Apr 022014

Juan had a question about how I did the Anki cards for the A+ exam. I started to write a reply, and it turned into a book. So I figured I’d post the reply as a blog post instead.

I created two types of cards for this deck.

Card Type #1: Basic Question/Answer Cards

The first type of card is a basic question/answer card, with a multiple-choice question on the front, and the answer on the back. I used that for all of the practice questions and mock test questions. That was about 60% of my deck.

Filling up the deck was pretty easy that way. I just copy/pasted the data from my PDF books (in Foxit) into a text editor, cleaned it up a little with find/replace, dumped it into a spreadsheet, then saved it as the proper data type to import into Anki. It takes some time, but it’s still a lot faster than typing every question out.

This is why I recommend the O’Reilly bookstore. All of their books come in PDF format (among others), and are DRM-free. DRM is a pain in the butt. It serves no real purpose, other than interfering with my lawful use of the material to study. I can get around the DRM with Greenshot (which takes a screen capture, then OCRs it), so it’s not like it stops anything, it just makes everything less efficient. (And it doesn’t stop real piracy!)

Sadly, Microsoft Press just left the O’Reilly store, so you can no longer get the DRM-free version of their excellent A+ prep books.

For some books, my only choice was using the Kindle Chrome app. You can’t copy/paste because “reasons,” I guess. I used Greenshot to OCR each chunk of data I wanted, and it would dump the OCR-ed text straight into the clipboard. It was generally about 97% accurate, but fixing that last 3% was really annoying.

Then I dumped the questions and answers into a spreadsheet, and added them all to Anki.

I recommend getting good mock test questions. Lots of them. Dump them in after you do the mock tests, so you don’t forget the trickier questions. If you dump them in before, you’ll lose the “I’ve never seen this before!” effect.

Also, add the study questions for things you don’t already know cold. Don’t clutter your deck with useless info you already know. (“The sun is hot,” “Water is wet,” that kind of stuff. If it’s that obvious to you, leave it out.)

Card Type #2: Fill In The Blank (AKA Cloze Deletion)

The second card type I made was a Cloze card type. “Cloze deletion” is a fancy way of saying “Fill in the blank.” You add tags around the data you want to be turned into a “_____” in the question field, and it gets revealed in the answer field as the original text. So if I tag the word “ABC”, in the question card is shows up as “___,” and on the answer card, it shows up as “ABC” again.

Anki uses HTML tags (actually XML) to mark Cloze fields. <c1> for starting the first Cloze field, and </c1> to end the first Cloze field. So it makes it really easy to turn any raw text into a Cloze card without using the editor. Just take your sentence, add the tags, and import it as a Cloze-type card.

If I need to remember, “Standard ABC has a transfer rate of XXX MB/sec,” I would set “ABC” as Cloze field 1, and “XXX” as Cloze field 2. That way, I would get two different question cards.

The formatting would look like this:

Standard <c1>ABC</c1> has a transfer rate of <c2>XXX</c2> MB/sec.

And just that would generate two cards.

One like this:

Front:”Standard ___ has a transfer rate of XXX MB/sec.”
Back: ABC

And another like this:

Front:”Standard ABC has a transfer rate of ___ MB/sec.”
Back: XXX

That forces me to think about the right answer, and try to remember it.

I find it’s best to do it one fact at a time. A card like this:

“Standard ___ has a transfer rate of ___ MB/sec,”

is more confusing than helpful. I could put in any combination of standards and data rates, and be right and wrong at the same time.

For remembering general concepts, and keeping things straight like Windows licensing options, interface data speeds, and graphics card standard resolutions, Cloze Deletion cards are really hard to beat. While I’ll start to remember the multiple choice answers over time, I’m forced to think about the answer for every Cloze card I get, because the answers aren’t pre-chewed for me.

One final trick: if you have a Logitech gaming keyboard with a bunch of programmable G-keys, you can program them to add the Cloze tags (as well as do other things) in the plain text editor of your choice. That saved me a lot of time, too! I had a whole set of G-keys programmed with Cloze tags for up to four facts.

Is all of this tedious? Hell yeah!

But is it effective? OMG yes.

And it’s cheaper than going to one of those schools that charge an arm and a leg to give you the same info you could get yourself.

Dead-tree vs. E-Books

The only way to get the data in quickly from paper books is with a cheap scanner and some good OCR software. There’s a ton of OCR software out there, and some of it is even free. I’ve done scanning and OCR for some of my Japanese test prep. It’s not fun, but it’s doable. It just adds a lot of unnecessary time. (But it’s still faster than typing.)

Alternativeto.net has a good list of OCR software alternatives. Some are even free/open source.

If you have a paper book by one of the O’Reilly publishers, you can register it on their website, and you may be eligible for a $5 e-book upgrade. Not all publishers go with this, but some do. It’s worth it to check it out. That could save you a ton of time.

Otherwise, I’d consider the money on paper books “lost,” and go buy digital editions I can work with more easily. Wrestling books and scanning every page I need is a waste of time I could use studying.

I prefer DRM-free books, but some of the best books are Kindle-only. So I bought whatever I felt was the best for me.

I only bought paper books if they came with a PDF version, or some other electronic version of the book. One of the Network+ books is like that. It uses some weird Adobe secure PDF thing that’s a pain in the butt to install, and even less fun to work with. My copy/paste is limited by DRM, for “reasons.” I can always use Greenshot in a pinch, but I don’t enjoy going that route.

It’s a big long of a reply, but I hope it helps. Any questions, just put them in the comments.

  4 Responses to “Answer for Juan (Formatting Anki Cards for the A+ Test)”

  1. wow! thanks for the reply i have a paper book but i will try to follow your advice specially when i try to memorize standards and data rates.

  2. No problem. If you have any experience with building/fixing computers, the A+ exam isn’t too difficult, it’s just a matter of memorizing things. One caveat: there are sections on both tests that are simulations of activities, like configuring a cell phone for WiFi, configuring a router, and using Windows networking on the command line to diagnose problems.

    If you have the Exam Cram series for A+ (which I highly recommend, both the study guide and the exam questions), you can go to the author’s website, where he has a bunch of information on doing the simulations. It’s really useful. There are just enough simulations on the test to throw you off if you’re not prepared for them, especially on the second test.

    As for putting the paper book info into Anki, it’s doable. Either a cheap flatbed scanner or a cheap digital camera will work. The scanner is better at scanning, but if you can get a heavy clean piece of glass, that will mash the pages down, making it easier to photograph.

    You’ll have to secure the camera somehow– use a tripod or set it on a table or something like that. To keep the camera from shaking from pressing the shutter, you can use a remote control, or just use the camera’s built-in countdown timer function.

    If you have any more questions, don’t hesitate to ask.

  3. Did you save your anki decks? I would be interested in using it and expanding on it with parts that might not be included. It would be a great share 🙂

  4. They’re on my computer somewhere, I think. But the material all comes from copyrighted books, and that’s a minefield I’m not comfortable walking into. Using stuff like Greenshot makes it relatively painless, though, if you already own the books, or just use a good PDF editor to copy/paste.

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