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Tips for Teaching in a Masked Environment

Cite this resource: Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning (2021). Tips for Teaching in a Masked Environment. Columbia University. Retrieved [today’s date] from https://ctl.columbia.edu/resources-and-technology/teaching-with-technology/teaching-online/masked-environment/


Teaching while you and your students are masked can require creative solutions to overcome the challenges of muffled voices, hearing each other over the cooling, heating, and ventilation systems*, and, particularly for large classes, navigating the physical classroom structure. To help address these challenges, we’ve compiled a series of tips as well as resources from peer institutions.

While students and instructors maintain the campus compact in the classroom, it is possible to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to be heard and to fully engage by using microphones, leveraging digital tools to promote real-time student interaction, and adopting pedagogical strategies that promote effective communication. 

*Despite any ambient noise, HVAC systems should not be turned off as Columbia Facilities and Operations has put in place measures to assure indoor air quality across campus.

Ensure students can hear you

Since acceptable face coverings (see University guidance on PPE and Face Covering) may muffle sound, try to speak slowly, loudly, and enunciate your words. Coupled with the use of a classroom lavalier/lapel microphone (that clips to your collar) to amplify your voice, clearly articulating your words will help ensure that students will be better able to hear and understand you. CUIT-managed hybrid classrooms are equipped with wireless microphones available at the instructor podium. CUIT provides replacement batteries and podium keys through their Walk-in Center

Ensure you can hear your students and they can hear each other

  • Ask students to state their name and to speak loudly and enunciate when asking a question or answering a question.
  • Repeat student questions and summarize answers so everyone can hear them.
  • In those classrooms that can support additional microphones, you could amplify student voices by passing around a microphone to students who are asking or answering a question. Passing a microphone around the classroom falls within the campus health guidelines. Where possible, the CUIT Classroom Support team (erooms@columbia.edu) will continue to expand classroom technology that is able to support the use of additional microphones.  

Provide real-time digital solutions to ensure every student has a voice 

  • Invite students to post questions during class to a classroom digital space such as a Google Doc, Zoom Chat, Ed Discussion, or CourseWorks Discussions, and to respond to their peer’s questions in the digital space. See the CTL’s resource From Online to Face-to-Face–Keeping What Works for strategies that promote student engagement in the face-to-face classroom.  
  • For large courses, if applicable, you can partner with your teaching assistant(s) or course assistant(s) to help make sure all students can be heard by asking them to respond to questions posted in the digital space, and to interrupt you to point to specific questions that should be addressed out loud for the whole class. 

Support student learning in a masked environment

  • Provide written notes or guides in CourseWorks to help students stay on track and follow along to ensure that they do not miss what you are saying. 
  • Invite students or groups of students to collaborate on note-taking to fill in gaps individual students may have missed (see the CTL’s Collaborative Learning resource for strategies). 

Set guidelines for interaction in a masked environment

Create an environment in which students are invited to let you (and/or your TAs, if applicable) know if they cannot hear what is being said in the classroom. Communicate the desired behavior (e.g., invite students to raise their hand, to wave, or interrupt if they cannot hear you or their peers). Additionally, if using Columbia-supported digital tools for real-time classroom interaction (e.g., Google Docs, Google Slide as a whiteboard, CourseWorks, Ed Discussion, Poll Everywhere), communicate expectations of your students (e.g., students will need to bring charged mobile devices to the classroom) and what they can expect of you and your TA(s) if applicable.  

Check-in with your students

Regularly ask your students how the classroom experience is going for them and if they have suggestions for improving the guidelines for interaction or creative solutions to in-person learning challenges. Collecting this feedback can be done through hand-polling, polling using Poll Everywhere, or an exit survey (e.g., using a Google Form). These feedback strategies can also be used to engage students and check their understanding. 

Columbia University Resources

Columbia University Information Technology Resources

Center for Teaching and Learning Resources

External resources

Hamilton, K. and Baumann, E. (2021). SLATE Guide to Teaching with Masks. Harvard Kennedy School. Strengthening Learning and Teaching Excellence (SLATE). 

Indiana University Bloomington. Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. (2021). Teaching while Masked

Muller, E. (2021). Considerations for teaching with a mask. Duke Learning Innovation. August 12, 2021. 

Page, R. and Jungels, A. (2021). “Can you hear me in the back?”: Strategies for teaching (and learning) while wearing a mask. Reflections on Teaching & Learning. The CTE Blog. Rice University Center for Teaching Excellence. August 30, 2021. 

Rankin, J. (2021) Preparing to teach with masks. Fall 2021 Teaching Resources. MIT Teaching + Learning Lab Blog. September 2, 2021.

The Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning. (2021). Guidance on Teaching while Masked

UPenn Center for Teaching & Learning. (2021) Strategies for Teaching with Masks. Teaching in Person Fall 2021. 

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