Tuesday, December 13, 2011

What have I learned?

So, if this blog is to be a place for sharing and learning about teaching with Anki, perhaps I should write about what I think is the most important thing for a teacher to know when trying to use Anki.

Supervised in-class use of Anki

As much as we think that Anki is a great studying tool, and as much as our students say they agree with us when we explain it to them, many students will not do it out of class on their own. There are many reasons: no computers, no Internet, lack of interest, who knows... And if they are not actually using Anki, experiencing Anki and how it works, they will not understand and appreciate it. And therefore, they will not use it out of class. It's a vicious cycle.

Yes, there are some motivated classes and students who will grab Anki and use it like crazy. Unfortunately, they are quite rare. This issue of motivation is extremely important and needs to be addressed later.

So, even though it will eat up valuable class time, if you want your students to embrace Anki, you have to create opportunities for them to actually use it successfully. And by successfully, I mean both by your standards and theirs. The teacher must know that the students are studying correctly and efficiently. The students must feel that they are learning.

I used the word 'supervised' because during in-class use, many students will not use Anki properly. Even though you can explain how to use Anki properly and stress the importance of giving honest feedback until you are blue in the face, many students will either overestimate their knowledge of the card or apparently randomly click on buttons. This, of course, undermines the whole concept behind spaced repetition.

So, I have been trying some different things. One is just circling around the room while they are studying, checking on students and asking them to answer the card out loud. We compare their answer to the card and discuss what kind of rating they should give the card. This provides some modeling, feedback, and supervision. However, with many students, a teacher can only realistically provide a little supervision for each student. Also, unless you are in a computer lab or every student has their own smart device, logistically it is not easy to do this.

Another idea has been to have the students work in pairs, sharing a smart phone or laptop. One student logs into his or her Anki website account, opens the deck, and passes it to the other student. That student quizzes the first student, assesses the answer, and chooses the feedback button. After a certain amount of time, the students switch and continue studying.

There are some advantages to this method:

1. If a student doesn't have a smart phone, they can be paired with one who does. Almost all of my first-year students have smart phones now. It is also possible to have three students share one smart phone, but that is a little more difficult.

2. By having them work in pairs with required back and forth communication, this stops students from pretending to study Anki on the smart phone when they are actually texting or surfing the Internet.

3. The student who is quizzing the other student can assess the answer and provide a more objective evaluation of the answer and subsequent feedback to Anki. This also puts the quizzing student in the role of teaching, which can be a powerful way of learning.

However, there can be some difficulty with the quizzing students not wanting to criticize their partners, especially to their face. This may be a trait of Japanese students, but it needs to be addressed. Proper modeling and encouragement can help with this. Also, when students who are friends work together, they may be more willing to tell each other when they are wrong and why.

So, on this gray, rainy Wednesday morning in Tokyo, that's my thoughts about the most important thing I've learned about teaching with Anki. I'd welcome any thoughts and feedback.


  1. Hi,

    That’s the second post (the first one was in Anki group) I’ve read that Japanese students lack of computers. It’s strange because as you wrote, all of your pupils have smartphones.

    Frankly speaking, I had other notion of Japanese people – people who are crazy about cutting-edge technology.

    Anyway, I like your blog. Though I’m not a teacher, nor a native, it’s good to know other’s people experience.


  2. Thanks for the comment!

    Yeah, I felt the same way when I first came to Japan. I thought it would be more high tech - by my standards. Most Japanese people have cell phones that can access the Internet, so they don't have as many PCs at home. Also, the traditional Japanese cell phones have a lot more hardware in them: better cameras, TV watching options, automatic train pass option, etc.
    It is high tech, but in a different way.
    But some things seem really low tech: I can't do much Internet banking - why not?
    However, the smart phone is becoming crazy popular. When I first got here three years ago, almost none of my students had smart phones. Only foreigners seemed to have iPhones. Now, almost all of my students have smart phones. What a huge change in a market, ne?
    It is this change in smart phones that I am trying to find a way to better teach my students.
    Good luck and stay in touch!



