Friday, December 23, 2011

Anki must meet student needs

As much as we "know" that Anki is an excellent way to learn something, conveying that to others seems quite difficult.

We explain it to students and friends, and they seem to understand it. They usually agree that it sounds good and that they would like to use it. However, not many actually use it and very few actually embrace it.

I have been thinking way too much about this, but it is helping me get down to some fundamental concepts of teaching and learning...

I think one big problem is the old "want versus need" thing. Our students want to learn English, but they don't necessarily need it. There is no internal pressure to make the effort. And since there is no pressure, they don't see a need to use Anki.

We have to create an educational framework where students can see Anki as an excellent way to meet their needs in the class.

The material in the Anki decks must be what the students are using everyday in class. It must be quizzed and tested regularly and thoroughly. They must feel like they will need everything studied before at any moment in the class. There must be constant pressure to remember, produce and process the content in many different types of activities and from many different directions.

However, it should not be all punitive, as in quizzes and tests. Students must have opportunities to succeed and feel good about what they are learning and doing. You catch more flies with honey than vinegar...

In this way, we hopefully can create that internal pressure, that need, in our students. Then, if we give them the opportunities in class to use Anki in a way to meet that need, perhaps they will embrace Anki. That should be our goal: students using Anki to succeed in our classes, and subsequently being able to succeed in all other learning situations.


  1. Greetings Rich,
    As always I like your blog, and want to wish you a merry christmas as well! ^^

    Now, as for this post, I think you've got it the other way around. When using anki for a while you notice, like you said earlier, that old things keep coming back, aka, a way to perfect memorization. But if you think in terms of want vs need. I think it's the opposite. The students NEED to learn English just to get good grades. I don't think they really really want to learn everything perfectly. They want to learn the words just for the test, and afterwards when they talk with friends and stuff, that's when you learn the fun english, not just words of difficult voc that seems hard to start using daily if you learn it jp-en anyway.
    Hmm I'm not sure if I can explain it clearly, but this is the exact feeling I have towards my classes in Uni.
    I lived one year in Japan, and finished Heisig, and went on with anki+sentences from manga and AJATT methods and so on. I also lived in a Host family that couldn't speak English. After one year I could speak ten times better Japanese than my french after 8 years of school eduction in belgium.
    Anyway, now I am studying Chinese in Uni, and I can hardly stand it. I hate the way they teach, I hate the way they make us think that their ways of learning is good and give us grades for just "showing up". It's childish, and of course everyone agrees and says: "I could never study a language on my one, let alone Chinese." However I am different and have my own methods like anki and yadi yadi. So I stopped going to classes.
    Now the lists of words we need to know, I don't learn them dutch-chinese but I only do sentences. For every word I search 2 sentences and pictures to make the sentences fun. Have you tried doing that for the voc they need to know? Sentences, highlighting the word in question, and adding a funny picture for each sentence. I find this makes it worth the while, giving me the feeling of anki = trying to understand human sentences, and not anki= some alianated way to learn difficult words.
    xD What do you think?


  2. Enjoying the posts Rich...keep them coming. You are teaching a very different set of students to me. I think with many classes at my school we create the need but not the want.

    Mesqueeb. Adding pictures to make the cards a bit more interesting and memorableseems like a really nice idea to me. Convincing the students of the value of investing this time may not be so easy, but definately worth a go.


  3. Tom, perhaps the need is the want - or is the want the need? It gets very confusing sometimes...

    I think a lot of it (if not all of it) gets down to students actually wanting (and then doing) what it takes to get to what they or the teacher want.

    If they are not willing and able to do the class activities or study, then they will not reach the goal of learning...

    I think that is where we often fail as teachers...

  4. Mesqueeb,

    Good thoughts about need vs want - a classic struggle...

    However, the point of my post (I think) was that to create that "want" (the students desire to study via Anki), the students must feel that they need the material in the cards to succeed (or not fail) in the class.

    A desire is powerful, but a need is even stronger...

