I’ve been using this technique this term at Cambridge university and I’ve never been so on top of my work.
Essentially, all I do is every time I learn something new in class or if there’s something which I think is worth knowing, I’ll make digital flashcards on my computer using Anki, and every day I will review the flashcards which Anki recommends for me. Anki is free to download: https://apps.ankiweb.net/.
Now this might sound quite simple, and it is, but it is extremely powerful and here’s why.
First of all, flashcards in general are great because they use active recall. This simply means that when you study using flashcards you have to actively recall content instead of just passively reading or copying content, which is a really inefficient way to study. By actively remembering content you have to think more so it’s more mentally demanding, but because it is more demanding it is more effective. Copying stuff or highlighting might feel effective, but it’s really not demanding and therefore it is a really inefficient way to study.
The second point is about spaced repetition. You might be wondering why you couldn’t use Quizlet or Brainscape or another flashcard software. Well, you could but they don’t use spaced repetition. Every time you study those flashcards, you’ll have to review all the cards, which is just dumb because you review cards that you know already. Well, Anki only shows you the flashcards that you don’t know well, and it is optimised so that you can learn content as efficiently as possible. In case you’re wondering how Anki chooses which cards you don’t know, here’s how. Every time you see a card and its answer, you tell Anki how well you knew it. Depending on your response, Anki will determine when to show you the card next. If you keep telling Anki that a card is easy, you won’t see it frequently, but if you keep telling Anki that you find a card hard to remember, you’ll see it much more frequently. This means that you can memorise a huge amount of content with not that much effort. I only discovered Anki about 7 weeks before my exams in my first year at Cambridge, but in those 7 weeks I made and memorised about 1100 flashcards and I really believe that Anki is the main reason I did well in those exams.
The content is fresh in your head
In addition to active recall and spaced repetition, this technique is great because it relies on you making the flashcards when the content is fresh in your head. You could make Anki flashcards weeks or months after you first came across the content in your classes, and that is not a bad idea, but if you make the flashcards right after you had the classes then the content is fresh in your head so it’ll take less time to be familiar enough with the content to make the flashcards plus you might remember details which you would otherwise forget.
Investing your time
Another point is that by making and reviewing flashcards over a long period of time you’re investing your time in such a way that you can afford to study less immediately before the exam and still get a good grade. What I mean is you could study 10 hours the day before you have an exam, which would be incredibly stressful, unsustainable, and would probably result in you forgetting nearly all the content after exam has passed. Or, if you make Anki flashcards after each class and then spend 10 or 20 minutes a day reviewing the flashcards Anki recommends for you then you can efficiently prepare for your exam without having to study maybe more than an hour per day. You won’t need to cram anymore.
Digital is superior
Also, the flashcards are digital, which comes with many benefits. You don’t need to use pen and paper, if you type quickly then it’ll probably be faster to make digital flashcards, you can download flashcards other people have made and you can share flashcards. Plus there’s basically no limit to how many flashcards you can make. And Anki is more environmentally friendly than paper.
Anki is free with no catch
Finally, Anki is also great because it has no ads and it’s free for mac and windows and android, although for some reason you need to pay to have it on your iPhone. I should clarify that I’m not in any way being sponsored by Anki and so I’m really not biased, I genuinely think it’s just an amazing thing.
Words of warning
Now I’ve said a lot of great things, but there are a few words of warning I will add.
Anki is great, but it should only be a component of how you study and not the only way you study because just doing Anki and nothing else probably is a bad idea depending on what you’re trying to do. When it comes to exams, exam technique is extremely important, so doing past papers is essential. If you have to write essays in your exam, you should definitely practise essay writing because a good essay is more than just regurgitating content. Similarly, for things like maths or physics you should practise doing the stuff instead of just memorising it.
You should also not fall into the trap of thinking that knowing content is the same as understanding the content. You can memorise something without understanding it, but this is a bad idea because it’s harder to memorise stuff you don’t understand and you’re more likely to not do well in exams if you don’t actually understand what you’ve learnt.
How I use Anki
In terms of how I use Anki, I make a deck for each subject I study, and then I subdivide each deck based on the content. You can customise the cards in each deck a lot, but I keep it simple and just have the questions on the front and answers on the back.
In conclusion, I think this technique can literally change your life and I’m not being overdramatic, I’m just being honest.