How to Deal with Lists in Anki

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When adding cards to Anki (or any other spaced repetition system), you’ll find you often need to deal with lists. In the spaced repetition community, these are sometimes called “Sets” (see Anki Essentials, Chapter 7, “The 20 Rules”).

For example, here’s a section from a book I’m working through called The Art of Doing Science and Engineering by Richard Hamming, where he summarizes the main advantages of computers over humans:

“People are sure the machine can never compete, ignoring all the advantages the machines have…These are: economics, speed, accuracy, reliability, rapidity of control, freedom from boredom, bandwidth in and out, ease of retraining, hostile environments, and personnel problems.”

This is a frustrating passage, because it’s packed with valuable information but tough to turn it into flashcards.

One easy approach is to cloze delete each individual option, and then cloze delete the entire list to make sure you can recall the whole thing. While this makes the cards easy to create, you’ll run into these issues when reviewing them:

  • It’s a lot to read, and you have to read every option to know what the missing one is.
  • It’s hard to remember. Even if you do individual cloze deletions for each point, you will still be very likely to fail on the question where you are asked to recall the entire list. Also, many lists (including the example above), are open ended and not necessarily exhaustive. So, when it comes time to review, you’re not quite sure what’s on the list, and you may list things that are “correct” but just not included on that particular list.
  • It violates a fundamental rule of flashcard creation. The “Minimum Information Principle” states that your questions and answers should be as simple as possible. A large number of simple cards is far more efficient to remember than a small number of big, demanding, awkward cards.
  • It’s hard to rate yourself. How do you rate your performance when you get 9 out of the 10 answers in the list correct? Do you fail yourself if you only got one wrong?

So, what are our options for dealing with these annoying lists?

Break it Down

First, ask yourself: do I really need to memorize the list? Do you really need to be able to spout off the list of advantages of computers over humans, and not miss any of points? Probably not.

Then ask yourself, what do I really want to get out of this list? In my example, I want advantages of computers over humans to pop up in my mind when the time is right. For example, when I’m working on a process at work that is repetitive, rote, and requires accuracy, I want to recognize computer scripts as a good solution.

So, I would not Ankify this specific list at all. Instead, I would look in the source to Ankify material focused on each individual point. For example, I could add specific questions on the relative costs of computing compared to manual effort, or details about the speed of computing compared to hand calculations. Doing this will give a deeper understanding of the advantages of computers over humans. It will probably also increase the likelihood of being able to recall the entire list at once (even though it’s unlikely I’ll need to do that).

You can also lists into sub-categories and then add those smaller lists to spaced repetition. Aim for each sub-category to have 1-2 items.

Take Advantage of Special List Structure

Sometimes you can take advantage of the inherent structure of a list to break the flashcard down. For example, your list can take a special form of a “1-n relationship”, as discussed in this thread .

A 1-n relationship is best understood by example. Suppose you want to memorize the Provinces in Canada. This list has the special property where each province in the list is associated with one and only one country (i.e. 1 country – n provinces). With lists like this, you can add questions like “what country does the province of Manitoba belong to?”, “What country does the province of Alberta belong to?”, etc. Of course, this fails if there is a province in another country with the same name, (that would mean it’s not a 1-n relationship), but you get the point.

Turn the List into an Enumeration

One of the problems with the example list of computer advantages is the order of the items has no meaning. There is no reason why “personnel problems” should be last rather than first. This makes it far more difficult to memorize because it’s just a bunch of seemingly random points.

Enumerations are ordered lists. Although they can still be difficult to memorize, they at least have some structure that your mind can latch on to. You should always try to convert your list into an enumeration if it’s not one already.

Ideally, your ordering will contain useful knowledge itself. For example, you could list the advantages of computers over humans, from most important to least important according to the author.

There are many other possibilities for turning lists into enumerations, depending on what you are trying to memorize, such as chronological order, area of the body, size, popularity, population, etc. If you can’t find a meaningful ordering, you can always list items alphabetically.

Enumerations are a free lunch, because they make list easier to memorize and provide bonus knowledge about the material. For example, wouldn’t it be much better to know the order of the planets in the solar system from closest to the sun to furthest, rather than just knowing the individual planets?

Use Cloze Overlapper

After you have turned something into an enumeration. How should you design your repetitions?

One option is to do one cloze deletion per item in the list. For example, take the list (a, b, c, d, e, f). Your cloze deletions are then ([…], b, c, d, e, f), (a, […], c, d, e, f), (a, b, […], d, e, f), etc.

I have done this many times in the past, and while I can usually answer the questions quickly and accurately, I find it hard to retain the information. When asked to reproduce the whole list, I fail. This is because the questions are too easy – removing only one item provides way too much context.

Until recently, I thought this was the best option. Then I came across the “overlapping cloze”: close deletions on individual items in the list, but with only a small amount of context given. For example, something like this: ([…], …, …, …, …), (a, […], …, …, …), (…, b, […], …, …), etc.

It’s actually quite painful to create overlapping clozes in vanilla Anki. Luckily, there is an add-on for this: Cloze Overlapper. This video by Glutanimate, the author of the add-on, provides an overview of issues with lists in and illustrates how how to use the add-on (aside: the author is the developer of another great add-on, image occlusion enhanced). I haven’t tried out Cloze Overlapper yet, so I can’t fully vouch for the technique or the add-on, but it seems to be highly regarded in the spaced repetition community.

Use Mnemonic Techniques

With a bit of practice, mnemonic techniques can help you achieve incredible feats of memory. Many are easy to learn. Even doing a little bit of studying on these techniques can produce big payoffs for your memory.

The technique I probably use most is the link method. For example, one flashcard I have on computer networking asks me to recall the main types of datalink layer errors. I added it as an unordered list: frame errors, drops, collisions, and overruns.

It’s actually a pretty poor card, but I haven’t had much trouble memorizing it because of the mnemonic I used:

  • I think of Link (from Zelda) with a shirt that says ERROR on it (dataLINK layer ERRORS).
  • Then I imagine him putting on some glasses (frame errors)
  • Link throws the glasses down to the ground (drops)
  • A giant truck hits Link (collisions)
  • Finally, the truck runs over the glasses that are on the ground (overruns)

Sounds silly, but it works. Our minds are extremely good at retaining images.

I am by no means an expert in these techniques, but I’ve found that learning a little bit helps a lot. If you go deeper, I’m sure you’ll see even bigger benefits. Other useful memory systems include peg and Method of Loci.

If you use a mnemonic technique for a list in your spaced repetition system, be sure to add flashcards to remember mnemonic itself.

Conclusion

Avoid lists if you can, but if you must, try to break them down into sub-categories, make sure they’re ordered (preferably with some relevant meaning to the ordering), use cloze overlapping to implement the reviews and limit context, and use mnemonic techniques. Together, this will give you a solid arsenal for committing lists to memory without much pain.

Resources

2 thoughts on “How to Deal with Lists in Anki”

  1. Close overlapper only works up to Anki 2.0 and has not been updated in years. There’s a similar one called Lyric Poetry Cloze Generator that works on new versions

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