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How to make teaching in a mask more tolerable

Masks are an important tool for stopping the spread of the coronavirus, but they also dampen our voices and hide our facial expressions. That is especially frustrating in the classroom.

Masks certainly have drawbacks: They make breathing slightly more difficult and often cause headaches when worn for prolonged periods. They also hide expressions, which are important for interpersonal interaction.

There’s no way to alleviate all of the challenges that masks create, but there are ways to diminish the effect of what we might call Muffled Mask Syndrome.

  • Try a different type of mask. All masks muffle the voice, especially high-frequency tones that help us hear sounds like “s,” “f,” and “th.”  A University of Illinois study found, though, that surgical masks allow the highest-quality voice transmission. KN95 respirators and cotton jersey masks create a little more distortion, but are still generally good. (Extra layers of cotton didn’t affect sound distortion, the researchers said.) The worst performers were masks made of a cotton/spandex blend and those made of denim or twill. Masks with a clear window over the mouth also cut out high frequencies (as do plastic face shields), but they also allow students to see your mouth and more of your face.
  • Speak louder. This may seem obvious, but it’s still important. Many instructors develop a more resonant “teaching voice” over time, and that teaching voice is especially important when you have a mask muffling your words and adding a barrier between you and students.
  • Articulate. Articulation is always important in teaching, but masks make it crucial. A dropped syllable, a consonant spoken too quietly or unfamiliar slang can quickly create confusion or misunderstanding. Again, see the University of Illinois study.  
  • Talk less. Use masks as a way to push yourself to lecture less and engage students more with hands-on work.  
  • Breathe. We have noticed that masks often lead us to take shallower breaths than we would usually take. This not only increases fatigue but throws off the rhythm of teaching. There’s no easy way to overcome that other than to remember to breathe as regularly as possible.   
  • Remind students to ask questions. Make it clear that we are all struggling to make sense of one another behind masks. If students don’t ask questions, their instructors won’t know what they hear and don’t hear. Anonymous polling can help break down barriers and make follow-up questions easier.
  • Meet with students in smaller groups. This requires less force from your voice and allows students to hear you more easily. Small groups can help students overcome a reluctance to ask questions that they might have in a full class.
  • Use a microphone. A lapel microphone picks up the voice well no matter what type of mask you wear, according to the University of Illinois study. Microphones aren’t available in every classroom, but if you are struggling to be heard, look into possible options.
  • Use live transcription. Live transcription turns your voice into text and displays that text for students, with only a slight delay. PowerPoint has an excellent transcription function. Just go to Slideshow on the top navigation bar and click the box next to “Always Use Subtitles.” The subtitle settings below that box allow you to position subtitles in different places on the screen. You can make further adjustments by clicking on “More Settings.”
  • Watch the eyes. Masks cloak most facial expressions, but you can still get a sense of students’ understanding by looking at their eyes and their body language. Calling on a student who seems confused often encourages others to speak up with questions.

Let us know any techniques or tricks you have found successful in making teaching in a mask more successful.

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