The Most Common Mistakes While Making Flashcards.

10 min readJul 4, 2021

I made this guide to help you create betterAnki flashcards — those you can answer in just a few seconds because they’re just so “fresh” in your mind as though you’ve just finished learning them.
Let me make one thing clear.
Just because you’re going to finish this flashcard in a few minutes, doesn’t mean you’re automatically going to create flashcards that shove entire Elementary textbooks into your brain.
No, no, no.
Flashcard formulation is a skill.
Like any other skills, it can be learned, developed, and aimed “toward virtuoso levels”, as Michael Nielsen would call it.
Just to tell you a bit about how this guide came to be…
The examples you’ll see here are based on my own experience in manually creating 4000+ flashcards out of many of my Med school textbooks and learning materials, and the experiences AnkiHeads and Knowledge Workers have shared out there.

Your advantage, though, is you don’t have to do as many as that just to realize you’re wasting your time.
Then, at the end of this guide, you’ll discover how you can avoid the 6 blunders automatically and ultimately, learn using Anki in a more efficient way. (Hint: There are only 2 causes of it. I’ve just told you a single
This way, you won’t be getting anywhere near “resetting your deck.”
(Oh, damn, I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it…)
See, deck resets are like school or college “friends” who only talk about themselves and about how good they are.
Nobody likes them.
And they’re ugly as hell.
Anyway, even this guide might not be the prettiest one out there, but I promise you’ll gain more clarity than what you’ll get from garbage “flashcard tips” you’ll find on Google.
That’s all, and enjoy your free guide!

The 6 Flashcard Blunders

Listen, I won’t even be surprised if you had these 6 anti-patterns in your deck right now.
Making mistakes is a natural part of the skill development process — because you need to correct them before they turn into bad
habits. (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Römer, 1993)
And as you’ll soon discover, you don’t need super special memory to remember them — recognition is all you need. (FUN FACT: Recognition ability is way easier to build than recall ability.)
That said, I want you to gain the ability to recognize them as quickly possible, so here’s what I want you to do:
As you go through my examples below, I want you to constantly ask, “What’s common in all of these flashcards?

I’ll reveal my answers to you later, but I really, really want you to think about it as you go, alright?
This will help you cement the patterns and probably even even allow you to uncover more.
To give you an overview…the 6 blunders
1. The Kiddie Card
2. The Midterm Essay Card
3. The Life Hack Card
4. The Shopping List
5. The “Looks Familiar” Card
6. The 50/50 Card
Like I said, avoiding these will help you avoid
wasting MONTHS on subpar reviews.
Let’s get started.

The Kiddie Card
It’s probably better if I show the example right

After discovering Anki, I thought this was the ONLY way to create flashcards.
After all, the flashcards we used as a kid looked a lot like this, didn’t they?

Each time this kind of card shows up, it has you guessing two things at the same time:
1. Wait, what is this asking?
2. What am I supposed to say?
So just remember this:
Statements are NOT questions! Why not just create proper questions that prompt your memory better? (I’ll unpack a bit about why
this happens in the next lesson.)
Anki newbies often make this mistake because they want to remember more
flashcards in “less time.” Heck, they’d even do this with reversed card types to
supposedly “save more time.”
They don’t see that they’re wasting EVEN MORE time because they’re performing brain dumps with each review.

The Midterm Essay Card

This type of card, although less (much less) worse than the one above, turns you into a literal brain dump machine.

Just imagine answering 50 cards that take you 30 seconds to answer each, and then pressing “Again” just because you missed recalling a tiny detail.

It’s kinda like how you’re losing points in a midterm essay, right? You forget to include a word your professor wanted to see, and boom — 5 point deduction.

Now, it’s not at all bad because it’s still technically Retrieval Practice, (Karpicke, 2017) but really, answering this type of card just takes more work in the long run because it doesn’t take into account what’s called encoding specificity and cue overload.
(More on this in the future.)
Practically speaking, though, it’s better to split this up into more questions.

The Life Hack Card

Many people think it’s a good idea to “life hack” your Anki cards instead of treating them like time assets or investments. And it’s why they reap the negative rewards later on.
Often, what happens with this type of card is:
They only remember the card, but not the idea behind the card.
And trust me — this is the most pervasive mistake I’ve ever seen in every person I know who uses Anki.
Sure enough, this works for subjects where you memorize each idea as is, but this doesn’t really work for topics requiring
conceptual knowledge.Two common ways to do this mistake are:
1. Using image occlusion to your lecture
slides like it’s nobody’s business
2. Using Cloze on every single word that
looks important

Here’s the first one:

And here’s the second one:

Anki newbies often do this with their lecture slides, and I’ve certainly done this mistake before to “study a Clinical Anatomy textbook in 1 day.”
I TRULY believed I was learning, but in reality, I didn’t.
When questions came from a different angle, I struggled to access anything from my brain.
If you’re currently doing this, and you think you’re already learning just because you’re remembering the card, then you’re largely mistaken.
All you’re getting better at is “completing the words,” instead of testing your semantic memory.
More importantly, why is this a bad idea?
Well, let me put Anki into perspective by going back to its first principles.
You know that Anki is a spaced REPETITION app, right?
Meaning, all that Anki does is automate when you’re going to review an idea; it does this in increasing intervals so that you can eventually stop yelling “mental block” during your midterm exam.

