Delete your flashcards!

This isn’t me turning against flashcards. It’s advice about how to learn most effectively with when you’re using an SRS system.

When you’re using sentence mining to to learn Chinese, you’ll quickly end up with a large deck of flashcards — several hundred within a few days or weeks, and thousands within a couple of months.

Most people’s instinctive response to this is to up their game by increase the new cards per day setting. This is a noble pursuit but one that’s nearly always doomed to failure. For the first few days, the extra cards don’t seem to be much of a burden, but due to the nature of SRS, the extra work quickly compounds until it is unmanageable.

When studying your sentences becomes a chore, you’re less and less likely to do it. Even if you force yourself to continue, you’ll end up burning out. When that happens, the damage to your Chinese learning can be much larger than any benefit you got from the extra studying.

So what can you do about this?

The answer is to delete flashcards.

This seems like a bad idea. Haven’t you spent a lot of time accumulating sentences and trying to learn them? You have, but the bigger issue is whether or not you can actually keep up with studying them every day. It’s better to be realistic and accept that even if in an ideal world you could consistently get through x amount of new cards in a day, trying to achieve that in the real world will actually hamper your progress.

When you first start using SRS, there’s a temptation to believe that adding something to the deck is the same as adding it to your memory. It seems like the system will take care of it for so you will inevitably end up learning it thoroughly.

Unfortunately, this is not the case. Flashcard systems like Anki do make learning far more efficient than traditional methods, but they do that by taking care of most of the organisational and scheduling work to achieve optimised learning. You still have to do the actual learning work, though.

Because of that, it’s best to see your flashcard decks as a tool that should be making your learning more enjoyable and effective. It’s well worth deleting cards to make sure it stays that way.

What to delete

I think you should delete cards very freely. Delete almost as often as you add. Any of the following are good criteria for deleting a card:

It’s a leech.
You find it too difficult or frustrating.
You’re not sure if the card is accurate.
You don’t like the card.
You just feel like deleting it.
Don’t worry about losing important items. If something really is important, you’ll get plenty more chances to learn it in time. You can also cover material with different cards if it really is essential right now.

The easiest way to go about this is to delete cards as you’re studying them. Keeping up a high turnover of cards is a good way to ensure you’re studying material you find interesting, and that will keep you motivated in the long term.