed notes throughout the term. Even without Anki, these notes are an extremely valuable asset because they can serve as a reference any time you need information. Instead of wading through hundreds of PPT slides, you can simply go to your condensed notes and find the information that makes sense to you.

Step 2: Making Anki cards

Making the actual Anki cards should not take much time; however, if you leave it to the last minute, making all the cards can be very time-consuming. Given this, I find it best to make the Anki cards gradually, in the same fashion that you make your condensed notes. In order to make Anki cards, you must first install the Anki software. Once you’ve installed the software, I suggest that you make a few changes to optimize the application. First, install the image occlusion add-on, which will allow you to make flashcards out of pictures, which is VERY useful when studying anatomy. Another extremely useful add-on is the format pack, which allows for point form. Once you have uploaded these add-ons, you can begin creating flashcards. You will find many online tutorials that specifically cover how to use Anki, so I will not cover this directly in the article.

It is very important to try to find a balance between the difficulty of the card (how much you hide) and the length of the card (how much content there is). Ideally, you should not give yourself too many hints in the card, since this would make it too easy and spoil your recall training. Real learning occurs when you make an effort to remember the content. However, you also don’t want to hide every single word, making it impossible to refer to the proper answer: you still need to know which question you are asking yourself! Once you’ve made a card, click the Add button to add it to the deck and proceed to making the next card.

Keep making cards, using your condensed notes, until you have covered all of the content required for your exam. Once you are done, you can exit the Add page and return to the main Anki screen. It is very important to export the deck before you begin studying it! To do this, simply click on the gear icon beside the deck and click export and uncheck Include scheduling information. Saving decks is very important because you will likely need them later for the final exam, or for other exams or courses.

Step 3: Studying with Anki cards

As mentioned, ideally you should be making your cards progressively as you go through the course so that now you find yourself with a complete deck and many days before the midterm. I have found that the best way to study the decks is to split up the cards equally over a certain number of days (usually a week). So if I have 150 cards in my deck, and I have 7 days until the exam, I will study 150/6 = 25 cards per day and on the last day before the exam I will do a full review of all the cards. This timing can be adjusted, of course, and depends on your study habits, but always try to give yourself at least three days to study all the cards: I have found that we all have a certain threshold when it comes to the amount of information we can effectively memorize in a single day.

Before studying your deck, you will need to adjust a few settings. On the main page, click the gear icon beside your deck and click Options. The first modification will be to set the New cards/day to a large number, such as 500. This will allow you to study a large number of cards without the software stopping you. The next modification is to set Easy interval to another large number, such as 15 days. The reasoning for this will be explained later.

To study your cards, simply click on the deck. A screen should appear with your cloze card and the words that you selected will be hidden with only a “[…]” in their place. Typically, the first time you see a card, you will not really know what is on it, so you should usually click Show answer (or space bar) right away to reveal the words. Then, you should actively try to memorize and study the concepts on the card. Once you feel like you are ready to try the card, click Edit (or E) to bring up the editing menu, and then Escape, which should re-hide the card. Now try to answer all the deletions from memory. Once you have finished trying to recall all the information to fill in the blanks, click Show Answer again and review how you did. If you found that it was very difficult or impossible to remember the information, simply click Again. Doing so will shuffle the card to a position at the top of the deck so that you will see the card again in a few minutes. If you found it relatively easy to remember the information on the card, click Good to shuffle the card back into the middle of the deck. NEVER click Easy the first time you see a card. You will continue to see new cards and repeat the process of trying to recall the answers, clicking either Again or Good. Eventually, you will come across a card you have already seen. When this happens, do not reveal the card right away, as you would with a new card. Instead, try to recall all the information in the blanks from memory. Once you have done this, you can click Show Answer and see how you did. If the card was extremely easy for you to answer and you feel confident you know it, you can click Easy. The reason you set Easy to 15 days is that you don’t want to see that card again until your final review. So, when you click Easy on a card, this means you feel very confident about it. If you are still not entirely confident that you’ve memorized the information on a card, click Again or Good to reshuffle it into the deck. This process continues until you have reviewed all the new cards you’ve been assigned for the day (the number of cards divided by the number of days). You can check your progress by looking at the numbers that appear on the bottom of the card. The numbers in blue are the number of new cards you still need to review, while the numbers in red are the cards that you are currently reviewing and that you’ve already seen. Once you have gone through all your cards, you can delete the deck, but make sure you have already exported the deck or else you will lose it forever! On the day or days before the exam, re-upload the deck by opening the Anki package file that you exported. This will basically re-upload the deck as it was when you created it. At that point, I recommend reviewing all the cards, going through each concept to test your knowledge and make sure you know everything. After this, you are ready for your exam. The magic of Anki is that it allows you to systematically review concepts and test your knowledge in an unbiased way.

Step 4: Becoming an Anki expert

Anki can be used in an endless number of ways, and all the card types can be customized. There are countless interesting add-ons, each with their own uses. I highly recommend browsing the Anki add-on catalogue and looking for add-ons that work for you. You can create an Anki web account to synchronise your cards on all your devices, allowing you to study on the go on your phone, or on any computer. You can even study the cards without the software by using the browser version of Anki. If you are studying with a group of colleagues who are familiar with Anki, you can split up the work of making a deck: One colleague can create one section of a deck, another can create a different section, etc., and you can combine the sections to form a complete deck.

The methods I have outlined in this article are some that many of my friends and I have found to work well, but it’s important to realize that each student needs to find the system that works best for them. I recommend starting with this system and then trying to adjust it as you go. There is always room to improve and optimize your method, and it’s important to build a strong study method from the beginning so you can adapt it to suit all your future studying needs. If you have any concerns about using Anki, know that YouTube hosts an extremely large body of content for you to draw upon. Med School Insiders and Glutanimate are two relevant YouTube channels that I highly recommend.

Anki can seem very dauting to a beginner, but I promise you that if you put in the time and effort needed to master it, you will reap the rewards of an excellent study system that allows you to easily memorize large amounts of information.

Justen, Student Mentor