Software Review Redux: Anki

Guest Post by Andrew from Match Next

Our 4th graders start every math class by practicing math facts for 8 minutes. Some use Reflex Math, but most use Anki, a flashcard software I reviewed back in November. Anki is essentially a digital replacement of the plastic-baggie/ring of index cards. And in theory, it can help you decide when you need to re-study a card based on how well you tell the program you knew it, though we don’t rely on that feature much because our 4th graders wildly overestimate their mastery of the facts.

In my first Anki blog, I rated the program a 6 out of 10. It definitely beats paper flashcards, but it’s far from perfect. But we’ve tinkered a lot, and now I think it’s a 7. Today I’ll describe our ‘hacks.’

Brief review of how the program works:

Anki is designed to help people more efficiently study a set of flashcards.

Imagine you’re a kid studying a card. You look at the ‘front,’ think about it, then turn it over to check your answer. In Anki, when you ‘flip’ the card over to check whether you were right, you need to choose 1 of 3 options:

1. Soon (i.e. show me the card again asap)
2. Good (i.e. see it again, but not immediately)
3. Easy (i.e. see it tomorrow)

Here’s what that screen looks like:

Depending on which option you select, the program will keep track of how soon to show it to you again. Easy card = longer wait; hard card = shorter wait. This idea - easier cards get more time between exposures and vice versa - is called ‘spaced repetition.’ The goal is to review the item right when you’re about to forget it.

Fact Families + deck issues:

We sort of scrapped the ‘spaced repetition’ approach. Two reasons:

1. Because the program relies on student self-reporting, it only works if they’re very accurate about their own assessment of their mastery. And many of them are not. They’d slip up on a fact or take too long to get it right, but still mark themselves as knowing the fact well (i.e. click ‘Good’ or ‘Easy’). We’re trying to train them better on this, but for now we can’t rely on it.

2. Since we couldn’t rely on self-reporting, the default spaced repetition component of the program kept preventing us from having kids review cards over and over. From the program’s perspective, it wasn’t yet the ‘optimal’ time to review, so why burden you with unnecessary cards?

Instead of relying on the ‘space repetition,’ we carefully grouped certain facts into ‘Fact Families,’ and wanted to use Anki to get the kids as many reps as possible. (We actually stole this ‘grouping’ idea from Reflex Math). It was way more reasonable for us to set it up this way, rather than figuring out the ‘spacing’ for each individual kid and hope they were accurate at reporting their mastery.

Once we started using Fact Families and ramping up the reps, though, we ran into some serious problems with the program. Here’s what I wrote in the first blog:

There’s a ton of backend upkeep and maintenance required...Sometimes a student ‘finished’ studying all the cards in a deck, meaning no facts were scheduled to be restudied until the next day. But sometimes we’d have 2 minutes left of Anki studying and just wanted a kid to review a hard deck. Anki wouldn’t let you. Imagine having your flashcards taken from you and being told that you literally couldn’t study them anymore. Not cool. The only way to circumvent this problem was to delete the deck from the user’s profile, then reupload it as if it was a new deck. Very cumbersome...

So, our ‘hacks’:

Actually, before we tell you ‘hacks,’ let me explain how Anki organizes and shows the cards. I didn’t totally understand this at first, then when I did, I was able to hack it much more effectively.

Anki’s default setting is that every deck has 2 ‘steps,’ then a review pile. All the cards start at step 1. Then, based on how well you report knowing a card (by clicking ‘soon,’ ‘good,’ or ‘easy) the program either
1. keeps the card at step 1
2. moves it to step 2, or
3. puts in it the ‘Review’ pile.

For example, if a kid hits easy, this happens:

If a student clicks ‘good,’ the card does this:

If the kid clicks ‘Good’ when the card is on the last step, the card will get placed in the ‘Review’ pile, just as if she clicked ‘Easy’ on an early ‘step 1’ card.

For any card, if the student clicks ‘Soon,’ the card remains on the same step and they’ll see it again before the program moves on.

When a kid clicks ‘good’ to move a card from ‘step 1’ to ‘step 2,’ he’s telling the program that he thinks he knows the flashcard, and therefore can wait a bit before seeing it again. The length of time she waits to see the card again is the ‘space’ in spaced repetition. In Anki, the default space for ‘step 2’ was 10 minutes, which was way too long a wait for our kids to see the card again.

The default space for ‘step 1’ is 1 minute. So if a student decided to click ‘soon,’ she’d have to wait at least 1 minute before seeing the same card – also way too long for the student to see the same card if they need to re-review it asap.  

Our solutions:

1. Disallow kids from clicking the “Easy” button when they flip the card, even if they thought the math fact was easy. We realized the main reason our kids kept running out of cards was because they were clicking Easy and losing cards to the “Review” pile. We still pushed them to push click ‘soon’ if they thought they didn’t know the card, but if they thought they knew it, they could only click ‘good.’

2. Add more steps:

Adding steps just requires going to the Options page within a deck. You can add as many steps as you’d like (we put about 30). To add a step, you need to tell the program what decimal of 1 minute you want the student to wait before seeing the card again. So let’s say a student has a flashcard on step 10, and you set step 10 for ‘.5,’ the student will have to wait at least 30 seconds before seeing the card again.
(*this incorporates a little of the ‘spaced repetition.’ as the steps got higher, we made the time intervals longer, but we didn’t exhaust ourselves trying to figure out each student’s optimal ‘spacing.’)

Here’s what it looks like to add them in the Options menu:

3. Create multiple copies of the same decks. If a kid finished the deck they were studying, they wouldn’t have to just sit around - they could just open one of the spares. This was sort of a final option - adding more Steps and preventing kids from clicking Easy was enough for most of the kids, but there were a few that were finishing their decks so fast that the spares were a nice thing to have.

Next time: I’ll describe Kickboard, and how it can be used to track behavior


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