  3. Hi Rich, thanks for getting in touch. I've found this post really interesting and useful.

    For one reason or another (mainly lack of adequate IT at school and how busy I have been this year) my attempts to encourage students to use Anki haven't been much of a sucess so far.

    I really like your idea of getting students to test each other though ...that seems to get over a lot of potential problems and halves the number of computers needed.

    I'll keep reading your blog and it has inspired me to have another go at trying to convince students to use Anki... I agree that the key is building it into lessons. At least until students are used to it and convinced of its usefulness.

    I think we could accomplish so much more if we got students to spend some time on Anki every lesson.

    Anyway, I will let you know how I get on and will check back here regularly, Tom.

  4. Dear Tom,

    Good to hear you are motivated again to try to use Anki in class. Sometimes it is really frustrating to me in that I feel like the benefits and such of Anki are so obvious and clear, yet most of my students just don't seem to get it. The same can be said of friends and fellow teachers who say they want to learn Japanese but just won't use it (or study much at all).

    I think the real key is that we have to set up opportunities for students to use Anki in a successful and meaningful way and hope that they "get it." It's the old "you can lead a horse to water..." thing.

    By the way, if you feel up to it, perhaps you would like to contribute a guest post to the blog about your experiences, observations and/or general thoughts in regards to Anki? I would like the blog to be a bit of a clearing house for teachers to share and learn more about using Anki. No pressure, though...



  5. Have you tried teaching English using fun methods, such as watching movies, listening to music, etc.? That could be a reason the students are not motivated.

    I showed a video of Khatzumoto (AllJapaneseAllTheTime.com) speaking Japanese to some Japanese friends, and they were amazed. I then told them about Antimoon.com, and how they could learn by having fun and using an SRS.

  6. Hi again, Rich!

    Let me told you about my experience with learning English in public schools in Poland. I’ll keep it short – I could elaborate if you’d like to hear – if so, please e-mail me at rrh at op pl.

    I did not learn anything for, let me count, hm, ten years? Through the primary and the secondary school (the system was changed later).
    Teachers taught using old techniques, were reluctant to help and first of all, low-paid.

    I started learning English on my own 4.5 years ago. Through this time I have been using various SRS apps.

    Now, I’ve been learning with Anki for over a year and recently started using Super Memo commercial course. Apart from this I try to read much (readers, IT books, web sites, etc.)

    Some days ago I also started watching Futurama but I have some problems with it. Namely, I can’t catch what they are saying. For example, yesterday I couldn’t have caught almost whole film. They talk fast and use many informal words. How can I improve? Is it only a matter of time? Do I have to be just patient?

    One more question: how do you asses my English judging from what I’ve written here? (I did not have any problems with it).


  7. I teach German at Valparaiso University in Northwest Indiana, USA.

    My family (husband, 16-year-old son) and I have been using Anki for about two years to memorize and maintain a wide variety of facts. We are big fans of spaced repetition!

    I have been *requiring* my students to use Anki for several semesters now (this seems to be the only way to get them to do it) and would love to join in a discussion about how best to use Anki in a classroom setting.

    I have a lot of beginning thoughts and Blogger wouldn’t let me put them all into one post, so I’ll split them up.


  8. 1) My son and I have written up a pretty thorough documentation that I posted for my students and made available to our IT people on campus. It might be helpful for other teachers reading this blog since it's written with the classroom setting specifically in mind (as opposed to Damien's material on the Anki website, which is mostly directed toward individuals). It's available on my son's website: http://www.thetechnicalgeekery.com/anki/index.html.

  9. 2) Here's some text from a handout I give my students early in the semester (2nd day) that introduces the article by Gary Wolf on spaced repetition. I introduce them to the wonders of spaced repetition through this little blurb, the Wolf article, and lots of raving in class about how this is going to transform their learning.

