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How to introduce and use Video Meeting Signals (VMS) in student seminars

Updated: Aug 29, 2021

This article shares our learning and experience to date of introducing video meeting signals (VMS) to student groups. It is based on our experience with UCL and Falmouth University seminar groups plus learning from our implementations with over fifty other teams. The article covers:

  1. Introduction to video meeting signals (VMS)

  2. Reflections from lead VMS trainer, Paul Hills

  3. Reflections and ideas from university lecturers/seminar leaders

  4. Reflections and feedback from students

  5. Common questions from students

Introduction to video meeting signals (VMS)

Video meeting signals are a set of hand of hand signals that can be used alongside the spoken word to improve video meetings. A recent randomised controlled study by UCL showed that their use can have significant benefits (link to study research and pre-print:

They are most effective when used with team chairing and passing and combined with a group discussion and agreement on video meeting behaviours.

Reflections from lead VMS trainer, Paul Hills

I have introduced video meetings signals (VMS) to over 50 groups/teams and through trial and error have developed a method that I find very effective. The approach I take with students is very similar to that taken with non-student groups, with some subtle differences:

My overall approach is to:

  1. Allocate one hour for a highly interactive training session (little or no screen share) in which the group learn, use and start to enjoy using the hand signals, learn team chairing and passing and have an opportunity for challenge and questions. They also discuss the behaviours they want to adopt as a group during video meetings/seminars.

  2. Not talk for too long - to get the group using the video meeting signals (VMS) within the first 2 minutes, then give them easy to do 'sharing' exercises that introduce more signals. This way they can experience the benefits of using the video meeting signals, which is a much more powerful and enjoyable approach to gaining their buy-in than me trying to explain the benefits.

  3. Encourage the sharing of views and feelings, so the emotional/connection signals are used - using the team chairing and passing technique. I suggest they watch the Team Chairing and Passing video in advance of the session and look at the Konektis website so they have some background on the approach.

  4. Talk about the need for a different mindset for Zoom calls if we are to break the vicious circle of non-participation and fatigue; this includes having video cameras on and all agreeing to be fully present and not to multi-task. This is easier for the group to adopt once they have experienced using the video meeting signals, as it becomes obvious to them that the signals simply won't work if video cameras are off or if some of the group aren't using them. They realise that a good seminar requires a team effort/shared responsibility. They find it is worth the effort required.

The main differences I have noticed with student groups is an increased likelihood of one or more of the group being shy, or being a reluctant participant. This happens with all groups to some degree, but more so with students, some of whom can be uncomfortable having their cameras on. I have not found this problem with mature student groups - I believe it is age related. I recognise I need to be patient, listen and gently persuade (with business teams I am often a bit more challenging). Usually once the student has 'felt' the benefit themselves of receiving signals from others and realised that using the signals helps them connect better with their group, they became more convinced it is worthwhile having their video on, and they begin to enjoy participating. If you are anxious to put your video on and participate you need to feel it will be OK and safe to do so and there will be a benefit that makes it worth doing something you don't like or fear.

I have also realised how key the role of the seminar leader is in the group adopting the signals. This is true of all of the groups I have worked with - the leader does need to be an enthusiastic supporter and role model, But I feel it is even more important with student groups, where we are asking students to adopt a new way of working. They need to know their leader wants and expects this to be how seminars work. They need to be asked in the right way and encouraged.

Reflections and ideas from University seminar leaders

Freya Lygo-Frett, UCL Seminar Leader

'I think it was a really lovely experience using the hand signals during the training and I think that my group definitely felt more closely knitted as a consequence of doing it. I think the signals themselves definitely seem to work.'

'I definitely noticed an improvement in the communication across the different students during the session whilst using the signals. Before using the signals I had noticed that I was always the default person to navigate the discussions, in that the students always passed back to me after they had finished raising their points. Once we had implemented the signals, the students were much more willing to pass the discussion between each other rather than directly back to me each time. The 'waving' and 'question' signals really helped with this. This meant that the conversation was more free flowing and consequently was much more cohesive and engaging.'

'Additionally, my group consistently used the thumbs up and down signals, which was really helpful for me as a seminar leader for quickly assessing whether everyone was following what I was saying. This was challenging before implementing the signals as it was particularly hard to gauge understanding if you cannot see the students (e.g. they had their cameras off or were just nodding etc).'

