How to Use Anki: A Powerful Tool for MCAT Review
- Jul 22, 2020
- MCAT Blog, MCAT Prep
Written By: Madeline Zamzow, Blueprint MCAT Tutor
Due to its complexity, it is important to prep for the MCAT in the most efficient way possible. Self-testing and spaced repetition are two study strategies that are frequently considered to be highly effective. These two strategies are the basis of the flashcard application Anki and help explain why it shines as an MCAT preparation tool.
What is Anki?
More than a simple online flashcard tool, Anki is a powerful tool for the memorization of a variety of things, from a new language to physics formulas. As discussed above, the self-testing and spaced repetition components of Anki are what make it a popular MCAT prep tool, especially for reviewing science content on the MCAT. Self-testing is a feature inherent in flashcards, such as when you ask yourself to recall content based on a question, phrase, or definition. Spaced repetition is based on the spacing effect, which suggests that we learn most efficiently when our learning is spaced over time. Anki accomplishes both of these by having flashcards only appear for “review” when you are just about to forget their content. These functions give Anki the powerful ability to make highly effective studying possible and set it apart from other flashcard applications.
While the spaced repetition feature is at the core of the Anki flashcard platform, Anki also has other features that make creating and studying flashcards a breeze. These include synchronization across multiple devices, high levels of customization, the ability to embed media such as audio clips, images, and videos into your flashcards, and a large number of add-ons that can further facilitate studying. Even better, Anki is completely free to use on desktop and Android!
What is the evidence for Anki’s effectiveness?
Many generations of educators and psychologists have worked to determine what are the best study strategies based on scientific evidence. A recent review on the subject, has suggested that spaced practice of content and practice testing have the highest utility of commonly used study strategies (Dunlosky et al., 2013). Anki’s spaced repetition algorithm addresses both of these components by testing you on specific pieces of information across a range of time. Anecdotally, there are many success stories on premed forms and from Blueprint MCAT tutoring students who have used Anki to retain important information for their MCAT test prep and beyond.
How do you use Anki?
If you’re not sure how to use Anki, start with the computer version of the application; don’t worry, you’ll be able to easily sync the flashcards from your computer to a mobile device for on-the-go practice! You’ll need to download Anki onto your laptop or computer. Anki is free to download on computers and Android devices, but the Anki App is $25 for iPhones and iPads.
Here’s how you make an Anki deck. When you first begin with Anki, you will start with one Deck titled “Default.” You can either rename this deck by clicking the gear and selecting “Rename,” or create a new deck by selecting “Create Deck” from the bottom menu bar. You can also create subdecks in a similar manner, but with the added step of clicking and dragging the subdeck on top of the deck you want it to belong under.
Once you have your decks set up, the next step is the creation of the flashcards that will make up that deck. To create a new flashcard select add from the top menu. This will cause a new smaller window to pop up. There are five main areas of interest in this new window. You will notice there are additional fields available, however, they are not essential to starting to use Anki.
- – “Type” – There are a variety of card types that come with the initial Anki download, and even more that can be added with downloadable add-ons. The “basic” card type is most similar to a conventional flashcard and is probably the most commonly used.
- – “Deck” – This field is fairly straightforward but important to pay attention to; when changing this field, you will be changing which deck the flashcard belongs to, so make sure they’re going in the right place!
- – “Front” – Here you can type whatever you’d like to appear as the prompt for your flashcard. This is similar to what you would write on the “front” of a conventional flashcard.
- – “Back” – This is where you type the “answer” to whatever the “front” of your card was prompting. Again, this is similar to what you would write on the “back” of a conventional flashcard.
- – “Tags” – Tags are optional and are single words that allow you to go back and sort your flashcards by topic or chapter. Spaces are used to separate tags, so if you want to use a phrase instead of a single word you will need to remove the space. Some examples of tags might be “genetics” or “PhysicsChapter5.”
