Teaching while wearing a mask can present a few logistical and pedagogical challenges. Masks can make it more difficult to hear and be heard, and can disrupt nonverbal communication that instructors sometimes use to build relationships with students, interpret student experience in the classroom, and guage student learning. However, a few relatively small adjustments to your teaching practice can mitigate these concerns.
Trying to get to know someone while wearing a mask can be a slightly disconcerting experience and beginning a course when everyone is wearing masks can make it more difficult to build a sense of connection and relationship with and between students. There are a few steps you can take to increase your sense of rapport with students, even when masked.
- Make use of digital space for introductions. Creating a short video in Canvas to introduce yourself—and having students do the same—gives you a chance to “meet” each other without masks before entering the classroom. If you’d rather avoid video production, you can show an unmasked photo when introducing yourself in class and invite students to share photos in Canvas.
- Collaborate with students on classroom norms. Beyond typical discussion or participation norms, spend a few minutes talking with students about how all of you want to navigate the potential pitfalls of teaching and learning in masks (e.g. coming up with norms for how to indicate when you can’t hear someone or deciding how many times you ask someone to repeat something before shifting to another medium, like writing on the board, opening a shared Google Doc, etc.).
- Take “temperature checks” at the beginning of class to get a sense of how students are doing behind the masks. You can use a mood scale meme or simply have students give you a thumbs up or a thumbs down.
Make sure everyone can hear and be heard
Taking steps to establish most basically that everyone in the classroom can hear you and each other will take a little more time and attention when teaching in a mask. The following strategies can help you make sure everyone can hear and understand each other:
- Speak louder and more slowly while facing students (if students typically struggle to hear instructors who speak while facing the board, that is exacerbated by masks).
- Amplify: Consider using the microphone if you have access to one in your classroom. The microphone will make it easier for students to hear you and save your voice from the stress of constant projection. For more information about classroom technology, see the classroom profiles website and reach out to Media Technology Services (617-552-4219) for further assistance.
- Encourage students to speak up and repeat student comments as needed so that peers can hear each other.
- Ask students to interrupt or use a pre-agreed upon signal if they can’t hear you or one another.
- Encourage students to seek accommodations: Masks can pose more difficulties for some students than others: people who are deaf or hard of hearing and ESL students, amongst others, might find it particularly difficult to learn while everyone is wearing a mask. Encouraging students to seek out accommodations from Disability Services can help all students get the support they need.
Communicate more intentionally
Subtle nonverbal communication is more difficult to recognize and interpret when everyone is masked and can make it more difficult for students to interpret us and for us to “read the room.” Embracing more theatrical body language and describing your experience and interpretations more explicitly can help you make sure that everyone’s on the same page.
- Use more body language: waves, thumbs up, and more exaggerated communication with your eyes and eyebrows can all help others to read your mood and your meaning.
- Be more deliberate about conveying tone: since it’ll be harder for students to “read” your mood behind a mask, think about speaking more animatedly or even just telling students more frequently how you feel, e.g. “I’m excited by the good ideas you’re sharing today.”
- State your intentions and interpretations more explicitly: when teaching in a mask, some instructors find that information they used to gather through implicit communication now requires more explicit communication. This might mean stating your intentions for a period more explicitly (e.g. listing sessions goals or an agenda), noting when you are transitioning topics, or narrating what you are noticing in the room, keeping in mind that students will have less information about you and their peers (I’m noticing that the room is a little quiet today. Is it just the end of a long week or did I move too quickly through that section?).
- Save your voice whenever possible by intentionally breathing deeply, regularly drinking water, and using visual aids (slides, handouts, graphics, etc.) to reinforce important points. Using a microphone can also give your voice a break.
Check for understanding
While masks can make it more difficult for us to read emotion and social interactions, it can also make it difficult to informally gauge student understanding. More frequently and formally checking understanding can give you important information about student learning.
- Use digital collaboration tools like Google Docs or Jamboards to collect student questions and contributions during class.
- Use polls through software like Poll Everywhere or have students raise index cards to get a sense if students have mastered a topic or not in real time.
- Exit tickets: Allow you to quickly collect some information about student learning and experience that you can review later.
See the following resources for more reflections on teaching in a mask.
- Robin Page and Amanda Jungels, ““Can you hear me in the back?”: Strategies for teaching (and learning) while wearing a mask,” Rice University, 2021.
- Kate Hamilton and Erin Baumann, “SLATE Teaching Guide: Teaching with Masks,” Harvard Kennedy School, 2020.
- Jamie Landau, “How to Teach F2F With a Mask and Create Caring Classrooms,” Inside Higher Ed, 2020.
- “LSA Technology Services Teaching Tips: Tricks and Tips for Teaching with Masks,” University of Michigan, 2020.