Is your learning on fire? Just check your streak! Image from

Feel the heat: get a visual grasp on Anki with this natty plug-in

Anki is an incredibly powerful tool with a heap of learning science behind it.

But do you ever feel, as an Anki user, that the process is all a bit of a mystery? That, instead of being passively fed material, you might like to glimpse inside the flashcard box and find out a little more about its electronic, spaced-repetition plans for you?

A chance question from a teacher and polyglot pal this week helped open up that box for me. And it’s worth sharing this little-known secret with anyone who want a bit more data than the all-knowing app is ordinarily willing to provide.

Streak test for gold

It all starts with a streak. A learning streak, that is: a golden motivational corridor in educational gamification.

Streak is the presentation of unbroken, habitual use of the app as an achievement. And it has long been a staple of gamified platforms like Duolingo, which quickly grew on its sticky back. The streak almost becomes an end in itself, powering the language learning along with it. Proud players share their incredible feats with others who hope to reach the same heights.

While Duolingo's streak feature is very popular, Anki does not have one.

On the face of it, streak does seem like an intuitively natural thing to want to know as a learner. How committed am I, in terms of how regularly I study? So it comes across as an odd omission from the standard Anki installation.

It all came to light when language buddy Marcel (so often a source of tips on everything language learning) asked if I knew where to find streak reporting in Anki. Despite the raft of data in the app’s familiar stats section, streak was nowhere to be seen. I was stumped.

Fortunately, a natty little plugin came to the rescue.

Review Heatmap

Review Heatmap adds a panel of information to the summary screens in the desktop version of Anki. Although the extra information seems quite standard, you might otherwise rack your brains to locate it in vain in a vanilla installation.

Although still in Beta for the latest 2.1.x stream of Anki releases (with a version for older versions here), it runs reliably and instantly exposes useful stats on the very first run.

The Review Heatmap plugin for Anki

The Review Heatmap plugin for Anki

Learning how you learn

Along with streak info, you can see a couple of other handy stats that do not feature in Anki’s regular data breakdown, including your average cards-per-day rate. And knowing about your learning is valuable meta-knowledge that can be just as useful as first-level learning material like vocabulary lists.

For example, take a look at the mass of colour in the plug-in display. Each square represents a day of your Anki year. You see the blanks? Those are the days on which you broke your streak. Interrogating the data like this can really help in the quest to learn how you learn.

Is there a pattern to them? Do they happen regularly? And can you use that information to preempt interruptions to your learning, and avoid them in future? In my case, hovering over my streak break blanks confirms what I suspected – they were days when family were visiting. Now I know this, I can try in future to review my Anki decks well in advance when I know I will have people round.

Streaks are not just about fun and pride. They encapsulate knowledge about your learning. And knowledge is power.

Pick a card, Anki card

The power of streaks is only one great way that Review Heatmap can boost your Anki learning. Like many things that just work, the app can be something of a black box. We adds words, Anki feeds them back to us using its clever algorithms. But sometimes, it can be informative to get a grasp on the workings inside that machine.

Exploring the heat map of coloured squares – the visual display style that gives the plug-in its name – can give you a more instinctive feel for how Anki schedules its cards. The darker the colour, the more cards scheduled on that day. By casting an eye over that annual map, you get a sense of the ebb and flow of card reviews, past and future. Hovering over individual squares even yields the exact number of reviews due on that day.

Not only that, but it is oddly satisfying to flick forward to subsequent years, and see reviews getting more and more infrequent. That gradual thinning out of card reviews is something special: it is Anki’s algorithm determining that you have, in accordance with the theory behind the system, memorised those words good and proper.

Obviously, numbers shift and change if you are actively adding cards all the time. But the visual snapshot is a fascinating way to start understanding how the spaced repetition approach plays out in real time.

Review Heatmap in lovely magenta.

Review Heatmap in lovely magenta.

Obviously, it also doesn’t hurt that Review Heatmap looks pretty funky in your Anki app. And there are some gorgeous colour options in the settings, too!

Turn up the heat

If you are ready to turn up the heat on your Anki routine by adding streak info and more, Review Heatmap is an essential add-on. Although it only boosts the desktop program, rather than the mobile apps, its insights can give you a real bird’s eye view over your learning.

As always with plug-ins, be sure to back up your Anki data before giving it a whirl.


Meta-learning - know your brain (Image from

Meta-learning: relearn how to learn with a new language mini-project

Dia duit! That’s Irish for hello – which, despite a million other things, I chose to start dabbling in this week. Unlike other come-and-go language projects of mine, it’s not a former language I’m returning to. In fact, I knew zero Irish before this week (save the welcoming céad míle fáilte of numerous 1990s Eurovision Song Contests!).

It’s not for want of something to do. I already have plenty of core language learning goals for 2019 to keep me occupied. Improving my Icelandic, Norwegian and Polish are already taking a chunk of my time.

So why the extra load?

Well, apart from the kid-in-a-candy-store nature of being a linguaphile, taking a language detour in totally unknown pastures now and again has great utility. Namely, it is a brilliant way to audit and augment your meta-learning skills: learning how you learn.

Stuck in our ways

Human beings like treading comfortable tracks. Because of that, it is all too easy to get stuck in our ways.