    "Flashcard Study: The Research
    Before we begin our flashcard study, I want to give you a little background on why I think this method is a great way to review, learn, and maintain what you’ve learned.

    We will be using an online flashcard program called “Anki.” It is based on a spaced repetition algorithm and the work of a man named Piotr Wozniak, who wrote a similar program called SuperMemo. The basic idea is that you don’t need to study every item on your flashcards every day—you only need to catch those items that you’re just about to forget. So the computer sets up repetitions of the cards for you that are ideally spaced for maximally efficient learning. The spacing is based on feedback you provide.

    Here’s how it works. You download a deck of flashcards that I have created. The deck contains the words and information you’ll need for the semester. For each card, you get asked a question like “What is the definite article of ‘Apfel’?” or “When did Hitler come to power?” or “What’s the German word for ‘mystery’?” You mentally provide the answer. Then you click on the “Show Answer” button. After comparing your mental answer with the correct answer, you answer “Again” if you didn’t know it at all or “Good,” “Easy,” or “Very Easy” to let the computer know how difficult you found that particular item. And that’s all you do—answer questions and quickly rate yourself on how easily you answered each question. The ones you didn’t know at all get recycled right away that day; others come back at progressive intervals, right when you need to review them again.

    This fantastic means of studying makes the most efficient use of your study time and ensures that you will remember what you studied.

    Please read this article on Peter Wozniak and the research he has done on spaced repetition. I think you’ll find him quite the character. The article, by Gary Wolf from Wired Magazine, is well-written, and I think you’ll find it entertaining; it was featured in The Best American Science Writing 2009."

  10. 3) I require my students to do Anki every calendar day of the semester (except for breaks, when it’s optional).

    To keep them accountable for their studying, I make both the process and the results a significant part of their grades. Each week, they turn in a log detailing how many minutes and when they did Anki each day. At the bottom of the sheet, they reflect on their learning in a sentence or two (in English). The prompt says: “Write a brief note about how your studying went this week. Are you pleased with your progress? Did you encounter any rough spots? Did you work in a quiet spot without interruptions? Were you mentally concentrated?!” ( I agree with what Rich says that the students frequently rate their knowledge of the material higher than it is. For next semester, I’m going to add a question to that effect to the prompt. Maybe: “Were you picky enough with yourself when rating each card?”) They attach a copy of their graphs to the log so I can look to see if the graphs match up with their stated study times. (Since there’s currently no good print function for the graphs, I’ve been having them cut and paste a screenshot.)

    There are also weekly quizzes--completely decontextualized, just following the Anki format.

    I grade out of 1000 points for the semester. The weekly logs (14) are worth 10 points each, so that’s 140 points out of the 1000. The quizzes (10) are worth 20 points each, so 200 points out of the 1000.

  11. 4) Some of my questions for other teacher-users out there:

    * When do you quiz the students? (I've been waiting for two weeks and then quizzing.)

    * Do you have students make their own cards, or do you make a deck for them? If so, which method--shared decks online, importing from a file you post somewhere? I like the way the Shared Decks feature works, but if I find a mistake, it’s impossible to change it for everyone at once.

    * What should one do about consecutive semesters/terms? This is a complicated question, but I’ll see if I can give it a shot: If I give students one set of words and facts one semester and then a second set the next, what can we do about any duplicates that might be in there? 100% duplicates are no problem because we can just delete them or leave them be, but what about things like words that have multiple meanings? (I might want students to learn light = hell in a basic course but light = die Ampel in another course. Or light = leicht or light = das Licht....) In my own French deck (combined from one I’ve self-created and several I’ve downloaded), I’m having that problem right now. Going through and combining cards is tedious.

    * My most basic (troubling) question: Anki is so easy to use and if you do it regularly, you just know the information—like magic. So why are my students still not scoring 90% on every quiz, even though they are turning in evidence that they are actually using the program? I have a few ideas:

    --like Rich said, the students think they know the card better than they really do (I love the idea of watching them do it and talking with them about how they should rate the card.)

