How Mandatory Face Masks Impact College Learning

Student Voices

How Mandatory Face Masks Impact College Learning

January 8, 2021

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Wearing masks in college not only makes communication more challenging, but can also lower students' confidence and lead to misunderstanding.


Learning with a mask on is new for students and teachers all around the world. At colleges that allow in-person classes, wearing a mask is now an essential part of life.

For students and professors who must interact without seeing facial expressions — learning to decipher muffled sentences and listen more intently — masks are creating bad habits that could last longer than the pandemic itself.

Lack of Facial Expressions Often Results in Confusion

When trying to speak to someone in a foreign language, or to a young child, it's easy to see that there's more to communication than the words we actually say. Our tone, body language, and facial expressions play a large role in how we communicate.

Today, it's easy to recognize how widespread mask use has impacted our reliance on reading facial expressions. A recent study published in Trends in Neuroscience and Education found that "the face provides a universal language for communication, in particular, the communication of emotions."

The study goes on to explain that the lower part of the human face, particularly the mouth, plays a big part in expressing positive emotions. With the lack of smiles and grins in conversations, masks make it harder for observers to pick up on happiness, joy, and friendliness.

When engaging with new professors and classmates, I found it difficult to really connect with others while wearing a mask. This led to a lot of misunderstanding — and a lot of repetition that took up class time.

This semester, I've learned there's so much more to communication than the words we speak. When engaging with new professors and classmates, I found it difficult to really connect with others while wearing a mask.

For example, I had a harder time understanding the tone my professors used, such as when making a joke or adding emphasis, because I couldn't see most of their face. This led to a lot of misunderstanding — and a lot of repetition that took up class time.

These struggles become even more apparent when learning a language or new vocabulary with a mask on. Dealing with unfamiliar words is difficult enough, but without seeing facial expressions to give some context, I find it extremely challenging to understand the definitions of words.

I myself learn best when the material is explicitly spelled out or explained to me. Whether you're learning scientific names, business terminology, or a completely different language, wearing masks can make learning new words less intuitive, not to mention more time-consuming.

Masks Shake Students' Confidence and Trust in Others

Masks pose even bigger obstacles for international students and students with disabilities. Talking while wearing a face mask may "dampen higher frequencies," resulting in a muffled speech sound and making communication harder for those whose native language isn't English.

Several of my friends speak English as a second language. Although they handle their English coursework very well, it's still tricky for them to pick up on subtle pronunciation differences while listening to someone wearing a mask.

I've also noticed that when I put on a mask, I have to speak up when I want to say something to a peer or professor. Eventually I got used to doing this, but in the beginning this need to speak louder deterred me from making comments in class. I've had to repeat myself several times and even misheard professors.

In the beginning, this need to speak louder when wearing a mask deterred me from making comments in class. I’ve had to repeat myself several times and even misheard professors.

Masks also impact the ability to communicate for students who are autistic, deaf, or hard of hearing. You might think sign language is unaffected by mask-wearing, but ASL actually relies a lot on facial expressions to provide context and grammatical cues. At least 5% of the world's population has hearing loss, and reading lips and facial expressions is a way to glean meaning when spoken words can't be used.

Young children, too, are affected by mask use, with many recoiling when a person wearing a mask approaches them. Children have weak facial recognition development and see facial features separately when looking at a person. It isn't until a child reaches about 14 years of age that they start recognizing a person as a whole.

When people whom young students should trust — such as their teachers, administrators, and counselors — are all wearing masks, they may have a harder time developing meaningful relationships and learning from them.

Poor Listening Increases Misunderstandings

For many students, wearing a mask all the time is a new experience. There are many countries, however, where women wear veils for cultural or religious reasons and are therefore used to communicating with part of their faces covered. When asked how they've adapted to this, many of these women say there's more work necessary on the listener's end.

Part of the misunderstanding coming from wearing masks may be due to a lack of experience in listening intently. In a teacher-student scenario, for instance, if either party isn't fully focused on the conversation because they're thinking about another concept or what's next in the lesson, it could introduce misunderstandings.

The mask can feel like a physical barrier between you and the person you’re talking to.

Many college students already feel uncomfortable participating in class, but wearing masks adds an extra obstacle. The mask can feel like a physical barrier between you and the person you're talking to, creating a visual blockade that makes it difficult to listen to the speaker.

In my own life, if there's any background noise, music, or anything else going on during a group discussion, I tend to assume I won't be able to understand my classmates no matter how hard I listen. What listeners should do instead is focus on body language, eye movements, and interpreting meaning from all the ways people communicate without words.

This problem becomes amplified in large lecture halls, or when there's more distance between the speaker and the listener. Distance is something we have to enforce during the pandemic, but it can also be easily seen as an excuse to not listen to classmates or professors. When classes are full of instructors and students who aren't used to listening intently to speakers with masks on, it can create easily avoidable misunderstandings.

Bad Habits Could Outlast Mask Regulations

When comparing my college experience from before wearing a mask to now, I notice I'm developing some bad habits. When I know the mask will muffle my voice and the people I'm talking to will have a hard time understanding me, I tend to avoid speaking up in class and don't volunteer answers as much.

It's easier to stay quiet and hide behind your mask, and I wonder if this habit will persist even when I'm not forced to wear a mask anymore.

Where normally I’d talk with my classmates before and after class, now I keep my distance and avoid socializing.

I've also realized that I have far less connection with my peers. It's strange getting to know someone without truly knowing what they look like. Where normally I'd talk with my classmates before and after class, now I keep my distance and avoid socializing.

While this may simply be due to social distancing measures, wearing masks has no doubt weakened these relationships and could lead to fewer meaningful connections down the road. Such bad habits could very well change how college freshmen or younger students learn in the future.

Mandatory masks and social distancing even affect toddlers. Normally, children would regularly engage with their peers at playgrounds and daycare centers, but these opportunities are no longer readily available. Developmental psychologists fear children may experience a lag in critical academic skills as a result of the pandemic.

The Enduring Impact of Learning With Masks

Wearing masks isn't ideal for learning, but there are several ways professors and students can cope with the situation. Because masks cover much of the face and muffle speech, professors can use video recordings of themselves for their lessons. Though all in-person interactions will take place with masks on, recording supplemental or key content to play for the class can help professors fully express themselves.

Schools might also buy face masks made with transparent sections to show mouth movement. These can be especially helpful for those who are hard of hearing or who have a disability.

For students, it’ll take some time to get used to masks. Learning to listen intently to peers and professors will require a concerted effort.

For students, it'll take some time to get used to masks. Learning to listen intently to peers and professors will require a concerted effort, but these skills will prove helpful in the long run. Students can also practice being more expressive with their eyes and eyebrows or wear masks that show off their personality.

Learning with a mask certainly comes with unique challenges, and it's important to be aware of these so you can succeed. Hopefully, it won't be necessary to wear masks in the future, but for now it's a major impediment in students' educational experience.


Feature Image: momcilog / E+ / Getty Images

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