We’ve all experienced the illusion of knowing: that feeling where you thought you understood everything perfectly when it was discussed in class, but when you review your notes at a later date – or worse, when you take the exam – you can’t explain the concepts. The illusion of knowing is the belief that we have mastered a topic, when in fact we haven’t. We may think we comprehend the concepts read it in our textbook or discuss it in class, but when asked to explain the concepts we struggle to articulate the answer.

The illusion of knowing can be particularly harmful in law school given that essentially your entire grade in a course is based on one final exam. While other education experiences may give you multiple exams or assignments to test your knowledge, law school classes defer testing your comprehension until the end of the term. Additionally, even if you realize that you’re trapped in the illusion of knowing before you sit for a final exam, there is simply too much material of too great a complexity to learn it all in a cram session shortly before finals.

But, fortunately, there is a very simple and straightforward way to combat the illusion of knowing in law school: periodic self-testing. Testing your memorization and comprehension of the law throughout the semester will ensure that you truly understand the concepts and don’t just think you understand them.

There are many simple yet effective ways to engage in the self-testing necessary to avoid being trapped in the illusion of knowing. Incorporate some or all of the following techniques into your study routine to test your understanding:

  1. Paraphrase concepts and terms in your own words as you’re reading and briefing.
  2. Engage in free recall where you recite definitions or elements without any cueing or prompts (flashcards can help with this!)
  3. Make your own outline that forces you to grapple with the concepts and create your own framework for understanding how they fit together (this is much more beneficial than simply reading and re-reading an outline that someone else has created).
  4. Explain the concepts to a non-law school friend.
  5. Draft your own hypotheticals or try to create an example and non-example of each concept you have covered.
  6. Complete practice problems (this includes longer mock exams towards the end of the term as well as short answer questions and multiple choice problem sets that you can complete on a regular basis throughout the semester).

Self-testing throughout the semester has many benefits. Not only will it show you what you know and what you don’t know, but it will also improve recall and highlight the weaknesses in your writing, analytical and test taking skills. Most students know that they need to complete their reading and attend class on a regular basis, but many underestimate the importance of reviewing the concepts and testing their comprehension of the concepts throughout the semester.

When all your hard work over the semester boils down to one all-or-nothing exam, you don’t want to take anything for granted. So follow President Reagan’s advice and trust, but verify. Test your knowledge and comprehension consistently throughout the semester so that you don’t get trapped in the illusion of knowing and can instead walk into the final exam feeling confident and prepared.