'We also enjoyed using the 'me too' or 'I understand/feel you' sign at the start when we were hearing about how everyone was doing and the challenges that they had faced that week. For example, often if someone had said they really struggled to understand a particular part of a lecture or were tired from all the assessments they had to write this week etc., they used these signals to sympathise with the other group members. I think this provides very clear encouragement as that student then knows they are not the only one feeling those things. '

'I will certainly try to implement these signals across my other teaching. I actually found myself doing so automatically within my masters level teaching too! '

Jovita Tung Leung UCL PhD Student & Psychology Seminar Leader

'I had a chat with my students in the individual meetings as well, asking how they felt about using the hand signals. A lot of them mentioned they find it really useful because it helps instill a bit of clarity on when they need to speak.'

'Also especially for some of my students who are quite shy it often takes a bit of time for them to think through in their head what kind of point they're trying to make, especially in some of the journal clubs, so I think they can find a bit more confidence in having that bit of time to think and then when they're ready to speak they can wave and make their point

Also while they're speaking having other people reassuring them, giving them a thumbs up, agreeing with their points, I think that's also gives them a lot of confidence; I think that's something generally from speaking to my students, they find really helpful.'

'I would love to continue using the signals in my teaching. Not only did it make it easier to pass the conversation during seminars, it was a great way for students to proactively engage and contribute to group discussions. This is particularly important given the challenges some of my students found with online teaching. One of my students said they were also using the signals in their small group discussions as well as when they were working on group projects. In terms of favourite signals, I would say the ‘thumbs up’, ‘waving’ and ‘me too’ are definitely the most used amongst my group. A final comment that I have (also raised by couple of my students and during our meeting) is that it would be great if this technique can be introduced at the beginning of term/academic year to set the tone for online teaching.

UCL Lecturer

'One of the central challenges I’ve encountered with online video meetings has been the reduced use and quality of body language. The research is clear on gestures and body movements being important components of effective communication and its absence is certainly something I’ve been aware of running groups online. In a way it feels like engaging with someone with all the settings set to mono rather than to stereo surround sound! VMS therefore immediately struck a chord in me. I see it as a very simple and natural way of bringing embodiment back into these conversations. As a group member, it provided me with a richer toolkit for safe expression, and I found it helped shortcut through a lot of the awkwardness that is an unfortunate part of video calls.'

'As a group leader, I was more effective in establishing an open environment as well as a sense of togetherness amongst my students. After a bit of initial encouragement and practice I found they took to them intuitively and I felt the signals acted as a powerful reminder to the group for the shared responsibility of engagement in the meeting. '

'It is actually quite amazing how quickly you start using the signs without thinking and I believe this reflects the movements being a natural extension of what we do already rather than a technological intervention. '

'One thing to also highlight, is that I found the attitude of the team leader was hugely important in setting an example and legitimising the technique. Once this barrier is overcome, the students seemed to gradually realise how natural it was and the group self-supported in its adoption. To encourage this process I had my group all perform the signals together at the beginning of the session, almost like a dance, and this certainly helped overcome any nervousness with using them allowing the group to realise what they’ve been missing out on all these months!'

Sarah Hayes, MA Photography tutor, Falmouth University

'Whilst running an online seminar with MA students we used the Konektis hand signals to notify each other when we wanted to speak and also to show empathy and/or support whilst one of the group was relaying a narrative to do with their creative process. The use of the signals meant that all of the group felt a part of the discussion and were able at any time to show their thoughts. We as a collective liked using the signals and it definitely added to

the online experience'

Reflections and feedback from students

UCL 1st Year Psychology Students

'At first it felt a bit odd, but once everyone got used to using the signs the atmosphere became much more positive, more people started to engage in the discussions and the flow of the conversation was not interrupted. It was nice to get some feedback from the others while speaking; it really increased my confidence and encouraged me to continue to speak and participate more in the discussion without being anxious about saying something that may sound stupid or inappropriate.'

'Firstly thank you very much for conducting this experiment! I think breaking the ice is always the difficult part for new acquaintances, especially in an online setting. The video meeting signals can play an important role here. Although it can be a little bit of awkward to start and it takes time to get used to it, it turned out to be a very useful method for online meetings and discussions. I hope this approach can spread out to benefit more people!”

Exeter 2nd year medical student:

'I learnt the technique in one group and liked it so decided to introduce it to a second group.'

'I introduced the 'passing on' technique to another seminar group and it worked really well - the rest of the group have continued to use it. It can be a good way of encouraging quieter group members to take part.'

Common questions from students

Common questions include:

  • Couldn't we just use the reaction buttons?

  • Do we need to have videos on the whole time - there doesn't seem to be so much point when we are screen sharing?

  • What about when we are in breakout rooms?

  • I find some of the signs difficult because of a mobility or other issue.

As these questions are just as common for non-student groups they are covered in our general FAQ section.


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