    And to be honest, we cannot always create that desire, but we can always create the need in the negative sense by quizzes and tests. However, there was a recent article talking about how testing and quizzing is a vital part of the educational process and should not be ignored. I'll have to track that down...

  5. An idea:

    One way to make sure students "want" to learn the material is to engineer the classroom environment so that the students will have to publicly demonstrate their knowledge.

    I've been pushing myself to use a technique called "Cold Call" in class more often. I learned about this from a fantastic book called Teach Like a Champion. (It's specifically for K-12 teachers in all subject areas, but a lot of it is applicable across the board.)

    "Cold Call" is essentially calling on all students, whether or not they have their hands up. It sounds simple and may be a part of many teachers' natural routines, but if you're not already doing it, I'd urge you to give it a try.

    When you call on all students, you...

    1) create the impression that you assume they all know the information. This demonstrates your high expectations (even if you're fairly sure some won't have studied).

    2) can get an accurate picture of student learning

    3) force students to confront their own lack of knowledge. If a student doesn't have an answer, it's obvious to him or her.

    4) use peer pressure productively. If a student doesn't have an answer, it's obvious to the whole class.

    If a student repeatedly answers "I don't know," the Teach Like a Champion book has a strategy for that, too--have another student provide the answer and then come back to the original student and have him/her repeat the answer. Maybe even have the whole class repeat the answer.

    What I'm struggling with is how much of this kind of "one right answer" drill work to include in class in order to reinforce the Anki homework. It's certainly not very communicative and feels in some ways like a poor use of classtime. Any thoughts?

  6. OK. Here's another question I've been pondering (more philosophical):

    How can we make our students understand the value of knowledge?

    I feel as if in society at large right now (maybe only/mostly American society, but probably this is widespread), most people do not value knowing things--dates, facts, word definitions, etc. After all, we can look it all up on the internet.

    Those of us reading this blog/using Anki surely are convinced that knowing things--having them in your own head, ready to use at a moment's notice--is valuable. But how can we convince our students of this when it's such a counter-cultural idea?

    I think answering this question might be key to getting our students to buy into the idea of Anki.

    Here are some things I have tried/have thought of trying:

    1) say, explicitly, that knowledge is important. At the beginning of the semester, I sometimes give a little pep talk on the topic. Here's an excerpt from what I said on the first day of a class last year:

    "It’s important to note that knowledge is not the same as the mass of raw information out there in the world—on wikipedia, in articles, on blogs, in reference books.

    I would argue that you cannot be a critical thinker unless you have all of the information together in one place—in your head, where you can start to combine it in new ways, making comparisons and judgments and analyses. That’s why we need to actually learn this material for ourselves, even though it’s available in all kinds of books and other sources."

    2) provide an inspirational quote. One I have pinned up on my board is a paraphrase from the Phaedrus: "No sensible person thinks that having something written down is better than knowing it." (I haven't shared this with my students yet. Does Socrates carry any weight any more?)

    3) use analogies to prove the point.

    Why learn the times tables when you could just use a calculator?
    Why learn German vocabulary items when you could just carry a dictionary around with you all the time?
    --saves time
    --is practical
    --you can synthesize new information with the information that already exists in your head

    So I've given this a try but would like to do more. Other ideas?


  7. Dear Jennifer,

    Yes, I've heard of the "cold call" idea and think it can be a good way to keep the students on their toes. However, it can take up a fair amount of limited class time. Also, with cold call, you have to keep calling on students until you get the right answer. In videos I've seen demonstrating "cold call," there are always other eager students with their hands raised, ready and willing to answer. That does not happen in my classroom full of sleepy, shy Japanese university students...

    And in terms of helping understand the value of knowledge... Wow, that's a hard one for almost any situation, whether it's the pursuit of knowledge, health, wealth, etc. You can show/tell people the value/importance, but that doesn't mean they will actually do anything about it. Unfortunately, it seems that it has to come from inside the person. It has to be an internal drive/desire to actually get people to do something about it. We can try to help them, but... The overused phrase of "You can lead a horse to water..." is so true.