Strategies for Teaching with Masks

Penn’s public health guidance for the fall 2021 semester states that all students and faculty must wear masks indoors in public and shared spaces, including classroom settings. Masks are a useful and important public health measure. Yet, some instructors anticipate that masks may pose challenges to teaching and communicating with students. 

Initial feedback from summer and pre-semester programming has been reassuring that class time can be conducted successfully with everyone in masks. Students were able to hear and be heard in many classroom settings, even in large lecture halls with the assistance of a microphone for the instructor. 

However, if you are looking for strategies to address some of the challenges to wearing masks in class, such as difficulty being heard and understood, difficulty hearing from students, and creating a sense of disconnection, below are a few logistical and pedagogical practices to consider. 

While these are generally beneficial practices, if you need to support students experiencing related challenges due to a disability, please refer them to Student Disabilities Services.

If you would like to discuss ways you might apply these principles in your teaching, staff at the Center for Teaching and Learning are available to meet with you. Email CTL to set up a conversation.

 

Challenge: Masks can make it more difficult for students to understand instructors

Masks can muffle our voices and prevent students from hearing us clearly. By hiding the additional cues we get from lip-reading (which some people rely on), masks can also make it harder to understand new vocabulary, especially in language courses or courses with complex terminology. To help students understand you, you can improve your audibility and/or try incorporating additional tools to communicate.

Approaches for improving audibility:

  • Wear a mask with minimal contact with your lips: sometimes these are called “pouch masks” or “pouch respirators.” The space between your lips and the masks can help you be heard. 
  • Use a microphone: any microphone will help, but some studies have found lapel microphones work particularly well with masks. Not all Penn classrooms have microphones, but many large rooms do.
  • Project your voice loudly, but try not to strain. One way to do this is to make eye contact with the students farthest from you in the room and try projecting like you are speaking directly to them. 
  • Speak slowly and enunciate: This may feel awkward at first, and may take practice, but it will help. 
  • Don’t speak while facing away from students: If you need to write on the board, do so first (even if there is an awkward silence) and then speak to students while facing them. 
  • In larger classrooms, repeat or summarize student questions and answers so that everyone in the room can hear them. If you have difficulty hearing a student, walk nearer to the student.  
  • Check in with students frequently to make sure you are being heard and understood. Some strategies include periodically asking students who are furthest from you if they can hear you and/or providing students with a nonverbal signal, like a hand by their ear, that they can use when they cannot hear or understand you.

Approaches for using tools that help students hear and understand you:

  • Provide an outline, vocabulary list, or key takeaways at the beginning of class or post slides or materials on Canvas before class so that students can follow along.
  • If you are using slides
    • Enable the PowerPoint or Google slides auto-caption feature, which can support students in rooms without an external microphone.
    • Use more text on the slides than you might ordinarily use and be sure to include new or important vocabulary. 
    • Use visuals such as images and graphs to help bolster your explanation. 
  • Post materials for students to watch, read, or review prior to class such as short pre-recorded lectures, PowerPoint slides, or an article or text and then use class time to have students work in smaller groups, for discussion or working through problems.
  • If your classroom supports it, consider recording your class sessions so that students can review content that they might not have heard clearly or fully understood.

 

Challenge: Masks may make it more difficult to hear students, know when they have questions, or want to speak

Masks may make it difficult to sense when students are confused or want to engage your attention in class. Further, students may feel inhibited from asking questions. Finally, it may be difficult to know who is speaking or attempting to speak while everyone is wearing masks.

Approaches for soliciting questions, surfacing student confusion, and navigating discussions:

  • Use short activities to assess student understanding or confusion about the day’s topics. The following activities can be anonymous or attributed.
    • Ask questions via Poll Everywhere: you can use multiple-choice, open-ended, and other types of questions. Students will need a phone or computer to participate. For low-tech polling options, you might ask students to raise their hands or use colored index cards.
    • Poll Everywhere also has a pinned Q&A feature that can be used for students to post questions online while in class and vote on questions that others have posted that they also want answered. 
    • Ask students to write short reflections about a reading, a response to a discussion, or describing a scientific technique to a friend. Papers can be shared out by volunteers, redistributed and then shared out by a classmate, and/or collected and read by the instructor after class.
    • Ask students to share (on an index card or via Canvas) what was most and/or least clear about that day’s class (often known as the clearest point/muddiest point). The instructor can review the answers to know what to clarify or review at the next session.
  • Have students talk or work together in small groups: This can be a shorter activity where students share and attempt to answer points of confusion or it can be something more structured, like a group project, problem set, or scenario. Note that this may make it easier for students to hear those directly next to them, but there may be a lot of noise if multiple groups are speaking at once. Consider asking students to document their questions or work on Google Docs or Jamboards and/or post their work to Canvas so you can review it during or after class. 
  • In small, discussion-based seminar classes: Consider how you will determine who is speaking, who wants to speak, and how you can institute turn taking so that students don’t interrupt each other by missing cues about when someone is finished. Asking students to raise hands may be helpful. Also, encourage students to signal if they can’t hear each other and occasionally summarize (or ask a student to summarize) the discussion to help ensure that everyone is following along.

 

Challenge: Masks may make faculty and students feel disconnected

Masks may make it harder to recognize students or associate names with faces. It may also make it harder to read emotions and other nonverbal cues, to know who wants to engage with us in class (or along Locust Walk), and may more generally inhibit our sense of connection.

Approaches for improving feelings of connectedness:

  • Email or post a video of yourself to Canvas without your mask on so they can see your face: A short, welcoming video (1-2 minutes) that shows your personality can help students sense that you are approachable and that you want to connect with them. 
  • Request that students share a short video or photo of themselves on Canvas so you and other students can get to know them: Students will likely appreciate some prompts or guidance, like including where they are from, hobbies, or things they are interested in exploring in Philadelphia now that they are on campus.
  • Ask students to design a name tent including their name and, if they’d like, pronouns or other information, so that you know who students are, even as their masks are changing. Students can place their tents on their desks at the start of each class. When students think faculty know their names (even if it is just by using name tents), students often perform better in the class.
  • Consider something like an Ask Me Anything period where students can be encouraged to ask you more informal questions about your field, your work, what it’s like to teach at Penn, or the most surprising thing a student has ever done or said in class.
  • Require students to meet with you individually or in small groups at least once so you can get to know your students better. These meetings could be in person or in Zoom.
  • Utilize a more conversational, optional discussion board on Canvas for social conversation or course-related topics of interest that you post to each week.

 

Challenge: Communicating with students about the masking policy

A final challenge to consider is how to approach students who refuse to wear masks or who wear their masks improperly. While these situations may not occur, it can be helpful to think ahead to how you would handle them.

According to the Fall 2021 COVID-19 FAQS for Instructors, if a student won’t comply after being reminded to wear their mask, instructors should report the incident on the Masking Violations page. They may also ask the non-compliant student to leave the classroom, and if necessary for the health and safety of the class members, stop the class if the student will not leave. Students who violate Penn’s masking policy can also be referred to the Office of Student Conduct.

It can also be helpful to think about how you will communicate your expectations in advance to students about how you see their role in creating a safe and productive environment for learning during class time.

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