Anki's Worst Problems And How To Avoid Them
Hello. I taught myself Japanese to a decent degree of competency** on my own time.
Almost all of the improvements I saw in my Japanese ability came from consuming more and more Japanese, of various kinds, about various topics. However, I did use Anki when I started out.
Before I reached the point where I could comfortably consume all sorts of Japanese, I was trying (and mostly failing) to memorize common Japanese vocabulary with an electronic flashcard program called Anki.
The biggest problem with Anki for me was the fact that I have a "non-24-hour sleep cycle", meaning that the times I fall asleep and wake up every day drift over time, even if I try to use an alarm clock. Anki is strictly designed around having a daily routine. Trying to work around it either causes problems with having more reviews some days, or adjusting your system clock whenever you use Anki. This is the primary reason why I stopped using Anki.
This is a relatively personal problem, but it bears value in explaining, because some other people (people who have to work strange, random hours, working days sometimes and nights other times) will have similar issues with Anki even if they aren't "non-24".
At the end of the day, even if you can't or don't want to use Anki, you will learn Japanese just fine as long as you read and listen enough. The time when Anki is most useful is when you're just starting out, and reading or listening for ten minutes is enough to make you feel like you're completely done for the day.
Now that that's out of the way, Anki still has a couple relatively serious problem that need to be addressed by the user, and they're not obvious at all.
There are three main problems with Anki that will affect almost everyone who uses the program. They're problems with details about how it works, not its general concept or UI or design philosophy or anything.
1: The default daily review cap is 100.
This is INSANE. Anyone who does a relatively large deck for a reasonable amount of time will hit this review cap in a few weeks.
All their reviews will be fucked up and spaced out further than they should be, resulting in a gradually crumbling retention, making Anki waste a lot of their time.
You need to raise this to something like 9999 ASAP.
Do note that having 200 to 400 reviews is completely normal and healthy if you're adding 20 to 30 new cards per day on a large shared deck and have poor retention. Your review limit MUST NOT be lower than 200, at the very minimum, and something like 500 would be reasonable. But 9999 means that reviews never get capped at all.
If you DO have too many reviews every single day, like if you added 100 cards a day with poor retention and ended up with 600 daily reviews, you should stop adding new cards and/or suspend a bunch of mature cards that you don't need help remembering anymore. Don't limit your reviews. Limiting your reviews is one of the worst things you can do.
If you DO end up have WAY TOO MANY reviews to do in a single day, like 2000, THEN you can disable new cards, set a review limit of 300, and hack away at your reviews for a couple weeks. Whatever you do, remember that starting the deck over at the beginning is worse than going through your reviews right now.
I already asked Anki's dev to increase the cap to something like 200 in the past. They refused, saying something about people going on vacations, seeing unreasonable review counts, and dropping Anki entirely. People who misused Anki shouldn't be holding back people who use it normally.
2: Lapsed cards are handled too strictly.
By default, cards are reset back to "day zero" when you fail them, making you have unnecessary reviews. Their interval spacing also constantly gets reduced if you use the "hard" button, making your reviews unnecessarily dense if you use "hard" as intended.
In reality, the more you see a card, the more you know it. Even if you forgot it after not seeing it for two months, if you've seen it eight times, you know it more than a card you've only seen once. It should not be treated the same as, or even worse than, a card you've only seen once.
Set the "new interval" for lapsed cards to something between 10% and 40%. Don't use the "hard" or "easy" buttons, ever.
3: That problem where Anki keeps showing you the same cards you can't remember over and over again
If you have multiple leeches that you keep failing in the learning/relearning queue ("yellow/orange" cards), and you're almost done with your "reviews" (green cards), those leeches will show up over and over again, possibly even one after another in a loop, taking time away from your other cards and making you stress out.
If you start seeing a card too many times on a single day because you keep failing it, "bury" it. This will make it come up again tomorrow in the same state it's in right now.
This wouldn't be a problem if Anki were more carefully designed, but you just have to work around it. Anki is very simple, and this problem emerges from a tiny obscure flaw in how "early reviews of cards in the learning queue (yellow/orange cards)" work.
This problem is also not as serious as problems 1 and 2, because a lot of people will avoid it naturally, and it can go away on its own. But if you run into it, it will waste a lot of your time.
Aside from that, have some random Anki wisdom that I picked up over the years, from my own experience and from other people who spent a lot longer with it than myself:
- Anki is just a tool. It will not teach you Japanese, no matter what you do. It's for making things easier to understand and remember. Nothing else.
- Only memorize things that you need to learn RIGHT NOW. Don't memorize things you're hardly going to use until two years from now. Don't memorize things you already know.
- Shared decks are generally bad, even the "good" ones. You want to switch to "mining" as soon as you can consume natural Japanese for extended periods of time.
- If you're mining, you're going to be bad at deciding what to mine for a long time, so take it easy and don't mine too much. Focus on extremely simple words like "factory", "picture", and "prepare", not words like "promontory", "slander", or "frostbite".
- It's a bad idea to disable the leech suspension feature. Leeches are a waste of time. You're not "losing" or "admitting defeat" or "giving up on learning something" if you use leech suspension. If you have too many cards being suspended as leeches, and a lot of them are important cards, look into filtered decks. That said, just seeing a word in Anki a few times is enough to make it very easy to learn naturally later, so you shouldn't worry about leeches getting suspended at all. It's not actually a problem.
** So I said "decent degree of competency", right? Let me explain what that means. I can watch/listen to untranslated TV, anime, and online videos, and I can read. I still need to check a dictionary or use google once in a while, just like almost anyone who started learning less than six years ago. Things like food and ingredient names present the greatest remaining difficulty to me. I don't have any issues watching 実況s, fishing videos, or vlogs, or listening to music, playing games, browsing twitter, or reading 小説.
Addendum: Anki has a lot of problems, but it's still significantly better than every single other flashcard or memorization program/app/tool out there. Every single one.
To compare Anki to other flashcard/memorization programs, most of them are like "Rice with rotten vegetables", "Rice with chunks of bread", "Rice with hard candy", etc. Individual things that range from horrible to appealing, but go horribly with rice, mixed into rice. And then Anki is "Rice with plain chicken, no sauce, no spices, no butter, no salt or pepper". It's still obviously "bad", and could easily be improved, but it's much better than all the alternatives and it will service you just fine. Complaining about these three problems here is like complaining about the chicken being dry, and working around them is like adding salt or chicken stock.
The only thing that can be any better is writing stuff down on paper and reviewing it a few times a day for a week or two. But that's specifically only better than Anki when you're memorizing a very small amount of information, like five or ten words, like your new address or some video game's magical element list. In a sense, traditional memorization of small amounts of information on a physical object is like plain rice with nothing in it. Servicable, basic, easy, and sometimes better than adding anything at all.
And, of course, you might not have a reason to eat rice at all.