Opinion: Missing Social Cues with Masks and Virtual Learning

The new masking mandates and virtual learning settings are causing me to face new social and academic challenges. I have one class that meets solely online. The platform over which my classmates, professor and I meet is zoom (photo by Morgan DeRose).

During the second semester of my freshman year at college, I took Communication 101. I can still recall a number of the communication theories and principles that were taught during the course. One concept that I especially remember is nonverbal communication, which makes up about 90% of our in-person conversation. 

In essence, nonverbal communication is any and all communication that takes place apart from a person’s spoken word. A few nonverbal communication cues include, facial expressions, gestures, eye contact, body language, touch and voice inflection.  

I assumed such social cues would always be a part of my everyday conversation. I never dreamed that, in order to ensure my safety and the safety of others, I would have to interact with my peers in ways that skew so many of our nonverbal communication cues. 

Little did I know what 2020 had in store for me. 

Albion College’s COVID-19 related changes

COVID-19 protocols and procedures have changed how we interact with each other in many, many ways. Albion students and staff are no exception. 

To help curb the spread of COVID-19, the majority of Albion College classes have been made to include some sort of virtual component. Albion College students, faculty and staff are also being mandated to wear masks whenever in public spaces. These changes have eliminated some prominent nonverbal communication cues. 

The struggle of virtual learning

Virtual learning is helping to create a safe environment for those in the Albion College community. However, the virtual elements are also making certain aspects of class more challenging than they have been in years past. 

I am currently enrolled in two classes. One is a hybrid course, which means part of the class is being held in-person and the rest is being taught online. The other course is entirely virtual. 

I have only ever attended my online-only class from my dorm. Because of this, I only know my professor as a little square on my computer screen. While in the virtual class, I am still able to learn and retain material.

That being said, I have found it extremely difficult to form real relationships with those in my class. I think this social disconnect is caused by people’s innate inability to communicate certain nonverbals when in a virtual setting. 

When in a virtual classroom, students can also turn off their camera, further inhibiting their non-verbal communication cues. This has made it even more difficult for me to form legitimate bonds with those in my online courses. 

Masks: the social cue inhibitors

As previously mentioned, Albion College students, faculty and staff are required to wear masks whenever in a public space. In doing so, members of the community are successfully reducing the number of COVID-19 cases on campus. 

The implementation of masks has changed the ways in which we interact with one another. This is especially true in regard to how we interpret each other’s nonverbal communication cues or how we completely miss some nonverbal cues altogether. 

In my in-person class, I find it hard to decipher how my peers are feeling. My professor expressed feeling the same way. 

“I think students have been vigilant in wearing masks in my classes, which is surely keeping one another and myself safer. However it is harder to recognize faces and get to know students, which is one of the real advantages of teaching at a smaller, private institution like Albion College,” said economics and management professor Dan Lake. “The other aspect that is trying as an instructor is really picking up on student engagement. Eyes can only really reveal so much when it comes to whether a student gets it or not, so as an instructor, I look forward to the day when I truly read my students reaction to topics and material.”

I also experience this when walking around campus. 

Last year, when moving around campus, I would smile and greet people when we crossed paths or met on a sidewalk. Though I can still do this, it is not the same as in years past. This is because some common means of communication do not exist with a mask on.

I think the way in which masks inhibit social cues has led people to be less likely to interact with one another while on campus and with their professors virtually. This can have an overall negative effect on relationship-building and academic learning. 

We each need to recognize the common issues of masking and learning virtually. In doing so, we will be able to come together to counter the common limitations. Understanding this requires each of us to make extra effort to make the most of our Albion College experience. 

About Morgan DeRose 42 Articles
Morgan DeRose is a senior from Whitehall, Michigan. While studying at Albion College, Morgan is pursuing a Communication major, Psychology major, and a concentration in the Ford Institute for Leadership in Public Policy and Service. Morgan also plays on the Albion College Women’s tennis team and is an FYE mentor. In her free time, she enjoys hiking and going to the beach.


  1. I would bet that a lot of research is being done in the fields of Communication and Psychology o the topics you describe. Checking with faculty in these areas + the Litbrary’s reference librarians would help you uncover sources to consult about these important areas of inquiry.

  2. Oh, so very true, Morgan! I am struggling with this same issue. It is hard for me to determine people’s feelings with out seeing their entire face:(

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