“Can you hear me in the back?”: Strategies for teaching (and learning) while wearing a mask

teacher with mask gesturing at screen

Next week Rice instructors and students will head back to the classroom en masse. The joy and excitement I hear among instructors and students alike is palpable, as many of us are eager to be face-to-face with colleagues, friends, and peers. In our return to the Rice classrooms we will find ourselves in familiar spaces and engaging with our students in familiar ways, yet there will also be some new challenges. Among these challenges will be teaching and learning while wearing a mask. Rice policies require all students to wear masks, but allows vaccinated instructors (and those in instructor-like roles) to forgo wearing a mask with proper physical distancing. However, some classroom space may not allow for proper physical distancing (10 feet for the instructor) and many instructors may choose to wear a mask out of an abundance of caution. In this post, we want to present some strategies for effectively communicating while wearing a mask. More tips and strategies for teaching this fall can be found in the CTE’s Adaptive Teaching Guide.

Teaching and learning while masked presents a unique set of challenges. According to Dr. Jennifer Friberg, the Director of the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology at Illinois State University, we use a lot of visual as well as audible cues when listening to someone talk. Masks make these non-verbal cues harder to register, and certain sounds are also impacted by the wearing of a mask. In addition, Rice classrooms are returning to pre-Covid occupancy limits and ambient noise and other distractions in classrooms may make it more difficult for students to hear instructors and each other.

The following are some considerations for conducting class while you and your students are wearing masks:

Make sure that you can be heard and understood.
  • Perhaps the easiest adjustment is to speak louder and more slowly and encourage your students to do so. Surgical (paper) masks allow the speaker to be heard better than cloth, but both perform the same with lapel microphones.

  • Use a microphone while masked. Rice registrar-controlled classrooms are equipped with microphones for use when lecturing. In addition, some classrooms have been equipped with additional microphones for students to use.

  • Ask students for regular feedback on technical aspects of class and at the beginning of each class session: “Can you hear me in the back?” or “Raise your hand if you can hear me.” Creating a warm and positive course climate where students feel comfortable stopping you if they are unable to hear/understand you will help prevent having to repeat yourself frequently.

  • Use body language and non-verbal cues, such as hand gestures, and encourage your students to do the same.

  • Make sure that important dates and information are provided in multiple modalities, such as on Canvas, in the syllabus, and on slides or other visual means of communication.

  • During class time, reinforce key points and topics with visual tools such as slides and handouts.

  • Encourage students to reach out to the Disability Resource Center if they have a hearing-impairment, even if it has not presented an obstacle to their learning in unmasked contexts.

Check-in on your students' understanding.
  • Use real-time technology tools such as Poll Everywhere to check students' understanding during class meetings. Low-tech alternatives to Poll Everywhere (such as flashcards) can also be used with great success.

  • Use a minute paper, exit tickets, and online discussion forums or social annotation tools to check for students' understanding after class. If you discover after class that students did not understand a key course concept, take time to review it at the start of the next class session.

  • To save your voice during in-class group work in medium- and large-size classes, you can assign one representative in each group to be the “gofer” who approaches the instructor or TA to get instructions, ask questions, and provide feedback.

Encourage students to engage with the course and collaborate virtually.
  • Many of the tools that instructors use when teaching remotely can be brought into the face-to-face classroom, allowing students to interact with each other virtually while in the same space. These tools also allow instructors to monitor student work in real-time and offer feedback and guidance. Some collaborative tools (supported by Rice OIT) to consider are: GoogleDocs, GoogleSlides, and GoogleSheets.

  • A GoogleDoc can be used as a “parking lot” for students' questions if they are uncomfortable verbally asking questions or worry that they will be hard to hear in a mask. Poll Everywhere offers a similar option (called a “Pinned Q&A”) where students can ask questions throughout the course of a class even while other Polls are in use.

  • Keep track of group work in class by assigning each group a Google Slide to document their work, or by asking students to report their answers to multiple questions on a Google Sheet. Both of these options allow you to monitor students’ progress through the activity without having to enter their physical space.

  • Create a virtual gallery walk using GoogleSlides instead of (or in addition to) asking groups to “share out” their group work to the larger class.

Lastly, instructors may wish to include a statement on their syllabus to convey their expectations about mask-wearing in class and other COVID-19 safety measures. This may include how students can keep themselves and others safe; expectations for face-to-face students; and contingency plans for the semester (e.g., if the entire campus must go fully remote; if the faculty member must self-quarantine and cannot teach face-to-face; if the faculty member becomes sick and cannot teach; if students must quarantine or get sick and dual-learning is not available). This statement can also outline how the faculty member will respond to violations and/or non-compliance (e.g., the non-compliant student will be asked to leave, or all students will be asked to leave and class will resume at the next session when it is safe to do so).

The following examples are from other universities and refer to their policies and procedures around COVID-19 and campus safety, but they offer examples of how syllabi statements might be framed.

Additional Resources

Derek Bok Teaching Center at Harvard University. 2021. Fall Teaching Conference 2021: “Back Again” Strategies and Resources. Published online July 29.

Hamilton, Kate and Erin Baumann. 2021. SLATE Guide to Teaching with Masks. Harvard Kennedy School, Center Strengthening Learning and Teaching Excellence. Published online August 24.

Landau, Jamie. 2020. How to Teach F2F With a Mask and Create Caring Classrooms. Inside Higher Ed, August 26.

Leathers, Lauren. 2020. From the Expert: Tips on Lecturing with a Mask. Mary Frances Early College of Education, University of Georgia. October 14.

University of Michigan, College of Literature, Science, and the Arts Technology Service. 2021. LSA Technology Services Teaching Tips: Tricks and Tips for Teaching with Masks. Published online August 21.

Posted on August 30, 2021 by Robin Paige & Amanda Jungels.