Better Anki Usage Guide

— 2489 words —

As you may or may not know, I love Anki, the spaced repetition flash cards app. I’ve been using it in my Korean learning journey for almost one and a half years now and I’ve written about it before. It’s a good app, but you can have a much better experience by making some modifications to it.

If you don’t know what Anki is or why it’s compelling, I recommend you read Augmenting Long-term Memory, a blog post by Michael Nielsen. Everything I know: Tips and Tricks for Anki by Jeff Shek also has a beginner’s guide.

If you’re new to Anki, the very first thing I recommend doing is reading the manual, or at least the basics.

I recommend using Anki for at least 2-3 weeks before reading the rest of this article.

1. Changing default settings

Anki out of the box has two problematic defaults, and one default that I don’t recommend personally.

1.1. Resetting card progress

Let’s say you have learned a card, but when you review it you make a mistake in recalling it, for whatever reason. Call it a brain fart, or pressing too quickly, etc. Or you simply forgot!

By default, Anki resets your progress to that of a new card. So even if you had worked the card up to a ~4 month interval, now you have to see it in 1 day, 2 days, 4 days, all over again…

Even if you forget a card, you still had learned it at one point. Which means re-learning it is now significantly easier. By completely resetting the card’s intervals, Anki is wasting your time. It slowly conditions you to be unwilling to press Again, which is not desireable at all.

Solution: In your deck’s options group under Lapses, change New interval to 70%. This means if you forget a card, the new interval will be 70% of the old one. As for why I chose 70%, it just felt like an appropriate amount–feel free to play with different percentages to see what works best for you.

1.2. Taking too long to mark Leeches

After you initially learn a card (the card reached a 1 day interval in default anki), if you forget it 8 times, Anki marks it as a Leech and suspends the card, not showing it to you anymore.

A card being a leech generally means its too complicated, or you’re getting it confused with a similar one. 8 times means it’s going to take way too long to identify cards that are problematic.

Solution: In your deck’s options group under Lapses, change Leech threshold to 4. You may also want to change Leech action to tag only. This way you can easily sort for leech cards and modify or delete them.

As for handling leech cards, you generally want to simplify the card, or delete it outright. With the time and energy that you wasted on trying to recall a leech you could have learned a bunch of other cards. If it’s a word that you don’t want to delete, you can suspend the card, and practice using that word outside of anki. When you feel more comfortable with it you can unsuspend it.

1.3. Mixing new and review cards

By default, Anki mixes new and review cards. However, reviewing is vastly more important than learning new cards–it’s okay if you don’t memorize new cards every day, but missing reviews really hurts your memorization progress.

By putting reviews first, you can always do reviews daily and then choose to learn new words or not depending on how busy you are, how tired you are, etc. If the cards are mixed you can’t do this, making it likely you’ll just skip Anki for that day entirely, which can can quickly snowball into not using anki at all anymore. This happened to me.

Solution: In Anki’s preferences, change Mix new cards and reviews to Show new cards after reviews.

1.4. Making better card templates

The Basic card template in Anki has two fields: Front and Back. This is the minimum for flashcards obviously, but as you make cards it’s likely you’ll want to have separate information.

Over time my personal Zah Korean card template has grown to eight fields: english, korean, grammarType, samples, hanja, notes, image and sound. On the front I show english, and grammarType as a hint. Some people put sample sentences but I find this leads to short-circuiting your recall; instead of recalling the word you recognize that sentence.

I also have a Zah Colorcard template which has a hexColor field. Because I initially tried to learn colors in Korean like regular vocabulary, which makes no sense. Anki lets you pull in values easily in the template’s html and css sections.

You can modify a card’s fields by going to Add or Edit, then clicking on Fields…​. You can add a new card type by going to Add or Edit, then click on the type, and then click Manage.