When that’s successful, people will eventually call you someone born with “good memory” and they’d start calling themselves “naturally forgetful”.
Kidding aside, this means that everything Anki does is to make stored knowledge more accessible in the days, weeks, or years to
Put another way, Anki can NOT semantically connect new information for you — that’s YOUR job. Anki can only help you strengthen the memory traces that are already there.
In short, the Life Hack Card type is a bad idea because you’re reinforcing a path to an idea (the masked words) that’s NOT even part of your knowledge.
Wait, don’t we have a term for this?
Remembering without learning?
Yup. ROTE MEMORIZATION, aka the “lowest form of learning.”

The Shopping List

I first learned that turning lists into flashcard questions was a mistake after reading 20 Rules of Formulating Knowledge by Piotr
Our working memory simply can’t be “loaded” with this many items at once, and that’s why it’s a bad idea. Ideally, you want flashcard reviews to have 1:1 cue-to-idea ratio as possible so that you can review more quickly and without draining yourself.
So instead of this, either use the memory palace technique or simple mnemonics.
They’re way easier and more robust, too. (Yes, even better than Cloze Overlapper.)

The “Looks Familiar” Card

The problem with Multiple Choice type of questions is that they don’t train you to recall, but rather to just recognize.
Many students, especially those reviewing for their career exams, feel like they’re actually learning just because they answer correctly
on MCQ self-tests.
…and that’s exactly where the problem starts:
When you start believing you’re “ready” when you’re objectively not.
So first things first:
Recognition practice is NOT the same as retrieval practice.
Think of it this way: Recognition is just saying “yes or no” to a set of choices. Recall is finding a single correct answer from a black hole of memories in your brain.
Which do you think allows you to learn better?
The latter, of course.
Anyway, that being said, some career exams do have existing question banks that have impractically hard questions.
Considering that, I wouldn’t strictly classify MCQ’s entirely as a “mistake.” BUT, if your goal is to learn, then I might as well put it
down here.
Now, I don’t want to confuse you, so let me just give you a heuristic for this:
Make these questions IF AND ONLY IF the costs of learning the whole topic far exceeds the benefits.

For example, if you had to learn a whole 10 chapters for 3 hours each, just to answer a single question on a MCQ exam, then it’s NOT worth learning, thus you should train recognition instead.
HOWEVER, I recommend you use the answer itself rather than the letter of the answer. It helps you review them much faster.
I did this in the past and it has helped me answer 5 “out-of-this-world” questions in a big exam. Here’s an example of my MCQ

Note that it used a known question bank, and that’s what made this a valid tactic. Also, the question bank was available online, so that’s quite a bonus.

The 50/50 Card
These 50/50 Card types are mostly “True or False” or “Yes or No” questions.
See below:

These cards are worse than MCQ’s for learning because cards don’t test anything useful at all.
On top of that, it’s even worse than simple recognition because EVEN IF you didn’t know the answer NOR the question, you could be right 50% of the time.

How to Avoid Making Suboptimal Flashcards Without Overthinking It

Now back to the question — have you found anything common in all of them?
I gave a few hints here and there, so I’m guessing we came to the same conclusion.
Here they are:
1. Creating questions that are too vague or too long
2. Not learning prior to creating the flashcard
3. Having unpredictable formats for flashcards
4. Creating more flashcards for the sake of creating it — rather than doing each deliberately
If you think that describes you perfectly, then you might feel like there’s just no way to create useful flashcards quickly — let alone review them.

My guess is that at least one of these two is
probably true:
First, you may think that flashcard creation process just takes too long.
It’s either “create an ultra-memorable card in 5 hours” or “create an ultra-poor card in seconds”.
Of course, if you chose the latter, you might feel like you’ve ended up with a collection of cards that don’t even relate to each other in a meaningful way.
That’s understandable.
Second, you probably feel stuck in a state of permanent catch-up with mountains of due reviews.
Worse, every time you get the questions wrong, you’re probably slowly losing your morale to the point where you don’t even want to study it at all.
I get that, too — I made ALL of these mistakes, remember?

Now, the good news is these symptoms converge to two root causes only.
When you solve these 2 root causes, you’ll NEVER be able to make these forgettable flashcards ever again.
If you don’t know how that looks like, imagine that you’re able to make memorable flashcards automatically, and remember the knowledge you’ve studied so hard to “get”.
Because you’ve solved these 2 “root causes” I’m talking about, you’re now studying as usual, you’re spending 30 minutes to create your cards for the lesson, but this time, you’re never gonna have to “restudy” the same thing.
Come exam week and you’re fully prepared — without a sign of nervousness in
sight, and without even needing to peek at any of your past notes.
As the semester goes by and more and more complex topics arrive, imagine the confidence you’ll get when you just know for a fact that you’re never going to get behind. Why?

Because you can still perfectly remember the prerequisite material you studied 2 months ago, and you can easily use it to make sense
of every lecture.
Must feel good, huh? But then again, that could only happen if and only if you solve the two root causes of these 6 types of suboptimal cards.

I’ve written a 4 part guide on how you can use Anki right from scratch which you can start with from here.




Dissident Hindu. Medical Student. Calisthenics Advocate. Knowledge Management Enthusiast.