Teaching with a Mask
Some faculty are concerned that wearing a mask while teaching may be uncomfortable and distracting. In the instant where you want to project, express, interest, inform and inspire your students, you have half of your face covered - the half that you happen to speak out of no less. Face masks can muffle your voice (particularly for high frequency sounds) and mute your facial expression (such an important way to communicate emotion and tone and connect with your students). Students with hearing impairments are at a particular disadvantage with masking.
Performance is one issue, but your vocal health is also an issue. Lecturing while wearing a mask can force a form of vocalization over long periods to which we are not accustomed, which can be hard on the vocal cords. So, what can we do to be our best lecturer-selves and ease the strain on our voice boxes? Our aim is to provide you with options you can use to work your magic in the class and still have a voice to cheer for your favourite team or encourage your dog to get off the sofa. We don’t have all the answers, and, despite all of our best efforts, lecturing with a mask will continue to pose challenges, but we hope these resources will provide some useful strategies.
An Ergonomic View of Lecturing with Masks
In ergonomics, researchers look at an issue like teaching while masked through a person-environment fit lens. Through this lens, mitigation takes the form of engineering controls, administrative controls, and individual behaviours, usually in some combination. This approach recognizes the shared contribution of individual behaviour and design.
Engineering controls are ways that we can modify the physical environment using equipment and technology to reduce risk and improve performance. With occupational back pain, for example, using hydraulic lifts for heavy material would be a means of reducing risk. Administrative controls are modifications to the process of work that reduce the exposure. Again, in the case of back pain, streamlining material handling processes would be an example. Individual behaviours are the things that we can do ourselves to mitigate risk. This would involve things like employing proper body mechanics and maintaining good core strength.
There are several engineering controls that can help mitigate accessibility concerns for students and voice strain for instructors:
The most obvious support in the classroom is voice amplification. On the Peterborough campus, classrooms that seat 80 or more students (with the exception of SH 105) are equipped with wireless lapel microphones, and in some classrooms, stationary lectern microphones. IT plans to expand this technology to classrooms that seat over 50 students once back-ordered equipment arrives in November. On the Durham campus, DRA A121 and A125, plus DRB B107 and B112 have wireless lapel microphones. You can confirm what kind of technology is in a particular room through the Room Bookings tool. In the myTrent Portal, select Services -> Campus Events -> Room Bookings, then select Calendar Search -> Rooms. You can filter by location at the top and select the row of a room to find out its characteristics. You can also select "Use additional criteria" at the top and select the "Microphone -Wired" and "Microphone - Wireless" characteristics to find out which rooms have microphones. IT supports technology in the classroom and are the go-to folks for problems with sound. The IT helpline is available for classroom emergencies, or you can contact firstname.lastname@example.org if things are not quite as pressing.
Whether or not your room is equipped with a microphone, some students may have difficulty picking up on lecture information. A potential strategy to help students follow lectures is to use an automatic caption feature. IT recommends that instructors use the in-room automatic caption feature in PowerPoint in order to caption their courses and provides helpful instructions on how to do so. CTL and Trent Online staff will be offering “test run” sessions to help instructors experiment with this option, including working with faculty in a lecture hall to test, practice, and troubleshoot auto captioning an in-person lecture.
When teaching remotely, many instructors enjoyed the “chat” feature of Zoom as it allowed students to ask questions, clarify points, and share ideas. This use of a “backchannel” may also help students to clarify ideas while learning in-person with masks. In this blog post, Vanderbilt University’s Derek Bruff explores how to use platforms such as Twitter or Hotseat, as backchannels within in-person classrooms.
Choice of mask can also be important for glasses wearers. Masks that seal off well around the nose tend to cause glasses to fog up less, so reducing that distracting quality of mask wearing.
If you have students with registered disabilities who need support refer them to SAS so that appropriate accommodations can be arranged.
Course design offers some possibilities to reduce the impact of masks:
For in-class lectures, breaking material up into smaller chunks with learning activities interspersed reduces prolonged lecturing. A hybrid course design where lectures are provided asynchronously online and face-to-face meetings are focused on learning activities, demonstrations etc. removes the need to lecture for extended periods in the classroom.
In this article, Associate Professor Jamie Landau offers suggestions to maintain the human connection in courses where students and faculty are wearing masks.
Incorporating asycnchronous videos into your Blackboard site can also help better connect you with your students. A welcome video of you unmasked would allow students to see your entire face. Similarly having students create introduction posts with images or avatars can help to support community.
Asking students to contribute ideas as to how the class can build and maintain connection over the term can help to establish a communal sense of empathy and foster great ideas for building connection.
As far as personal management goes, strategies like more frequent breaks with lots of water can help reduce strain on vocal cords. Being mindful and practicing speech behaviours can also be helpful:
Modifying pace, pitch, articulation and volume can ensure clarity and preserve your vocal cords. In this video, Ian Anderson, an Assistant Professor of Acting and Voice, gives some great tips on practicing good vocal hygiene.
If possible, a trip to the lecture theatre prior to the start of the term to practice working with the technology and simply try projecting your voice might help to iron out any bugs. You can monitor sound levels at various points in the room by recording yourself on a phone to get an approximation of what students might be hearing.
Some faculty have expressed concerns about finding masks uncomfortable or not being able to see their notes due to fogged glasses. In its “Insider Guide,” The Conversation offers an excellent set of tips for mask wearers. Faculty also might find helpful this interview with Dr. Christine Freeman-Roth, Principal of Lady Eaton College, who discussed her experience teaching in-person with a mask in the fall of 2020.
We hope these suggestions help mitigate some of the concerns about teaching with masks. Please do not hesitate to contact email@example.com if you would like to discuss how to approach particular concerns with an Education Developer or ELearning Designer.
Dr. Fergal O’Hagan