Often in class, professors will ask questions to the class. Usually, I'll at least think I know the answer to the question, so naturally I want to answer it.

The problem is that my hand shouldn't constantly be up throughout the class. I need to make sure all of the students have a chance to think through the material and try to formulate their own answers rather than providing one for them every time.

On the other hand, I worry that if I don't raise my hand, my professors will think that I don't know the answer, I haven't read the material, or I haven't thought through a line of reasoning.

How should I as a student balance answering questions, showing that I understand the course material being presented, and not looking like a know-it-all?

This is similar to this answer, but from the other side.

I try to present that I know the material in tests and papers, but even then I don't always do well, as I'm much better at understanding a concept than doing assignments on them.

Possible duplicates, only found after posting:

  • 23
    "I'm much better at understanding a concept than doing assignments on them." Whenever I hear/read a student making this claim (which happens quite frequently), I feel obliged to politely point out that, with high probability, they are deceiving themselves: being able to actually work with a concept is an integral part of understanding it. Apr 28, 2022 at 6:27
  • 5
    Don't raise your hand so much. That is all. I wrote this as an answer, and it was deleted by a moderator. But some questions do have simple answers.
    – Oliver882
    Apr 28, 2022 at 20:05
  • 1
    Do you have any indication that the prof cares who answers and thinks badly about the non-hand-raising people? How many people are there?
    – user111388
    Mar 17, 2023 at 16:23

4 Answers 4


I just wanted to address one point:

On the other hand, I worry that if I don't raise my hand, my professors will think that I don't know the answer, I haven't read the material, or I haven't thought through a line of reasoning.

This is not why the professor is asking - or at least, not specifically about you. Typically, an instructor will ask questions to:

  • Gauge if "the class" is following - obviously that will vary between people, but if everyone looks baffled and glassy-eyed at the question, it's a useful sign that they might be lost, and the instructor should give them a chance to catch up before moving on to more advanced material.
  • Create a more interactive learning experience. Many modern teaching methods posit that the traditional one-directional info-dump method of lecturing results in poor retention, superficial learning and limited engagement. Whether this assessment is valid and whether random classroom questions are the best way to go about it are questions beyond the scope of this answer, but many instructors use questions to address these concerns, or at least jolt students off their phones.
  • Manufacture a learning moment - for example, ask a question where the intuitive answer is non-trivially wrong, or it's common for a (general) population to give a variety of answers, then follow up with an analysis. This can be more engaging that just saying "x% of people choose to reroute the trolley", or something like that, although it can put the answerer on the spot a bit.

Now, there's nothing more frustrating than asking a question to be answered by stony silence, so thank you for being willing to answer, but classroom questions are not exams and you shouldn't feel that you need to prove your knowledge. In some cases, some wrong answers can be more useful from a didactic perspective - they can stimulate a dialogue, engage people's curiosity, make them feel more invested in the dicussion. So hold back a little - this will not reflect badly on you.


It is the professor's responsibility to manage the class including who they call on to answer. There really isn't an issue about trying too hard. I answered a lot of questions, but I also asked a lot of them and pointed out to a lecturer when I didn't understand something (in math) and wondered if it were correctly stated. My peers assumed I was smarter than I was because I asked and answered questions.

But another issue you raise is that you are "much better at understanding a concept than doing assignments on them". I think that is probably incorrect. Having an immediate grasp of something isn't necessarily insight, but it can "feel like" insight. Until you can apply the knowledge you don't really "understand" it. Otherwise you just carry around a bunch of "facts". Work for a deeper understanding by doing exercises and applying the knowledge. Work to be able to do more than the minimum required.


Edit: I missed the comment in OP's question, "I'm much better at understanding a concept than doing assignments on them." when I first read the question. If you can't do the assignments and get the majority of the questions right consistently then you don't truly understand the material and just have an illusion of knowledge/understanding (e.g. https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20220812-the-illusion-of-knowledge-that-makes-people-overconfident ). Illusions of knowledge and recognising when you have an illusion of knowledge is a very useful skill to have, and prevents you from not furthering your education because you believe you perfectly understand everything.

Coming from being one of those students who could answer all the questions during lectures during my undergrad days (to the point that in one of my higher level course the lecturer asked a question and when no-one answered he turned to me because he knew I knew the answer and got me to answer), I can recognise what you are talking about. So in addition to the good answers from others, here would be my suggestions:

  • Don't immediately answer a question unless you think there is a reasonable possibility you may be wrong, this means you are only answering questions that you have a chance to learn from and can confirm your thinking
  • The exception being if no-one answers or puts their hand up for a while, then you can answer, the goal here is to let people think about the question but to answer it if no one else is sure.
  • If you hear something that sounds wrong/you think the lecturer had a typo/you think something was explained in a way that would not be clear to others in the class, ask for clarity as a question. This allows other students to see the ways you've been processing the information and so may be an indirect way of helping them but also you may predict what may not be clear to others and are guiding the lecturer (who probably forgets what its like to learn this material the first time) to explain the key points clearer then they would otherwise.

If you are also concerned about yourself or other students looking good in-front of the lecturer I'll point out the following:

  • There is a concept in psychology called counter-signalling where if you are particularly skilled in something, you can send a stronger signal of your competence by not indicating your skill. The basic idea is that if you are either weak(W), moderate (M), or strong(S) and someone just listening to you can tell you are either in W/M or in M/S then by not signalling you are showing the confidence that you will always be detected as M/S and so are probably S, while if you in M you want to make sure you aren't confused to be W, so you signal to make sure you always go in the M/S classification.
  • If you answer all the hardest questions it will become easy to see that you are a strong student, but it leaves the easier questions for other classmates to demonstrate their competencies if that is important to you. Alternatively it will give all the other students a chance to think about the lecture which means the lecturer may not have to repeat the material.
  • If you ask questions you are both creating more opportunists to demonstrate skill, showing that you are able to follow the material in real time and understand it, as well as helping other students during the lecture.

While it sounds like I put a lot of thought into it back when I was a student, really these points came from an analysis of what I did back then. At the time it was probably really related to me being bored or unable to see a benefit to me answering the questions except in the cases I described.


I think a great way to balance always answering questions and wanting to show you are trying/engaged is to keep being conscious of answering all the questions and try to go to office hours! It is truly a win-win situation because you can ask for help with the topics you need help with to get a higher grade on those tests/papers, can show the knowledge you do know, and you get to know your professor better (which is great for when you need letters of recommendation).

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