    --they are doing it while watching TV, texting, posting on Facebook

    --they are just clicking randomly to get the points

    --any other ideas? I’m very curious to know what exactly is going on in their heads.

  12. I am not a teacher, but living with a teacher (my mother Jennifer, who posted above) and currently being in school have both given me more than a few opinions. I've been using Anki for only about a year and a half, but I'm still amazed by it and a definite believer in what it can do, and I've gotten interested enough to do a fair bit of research on memory and spaced repetition.

    In my high school German class, I convinced my teacher to get us to use Anki. We are only required to do Anki five days out of seven, and then we turn in graphs at the end of the week. There are no quizzes, which I find to be a serious flaw.

    That would be because people find ways to cheat the system fairly easily. Jennifer's way of asking for a log, a graph, and then doing quizzes is much more accountable, since you're unlikely to get away with messing with all three. I have had a grand total of seven people admit to me that they have cheated on their Anki graphs at some point so far this year (yes, I'm counting; being the one who had a great deal to do with getting Anki going for the class, I'm personally offended by people cheating).

    If you can't tell, I'm kind of mad about that. So I wrote a little article about the possible ways to cheat on graphs. I'm sure not everyone asks for graphs as a method of proving studying, but for anybody who does, this might be a good read:

    If anybody is interested in my perspective as a student, I'd be happy to talk to you. I'll be keeping an eye on the comments here.

    My post is just barely too long to fit in one comment, so I'll split it logically here.

  13. In reply to Jennifer:
    > (I agree with what Rich says that the students frequently rate their knowledge of the material higher than it is. For next semester, I’m going to add a question to that effect to the prompt. Maybe: “Were you picky enough with yourself when rating each card?”)

    I agree with this in principle. I'd just like to throw in one caution, and that is that this only applies to whether you know the card or not, rather than how well you know it. I haven't seen any evidence of this, but I'm a bit concerned that people might interpret such a line as meaning that you should only press the Easy button when you really, really know the card well, and in fact it seems that many beginning SRS users have a tendency to say they know cards worse than they do.

    > My most basic (troubling) question: Anki is so easy to use and if you do it regularly, you just know the information—like magic. So why are my students still not scoring 90% on every quiz, even though they are turning in evidence that they are actually using the program? I have a few ideas:

    I think your words "like magic" might provide a likely answer. Anki can indeed work like magic, but you have to work at it. Doing Anki (properly) is really hard work, and I have a feeling that many people don't concentrate as much as they should. Combined with the problem of saying "oh, I sort of knew that card" and choosing not to see the card again immediately, I can see people easily falling into that trap.

    There could potentially be a problem with actually taking the quiz, if people aren't concentrated when they're actually asked to show their knowledge. But that seems like a fairly unlikely explanation.

    > --they are just clicking randomly to get the points
    This appears to happen a lot in my high school class. It would take some work to sit and space your reviews out over a reasonable amount of time with a large deck (provided that you ask for a "review time" graph). But even so, students can easily get away with that, as well as many other things (see my previous post). And even if people are actually "studying," they may not be doing concentrated studying.

    In reply to rrh:
    > One more question: how do you asses my English judging from what I’ve written here? (I did not have any problems with it).

    I can't really answer any of your other questions very well, so I won't try to give half-baked answers. There are a couple of errors noticeable enough that I can tell you are not a native speaker, but I didn't have any difficulty understanding you (I know a lot of native speakers who write blog comments that are many times more difficult to understand than yours).

  14. Wow, I woke up this morning to find all these comments! Excellent!

    Jennifer and Soren - welcome! You sound like total Anki geeks like me and my wife Joan. Her first reaction, upon seeing you guys are at Valpariso, was "Let's stop by for a visit!" We are coming home to the Midwest in Feb for a month's vacation and will be driving right past you from Wisconsin to Michigan on I-80.