1.5. Better styling with html and css

Default anki’s styling is very plain. I recommend modifying it to show different fields in different colors. For example, my grammarType field is rendered in green while hanja is rendered in purple. I render my color card’s hex value dynamically. Here’s what my cards look like; the horizontal line denotes the front and back:

How my templates look for sample cards

You can go to Browse, Add, or Edit and click on Cards…​ to get to the style dialogue. Some premade decks include nice styling for you, or default to a night mode. For more in-depth info, you can visit styling in the anki manual.

2. Why behavior-changing plugins are needed

Essentially, the way Anki treats cards is not intuitive, and actually hampers your memorization progress. Let’s say you’re reviewing a card–you have four options. Again, if you forget, and Hard, Good, or Easy.

You would assume this means "I (the user) had a hard/good/easy time recalling this card today", right? Well, Anki actually sees it as "this card is intrinsically more difficult; please modify it permanently".


You see, every card in Anki has an individual ease percentage, starting at 250% by default. The algorithm that calculates a new interval goes like:

NewInterval = OldInterval × CardEase × DeckIntervalModifier

  OldInterval: 1 day is the first default value
  CardEase: 250% by default
  DeckIntervalModifier: 1.0 by default, set on a per-deck basis

When you hit Again, Hard or Easy, Anki modifies the ease by -20%, -15%, or +15%, respectively…​ You can see now why people recommend not hitting Easy at all; it quickly snowballs. Note that a card’s ease can’t go lower than 130%.

still of Hannibal Buress on The Eric Andre Show saying the word wack

So you might be saying, why is seeing cards too often, aka "overlearning", an issue? Either way, I’m seeing more difficult cards more often.. Well, research suggests that after an initial period, the extra time spent doesn’t actually lead to better recall.

In one study (Rohrer, Taylor, Pashler, Wixted, & Cepeda, 2005), college students learned novel vocabulary (e.g., cicatrix–scar), cycling through a list of word–definition pairs either 5 or 10 times. The extra 5 cycles yielded a substantial benefit after 1 week, but the gain was no longer apparent after 4 weeks … From a long-term perspective, overlearning appears to be inefficient almost to the point of wasting time. [1]

Now take a look at what happens in Anki if you lower the ease too much:

Image taken from Guide to Anki Intervals and Learning Steps[1]

So even if you know a card enough to hit Good, if you had hit Hard 3-4 times prior, the interval growth rate is permanently stunted due to how Anki works. You would have to hit Easy to balance it which is counterintuitive.

Research also suggests that larger spacing is better in the long term.

In a 9-year longitudinal investigation, 4 subjects learned and relearned 300 English-foreign language word pairs. Either 13 or 26 relearning sessions were administered at intervals of 14, 28, or 56 days. Retention was tested for 1, 2, 3, or 5 years after training terminated. The longer intersession intervals slowed down acquisition slightly, but this disadvantage during training was offset hy substantially higher retention. Thirteen retraining sessions spaced at 56 days yielded retention comparable to 26 sessions spaced at 14 days. [2]

Our results can be summarized as follows. We find that over substantial time periods, spacing has powerful (and typically nonmonotonic) effects on retention, with optimal memory occurring when spacing is some modest fraction of the final retention interval (perhaps about 10%–20%). [1]

With that out of the way, here are the plugins I use.

3. Anki Subdecks

If you review from multiple decks daily, you can use a parent deck with subdecks to mix reviews. This is my own personal opinion, but I think it’s better for recall if you change contexts. This is more like recall in real life.

Making subdecks in anki is really easy–just make a parent deck, and drag decks onto it. Or you can manually rename the deck in this format: Parent Deck Name::Subdeck Name. If done right, it should appear like this:

A picture of anki open displaying how the interface shows subdecks

The only issue is Anki will still do reviews one deck at a time. I tried using the experimental V2 scheduler, but it didn’t work for me. So now we have to turn to a plugin: HoochieMama: Randomize Rev Queue. After you install this, open Anki’s preferences, and in the Muffins tab enable Hoochie Mama! RandRevQ w/ subdeck limit.