After completion of each field press the “Add” button at the bottom of the smaller window to finalize your flashcard and move on to creating a new flashcard. After you have created your first set of flashcards you are ready to start your review! When you open the app, you will see cards appear as “New,” “Learning,” and “To Review.” “New” cards are cards you have created but have yet to review even once, “Learning” cards are those you are in the process of reviewing, and “To Review” cards are those cards that the Anki spaced repetition software recommends you review today.
As you are reviewing cards you can press the spacebar or select the “Show Answer” button to reveal the answer. After revealing the answer you’ll be asked to rank how easy or difficult it was to recall the answer associated with that card. The “easier” you rank the card the longer before the algorithm will show you that card for review again and vice versa. The amount of time before the card will reappear for review can be seen above the ranking.
We’ve covered the basics of creating and reviewing Anki flashcards. However, there is a lot more to explore, especially given the many card-types and add-ons available. Additionally, there are a few tips that are important to be successful in using Anki for flashcard creation and review.
- – Anki flashcards should be specific: Spaced repetition, and therefore Anki, works best when information is separated into small and specific chunks. While it may take longer in the card creation stage, you will save time overall and learn more efficiently if you create 10 highly specific cards rather than one more general card.
- – Ensure that you understand the material fully prior to making a card: Remembering a random fact, figure, or equation doesn’t matter much if you can’t put it in the context of your learning. Make sure you could apply the information to a -problem-solving situation prior to making a card.
- – Studying every day is essential to success: Anki’s focus on spaced repetition means that you must endeavor to minimize missed days of studying. Missing a day of studying means not only is the spaced repetition algorithm not being used to its fullest extent, but it also means that flashcards will begin to stack up!
How can Anki be used to prepare for the MCAT?
The sheer amount of content tested on the MCAT can sometimes feel overwhelming. Anki is often one of the tools recommended to help overcome this feeling. When using Anki to study for the MCAT, your first choice is whether to use an existing MCAT review flashcard deck or make your own. The benefit of using an existing deck is that the time saved from not creating the flashcards yourself can be used to focus more on review. However, the downside of this option is that the deck will not be customized to you and your study habits. In making this decision you should consider your level of experience with Anki and the MCAT, your study style, and the amount of time you have available to study prior to the exam.
It is important that you set a daily goal for how many Anki flashcards you will complete or how long you will spend reviewing flashcards. Consistent daily practice will allow you to reap maximum benefits from your studying. The good news is the Anki phone app allows you to take your MCAT content review on the go! Sneak in some prep during your daily commute by switching between practice questions in the Blueprint MCAT Qbank and reviewing your MCAT Anki deck.
How can Anki be integrated with other MCAT preparation materials?
Anki is an amazing tool for the memorization and recall of important facts and equations; however, it is important to integrate Anki with other MCAT test prep materials to maximize your success. If you create your own Anki MCAT decks, you will need content review material to use in the creation of your flashcards. If you choose to go with a premade deck, it will still be essential to have access to this review material to expand on concepts from the flashcards. Blueprint MCAT students use the material found in the MCAT course and the MCAT books.
But you can also start with a deck of free MCAT flashcards from Blueprint.
Additionally, while Anki is an excellent tool for memorization and recall, the MCAT exam requires more than just remembering facts and equations. You will need to be able to apply recalled information to analyze passages and answer specific questions. In order to apply the information you have learned using Anki, it is important to complete practice questions and exams. After the completion of those practice problems and exams, any gaps in your content knowledge can be addressed by the creation of new Anki flashcards. These new flashcards will allow you to avoid making the same error again on your actual exam by continually reviewing the information until it is stored in your long-term memory.
Anki is a powerful tool that can be highly customized to allow for memorization and recall of a variety of information. Studying for the MCAT requires the comprehension of an amount of information that sometimes seems insurmountable. Anki is one way to make that material more accessible and retainable. No matter what resources you choose to use in your studies for the MCAT and beyond, it is important to emphasize the long-term retention of material, and Anki flashcards are a great way to do so.
Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4–58. doi: 10.1177/1529100612453266
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