Worst-Case Wednesday: How to Survive When You’re Called On and Don’t Know the Answer

We all know that paying attention in class is important, but we also know that it's not always possible. Late night cram seshes can make you crash hard in the A.M. (We'll pretend you were studying, anyway. We'll keep your secret, you party animal, you.) 

But hey, maybe you studied really hard and even then, when the professor calls on you, you don't know the answer. Everyone's eyes are on you. Don't worry. The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook: College will prepare you even when you're, well, not prepared. 

Stall for time.

Repeat the question aloud. Very slowly, say, "So [deep breath], essentially [deep breath], what you are [clear throat] asking me is…" This will buy you a few extra seconds to create a suitable response.


If you've done the reading but simply don't know a particular answer, steer the subject to a more familiar topic. Say, "That's an interesting question that leads me to the essential part of last night's reading…"

Discuss another subject.

Answer confidently. Act like you are convinced that you know the right answer. Make eye contact with the professor as you expound on the topic of your choice.

Quote the book.

Flip open the book and begin to scan the pages. Say, "I really couldn't say this any better than the author–I remember a quote in here somewhere, give me a moment to find it…" After a silent moment or two, the professor will move on to another student. Have a passage ready to read in case the professor returns to you for your answer. 

Feign choking. 

Begin coughing vigorously and point to your mouth. Wheeze for greater effect. After a few seconds of a coughing fit, say you need to leave to get a drink of water. Come back only when you are sure the topic has changed.

Be honest. 

Since some professors appreciate honesty, consider admitting that you do not know the answer, but be prepared for an embarrassing public rebuke. 

Be Aware

  • If you are not prepared for class, do not wear a big floppy hat, dress in bright colors, or do anything to draw the professor's eye. Do not make eye contact with the professor. If possible, sit behind a tall student to help conceal your presence. 
  • Read the introduction and conclusion of an assignment to gain enough basic information to bluff your way through an unexpected question.
Christina Schillaci

Christina Schillaci

Christina is the voice behind Quirk’s social media channels and editor-in-chief of the blog. She graduated from Rowan University with her M.A. in Writing and joined Quirk in 2016. She loves weekend cooking projects, Cape May in the winter, and her dog, Rocket. Say hi on Twitter @quirkbooks or @saychristina!