Five years of spaced repetition flashcards

Attention conservation notice: Excessive navel-gazing.

First, some shameless Anki nerd bragging:

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Although I’ve been doing spaced repetition via Anki for 5 years now, I actually wanted to start doing SR flashcards about 8 years ago — approximately speaking, since 5/6/08, when I read this Wired article about Piotr Wozniak. Wozniak truly devoted himself to spaced repetition. He just generally seemed like an interesting person, his technique seemed like a good idea, and I wanted to do it [1].

For the next 2.5 to 3 years I had a pretty constant low-level of guilt/anxiety about how I should be doing SR flashcards. This anxiety spiked whenever I forgot something I had previously learned or clicked on a purple Wikipedia link. Of course, after a year or so, I thought it was too late and that I was a lost cause with respect to spaced repetition.

Coincidentally, I now have a flashcard for how to solve this exact problem. It’s called “future weaponry” — instead of thinking about what you could have done with a particular tool/knowledge/ability in the past, choose to think about what you will be able to do with it in the future.

Spaced repetition flashcards weren’t really feasible, though, until I got a smartphone. Say what you want about smartphones with respect to productivity overall, but the ability to do SR flashcards on them while walking and waiting around is insanely crucial and underrated. And this basically requires easy syncing via an internet connection.

Looking back at my cards from when I started, they’re pretty terrible. For example, I used tons of cloze deletion cards, a lazy and less effective way of making flashcards, rather than thinking about what knowledge I really wanted to retain and framing it in question form. I was also obsessed with memorizing math equations even though these have been pretty much completely useless.

That said, by far the most important thing for me back then was to maintain motivation, and I’ve been able to do that so far. You can find some of my spaced repetition flashcards cards for statistics, R programming, and other topics here.

The spike in flashcards that you see the middle of this time period was due to studying during the first two years of med school, for which I made and did a lot of flashcards. I think studying this way actually made me less good at any individual exam, since other cramming methods are more effective, but my hope is that it will help me to retain the knowledge better in the long run.

During this time, my friends and I were also studying for a big med school exam, called Step 1, and which we referred to as “D-Day.” Watching the documentary Somm, that is definitely what our lives were like, especially the us-against-the-world feeling. Spaced repetition flashcards were a big part of it. On any given day we usually had 400+ flashcards to do, which we called “slaying the beast.” We all ultimately did passed and did pretty well on Step 1, although looking back it was more about the journey.

Since starting full-time on my PhD program a year and a half ago, I’ve been using SR flashcards for two purposes:

  1. Learning programming languages, both the syntax and the concepts. The syntax has probably been more useful, but learning vocabulary related to the concepts has also been especially high yield for knowing what to search for.
  2. Learning about my research topics, e.g., Alzheimer’s and genomics. The jury is still out on whether this is a good use of time, but in general, I would say not to sleep on the potential for it if you’re a researcher. A lot of people like to read, but there’s a lot of value to be gained from systematically reflecting upon what you’ve read, especially if you have an imperfect memory like me.

I owe a lot to Damien Elmes, who wrote the open-source, free Anki software. I also owe a lot to Gwern, who wrote about spaced repetition extensively, and who made thousands of his Mnemosyne cards available to anyone to download for free. I downloaded these one day on a whim, converted them to Anki, and that was what really made me think of having my own cards as being a realistic, practical option. Thanks, Damien and Gwern.


[1]: The other thing I remember from that article, 8 years later: I often think about how he tries to minimize how often he drove in cars.

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