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How to learn anatomy with Anki

Contents

Introduction

“Repetitio mater studiorum est” – Latin proverb

Almost everyone has heard this saying at least once in his or her life, that “repetition is the mother of learning”. A lot of people think that success and knowledge comes from receiving an intangible gift or blessing at birth, which gives some an advantage over anyone else. There is no denying that an incredible amount of geniuses, such as Albert Einstein or Leonardo Da Vinci, did achieve great things in the past and they were one of a kind. However, it was also Einstein who said “genius is 1% talent and 99% hard work…”

Learning and mastering any type of knowledge requires time, patience and devotion, irrespective of what it is you are trying to learn. It can be anything from a new language to science or anatomy. Once you understand this aspect, you can start chiseling and polishing your studying in a different way than before, removing all the inesthetic bumps and cracks. You can start spacing out your repetitions according to how well you actively remember the desired knowledge.

You might be confused and lost about how to learn anatomy efficiently. The requirement to learn such a massive amount of information in record time can drown anyone. However, there is a little program floating within the interweb, which can clear the path towards your goals. This article will introduce you to Anki’s magic.

Circulatory system
Recommended video: Circulatory system
Anatomy and function of the circulatory system.

What is Anki?

Anki is a program, which makes remembering discrete facts easy through the use of flashcards. It is based on two concepts: active recall and spaced repetition. Active recall involves trying to remember a piece of information directly from memory without any hints. In other words, active recall means testing. Spaced repetition revolves around reviewing a piece of information multiple times, but there is a catch. Reviewing with Anki does not happen arbitrarily, but it rather depends on how well the information was recalled the previous times. Therefore, while the active recall is the test, the spaced repetition is the teacher.

If you thought learning anatomy was challenging, imagine trying to also keep track of the accuracy of your recall, then planning the review times, reviewing the information and doing the same steps the following day. It would be a nightmare! Luckily, Anki’s algorithm is extremely intelligent and calculates this automatically. The only aspect this magician needs from you, its audience, are the claps provided through the simple touch of a button, telling him if/how well you remembered a piece of information. The possible options are:

Again – incorrectly recalled or forgotten

Hard - correct but it was difficult to remember

Good - correctly remembered without taking too long

Easy - correctly remembered in a fraction of a time

The easier the recall, the lengthier the time will be until you see that particular card again and vice-versa.

Why use Anki?

“Jimmy” Connors, one of the greatest players to ever set foot on a tennis court, said “Use it or lose it”. The human brain follows this policy to a T. In order to remember any piece of information for a long period of time you need to see it again and review it, otherwise you will forget it. In fact, forgetting starts at an alarming rate, the moment you finish learning. Therefore, the more you use the brain to test yourself about how well you know a piece of information, the more consolidated it becomes.

Although all of this is perfectly true, I would like to change Connors saying into “Use it well or lose it”. There is no denying that “well” refers to the active recall part. However, it also refers to the spaced repetition. Daily studying will result in flashcards piling up very rapidly and reviewing all of them each day is not practical. In order to “use it well”, you need to remind yourself only of the challenging information rather than everything day after day. This would increase efficiency and save time in the long run. After all, medicine and anatomy is a marathon so you will be running for many years.

In addition to providing a successful review strategy, Anki offers users several additional advantages:

  • Free – most Anki versions are completely free.
  • Portable – it can be installed and synced across laptops, desktops, tablets, and mobile phones, allowing you to study anywhere, anytime. Waiting 30 minutes for a bus? Plough through 50 cards. Wishing to enjoy the sunny weather? Grab your phone and go study in a park. It is that easy!
  • Digital – since the flashcards are electronic, they are easily searchable, editable, categorized and flourished with images, sounds and videos.
  • Ease – although Anki has a lot of study and formatting options, anyone can use it. You just need to create a deck, create some flashcards according to the “Golden Rules” and start studying!
  • Flexible - while the focus of this article is to use Anki for learning anatomy, it can help you memorize pretty much anything.