That’s it! Now you can review from multiple subdecks, and new cards are still deck by deck. If you want to mix new cards as well, there’s Hoochie Papa. I personally don’t think that is as useful.

Make sure to back up your anki decks before adding behavior modification plugins like this.

4. Filtering Cards

There are times when you want to study something more specific than just cards in a deck. For example, lets say you have a general language deck with some cards tagged as colors, and you want to only study those.

4.1. Custom Study Sessions

If you click on a deck, you should see a "Custom Study" button. This gives you several options, which you can read about here.

  • Increase today’s new card limit

  • Increase today’s review card limit

  • Review forgotten cards

  • Review ahead

  • Preview new cards

  • Study by card state or tag

Choose the last one, then "All cards in random order (don’t reschedule)", unless you only want to study cards that you’ve already seen. Then click Choose Tags, and the tags that you want to focus on.

Once you review the card, it will go back to the main deck. You can also delete the Custom Study Session deck.

The downside here is that the queries are per deck. What if you want to search multiple decks, or have a more complicated query?

4.2. Manually Filtering

The other option Anki has is to create a Filtered Deck, using Tools > Create Filtered Deck from the main menu.

This will give you a search prompt. Anki searches can get pretty advanced, so read about them here. Some useful ones:

  • deck:deckname filters by deck.

  • -deck:deckname adding a - negates the filter.

  • tag:tagname filters by tag.

  • -deck:filtered filters by normal (unfiltered) decks only.

You can group terms with parentheses: (tag:tag1 or tag:tag2 and tag:tag3)

5. Visual Plugins

These aren’t really necessary but I like seeing stats. Give me allll the stats.

This is basically a fancy stats plugin. You can see a detailed breakdown by day, week, and month, and see your true retention rate. You want roughly 80-90% retention. [TODO]

This addon shows extra information of the due cards and returns the expected time to finalize (Due+New).

This adds more stats to the main window via columns. As you can see in that link, the default config adds quite a lot, so I modified my config to pare it down, which looks like this:

A picture displaying how the anki main window looks different with this plugin enabled

Note that the stats at the bottom are from the More decks stats and time left plugin.

Adds two new graphs to the stats window.

Simply colorizes Again to be red, Good to be green, etc. It’s a small but nice thing to have when reviewing. There’s also Large and Colorful Buttons if you wanted even more colorful buttons.

This is an awesome plugin that visually shows your kanji learning progress. Simply select a deck that has a kanji field, and run Tools > Generate Kanji Grid. It looks like this:

A grid showing kanji characters with a color background based on how long the current interval is

This was generated from my deck with the default settings.

6. Behavior Plugins

This is where things get fun. These plugins change the core functionality of Anki, so please, read about them and make sure you understand what they do before adding them.

Make sure to back up your Anki decks before installing these.

This adds a pane to the Add Card window, letting you quickly search through your Anki decks for keywords. It’s very useful for finding duplicates, or searching among sample sentences.

The only con is the search doesn’t work for non-ascii text. When I have time I plan on fixing this.

This adds a command in your Tools menu called Reset Ease + Force Sync After. It resets all Anki cards to have the default ease value, 250%. You have to install it manually.

This changes Again, Hard, and Easy to not change the card’s ease value. By default, Anki modifies it by -20%, -15%, or +15%, respectively. This is a bad idea, and I go into more detail [in my other anki post][TODO]. This goes hand in hand with ResetEZ. It also needs to be manually installed.

See the Making use of subdecks section above. This randomizes review cards in subdecks.

7. Other Plugins

There may be plugins for the language(s) that you’re learning. Japanese has several, for example. It’s worth searching "anki <language>"" to see what’s available.

8. Conclusion

Considering that we end up using Anki for years, it’s worth taking some time to improve it and read the documentation closely. Is there a plugin or change that you feel like I missed? Let me know.

I have also written a post on general things to avoid while using Anki that I recommend you check out.

other memorization posts
Things to avoid with Anki
other anki posts
Things to avoid with Anki