    I have to run to Japanese sign language class right now but will respond more at length later. I'm really pumped to find other people out there who are as passionate about Anki as we are. It's nice to know that we are not alone, ne?

    And as a complete sidenote, my wife has a blog about her food and culture stuff here in Tokyo if you are interested: www.popcornhomestead.blogspot.com

    Looking forward to more discussion!


  15. Dear rrh,

    Don't worry. I haven't forgotten you! I'll reply in more detail to your post later, ok?


  16. Dear rrh,

    Can you give me your email address again?
    I couldn't figure it out from your earlier post.
    Or email me at richbey911 (at) gmail (dot) com



  17. Ken,

    I took a quick look at antimoon.com

    It looks pretty interesting! Could you perhaps give us a quick summary of what it is and its benefits?



  18. Yup, so-called antimoon method is awesome. It is all about one sentence: ‘less output, more input’. It says that there is no need to ‘produce’ output to learn a language because we make errors then and get into bad habits.

    To sum up: read, listen, watch and learn by fun (games). To be fluent you do not have to go abroad, nor use the Callan method.

    The author, also a Pole (too many Poles out there :D) says that it is possible to become fluent in 3 years of intense learning.

    The method uses SRS as well.

    Rich, your e-mail address you told me is incorrect. Please e-mail me at rrh at op dot pl.

  19. Jennifer,

    In terms of quizzing, it depends on the class. I have two English communications classes that are optional for the students, but only meet once a week for 90 mins. I give them a quiz every time we meet. I'm still debating giving them the quiz for new material the week after or waiting a week.

    One problem is that if a student gets behind in card reviews, they may never see the new material, depending on the deck properties.

    In my other classes that meet four times a week for 45 minutes a pop, we have weekly quizzes. Also, the class activities require the students to know the material to be able to participate (hopefully that creates some pressure to study).

    However, I wonder if quizzes and such that are based on Anki reviews actually hurt the cause. If a student does get behind in reviews and really needs to study the new material for the next assessment, then they may see Anki as a barrier getting in the way "I don't want to see these stupid old cards! I need the ones for tomorrow's quiz!" That is a thorny problem I am not sure how to handle...

  20. Rich--

    As far as the students getting behind goes: I have the cards tagged in a way that the students know what tags they are responsible for on any given quiz. Then they can use the "cram function" to study the cards from the right tag(s)--even if they're behind.

    If they understand that they can do this, they might have less cause to be frustrated.


  21. I thought of another potential answer to add to my own list of why the students aren't at 90% on the quizzes:

    - They don't know how to get the word into their heads in the first place.

    I think I need to teach my students, very consciously, a variety of memory devices. I did this a bit in one class and I think it helped some people--but I introduced it too late (after they were already frustrated) and didn't devote enough time and practice to it.

    Another SRS called Memrise incorporates memory devices into its system. I don't like that program as much as Anki for a variety of reasons, but it does show the natural connection between SRS and memory techniques.

    After all, Anki is not a memory technique itself--just a way to keep track of what to review when. Maybe those of us who are psyched about Anki and can't figure out why others are not are not realizing the differences between what we do when we sit down to do our Anki reviews and what our students do. When we come up against a card that is giving us trouble, we know what to do--come up with a visual association, relate the unknown word to a known word, etc. Next semester, I'm going to work more on this--maybe an evening workshop for students in all German classes on memory techniques.

  22. Jennifer, I think that is a valid point about Anki in terms of memorizing things. When I put a new word in a deck, with the context of a sentence or situation, it is much harder to learn - sometimes almost impossible. It's all about a context or "hook" to help remember the item. That's one reason why I like Rosetta Stone so much. There's the picture, the audio file, and the complete sentence (one of many reinforcing the core info of the lesson). Then with Anki to study all that, it is a totally winning combination for me.