Learning anatomy

When you strip away Anki of its sparkly robe and look at the skeleton, it is ultimately a memorization program. Therefore, it is only natural to be well suited for studying anatomy – a factual subject with a high volume of information.

Step 1: Read the required information. Kenhub would prove an excellent anatomy resource at this point, with its clearly written articles and professional video tutorials. You need to realize that Anki is not a dirt track but rather a paved and straight road. It will get you to your destination more efficiently and faster in the long run rather than offering you instant results but leave you with knowledge gaps and unconsolidated material. Effort is still required when using this program.

Step 2: Take a note of any important facts or concepts that need to be memorized and convert them into flashcards. Anki offers a lot of options, from simple to advanced. You can make standard, double-sided ones or fill in the blanks. You can write an anatomical term on the front and its explanation or a fact about it on the back of the card. For example, you can write “Choracobrachialis muscle innervation” on the front and “Musculocutaneous nerve” on the back. Alternatively, you can convert a concept into a question or insert a picture with blank labels on the front and the same one, but labeled, on the back of the card. Just use your imagination because the possibilities are endless!

Step 3: Immediately review your flashcards after you have finished making them. This is essential for knowledge retention and to minimize forgetting. Anki will schedule each card in the future based on how well you recall it.

Step 4: This is important - Repeat those steps daily to prevent unnecessary cards from piling up. Tackling hundreds of unreviewed cards in one go is an ugly sight that will just set you back and make it more challenging to catch up. Remember, you are running a marathon and not sprinting a race.

Golden rules for flashcards

It is very easy to get ahead of yourself and create very complex flashcards with long answers and confusing questions. Anatomy is already confusing so there is no need to create a mountain out of a molehill. Below are some golden rules to help you create good, clear and useful study cards for anatomy:

  • Keep it simple – make discrete cards with one question or one fact/answer
  • Make questions unambiguous
  • Try formulating “Why?” questions
  • Create connections between different cards
  • Avoid lists – if indispensible, keep them under five items
  • Enhance your cards with media

Is Anki the cream of the crop?

Reading this article might have piqued your interest about Anki’s potential. The pile of anatomy knowledge taunting you might force you to desperately grab onto the first program that can offer a glimmer of hope. Although Anki is indeed an excellent learning method for anatomy, it does have an immense drawback – it requires a big time investment. Creating decks upon decks with hundreds of new flashcards every day and week can crumble the patience of the most resilient person. Add to that just the word “anatomy” and you might give up using Anki faster than you can say the name itself.

Fortunately, alternative learning methods do exist, one being the quizzes offered by Kenhub. The quiz database offers similar, although not identical advantages to Anki. However, what makes it specifically different from Anki are the prepared flashcards, which save an incredible amount of time. The quizzes are very well organized according to specific topics and each one has three possible levels of difficulty. Are you interested in learning about the thorax? It is right there waiting for you. You don’t even have to worry about enhancing any flashcard since a lot of them have images associated with them. Users are also capable of grasping the knowledge very deeply since quizzes some times ask for the same information but in a completely different way, aiding understanding over pure rote learning. On top of that, they also use space repetition techniques and active recall, which is what you are really looking for to enhance your anatomy learning.

As you can see, there is more than one way to skin a cat. Despite some drawbacks, Anki does have incredible potential to aid anatomy studies. Similar to a devoted teacher, this program will guide and test you, challenge you yet reward you. It will help you whenever the need arises, guiding you towards the light at the end of the tunnel and showing you that anatomy can definitely be tackled.

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Show references

References:

  • Augustin, M., How to Learn Effectively in Medical School: Test Yourself, Learn Actively, and Repeat in Intervals. The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 2014. 87(2): p. 207-212.
  • Murre, J.M. and J. Dros, Replication and Analysis of Ebbinghaus' Forgetting Curve. PLoS One, 2015. 10(7): p. e0120644.
  • Anki User Manual.

Author, Review and Layout:

  • Adrian Rad
  • Yoav Aner
  • Catarina Chaves
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