3 tips on teaching while wearing a mask

an instructor wearing a mask stands at the front of the class teachingView print quality image
Instructors teaching while wearing a mask should be cognizant of their voice while lecturing. Physical-distancing guidelines were followed while capturing this photo. Photo by Liz Kaye, Indiana University

In March, over 14,000 classes transitioned to remote learning in a matter of 2 1/2 weeks. With more time to properly prepare and format classes, the 2020-21 school year will feature a variety of modalities that will require different approaches for instructors.

With a mask required for everyone while on campus, instructors have an added layer to consider while teaching their courses. It can be difficult to talk through a mask for extended periods of time; they can muffle the speaker's words and volume, and they prevent others from seeing facial expressions.

Here are some tips from three campus experts to help faculty reduce communication barriers this semester while wearing a mask.

Be aware of your voice, body language

Finding a mask that allows the instructor to move their mouth freely while still covering up safely and protecting others would be helpful in communicating, said Nancy Lipschultz, an associate professor of theatre, drama and contemporary dance at IU Bloomington who specializes in voice and speech.

Because a mask can muffle sound and makes it hard for the listener to read facial expressions, instructors should make an active effort to combat these issues. Raising the volume of their voice and slowing down to enunciate carefully should help strengthen a person's lecturing. Tone is especially important as well to help get a message across.

It could go without saying, but Lipschultz wanted to bring special attention to breathing, saying instructors need to pace themselves and breathe consistently to speak clearly.

"Warm up your body and breath before class," she said. "Especially in a mask, speaking takes connection to the floor and to ideas."

Depending on the individual, more-animated body language can also help instructors communicate with students. Each culture has different hand motions and animations, so finding an authentic method for delivery that connects with students is important.

"Whatever you can do to convince your students that you are present and there to help them learn -- establishing that rapport -- can go a long way," said Anusha S. Rao, assistant director for the Center for Teaching and Learning at IUPUI.

She added that instructors can pause the class and ask for affirmation that students are able to hear them correctly or if they should repeat something. If the class is remote, they can ask for a thumbs-up or wave on Zoom. With more communication barriers in place, it's important for teachers to ask for feedback frequently.

Build connections with students

Due to the unique learning environments in which we find ourselves, fostering an open dialogue with students will provide a better understanding of their absorption of the material and help instructors refine their own teaching methods.

Instructors should take opportunities to humanize themselves to their students. Rao suggested recording a personal introduction video to highlight themselves and the course to make students feel comfortable before starting class. Depending on the class format, a way to learn about the students would be to ask them to make an introduction video as well.

With so much variability among students' courses, Randy Newbrough, manager of instructional technology consulting for all of the university's campus centers for teaching and learning, recommends setting clear expectations and defining communication tools from the beginning so that everyone is on the same page.

Some instructors have transitioned to having "student hours" instead of office hours to promote a more welcoming atmosphere.

"Create those moments and opportunities for students to feel comfortable asking for help," Rao said.

Be flexible

As everyone navigates this new learning environment, students, staff and faculty are experiencing it collectively. The experts agree that it's important to show patience for others and give grace to yourself.

"Don't get frustrated by what used to come as second nature," Lipschultz said. "Communication is important in this time, perhaps more than ever."

A class survey, either after a couple weeks or midsemester, can help instructors recalibrate their methods if needed and better understand their students' acclimation to the new learning environment. Maybe the format of an assignment or a component of class needs to be changed to better suit the group.

Instructors have mentioned not wanting to look unprepared or out of sorts in front of their students. Since March, all of IU's teaching and learning centers have combined to hold over 2,000 one-on-one consultation sessions with instructors who have been relentlessly preparing for this semester.

"Everyone is very dedicated and has worked hard to make this as good of an experience as possible for the students," said Newbrough, who is also the assistant director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at IUPUI.