Of course, the familiar often works very well for us. Our regular approaches, methods and routine usually serve us grandly in our language learning goals. But knowing how to learn is a skill, just like any other. We can improve it, or we can neglect it and let it get rusty. And getting into that autopilot groove might actually prevent us from ever getting better at how we learn.

Taking a learning diversion can be a fun way to get unstuck and freshen up your daily language grind. The golden rule here is the more unfamiliar, the better. The idea is to audit how you learn; material unrelated to anything you already know will isolate the learning process from background knowledge that may act as a crutch and mask poor learning habits.

In my case, Irish is a real departure from the norm. My background is coloured by Germanic, Romance and Slavic languages, and so a Celtic language is something I can approach with completely fresh eyes, and few chances to rely too comfortably on pre-knowledge.

Unfamiliar material activates your aptitude for exploring your meta-learning skills.

Now, unfamiliar need not mean outside your own sphere of interest. Learning something you have no interest in is never a good idea. Why did I pick Irish? Simple: it’s a beautiful country next to my own, inexpensive to travel to, and I wanted to get to know it a lot better. In the words of Rita Mae Brown:

Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.

Meta-learning lessons

One thing you find when you start on these kinds of language mini-project, is just how far your meta-learning skills have come. Regarding my own experience, you could say that I learnt my first foreign languages ‘the hard way’. That meant hours of book-based grammar study and reading in German and Spanish during the 1990s. That clearly worked well enough, as I did well in the subjects at school, and went on to get a degree and forge a career in languages.

That said, I had no access to wonderful tools like Anki, Duolingo, Learning With Texts and Wiktionary back then, or even on-demand access to foreign language media. Some of these things have become language learning staples to me, in many cases only very recently. I have gradually built them into my study routines for maintaining my main languages.

But how would they perform unleashed onto completely new territory?

The great news is that foreign language mini-projects are an excellent way to test the efficiency of all of your favourite methods.

Blended approach

A key discovery for me is the realisation that no single method works efficiently in isolation. A blended approach, using multiple formats, platforms and schedules maximises how well I learn. What’s more, joining up your learning resources manually is a good way to make learning more active, rather than simple passive reception.

You can turn a more passive resource into an active learning process by reworking its material into another format. For example, with Irish, I chose to use Duolingo as my primary lesson source. After each section, I look up new terms on Wiktionary, then add them to a deck of flashcards in Anki. I get more from this learning by doing than I would from using purely premade material.

Beyond that, there are so many things you can do to make lesson material your own. Look up sentences that contain the new words on Tatoeba, for example. Or listen to native speakers pronounce the words or phrases in different way on Forvo. As you experiment, explore and supplement, you expand your expertise in finding and adapting learning resources to get the most out of them. Meta-learning is understanding how to make new knowledge your own.

A dose of realism

Here’s the rub: chances are, that if you have a rose-tinted view of a particular platform, you might end up with a more realistic evaluation of it.

So it is for me with Duolingo. A fantastic free resource, without a doubt, and I was hugely excited to use it to learn a brand new language, rather than support one I was already learning. But how useful is it as your only resource?

I quickly discovered that without pre-knowledge, some Duolingo courses may need a little supplementing. Duolingo Irish, though a great introduction, is not quite enough as a standalone option for me. A particular issue is a lack of native speaker support for all phrases. In Irish, this is crucial given the very particular spelling system that needs to be learnt.

Also, I found myself craving more information about each word: the gender, the plural form and so on. I realised that my learning style requires more interrogation of new terms than the Duolingo course is happy to provide at first. No black-box thinking for me – I have to take those words apart and see every nut and bolt with my own eyes!

Plugging the gaps

Still, add a bit of support with Wiktionary and Forvo, and the creases are ironed out. I’m benefitting from the superb lesson structure and progression in Duolingo, and filling in the gaps my brain needs filled as I need to.

Without this insight, I’d be going around thinking of a single platform as a one-stop shop. Now that I can spot and patch the elements that need fleshing out, I’m both a better learner, and a better source of advice for friends and family who want to learn languages without the same frustrations.

And Duolingo is even more effective now I know how I work best with it.

Language learning report card

My mini-adventures in Irish have shown me where I am as a language learner. They also confirm that I already have a healthy understanding of how I learn effectively: I instinctively bend materials into a shape that fits my learning process best. That’s a decent report card and a confidence-building boost for any linguist (and we are all prone to occasional self-questioning!).

More than that, though: Irish has given me a chance to assess and experiment with those techniques in a way that does not interfere directly with my core language learning routine. Casual study of something completely different is ideal no-risk ground to do a skills audit without fear of knocking regular study off balance. It’s not that the new language doesn’t matter – it’s just that we are not invested in it enough (yet) to worry about making mistakes in our first steps.

Weird and wonderful world

Beyond that, using a brand new language as a meta-learning exercise can open your eyes to diversity. We so easily come to think of certain patterns or forms in language as normal or given if we never push our limits beyond the known. Exposing yourself to what, at first, seems weird and wonderful, can only promote flexible thinking.

So it is with Irish, a verb-subject-object language, so unlike many other Indo-European subject-verb-object languages commonly studied. I now know that this is far from unusual, sharing the trait with almost a tenth of world languages.

With wonderful projects like #LangJam promoting micro-study of languages, there is no better time to relearn how you learn. So much self-knowledge can come from those few extra minutes in your day. Give something new a try. It’s worth it for the better meta!